- Milton’s Nightcap: The Correspondence of James Harris
Milton scholars will find much of interest in a forthcoming edition of the correspondence of James Harris of Salisbury (1709–80), to be published by Oxford University Press, edited by Donald Burrows and Rosemary Dunhill.
Harris, the father of the first Earl of Malmesbury, was at the heart of cultural life in Wiltshire and London for much of his adult life and published a number of books on philosophical and philological topics which were greatly admired at the time though largely unread (and perhaps unreadable) today. The best known, Hermes, or a Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Universal Grammar, provided him with a sobriquet by which he was frequently known and is full of observations on Paradise Lost. Harris had the unfortunate distinction of having been described by Johnson as “a sound sullen scholar . . . [and] a prig, and a bad prig” (Hill 3: 245), equally unfortunately paralleled by his wife Elizabeth’s description of Johnson as “beyond all description awkward, and more beastly in his dress and person than anything I ever beheld” (Series 1: 303). These comments do justice neither to James, who is shown by the correspondence to have added warm humanity and keen artistic sensibility to a breadth and depth of scholasticism, nor to Elizabeth, whose letters to her son bring to life her family and circle with a rare sharpness of focus. 1
The Harris papers are held at the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, and Hampshire County Council has already published Rosemary Dunhill’s study Handel and the Harris Circle, 2 which shows some of the regard in which Milton was held, adding background to the use made by Handel of Milton texts. In particular, new light is thrown on the genesis of Handel’s setting of what became L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed Il Moderato. The libretto, traditionally ascribed to Charles Jennens, the Messiah librettist, was in fact initially drafted by Harris himself, and the [End Page 95] collection holds not only Harris’s correspondence with Jennens on the subject but Harris’s original draft (MalmesburyG887). 3 Jennens’s letters show that in addition to input by Harris and himself, Handel also determined the shape of the adaptation: “He seemed not perfectly satisfy’d with your division . . . which would . . . occasion too much grave musick without intermission, & would tire the audience” (Dunhill, Handel 6–7). It is pleasing to record that the programme for the 1997 English National Opera performance included Harris among the credits, probably for the first time ever. 4
Handel also set Samson Agonistes, and here the letters show how the composer became aware of the musical possibilities of the poem two years before he began writing. Harris’s cousin, the fourth Earl of Shaftesbury (1711–71), recorded how his brother in-law James Noel “read through the whole poem of Samson Agonistes, and whenever he rested to take breath Mr Handel (who was highly delighted with the piece) played I really think better than ever, & his harmony was perfectly adapted to the sublimity of the poem” (Dunhill, Handel 6). This oratorio had a particular resonance for Handel and his friends later in his life when his blindness paralleled both Samson’s and Milton’s, another correspondent writing, “I was told, at the total eclipse in Samson [performed in 1755], he cry’d like an infant” (Dunhill, Handel 16).
It was not only Handel who set Milton. Thomas Arne, spearheading a “native” revolt against the for eign dominance of the English musical scene, set Comus in 1738. The greatest Milton admirer among Harris’s friends, the scholar-cleric John Upton (1707–60), was an enthusiastic supporter of Arne, urging Harris to subscribe himself and to persuade his friends to do the same. Harris obligingly paid up, but could find no one else in Salisbury “to believe there is any such person, nor do I find that his fame is yet extended farther west than Knightsbridge, or Hammersmith at most” (Malmesbury G398/13, G944/1). And both Upton and Harris seem to have had a go at preparing libretti of Paradise Lost for Handel, Jennens writing to Harris in 1744 berating...