Posts Tagged ‘Voltaire’

A “damn fine aphorist” shares a few thoughts among hundreds

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014
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patrick3

A pensive Patrick. Stanford Bookstore’s Doug Erickson helps a customer in the background (Photo par Humble Moi)

A small, but enthusiastic, audience gathered at the Stanford Bookstore last week to hear archaeologist-poet and art historian  Patrick Hunt’s presentation of his most recent book, A Few Hundred Thoughts (Corinthian Press). According to the leading authority, James Geary, on his blog, All Aphorisms, All the Time, Patrick’s got an additional title we didn’t know about: he’s also “a damn fine aphorist.” His new book some honed-down thoughts culled over decades (with a few fabulae at the end of the volume).

A few of my favorites:

Only leaves know the true color of sunlight.”

Humans have stomachs twice the size of their brains and three times the size of their hearts.”

A constellation is a village where stars live.”

Anguish is proof of the soul.”

Stars obey the same laws as snails.”

Unlike comets and more like candles, souls don’t burn up but down.”

hunt1Clearly, he roamed territory that was witty, observant, thoughtful, and profound … but what’s the difference between an aphorism and a saying, anyway? Here’s what he writes in his preface:

Greek property in ancient society was often marked out by a boundary pillar, a horos stone that set up a determined space. One word for the act of marking boundaries was ‘aphorízein (“to mark off by boundaries, to set bounds, to define”). Derived in part from this Greek verb, an aphorism is a pithy saying, conveying defined truth in a tightly determined construction of a few words whose boundaries were set by verbal economy and precision.

In his talk, Patrick attempted to distinguish between the apothegm, the maxim, the epigram, the proverb, and the aphorism. The epigram, he said, “is meant to have stingers,” a sharp bite at the end. Maxims illustrate principles or rules. The aphorism, he said, is “intellectual judo – much like poetry, every word counts.” He hailed Voltaire, Montesquieu, Wilde, Twain, as “aphoristic masters.”

From his book: “These aphorisms are often sourced from the end lines of my poems intended as summations. They also derive from my theses of various belles lettres, essays and book chapters,” he wrote, adding, “It is hoped there are no platitudes, tendentious saws, bromides or non sequiturs and fallacies here, but that cannot be guaranteed.”

I don’t claim to be wise,” he demurred humbly to the assembled fans. Far be it for us to quarrel with an aphoristic master, but if he’s right, he made a very credible facsimile. I expect I’ll be returning to his book again and again.

Postscript on 1/23: The inimitable Dave Lull, patron of bloggers, alerted my attention to the newest post from aphorist emperor James Geary, about Patrick and this post – it’s here. We referred to him, and now he refers to us, and we are referring back to him again. It’s one of those infinite regression thingummes. Or maybe tennis.

Jacques Barzun: “I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist”

Thursday, November 8th, 2012
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He avoided the political fray. (Photo: Harper Collins)

Jacques Barzun died two weeks ago, on October 25, at age 104.  I’m only starting to think about it.  The New York Times described him as “the distinguished historian, essayist, cultural gadfly and educator who helped establish the modern discipline of cultural history and came to see the West as sliding toward decadence…”

“Mr. Barzun was a man of boundless curiosity, monumental productivity and manifold interests, encompassing both Berlioz and baseball. It was a life of the mind first cultivated more than a century ago in a childhood home outside Paris that became an avant-garde salon.” He published his “most ambitious and encyclopedic work” at 92.

Barzun largely created the field of cultural history, which his biographer Michael Murray describes as “an all-inclusive synthesis: not only kings, battles, laws, and statistics, but also habits, beliefs, influences, and tendencies, in art and literature, manners, morals, science, and religion, and the social setting in which these were found.”

Murray’s comments about Barzun arouse my envy.  He writes: “it is hard not to be dazzled by a man who, during a four-week period in 1953, read and reviewed André Malraux’s Voices of Silence and The Letters of Franz Liszt, edited the galley proofs of his book God’s Country and Mine, adapted them into articles for the Atlantic Monthly and Vogue, gave speeches on campus and at a Partisan Review banquet, reworked four lectures for publication, and offered a broadcast on WNYC. All this, mind you, apart from his teaching and dissertation duties.”  Ah well, as Barzun himself wrote in The House of Intellect (1959): “The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish are one another’s works.”

Now here’s the reason I’m going over all this.  Like many Americans, I found this year’s elections a dispiriting process.  I find the slagging matches between sides depressing, the gloating and the defensive justifications wearying, and the whole reduction of complicated thoughts and reactions into political labels outdated and simplistic.  So Frank Wilson of Books Inq sent me this quote from Barzun:

“In short, the market – like the state, like any institution – has its limitations, as severe as the state’s. Consequently, each device must be controlled by intelligence and adapted to circumstance. For my part, I am a liberal, a conservative, and a socialist, each dogma applicable to some necessary activity.

“I imagine, in fact, that the triple label applies to most people. Very few want the fire department a private concern; and again most people are communists within the family circle, at least until the children are grown up.”

Common sense, as Voltaire observed, is not so common.

Christopher

Postscript on 11/9:  What fun!  The recipient of the letter quoted above has come forward in the comment section below.  Christopher Faille, an author and a contributor to Forbes,  has lots more on his website, Jamesian Philosophy Refreshed – more excerpts from their correspondence here, and a consideration of Barzun’s affinities with William James is here.  “I’m trying to do some curatorial work, getting my letters from this great man into proper order with a commentary giving context. I believe Columbia University archives are the proper ultimate destination for the material,” he writes. Thanks for the heads-up, Christopher!

 

Want to be a writer? Buy a pen.

Sunday, September 30th, 2012
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Want to be a writer?  Please stay out of the Paris cafés.  The French are sick of seeing you there.

Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the “tech weenie” (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000′s worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his moleskin.

This is author Mark Helprin‘s free advice in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. He sincerely wants to help out all those who are “insane enough to want to make a living in this cultural climate by writing fiction that is neither politicized, confessional, nihilistic, sexualized, sensationalist, nor crafted with the vocabulary and syntax of Dick and Jane…”  Well that leaves me out.  Perhaps he’s feeling full of himself, as he’s about to publish In Sunlight and Shadow on Tuesday (read a review here).

Forget it.

He does advise you to buy a pen.  He insists that “there’s magic in writing by hand.”  That’s where he and I part company.  I don’t see why writers wax sentimental over pens.  They are much, much slower than thought, and careful penmanship can unduly sway you about how good your writing is. An elegant hand can disguise inelegant thought more than a scribble on an envelope can. I prefer computers.  Seeing the bald words in mutable Times New Roman quickly unmasks the mediocrity of your ideas. And there’s nothing like an empty screen to intimidate you out of your torpor.

He continues joyfully:  ”More valuable than speed or being struck by what you think is lightning (and others usually do not) is concentration. When asked how he managed to come up with the calculus, surely one of the greatest achievements possible for the mortal mind, Newton replied, ‘I thought of nothing else.’”

I fail again!  I think of everything else.  I think about checking my inbox, on all my accounts.  I think of checking CNN every few minutes to see if anything has exploded.  I think about how I should be concentrating more.  I think about dark chocolate – a lot.

Clearly, I’ll never be a writer.  I should just abandon decades and find another way of making a living.

Only seven readers commented to the piece so far – several are advertising pens to buy.  And Jean-Pierre Cauvin takes Helprin to task for his comment that Voltaire “wrote “Phèdre” in six days flat.”  It was Racine, of course.

 

Happy birthday, Richard Wilbur! The poet speaks of Candide, Russian poets, and meeting “the right girl”

Thursday, March 1st, 2012
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One of the pleasantest people I have ever met is Richard Wilbur, former U.S. poet laureate and two-time Pulitzer winner – a true gentleman, a great poet. So my bad that I almost overlooked his 91st birthday today. (I wrote about his 90th celebration a year ago here.)

Fortunately, Web of Stories kindly sent me a reminder that they have loads of video clips of the poet.

Here’s one where he describes his time at Amherst and meeting the love of his life, his wife Charlotte, who died in 2007. “I was terribly lucky she decided I would do,” he says with characteristic charm and humility:

Here’s another on his acquaintance with Russian poets, including Andrei and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Listen, in particular, to the tact and considerable diplomacy when, toward the end of the clip, he describes his interactions as he translated the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, who was notoriously tough on his translators:

Dick Wilbur was a brilliant translator of Molière – not shying away from the daunting challenge of the playwright’s rhymed couplets.  Here he’s talking about his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman on the musical Candide. Said Hellman: “If he did alright with one witty Frenchman, he might be alright with Voltaire.”

I don’t know when this interview occurred, but his reference to his wife as still living tells us that it was at least four years ago.
Part Deux below, with two readings of two of his greatest poems.

Hot new social media maybe not so new: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011
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10 to 15 letters a day ... and he still looks happy.

Remember a few days ago we promised that we’d have a lot more to say about the links between our hotshot social media and the information explosions that rocked previous centuries?

Well, here goes, my article earlier today:

If you feel overwhelmed by social media, you’re hardly the first. An avalanche of new forms of communication similarly challenged Europeans of the 17th and 18th centuries.

“In the 17th century, conversation exploded,” said Anaïs Saint-Jude, director of Stanford’s BiblioTech program. “It was an early modern version of information overload.”

The Copernican Revolution, the invention of the printing press, the exploration of the New World – all needed to be digested over time. There was a lot of catching-up to do. “It was a dynamic, troubling, messy period,” she said.

Public postal systems became the equivalent of Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and smartphones. Letters crisscrossed Paris by the thousands daily. Voltaire was writing 10 to 15 letters a day. Dramatist Jean Racine complained that he couldn’t keep up with the aggressive letter writing. His inbox was full, so to speak.

Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project, which forms part of the context for Saint-Jude’s remarks, shows that 40 percent of Voltaire’s letters were sent to correspondents relatively close by.

What was everyone saying? Not necessarily much. Rather like today’s email. “It was the equivalent of a phone call, inviting someone to tea or saying, ‘OMG, did you know about the Duke?’” said Dan Edelstein, an associate professor of French and the principal investigator for the project. He will be teaching a course in the spring called Social Animals, Social Revolutions and Social Networks.

Clearly, something had changed: Commercial postal services were on the rise. Though their prototypes had existed down through the centuries, they had mostly served government officials, and later (via the Medicis, for example) merchant and banking houses. Suddenly they were carrying private correspondence.

More people were writing, and more people could respond quickly, not only with friends and family, but across far-flung distances with people they had never met, and never would. Rather like some of our Facebook friends.

According to Saint-Jude, it was an era, like ours, of “hyper-writing,” even addictive writing. The aristocratic Madame de Sévigné wrote 1,120 letters to her married daughter in Brittany, beginning in the late 1670s, until her death in 1696. It was important to keep her kid up to date with the goings-on in Paris. Although she is remembered today for her witty epistles, she never intended them to be saved, let alone published.

For a time, the streets of Paris were littered with little bits of papers – les billets – filled with a few words of scabrous and politically defamatory verse that were thrown to the public. Sound like Twitter?

The little bits of paper in your pocket could cause big trouble – Voltaire landed in jail for his verse. Nonetheless, these short, anonymous postings bypassed the government censor. It was also a way of organizing uprisings. Edelstein points out that Egyptian social networks were critical to coordinating demonstrators and drawing large crowds this year.

Indeed, he noted that social networks are key to almost all revolutions. “The Egyptian youth organizers may have excelled at mobilizing people at a moment’s notice, but interestingly it’s another kind of social network that seems to be taking advantage of the post-revolutionary situation – the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

“This network may be less agile, but it has created longer and better sustained bonds between members over time.” Unlike Facebook networks that almost anyone can join, the Brotherhood echoed the older, more exclusive networks that vetted prospective members, such as France’s Jacobin clubs. “Flash mobs quickly splinter into cacophony,” Edelstein told an assembly of incoming freshmen last month.

What is public? What is private? More correspondence meant that letters could fall into the wrong hands. Laclos‘ epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, showed the dangers and disgrace that could befall the writers of wayward correspondence. In our own era, need we mention the fate that befell the indiscreet Rep. Anthony Weiner?

Meanwhile, modern journalism was born, via a precursor of the blog. Nobles, such as Cardinal Mazarin, hired their own “journalists” to report on scandal and sex in the city. These writers set up bureaus around Paris to get the juiciest news, and it was written and copied and distributed to subscribers. Literary reviews and newspapers soon blossomed, along with letters to the editor and a new environment of literary and cultural criticism.

These new networks flexed a new kind of media punch. For example, Edelstein noted that across the ocean in America, the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 2. The news was published in a newspaper on the legendary 4th. “What we’re really celebrating is not the fact that 56 men signed the declaration, but rather that a new network of people emerged around the published declaration – a network that would ultimately become the United States,” he said.

The poster was invented to invite more and more people to more and more public events – theater, for example, became the dominant art form in the 17th century. Posters mobilized these slow-motion “flash mobs.”

The new spaces we have created are virtual, not physical. But the physical spaces of the 17th century and Enlightenment were just as much of a psychological earthquake – l’Académie française, l’Académie des sciences, the celebrated salons. That large groups of people were getting together to chat about literature, discovery, ideas, revolution, or simply to watch a show, was a change from the carefully manicured guest lists of the court, where the principal order of business was big-time sucking up.

These spaces evoked new questions: How does one conduct oneself? How does one appear to others? Managing your public profile became vital. The result? A new self-consciousness was born, and a new social nervousness. The players had the same questions we have today, said Saint-Jude: “How do you curate all this information?”

“Relax,” said Saint-Jude. “You’re in good company. There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Or, “Ce qui fut sera, Ce qui s’est fait se refera, Et il n’y a rien de nouveau sous le soleil.

No more billets-doux, no more epistolary novels, no more Collected Letters

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011
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Write a letter lately?  I haven’t either.

According to a story in the Associated Press, nobody else is, either:

For the typical American household these days, nearly two months will pass before a personal letter shows up.

The avalanche of advertising still arrives, of course, along with magazines and catalogs. But personal letters — as well as the majority of bill payments — have largely been replaced by email, Twitter, Facebook and the like.

“In the future old ‘love letters’ may not be found in boxes in the attic but rather circulating through the Internet, if people care to look for them,” said Webster Newbold, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Well, not so.  We’re not likely to be able to retrieve them.  Such missives are likely to be harbored in defunct email systems on old computers.  I save a bunch seven-inch floppies with interviews on them, in hopes I’ll find a computer that can decode them.  Nothing like hard copies, even if I can’t lay my hands on them readily.

Voltaire wrote about 15,000 letters during his 83-year life.  In more recent times, C.S. Lewis is the patron saint of pen pals. His Collected Letters amount to thousands and thousands of pages. I reviewed the 1,800+ page third volume for the Washington Post here.

Lewis wrote everyone, including T.S. Eliot, the sci-fi maestro Arthur C. Clarke, and the American writer Robert Penn Warren.  “Other letters were from cranks, whiners and down-and-out charity cases; he answered them all,” I wrote.

"...the oar to a galley slave..."

“The pen has become to me what the oar is to a galley slave,” he wrote of the disciplined torture of writing letters for hours every day. He complained about the deterioration of his handwriting, the rheumatism in his right hand and the winter cold numbing his fingers. In the era of the ballpoint, he used a nib pen dipped in ink every four or five words.

Who, in the future, will have volumes of Collected that will be thicker than a slim paperback?

Beyond the prospect of no Collecteds, whole novels have been held together by letters – Laclos‘s Liaisons Dangereuses, for example, or, since we’ve mentioned Lewis, his  Screwtape Letters, or his Letters to Malcolm.  Or his friend Dorothy L. Sayers‘ mystery novel-in-letters Documents in the Case.  Or  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s Sorrows of Young Werther and Friedrich Hölderlin‘s Hyperion.

Beyond even that, letters provide pivotal revelations in Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice.  Or in almost anything by Henry James.  The sudden realization, the catharsis, the flushed cheek…

Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita begins with a letter – the letter that tells of the death, in childbirth, of the title character at age 16.  If people read it more carefully, they would have a different view of the “sexy” novel.  (Also if they read between the lines of Humbert Humbert’s self-serving pronouncements.  But without early training on all those day-after-Christmas letters and learning to write the evasive “thank yous,” how would we learn the most subtle nuances of writing at all?)

The very act of letter-writing consumed hours and hours of people’s time.  At Stanford, a whole project, Mapping the Republic of Letters, has evolved from the effort to track the to-and-fro correspondence during the time of the Enlightenment.  It turns out that we can map coteries, friendships, cultural epicenters, and famous journeys through letters.

AP again:

The loss to what people in the future know about us today may be incalculable.

In earlier times the “art” of letter writing was formally taught, explained Newbold.

“Letters were the prime medium of communication among individuals and even important in communities as letters were shared, read aloud and published,” he said. “Letters did the cultural work that academic journals, book reviews, magazines, legal documents, business memos, diplomatic cables, etc. do now. They were also obviously important in more intimate senses, among family, close friends, lovers, and suitors in initiating and preserving personal relationships and holding things together when distance was a real and unsurmountable obstacle.” …

But Aaron Sachs, a professor of American Studies and History at Cornell University, said, “One of the ironies for me is that everyone talks about electronic media bringing people closer together, and I think this is a way we wind up more separate. We don’t have the intimacy that we have when we go to the attic and read grandma’s letters.”

“Part of the reason I like being a historian is the sensory experience we have when dealing with old documents” and letters, he said. “Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I say I read other people’s mail.”

What about all those books that describes when a pile of a love letters are ceremoniously burned?  Or returned to the beloved in a ribbon-tied packet after a break-up?  Not quite the same as pressing a “delete” button, is it?  However, that sort of rite-of-passage has been on the downswing since the invention of the xerox machine.

“Letters mingle souls,” as John Donne wrote, but in a wholly different way than what is commonplace on the worldwide web.  Despite my sentimentality, however, I, for one, am not sure I’d trade pages on cream-colored vellum for the zip and brevity and immediacy of quickly typed “Sure. Will do.” on my Mac.

 

No love lost: “authors are some mean mofos”

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011
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Hank James, zat you?

A few weeks ago, we wrote a few words on famous feuds between authors.

What better way to follow up than with nasty letters authors wrote on each others’ work?  I read flavorwire’s post on the topic some time ago, which excerpted a longer column from The Examiner here, with a Part 2 here.  It seems like as a good a way as any to begin the holiday weekend.

Take this one:

Wyndham Lewis on Gertrude Stein: “Gertrude Stein’s prose-song is a cold black suet-pudding. We can represent it as a cold suet-roll of fabulously reptilian length. Cut it at any point, it is the same thing: the same heavy, sticky, opaque mass all through and all along.”

As one commenter, Dave, concluded:  “Authors are some mean mofos.”

Instead of resnipping the earlier lists, however, I decided to raid the suggestions from readers.

No eraser

Ben Jonson on Shakespeare:  “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.”

Baudelaire on Voltaire: “I grow bored in France – and the main reason is that everybody here resembles Voltaire … the king of nincompoops, the prince of the superficial, the anti-artist, the spokesman of janitresses, the Father Gigone of the editors of Siècle.”

H.G. Wells on Henry James: “A hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea.”

Ahem...

Louis-Ferdinand Céline on D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “600 hundred pages for a gamekeeper’s dick, it’s way too long.”

As far as potty-mouth goes, try this one:  Stephen Fry on Dan Brown‘s The DaVinci Code: “Complete loose stool water. Arse gravy of the very worst kind.”

William Hazlitt about his good friend Coleridge: “Everlasting inconsequentiality marks all he does.”

Then there’s a Jane Austen pile-on:

Mark Twain:  “Just the omission of Jane Austen’s books alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”

Charlotte Bronte‘s criticism is less snarky, more an excellent Romantic era critique of the preceding era’s Classicism:

"A Chinese fidelity..."

“. . . anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works; all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer . . . She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death–this Miss Austen ignores, she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man with bodily vision, sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman . . .”

Ceallaig‘s perceptive comment from an intelligent heart:  “My question is: if Mark Twain hated Jane Austen why does he say ‘every time I read it?’ Wouldn’t once have been enough? Ditto Noel Coward‘s slam on Oscar Wilde: ‘Am reading more of …’? as if the first dose wasn’t sufficient? I’m sure most of these slams were meant to be witty, and I agree with a number of them, but … wit used for the sake of nasty doesn’t work for me.”

Ellis: "a mean shallow stupid novel"

Then I found this interesting post, from bibliokept. David Foster Wallace on Bret Easton Ellis.  I leafed through Ellis’ Less Than Zero in the Stanford Bookstore a couple decades ago, and found it ugly and depraved.  I haven’t read Wallace at all, and have been put-off by his super-celebrity status, which, morbidly, seemed to accelerate with his 2008 suicide – until I read this excerpt from an interview:

“I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other.

Wallace: "In dark times..."

‘If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?

“In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.”

I’d say it’s considerably less.

Bibliokept‘s thoughtful consideration of Ellis versus Wallace definitely worth a thoughtful read.

John Milton: Architect of authors’ rights?

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011
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In 1727, Voltaire fixed an image of the hardscrabble John Milton that would prove hard to dislodge: he wrote that the poet “remained poor and without glory; his name must be added to the list of great geniuses persecuted by fortune.”

A few days ago, I mentioned Milton’s famous — nay, notorious — contract giving him for £5 for Paradise Lost. Preeminent Miltonist Martin Evans had told me something about this contract a couple years back, and I wrote him to refresh my memory.  Almost by return email, he pointed me to a December 2010 article by his former student, Kerry MacLennan, on precisely this topic in the Milton Quarterly.  It’s online here.

Far from being a patsy, MacLennon insists that “Milton was an expert navigator in the capitalist landscape around him.”

What’s known:  the contract, signed on April 27, 1667, with printer Samuel Simmons, awarded Milton £5 on signature, and £5 on later retail sale for each of three contemplated editions of 1,300 copies each.  Hence, the real value of the transaction was £20.

Still small potatoes, right?

There’s more:  According to MacLennan, “For a writer to be paid in cash at all by a publisher was not customary at the time: seventeenth-century authors typically provided manuscripts to their printers in exchange for a small number of complimentary copies of the published work.”

This was not a royal work commissioned for an aristocratic audience.  Paradise Lost was a “risky speculative venture,” dependent upon “small press runs on speculation, displayed in bookshop windows, and awaiting discovery by readers with the interest, impulse, and either the cash or credit to buy them.”  In short, this contract marks the beginning of the decline of the aristocratic patronage system, to be replaced by a capitalistic, republican framework for writers.

MacLennon reviews Milton’s contact and determines that Milton was entitled to a share of the epic’s earnings — nearly two centuries, remember, before the advent of the term “royalty.”  She finds that while £20 might be slim pickings for the poem canonized as the most famous single poem in English, “recharacterizing the payment as a royalty of between 2.6% and 5.1% should extinguish any lingering indignation on Milton’s behalf.”

“I propose that we consider the likelihood that Milton was the architect, indeed the author, of the contract for Paradise Lost, as much as he was the creator of its poetry … Milton’s father’s professional skills as a scrivener may have directed him how to anticipate, and circumvent, contractual loopholes and trapdoors.”

She concludes:

The contract for Paradise Lost champions and models the rights of artists to manage and control the commercial aspects of their creative production. But rather than writing a pamphlet on the rights of authors, Milton’s polymath mind instead invented, and left us, a template.

(Paradise Lost images provided, of course, courtesy Gustav Doré.)