Milton’s Titles

John K. Hale[1]
University of Otago

John K. Hale. "Milton’s Titles". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.1 (May, 2007) 4.1-42 <URL:>.

  1. “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”[2]  So says Shakespeare’s Juliet; but methinks the lady doth protest too much, because in literature at least names matter greatly—Romeo is a Montague, she a Capulet—and anyway titles matter even more.   What do Milton’s titles do for his works?  What evidence do we use?  What counts as evidence? 

  2. To answer these questions, his titling practices are examined from four main standpoints.  First, I consider his titles as a multiple speech-act, adapting ideas from Gérard Genette.  Next comes a survey of one very distinctive feature of Milton’s practice: its multilingualism.  Thirdly, I consider how his titles use syntax, this being a feature of titles more presupposed than foregrounded.  A fourth perspective is provided by examining the Trinity Manuscript for signs of development in Milton’s titling, to see by what route and experimentation he arrived at the titles of his three major English poems.  Lastly, the findings of all four perspectives are applied together to “Paradise Lost” and Paradise Regained,” in the hope of defamiliarizing their titles.  While there is a risk of generality or platitude in thus taking diverse works and their genres together, it will emerge that the functioning and rationale of Milton’s titles prompts new insights, and new questions of greater particularity than the initial generality would make one expect. 

  3. In speaking of “Milton’s titling practices,” I refer chiefly to those of his poems, though his prose titles are also considered.  And by “titles” is meant the title-page form of the lifetime editions[3]; but any manuscript evidence of titles preceding print will be vital. 

    Entitling as a Speech-Act

  4. The preoccupation with titles has its own title or name: titologie in French.  Its high priest is Gérard Genette, whose descriptive metaphysics in Paratexts I select from and apply.[4]   He sees titling as a speech-act; an address by a speaker to an addressee, which communicates something.  This speech-act has at least four functions: naming; identifying; promoting the work; and indicating or suggesting things about it.
  5. For Genette, naming and identifying are not the same.  We give a name to a child or a poem with a fuller solemnity than we employ later to identify it: my dog was renamed when she came from the pound, “Sapphire” (being a blue heeler), but quickly became “Sappho,” “Sapphy,” or “Saff.”  Authors do something similar with their writings once published, and the differences thereby created between title and identification can reveal tension or authorial shifting.   

  6. As to the function of promoting, we all know how often titles promote a work (for sales or influence), but the fact applies only to some of his political prose works.  There is a detectable earnestness about some titles; not that he wants or needs the money, but he is engaging in advocacy, urgently, perhaps in some crisis of the Interregnum.

  7. As for indicating or suggesting things about a work, Genette says titles may refer us inwards or outwards: outwards, to a work’s occasion, addressee, dedicatee or genre, its first or fittest (ideal) audience; or inwards, to its contents, whether construed as plot or character or imagined location or something else.  Furthermore, titles may refer inwards in a particular or a universalizing way—or do both, in which case the universalizing reference works outwards as well, to all of us.  (“Barnaby Rudge” invokes the particular hero, but universality is set going by “Hard Times,” “Pilgrim’s Progress,” or “The Way We Live Now.”)   Thus many a title cultivates a suggestive ambiguity or puzzle, or riddle or human issue. 

  8. In this regard, fashions come and go.  Older prose fictions often have titles which straggle, unthriftily, by mentioning so many unknowns that we forget all of them as we plod down their title-pages.  Still, early-modern title-pages doubled as blurbs, enumerating at some length the tasty bits or main coverage of the work.  This habit drove all parties to the transaction to construct short identifiers: consider The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York. Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; and so on, taken from the 1719 title-page.  As Genette remarks of such titles, “their reduction was definitely expected, if not planned, by the authors” (71).  The headers would ensure this.  Did Milton invent and expect, if not plan, like this?

  9. Next, then, we illustrate these possibilities from Milton before seeing how far he takes them.  “Samson Agonistes.  A Dramatick Poem” is the name on the title-page, but we identify it as just “Samson.”  Milton is promoting his solution to the crisis of 1660 by calling it “The Readie and Easie Way” to establish a free Commonwealth.   “Paradise Lost.  A Poem in Ten Books” first refers us inward to the theme, then outward to its literary form and structure.  And this “Paradise” is both the particular abode of Adam and Eve and (universalizing) the paradisal state of innocence we have all lost.  In “Paradise Lost” literal combines with metaphorical; the former yields to the latter, while the literal, physical Paradise ends up as “an island salt and bare” (XI. 834), “lost” in countless senses. Contrariwise, “Paradise Regained” upholds the metaphorical paradise alone, “Eden raised in the waste wilderness” (I. 7).[5] 

  10. So Genette’s categories are good for thinking with, and for noticing things about literature, in fact indispensable to teachers and reviewers. Better than that, however, they fill with life and a more heuristic value when we take them into surprising or contentious instances.  Consider first A Maske; then Areopagitica.  (They are referred to here by their shortened titles, for convenience albeit in this context ironically.)

  11. The work named as “A Maske” is often referred to as “Comus,” that is, in Genette’s parlance identified.  This practice[6]  elevates the villain into the subject, and so would be tendentious or fallacious but for two things about titology.  First, the identifier sparks a debate and a comparison with the Paradise Lost debate (whether Satan is also the central villain-hero of a subversive poem, or this is only a one-eyed reader-response).  Secondly, we could retort that “Comus” brings into view “komos,” Greek for “revelry,” which a masque by nature is.  A workable ambiguity would result, discerning false from true revelry.  So the titling pinpoints an aporia, the tension between title and identifier, and suggests a line of enquiry.

  12. Again, Milton resembles his readers in that he identifies his works differently from their official, titular names.  His practice can be seen when he is identifying his works in a letter,[7] diverging from the titles by which he had first named them.   Compare the 1647 allusion made in his letter to Bodley's Librarian, John Rous, with the 1644 title.  To Rous, he identifies “Areopagitica, sive de Libertate Typographiae Oratio”  (“Areopagitica, or A speech on the Liberty of Printing.”  By contrast, the printed title had referred more precisely, both outwards and inwards, to its first occasion and audience, and to the contents:
    For the Liberty of VNLICENC’D
    Milton, here, is “for” the liberty, and so forth.  The occasion is a speech “to” no less an auditory than the Parliament of England.  It is “of” or by the named citizen.  More about prepositions later; for now, we note by contrast the vague generality of the form of listing, sive de  = “or about.”  He proclaims himself, not as the mere author of a book which is coming (as one of twelve) to Rous in a parcel, but as the speaker, the orator or  latterday Isocrates.   Similarly, the letter recalls a broader principle, unlicenced printing, yet forgoes the particular occasion and focus, and the whole important fiction of a speech by himself as named private citizen to an English Parliament, one which is being ennobled by the main title-word into the successor to the Athenian assembly which had heard Orestes and Paul.  It is true that he was running short of paper in his list by this tenth title of twelve!  Besides, to translate English titles into Latin ones is unavoidably to change their point of impact as well as to shorten them.  Nonetheless, the changes also modify our sense of his sense of Areopagitica.  The general has ousted the particular; the principle has ousted the sense of occasion; and the metaphorical speech-act of an oratio to Parliament has become the vaguer speech-act of a treatise; something on paper, to borrow out of a library.[8] 

  13. To discover an author’s design for a work, or sense of its meaning, or potentially many another thing, the full exact titling repays attention.  It repays attention as (in some sense) a speech-act.  It is a multiple one: from author to self, declaring an aim or summarizing; to the market, and to readers about to read; to readers during and after the reading itself.   Nor does this exhaust the matter; but these ideas of Genette or deriving from him will suffice as guidance for present purposes.  Any discrepancy between an author’s title and his prior or subsequent identification is worth probing. 

  14. A prior identification is a working title, and points to a work’s genesis or gestation.  The paramount example is “Paradise Lost,” to be examined in detail later.  Here, accordingly, we consider the matter of subsequent identification.

  15. One is not obliged to adjudicate between the two, but rather to weigh the two together, from a position both purist or bibliographical and receptive to the author’s self-reflection.  In Milton’s case, we learn something about him when he reconfigures “for” into “about,” “unlicenced printing” into “Typographiae,” and drops the address to Parliament.    A similar revision is on view when he claims expostfacto that his prose works of occasion add up to a systematic thinking on the three kinds of liberty: civic, ecclesiastical, and domestic.[9]

  16. On the other hand, it does not take genius to absorb and apply Genette’s thinking.  We go deeper by considering a feature of Milton’s entitling which finds no place in Genette’s typology, and which is (though not peculiar to Milton) very distinctive in his practice.   This is his multilingualism.

    Multilingualism in Milton’s Titles

  17. To compose a title in a different language from that of the work entitled is a special effect, apparently dear to Milton’s heart. It calls attention to a linguistic “code-switch,” as surely as when (say) Tolstoy has certain characters speak French within his Russian.  Milton names two English poems in Italian, several English prose works in Greek, Greek poems in Latin, and more.  So, besides of course establishing the alien words’ meaning and their application to the contents, we ought as a matter of routine to assess the code-switch itself, as a special effect, be it elevating or satiric, polemic, witty or ambivalent.

  18. For example, since “Areopagitica” has been discussed already, along with its elevating or flattering effect, let us take three other Greek titles, to see their different impact: “Tetrachordon”; “Eikonoklastes”; and Samson “Agonistes.” 

  19. The title “Tetrachordon” is intriguing, because the title was a failure.[10]  The pamphlet’s opponents used its title to ridicule his views: for them, it was as outlandish and obscure as his views were licentious and abominable.  This was a cheap shot on their part, no doubt, but he did give them a handle: this was a passionate controversy; and  divorce does seem an un-musical subject.   At all events, Milton had to stage a recovery.  In righteous scorn he wrote a sonnet against these detractors (mid-1640s, published in Poems 1673).  I give the sonnet as written out in the Trinity MS by Milton himself.[11]
        A booke was writ of late call’d Tetrachordon;
           And wov’n close both matter, forme, & stile;
                 the subject new; it walk’d the town a while,
                 numbring good intellects; now seldom por’d on.
             Cries the stall-reader, bless us what a word on
                 a title page is this!  & some in file
                 stand spelling fals, while one might walk to Mile-
                 end Greene.  Why is it harder, Sirs, then Gordon,
             Colkitto, or Macdonnell or Gallasp?
                 those rugged names to our like mouths grow sleek
                 that would have made Quintilian stare & gasp.
              Thy age, like ours, O soul of Sir John Cheeke,
                 hated not learning wors then toad or Asp;
                 when thou taught’st Cambridge, & King Edward Greek.
    He is berating his detractors for their ignorance of Greek, and sweepingly for barbarism.[12]  By implication, their views on divorce depend on the same benighted ignorance.  The bonus for posterity is a fine satirical sonnet, and a fine wielding of two-syllable rhyme (Tetrachordon / pored on / word on / Gordon).  In 1647, Scottish surnames abounded, and (says Milton) they are no less cacophonous than “Tetrachordon.”  Quintilian, doyen of Roman teachers of good spoken style, would have gasped.  In contradistinction, he would have welcomed the sound of “Tetrachordon.”  In any case, at the punch-line the Greek title is upheld by the allusion to the fine flowering of religion and education, with Greek together, under Edward IV.  Greek gets, and is, the last word.  What other sonnet so hinges on its rhyme-pattern, the whole onslaught summarized in the progression of sound and sense together from "Tetrachordon" at the outset to the final "Greek"?  Greek, after all, is the language of the shared faith, of the New Testament.  So though the poem is answering one cheap shot with another, it is an elegant multilingual one.

  20. The poem has more to offer in the present connection.  “[W]hat a word on / a title page is this!” (lines 5-6) subsumes our own question, what does or what may a title do, on the assumption that its first striking word is for practical purposes the decisive part of a title-page—in his own mind, as in his readers’?

  21.  The poem is to some extent a debate about titling.  It is a name (“call’d”) and a “word” (line 5); also a shortening of the full title.  That seems to be Milton’s point, that the “close weaving” of the book was dismissed because readers and critics reacted in a shallow and obscurantist spirit to the first word, the unfamiliar Greek of the title, neglecting the rest of the title (along with the book’s views).

  22. “Eikonoklastes” as title is even more retaliatory, and to my mind more effective.  It aims to scotch the propagandist work Eikon Basilike — the “icon or likeness of a King” — which had presented Charles as a Jeremiah weeping over Jerusalem, if not as a Christ-figure as well.  Milton wrote his “Icon-Breaker.”  The Greek title was smart: “Eikon” repeats the first word of the work to be demolished, but then “klastes” says, “Let’s smash (klazo) the Icon.”  Because the original Iconoclasts were the idol-smashers of Byzantium, who combated the worship of idols (as they saw the matter) by smashing all religious images, Milton’s title claims to be refuting the idolatrous worship of a dead, unworthy, criminal king.  Just to make sure of this intent, EIKONOKLASTES on the title-page is printed in Greek capital letters.  Whereas normally to do this is a typographical affectation of Milton’s bookish, Greekish culture, here the Greek look supports the paramount aim of this book as public event.  The Greek harks back to, or invokes, the history of the Church; Greek before it was Roman.[13]

  23. The effect is hardly subtle.  Milton is seldom subtle in his prose, or its titles.  However, Samson “Agonistes” is subtle, because the Greek word gains for Milton a whole set of appropriate attributes for his poem and its eponymous hero.  The attributive adjective communicates three meanings, at least three: Samson as a contestant (from agon,a contest or struggle), as an actor or protagonist (of what role in his God’s plan?), and agonizing, Samson in his agony (he has betrayed his God, his people, and himself).[14]

  24. To round out this account of  multilingual entitling, a different special effect is gained in Poems 1645 by the titling of “L’ Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.”  In general, the cultural prestige of Italian among vernaculars is being sought.  More particularly, that prestige is being harnessed to a psychological twosome, a diagnosis of “characters” in the seventeenth-century (Theophrastean) sense of that word.

    Syntax in Milton’s Titles

  25. The idea is gathering that Milton took care over his titles and was unusually self-aware when naming his progeny.  Both qualities have been showing up in his use of names, allusions, and images; and their sounds.  There is not time to explore this here; but consider the sound-qualities of the thunderous alliteration of Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce?  A good strident tub-thumping!)   Next, I maintain that his care and ingenuity, his self-awareness and individuality, show even in the colorless connectives of titular syntax.

  26. To do this, some historical contextualizing is first needed.  Most of Milton’s titles follow the style and syntax prevailing before and during his lifetime.  We shall look at titles using prepositions, then at ones in the form of statements, or more accurately theses, before reaching those of higher genres.

  27. It had long been the custom to begin a title prepositionally: with an “Of” or “About,” deriving from a Greek peri or a Latin de (peri hupsous, de rerum natura).  Such titles declare a subject area, but proclaim nothing; they spring no surprises.  Many of them may have been fathered on the authors of antiquity by the subsequent need to identify.  Another hoary tendency was to entitle by occasion or addressee using the preposition “To” or “On” (Latin “Ad” or “In”).   The “About” titles tend towards vagueness, while “To” and “On” tell us almost nothing that refers inwards, by instead referring outwards to occasion and implied audience.

  28. All this, Milton also does, at least in his less mature works.  It means, first, that when he does deviate from the standard practice we take due note: from this perspective, “Lycidas” stands out, as do “L’ Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.”  Next, it makes us note his brand of ambiguity: “On the Nativity of Christ,” or “On the Fifth of November,” means, “written on those days of the year and written about what they commemorate” — linking the two senses of “On.”   Milton is persistent and ingenious in this baroque self-reflexivity.  Thirdly, we find a further multilingual finesse; in a Latin work, the preposition “In” with an accusative case means “On” the occasion named, but when a person not an occasion is named it means “Against” that person.  Thus Milton’s “In Effigiei Eius Sculptorem”—usually rendered “On” the Engraver of the Author’s Portrait—resembles Cicero’s “In Catilinam” or “In Verrem”; attacking and ridiculing the engraver, Marshall.  For “On” Marshall we should think “Against” him.  And fourthly, the unwonted attention to mere prepositions makes us see yet again how “Areopagitica” stands out among Milton’s own titles, by being so explicitly “for” the liberty of uncensored printing: not only praising it[15] but declaring that he speaks on that side of a hot current debate.

  29. Debate—disputation, or thesis-form—explains that other typical title-locution; the statement-form seen in Milton’s student speeches, and in a few poems.   “Naturam non pati senium,” “That nature is not decaying” = “That’s the thesis I maintain; my side of this debate.”  One intriguing Latin title runs: “De Idea Platonica quemadmodum Aristotles Intellexit” = “About Plato’s Ideal Forms, as Aristotle saw the issue.”  The “About” form is becoming a partisan thesis as the title unfolds.  Compare Gerarld Manley Hopkins’s stunning double thesis-title: That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire, AND of the comfort of the Resurrection,” in which the first thesis — the That-thesis — is so strongly urged that a second and milder one speeds in, like mercy after justice.  On further inspection, almost all of Milton’s prose-work titles represent one side of a debate.  Even the enormous “De Doctrina Christiana” may seem to have a staid or harmless title, but not on closer inspection if the title alludes to Saint Augustine’s identical title, so as to emphasize difference:  Milton’s “doctrina” (teaching) is anti-Catholic, and anti-Trinitarian.

  30. So much for prepositions and theses: his most important syntactical feature when entitling is that which leaps out from Paradise Lost and its odd sequel Paradise Regained.  Their titles share two outstanding features.  First, they share a two-word pattern, of name then verbal (verb-force-possessing) adjective, with the adjective coming second.  All his three last major poems have it thus.  Curious, secondly, is the participial, adjectival idiom of “Lost” and “Regained.”  Why this liking for the passive voice, and for the possibly past tense?  The question intensifies when we consider the history of Milton’s many earlier attempts at a title for his intended great epic: they all have this syntactical shape.  What does that fact mean?  What does it show about the author’s view of his subject and his highest poetic endeavour?  All three present perspectives combine as we investigate the epic speech-act in these titles, through their multilingual saturation, which crucially includes their syntax. 

    Towards “Paradise Lost”

  31. Milton always intended to write a poem which  “should last unto after times” and “be an ensample of” what an English poet could do in the highest poetic contests.  By 1640 he had found that Arthur was a myth, and wanted a subject that was true and thus more edifying.  So he searched the best historical sources—English, Scottish, and especially biblical, since for him the Bible was historically true.  The searching is to be seen in the Trinity MS.  But by now Milton planned a tragedy, not an epic narrative.  This was no change of intention, because ever since Aristotle epic and tragedy had been tightly linked, as the best and most serious “kinds” of fiction.  (After all, the Greek tragedians had composed their masterworks from the same myth-stock as Homer’s epics: Euripides is full of Homer.)  In the pages of the Trinity MS, we see Milton trying out dozens of possible topics,  fumbling towards two subjects he did treat: Samson; and the Fall of Adam and Eve.

  32. Here now are some of the titles which Milton sketched out.  Most are only titles, or rather pure title.  Because they are titles of poems which never existed, they make an intriguing opposite to every title so far, in not being related and subordinated to a finished whole, which we know before thinking about its title.  This must speak volumes about how Milton entitled!  It certainly exposes his preferred syntax and multilingualism, both not unprecedented but yet cumulatively distinctive.  Here is an annotated selection (TMS 35).
    Vortimer poisoned by Roëna
    Vortiger immured
    Sigher, of the East Saxons, revolted from the faith, and reclaimed by Jarumang
    Wulfer slaying his two sons for being Christians
    One and all, these ideas give a name, then an action.  They do it by the  passive participle form we just saw, with a glimpse of pastness too; or by the present active participle. Moving to the biblical entries (TMS 34), we read: 

    Elias in the mount. 2 Reg. 1. Oreibates, [Ranging the Mountains] or better, polemistes [war-maker]
    Samson pursophoros [fire-bringing] or hubristes, [acting presumptuously] or  
    Dagonalia [festival of Dagon]  Jud. 16
    Achabaei Cunoboromani [dog-devoured]
    Jehu Belicola [worshipping Baal]
    Zedekiah neoterizon [innovating, revolutionising]
    Salymon Halosis [the Capturing of Jerusalem]
    In the Samson-series we can see Milton entitling one episode after another of the story, each centred on an action, except for the vaguer, tamer last one, Dagonalia—all of them on the way to  “Samson Agonistes,” in which the action-idea is restored to the showdown at the Dagonalia by the verb-related ending.  The verbs are felt strongly in all the others.  That is to say, even when a participle is not used, we see instead a noun formed from a verb, like Halosis / capturing; or more often a compound adjective where the verb-strength is kept.  Hubristes = outraging, doing overweening acts; Belicola (Latin not Greek, this one) = worshipping of Israel’s next-door enemy-God, Baal.  My own favorite is Achabaei Cunoboromeni: even here the emphasis falls on doing!   Milton writes the long /o/ of /boromeni/ with a Greek omega, perhaps to point up the bold but correct coinage.[16]  The form or syntax is visibly multilingual; Latin then Greek transliterated, then a Greek letter too . . .  Multilingualism is guiding things small and great alike.

  33. What do all of these titles share?  They share a two-word main title, comprising a name, followed by an adjectival verb-form which sums up the crucial action; the last or otherwise defining episode of a life.  It may be suffering rather than action, or most likely both: Christ Born, Christus Patiens, Christ Crucified.  Tragedy breaks down the endemic Greek distinction between agency and recipiency, doing and suffering.  In doing so, the titles all use a pattern of classical Greek tragedy and its Roman followers: as in “Prometheus Bound,” or “Hercules Raging.”  More than that, the titles point to the first and greatest theorizing of tragedy—and epic—by Aristotle, because the second words point to his strong definition of tragedy as showing a single, complete, serious action within a life which is imitated so as to arouse pity and fear and purge these emotions (Poetics, ch. 6).[17]  Milton’s titles aim straight at the defining actions.   This is why polemistes is deemed “better” than “oreibates,” because the mountaintop-walking is less centrally defining than the warmaking against Baal.  The titles ask us to think in these terms.  We must therefore do that—not of course for these vestigial or inchoate actions, but with those that he did complete, both dramatic and narrative alike; with “Samson Agonistes,” with “Paradise Lost,” with “Paradise Regained.”

    The Titling of Paradise Lost

  34. We arrive in the light of all this at the titling-history of Paradise Lost itself.  Note first that “Paradise” names a place not a personage.  This is new to the Grecian trend just described, but not to epic titles: Tasso’s “Jerusalem Liberated” is a notable Renaissance counterpart.  Note too that Tasso’s Italian title has the same syntax as Milton’s, the passive participle.  Here is yet another multilingual habit, copied from antiquity: it means, not Jerusalem’s “state or condition of being liberated,” or that of Paradise’s lost-ness, but the liberating, the losing; the action.  Romans dated their years “AUC,” Ab Urbe Condita” = From the Founding of the City.”  “Navis capta,” apparently meaning “the ship captured,” is Latin’s concrete way of saying “The capturing of the ship.”[18]  By this familiar Latinism, Milton points to his poem’s central, tragic transaction; the Losing of Paradise.  And then the Regaining of it. 

  35. Though I say “familiar” Latinism, how familiar is it?   It easily goes unnoticed or at any rate unmentioned.  Thus no note is thought necessary in most recent editions of the opening of Paradise Regained to explain the syntactical Latinism of the title; nor yet within the opening paragraph, even though the same locution occurs there up to five more times:  “I who erewhile the happy garden sung, /  By one man’s disobedience lost, now sing / Recovered Paradise to all mankind, [= 'the recovering of paradise,' not 'Paradise which has been recovered,' the whole sense and context demands the action-verb not the passive state]; 'By one man’s firm obedience fully tried [action or state or both?] / Through all temptation, and the tempter foiled [= 'I now sing of the foiling of the tempter']/ In all his wiles, defeated and repulsed [= 'I sing of the defeating and repulsing of the tempter, as well as the tempter who was defeated and repulsed; again, action as well as state']; / And Eden raised in the waste wilderness [this assuredly = 'I sing of the raising of Eden in the waste wilderness'].”  Two of the participles certainly have the form of the “Ab Urbe Condita”; another three may well have.  Milton is working the conciseness of the locution very hard, along with its Latinism and epic coloring, in order to direct our ears to the centrality of action, the doing, agency.

  36. Milton did not, however, achieve his title with arrow-like directness; not at all.  For once, thanks to the Trinity MS, we can trace a title in its evolution.  The topic occasions no fewer than four entries in the Trinity MS, which does make it the front runner.   He had several tries at the title.  For two drafts, it has no title.  Then the third one has “Paradise Lost” as title; and yet in Draft IV, he writes “Adams Banishment,” then crosses it out and writes in “Adam unparadiz’d.”  But indeed, he changed his mind four times not just three: the /s/ of /Adam/ in Draft IV is italicized, like /banishment/, so he must have first thought of a title running “Adam” something-or-othered.   Eventually he does do that, with “Adam unparadiz’d/”, the unparadising of Adam, = how Adam was deprived of paradise or expelled from it.  At any rate, Paradise is coming back into his title-thoughts.  Then of course, somewhere out of sight, he reverted, from a focus on Adam falling, to a focus on the place of the Fall, Paradise.  With so much evidence, we have to ask why he chose “Paradise Lost” after all?  Was it because he had at first over-emphasized Adam, and as work went on Eve became increasingly important in the banishment or unparadizing?  Or was something amiss with the next attempts: “Banishing” and “Unparadizing” are also actions, but they are God’s decrees not our ancestors’ deeds.  We undergo them, but we are not their agents.  Did a titular focus on the loss of our paradisal home and on all that went with it better suit an epic poem than a drama, which has a natural focus on a person, a protagonist?  Not solely the last reason, I think, because Milton’s drama in Draft III had already had that focus on place.  Then was it because the idea of “loss” or “losing” came to dominate his attention?

  37. Such is the record, and the evidence: I favour that last hypothesis, because it fits my earlier approaches through Genette, multilingualism, and syntax.  We consider these in turn. 

  38. First, because “Paradise Lost” does not affirm who lost Paradise, the title extends the loss wider, in fact wider and wider; it combines the particularity of the name of the garden home with the universality of its loss (“all our woe,”).   Surely this was what made the subject itself the front runner among the swarming possibles of the MS and helped the most thematic title to prevail.

  39. Secondly, multilingualism rears its head again: the name “Paradise” is of very old, Persian origin, thence came into Greek, and so into every European language.  True to form, Milton considers his own usual practice, of naming a poem from its central person, but then goes one better; and (not just coincidentally) this helps him with the sequel, too, as the “second Adam to the fight / And to the rescue came.”  The Son “regains” our lost home for us, or rather, our lost condition.  The extension of the title’s field of application to all humanity is also readily extended inwards, to the loss of Paradise as a state of being: innocence, unfallen bliss.  Milton uses traditions, and so renews them.

  40. As for syntax, the new (or rather restored) wording incorporates much in a small space, howsoever we look at it.  The central action is the losing, stressed by the participle to encompass active and passive voices, past and present.  By not stipulating Adam as the one losing, the field of reference is extended to Eve as co-agent (with encouragement to register every kind of cause) and to ourselves as recipients of the result. 

  41. One further facet of titling, which has hitherto received only side-glances, is the title as stylistically, expressively a part of the whole.  This facet is clear to see in a short lyric, like Donne’s “the Good-Morrow” or Herbert’s “The Pulley.”  But Milton’s epic title has its own active relation by sound and size as well as by multilingual componentry and syntax.  “Paradise,” the old and much-travelled trisyllable, is “Lost,” blunt Anglo-Saxon monosyllable.  The vowels move forward in the mouth, till the farthest one forward is shut tight with the harsh double consonant, /st/.   Hope swells up then is dashed, there is a hint of oxymoron.  Possibly, too, one could hear the sibilant which lurks unemphatic in “Paradise” emerge boldly into the monosyllable of “Lost,” and so hear the sound of the serpent in the title; but I do not insist.  It is not claimed that such perceptions are unique or profound or totally objective: I do claim that consideration of titles should be multifold and regular, to keep us as readers alert; and to make us constantly look (as Milton’s density and concentration require) from part to whole and back again.  While his thinking remains largely irrecoverable, our perspective and evidence can suggest possibilities, foreclose impossibilities,[19] and establish a few probabilities.


  42. A hostile response to the whole enquiry might be that “Paradise Lost” is indeed a good title but as Horatio put it to Hamlet, "There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave / To tell us this."  In reply, let us reaffirm, first, that we have been charting why and how, by what steps or stages, Milton himself thought his title good.   Secondly, the traditions of titling and the progress of Milton’s own titling-practices predispose us to certain expectations in a reading, and so make us notice any departures.  For thirdly, the essay has been doing more than simply defamiliarizing the too-familiar words of titles, seen but ignored in the Contents and page-headers.  A good title, it has been argued, constantly uncovers new connections between its summation of the whole work and its interactive part in the accumulating whole effect.  “Paradise Lost” is a heuristic device of great power, given Milton’s especial and distinctive integration, whereby every part of his poem — title therefore included —is as it is and not another thing, and so conduces to the main design.  Fourthly, the title directs our minds to the poem’s central and defining action, so giving an authorial focus to interpretation.  Finally, looked at in the big league so to speak, “Paradise Lost” as title surpasses its epic congeners, and even “Hamlet Prince of Denmark” or “War and Peace,” to rival even “À la recherche du temps perdu.”[20] 

[1] Earlier versions of the paper were given to seminars of the English Departments of the University of Otago and of Doshisha University, Kyoto.  I am grateful to those audiences, and to Paul Tankard for conversations on the topic; also to Elisabeth Liebert for reading a draft, and to Lisa Marr in preparing the manuscript.

 [2] Romeo and Juliet II. ii. 43-44

[3] That is, from the title-pages as reproduced in K. A. Coleridge, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Milton   Collection in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (Oxford University Press for the Alexander Turnbull Library, 1980).

[4] Gérard Genette, “Titles,” = ch. 4 of  Paratexts:  Thresholds of Interpretation, tr. Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).  Originally published in French as Seuils (Editions du Seuil, 1987).  Chapter 4, “Titles.”  The phrase “descriptive metaphysics” comes from the contrast in philosophy between  descriptive and prescriptive metaphysicians, of Aristotle with Plato.  Genette, like Northrop Frye in English, takes all of literature as his field, in order to describe and classify, not recommend or dispraise.

[5] Paradise Lost is quoted from Alastair Fowler, ed. John Milton Paradise Lost, 2nd edn. (London: Longman, 1998); and Paradise Regained from John Carey, ed. John Milton Complete Shorter Poems, rev. edn. (London: Longman, 1997).

[6] “Inappropriate as it is . . . the name ‘Comus’ . . . has been generally accepted since the seventeenth century . . .” (William Riley Parker, Milton.  A Biography, rev. edn. by Gordon Campbell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 789, n. 29, citing Toland (1698) then Fenton (1725)).  Parker is hereafter cited as “Parker, Milton.”

[7] John K. Hale, ed. and trans. John Milton,  Latin Writings:  A Selection (Assen: van Gorcum; and Phoenix: MRTS, 1998), 137-39; hereafter cited as JMLW.

[8] Another identification which modifies the coverage and thrust of a given title is “De Educatione Ingenuorum epistola” (“A letter about the Education of the Young”), for “Of Education.” Ingenui is hard to render exactly into English, combining free birth with gentlemanliness, but it specifies no age-range and may add the suggestion that by 1647 Milton was thinking also about the education of those who are not ingenui.  The whole letter to Rous is presented (including a facsimile of its MS) in JMLW.

[9]  In the Second Defence, though, the need to show system “prompts him to rearrange slightly the actual order in which his pamphlets were composed”  (Parker, Milton, 439).

[10] The word means a musical instrument with four strings, or a chord with four notes.  Milton’s quartet is the four chief passages of the Bible which (as expounded by him) justify his view of divorce.

[11] John Milton,  Poems.  Reproduced in Facsimile from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Cambridge;  With a transcript.  (Menston, Scolar Press, 1970), 44; it is written again, differently, at p. 47, where “rugged” is first “barbarous” then “rough-hewn.” The facsimile is referred to henceforth as “TMS.”

[12] Curiously, “rough hewn” in line 10 replaces a first “barbarous”; at any rate he had been thinking of Scottish names as “barbarous” (outlandish, alien and nonsensical to a Greek ear).

[13] Parker, Milton, 386, describes a further “Eikon” title, Eikon Aklastos: The Image Unbroken . . ., by Joseph Jane (1651).

[14] See John K. Hale, Mitlon’s Languages.  The Impact of Multilingualism on Style, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 180-83.  Some points made in this book are repeated more summarily here, both because titles are now the main topic and because the points have not been wholly absorbed.

[15] Cf. Prolusion VII, “Pro” Arte etc.

[16] The smallness and unimportance of the Greek letter helps show that Greek is second nature in this connection.

 [17] Milton cites some central points of Poetics ch. 6 in Greek on the title-page of Samson.

[18] The whole issue of this locution, participle passive in form for active sense of the phrase, is set out by Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition, 160, and see further Hale, Milton’s Languages, 111.

[19] E. g. “Lost” cannot be past tense active with unexpressed object-word(s); an anachronistic guessing.

[20] Literally, “in search of time lost or wasted time.”  The familiar title of  Scott Moncrieff’s translation, “Remembrance of Things Past,” was strongly disliked by Proust himself, and recent translators have chosen “In Search of Lost Time.”  Though it misses the twofold sense of “perdu” and has to forego Shakespearean resonance, “In Search of” achieves the active, analytical verb-force of “recherche.”

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