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  • Milton's Sensuous Poetics:On the Material Texts of Paradise Lost
  • Thomas Festa

At the 350th anniversary of the publication of Paradise Lost, it would be good to know where to find it. In other words, is Paradise Lost "in" the extant manuscript of book 1? The first edition, or the second? An authoritative modern scholarly text? Well, yes and no: Paradise Lost is in all of these in part but in none of them completely or exclusively.1 That is, every edition of the text introduces variations—some intentional, some not—just as each new printing alters the appearance of the text. Thus, instead of asking where, it will be more productive to ask when or at what point in the epic's publication history we might find what we think of as Paradise Lost.

Because reception history, textual criticism, and the material book are intimately interconnected, the historical interpretation of a work of literature such as Paradise Lost entails attending to its materiality in the many forms in and as which it has appeared.2 Reception history can give us an account of what the poem has meant.3 But it cannot tell us enough about how it meant that to [End Page 91] specific readers without addressing the history of the books they held in their hands and marked up, read, and reread. What proponents of close reading need to figure out is what to read; what textual critics need to admit is that questions about the authority and provenance of a text only become interesting when they can show how the materiality of the historical artifact affects interpretation.

When we read text, we interpret the material presentation of the words as well as the linguistic signs, whether on a screen in a twenty-first-century edition, or in an early text such as a first edition or manuscript. Insisting upon the material dimension of texts also necessitates allowing for the "textual" aspect of materials. In this view of "textual materiality," "the conjunction of the linguistic and bibliographical codes of a text" such as Paradise Lost becomes a necessary but not sufficient consideration.4 In what follows, I argue that there are specific qualities of the verse that become invisible to us if we ignore the complex history of the book we call Paradise Lost. This requires paying attention to as much of the publication history as possible—a means of focusing on the textual transmission to which, to take only the most obvious example, every reader of a Shakespeare play in the current Arden series has immediate access, but that most readers of Milton in modern editions never consider. Of course, Shakespearean textual history is far more complicated than, for the most part, the history of a text such as Paradise Lost. But this has led critics to ignore a methodology that, I hope to show, holds out great promise for studying Milton's texts as well. The history of editions of the text, and not just the seventeenth-century editions that have drawn so much attention, reveals assumptions about the poetics of Paradise Lost that have shaped the way we think about Milton's achievement in versification.

This is why it is misleading to suggest that there is something dubiously metaphysical about scholarly focus on the early texts of a poem such as Paradise Lost in their specific material forms. For example, Gordon Teskey argues against what he calls "typographical essentialism."5 Yet the "anti-typographical" modernization Teskey advocates is arguably even more essentialist in its approach [End Page 92] to the representation of poetics.6 The editorial problem may be illustrated by Teskey's Norton Critical Edition, which superimposes onto the text diacritical marks, such as a grave accent to indicate a sounded terminal "e" in "-ed," or an acute accent to reposition the stress on a different syllable from today's common pronunciation.7 The diacritics manifest editorial decisions or intuitions about the text for which there is little support other than the editor's own insistence on a particular way of making the verse regular. As such, these marks represent an argument about how the poem should be heard—an argument made...


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