Waiting to Be Milked

Of the quiet pleasures work sometimes brings me, the loudest is hearing a familiar but different and ever-surprising English. It drives home how forceful our cliches really are—and how young.

A Ph.D loses whatever modicum of relevance it has if you can’t stop and yawp! once in a while without trying to make an argument. So, in a grown-up version of Show and Tell, I’m bringing you my seventeenth-century worms in a sandwich bag and making you smell them. Today! Two great dead pieces of language from the Anonymous Life of Milton (possibly written by Cyriack Skinner). Two leaky-lady gems from a time when the act of writing hadn’t been Hemingwayed and Mailered into penishood.

Exhibit A: Milton’s grandfather disinherited his father when he was caught with a Bible in his room (Granddad was a Catholic, and Dad’s reading indicated a dangerous Protestant tendency). Milton’s dad was raised by a relative, a scrivener, and made a decent living for his family so that Milton had access to a good education:

Thus his eldest Son had his institution to learning both under public, and private Master; under whom, through the pregnancy of his Parts, and his indefatigable industry (sitting up constantly at his Study till midnight) he profited exceedingly.

Exhibit B: A famous one, but still worth rehashing. Skinner writes that Milton’s later life, when he was blind and past his political best, had a routine:

He rendered his Studies and various Works more easy and pleasant by allotting them their several portions of the day. Of these the time friendly to the Muses fell to his Poetry; And he waking early (as is the use of temperate men) had commonly a good Stock of Verses ready against his Amanuensis came; which if it happened to be later than ordinary, he would complain, saying he wanted to be milkd.

Those italics aren’t mine, by the way. They’re straight from the manuscript. They indicate a direct quote.

Isn’t it something, to imagine Milton waiting in the morning, full of verses he’d composed in the night, begging to be milked? Hard to imagine a more apt metaphor, eh?

Yawp! and moo!


PS: Just had to include this shout-out to Gaudy Night: in the 1694 Life of Milton, his nephew Edward Phillips talks about Milton’s crew of “young Sparks” (i.e., bros), with whom “he would so far make bold with his Body, as now and then to keep a Gawdy day.” (Gawdy day=One of up to four days per year of celebrations at the universities.) Harriet Vane would be tickled.

2 Responses to Waiting to Be Milked

  1. T____ O__ says:

    I love imagining Milton with his bros.
    It seems that literary production and human reproduction get conflated in all sorts of interesting ways in the Renaissance.

  2. Millicent says:

    I love that too. He’s such a curmudeongly grump! I bet he spent the whole time disapproving, but they put up with him because he could compose limericks in Latin on demand.

    (Also fun to think about: a poetic showdown between Milton and the Earl of Rochester.)

    And yes, literary production and reproduction! Spenser’s Errour, to cite the obvious case. As a grad student, the prospect of vomiting pamphlets and frogs seems gross but vaguely plausible.

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