Documentary Note on Melville's Marginalia in The Poetical Works of John Milton.

Herman Melville acquired his copy of The Poetical Works of John Milton in 1849, as indicated by his autograph inscriptions on the versos of the front flyleaves in both volumes. A two-volume set, edited by John Mitford, and including his extensive biographical introduction, this copy became a lasting resource for Melville. Dated entries within the text indicate that he read and re-read The Poetical Works during at least three significant points in his artistic career. Melville’s autograph inscriptions indicate his initial reading preceded or coincided with the composition of Moby-Dick, and Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost influenced Melville’s rendering of Ahab’s defiant speeches against God and Nature (see Henry F. Pommer, Milton and Melville [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1950]). Melville's inscriptions in the front matter of the set, including his reference “C. Horn 1860” on the front pastedown of each volume, reveal that this set was among the volumes Melville studied during his voyage from New York to San Francisco aboard the Meteor, captained by his brother Thomas. Having submitted his first manuscript of poetry for publication prior to departure, Melville brought with him a small library of poetry and criticism and spent much of the voyage engaged in a comparative study of epic poets including Homer, Dante, Spenser and Milton. Beneath his autograph inscription in vol. 1, he penciled a second date, “1868,” indicating a third reading just before or during the time when he appears to have been conceptualizing his own epic poem, Clarel. Throughout his career, Melville returned to Milton’s poetry, using it both as a touchstone for epic style and a resource to reflect on the philosophical, theological, and political problems that preoccupied his imagination.

Both volumes in the set have been rebacked, with the original boards retained. It appears that a label has been removed from the upper left corner of the front pastedown in both volumes to reveal Melville’s pencil inscription “C. Horn 2.” The set likely remained in Melville’s possession up to the time of his death in 1891, and was presumably among the books dispersed at the time of his death; it is not known to have been among the books retained by his wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville. The pencil autograph of “W. H. Kennedy” is on the front endpaper of each volume, but whether this person owned the set before or after Melville is not known. It resurfaced in the 1980s and came to auction in 1983, when it was purchased by Haven O’More. (For a full account of the known provenance, see Grey, Melville & Milton.) The set came up for auction again in 1989, and was purchased by Joseph C. Baillargeon as a gift to Princeton University, where it is housed in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Marginalia in the set correspond to Melville's hand and patterns of marking and present no special problems for attribution. However, in several instances in Bk. VI of Paradise Lost, Melville's heavy marginal scoring has created offset impressions on the facing page, which should not be mistaken for actual marginalia. These offsets occur at 1.197.4-24, 1.201.5-7, 1.201.23-24, 1.203.12-13, 1.203.21-27, 1.205.8-14, 1.209.3-8, 1.210.1-22, and 1.211.1-5.

Publication: 2015, Melville's Marginalia Online. First transcribed in 2002 by Robin Grey and Douglass Robillard, in consultation with Hershel Parker: “The Poetical Works of John Milton: A Transcription of Melville’s Annotations in His Copy of Milton,” Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, 4.1-2 (March and October, 2002): 117-204.

Selected studies of Melville that cite this copy: Robin Grey, “Surmising the Infidel: Interpreting Melville’s Annotations on Milton’s Poetry, Milton Quarterly (1992), 26.4: 103-113. Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996 and 2002). Robin Grey, ed. Melville & Milton: An Edition and Analysis of Melville’s Annotations on Milton, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2004. Hershel Parker, Melville: The Making of the Poet (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008). Peter Norberg and Steven Olsen-Smith, in consultation with Dennis C. Marnon, “Newly Recovered Erased Annotations in Melville’s Marginalia to John Milton’s Poetical Works, Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 17.2 (June 2015): 59-72. Peter Norberg, “‘If not Equal all, Yet free’: Political Freedom and Theological Doubt in Melville’s Reading of Milton,” Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 20.2 (June 2018): 68-89.

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