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  • “Paradise Fictitious”: Dickinson’s Milton
  • Eleanor Heginbotham (bio)

In the flyleaf of a tiny brown (crumbling) leather volume, the 1819 Benjamin Warner edition of Paradise Lost, is a penciled “E Dickinson.” At least forty-eight of its pages, pages crowded with tiny unnumbered lines, show signs of reading: penciled marks jutting horizontally into the text on the left margin, long vertical lines stretching on the right margin, small x marks, references to other pages, and creases of a corner turned as a marker. Obviously, we cannot know who made those marks in the little book that lives now in Harvard’s Houghton Library. This paper does not attempt to establish the unprovable. Whether or not this is the volume that caused Rebecca Patterson to remark that Emily Dickinson studied Paradise Lost “as a poetic textbook” (186), the markings form an intriguing map to Dickinson’s journey through the text of the man whom George F. Sensabaugh tells us “ranged more variously over the moral, spiritual, and intellectual life of [America] than any one man” (305) and whom Dickinson (in L1038 to Mrs. Holland) dryly labeled “the great florist.”

Emily Dickinson Journal readers need no reminder of how deeply steeped Dickinson’s culture was in Milton, of how she might have absorbed him through Emerson, Melville, the Brontës, the Brownings, George Eliot — to name a few. Just so, they know how deeply steeped she was in Milton’s own biblical text. Recently, R. McClure Smith has pointed out that “the would-be graduate of Mount Holyoke apparently was expected to leave with as thorough a knowledge of Paradise Lost as she had of the King James Bible.” In fact, says Smith, all graduates of the 1845 class (Dickinson was there two years later) were required to explicate and note biblical parallels in what Smith calls “the quintessential narrative of seduction” (34). Although this 1819 edition is listed by Carlton Lowenberg as one of the textbooks at Mt. Holyoke Seminary [End Page 55] and although it was in the family library, we do not know with certainty whether or not this was the one used by the young poet as she studied Milton under Miss Mann (re-imagined so vividly in Judith Farr’s novel). 1

Without necessarily making that claim and also without necessarily claiming that Milton was more important to Dickinson than, say, Shakespeare or Tennyson or Keats or Barrett Browning, I am called by that little Milton volume to take a fresh — indeed, almost a first — look at Milton’s influence on Dickinson’s imagery 2 and at the ways she used that influence for her versions of the biblical text’s interpretation of the woman she called, however ironically, “our timid Mother” (P1335) — her twist on Milton’s “our credulous Mother”(9:644). 3 Disclaimers aside, the marks alert us to listen to echoes as we imagine Dickinson’s way through Milton’s wandering Ways 4 to “Paradise fictitious” (P1260).

She knew those ways well. At least seven letters spanning forty years (at sixteen to Abiah — “I am Eve, alias Mrs. Adam” [L9]; at twenty to her “Dearest of all dear Uncles” [L29]; and just before her death to Mrs. Holland [L1038], among them) 5 and scores of poems paraphrase or quote him, proving Christopher Benfey’s suspicion “that Dickinson knew all her own poetry by heart, as well as huge passages from Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning” (14).

As she was toward God, Dickinson may have been ambivalent about Milton. Perhaps he was just another of the Autumn poets toward whom, as Sandra Gilbert says, Dickinson spoke with “an elliptical expression of literary scorn” (132); perhaps, as Paula Bennett puts it, he was “too ‘Vermillion’” for Dickinson (69). On the other hand, perhaps he was one of “The Martyr Poets -“ who “wrought their Pang in syllable - / That when their mortal name be numb - / Their mortal fate - encourage Some -“ (P544).

In her family library there was plenty of ammunition for the latter reading. Robert Chambers’ Cyclopedia of English Literature, for example, told its readers not only that Milton adapted the biblical story for his own purposes, implying something along the lines of Christopher Hill...

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