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Milton's Titles

Early Modern Literary StudiesMay, 2007

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>.

"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?

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 Gerard 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.

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

The preoccupation with titles has its own title or name: titologie in French. Its high priest is Gerard 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.

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.

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.

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]

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

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.

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."

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]


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