On 13th November the IHR’s annual Creighton Lecture will be given by Professor Quentin Skinner, on Milton as a theorist of liberty. Quentin Skinner is well known as a historian of political thought and has written extensively on major figures such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, as well as Milton. I will be at the lecture with my notebook and my brain open.

I have loved Milton since I was a teenager, but my affection doesn’t seem to be very widely shared. 2008 was the anniversary of Milton’s birth but the occasion was not marked by, say, a flotilla of boats down the Thames and a book by Andrew Marr. Milton’s Cambridge college, Christ’s, held an all-day reading of Paradise Lost (still available as audio) and a series of lectures by luminaries such as Christopher Ricks, Geoffrey Hill and Quentin Skinner (available as podcasts). A fine biography by Gordon Campbell and Thomas Corns was published but that, as far as I know, was about it.

Delacroix, Milton dictating to his daughters

The best critical edition in English literature that I know is Alastair Fowler’s magisterial Paradise Lost: I have great admiration for Harold Jenkins’ Hamlet, but Fowler seems somehow to have the measure of Paradise Lost, whereas Hamlet leaves its greatest critics far behind. Surely 2008 would have been the perfect moment for the launch of a digital edition of Fowler’s masterpiece. Milton’s text is stuffed with allusions and borrowings from other texts; opening my copy at random I come to Book IV, line 411:

Sole partner and sole part of all these joys

A seemingly simple line spoken by Adam to Eve (this is before the Fall, after which they get a bit huffy with each other). Fowler knows better. He gives references to the OED, Marsilio Ficino, John Donne, St Bernard and Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, plus two articles in the secondary literature. The only thing he doesn’t tell us is that the British death metal band Paradise Lost did an album called The Anatomy of Melancholy; perhaps this will be updated in the next edition.

All of this, of course, would work brilliantly: links could take the reader directly to the OED and to the periodical articles. The current standard edition of Donne’s sermons, edited by Potter and Simpson, is available online, for example (there is a project to re-edit the sermons, which aims to supersede Potter and Simpson, and hopefully will be published digitally as well as in print, but is at an early stage). There could even be links to Richard Bentley’s bizarre ‘corrected’ edition of Paradise Lost – corrections which Fowler occasionally deigns to pour scorn on.

Milton wrote extensively in prose, including a pleasingly idiosyncratic work of systematic theology, De Doctrina Christiana, which only appears to be available online as page scans at archive.org. At least Milton’s most famous prose work, Areopagitica, a defence of freedom of the press, has been made available with useful notes by Dartmouth College.

All are welcome at Professor Skinner’s lecture. Simply email IHR Events to book your place.