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In June 1628, while Milton was still an undergraduate, he composed for one of the Senior Fellows of his college, who was the respondent in the Philosophical Act, the Latin verses which it was the Cambridge custom to print for distribution to the Doctors present at the ceremony. Professor Masson has suggested that the lines on the theme, Naturam non pati senium' (That Nature is not subject to old age) were written for this occasion. If so, this was, as far as we can guess, the first composition of Milton's to obtain the honour of print. Academical fly-sheets of this kind quickly pass out of existence, and as it was no longer customary at this date to use layers of printers' proofs instead of paste boards, there is little likelihood of this fugitive paper having been preserved even in that last refuge, the inside of an old binding. Should it be extant the Aly-sheet ought to bear the imprint, ‘Cantabrigiae, ex academiae celeberrimae typographeo,' or (less probably) • Cantabrigiae, apud Thomam & Ioannem Buck,' and if anyone lights on some Latin verses with either of these imprints, and the date 1628, he will probably have made a very exciting find.
Milton's second published verses, his first in English, were the lines (written in 1630), entitled · An Epitaph on
the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare, printed among the preliminary matter of the second folio edition of the Plays, in 1632. After this, as far as we know, no more of his poems saw the light until 1637, when Henry Lawes, who had written the music for the performance of Comus’ at Ludlow Castle in 1634, and had himself taken part in it, weary of making copies for his friends, sent it, with the poet's leave, to press, under the title :
A Maske presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634 : on Michaelmasse night, before the Right Honorable lohn, Earle of Bridgewater, Vicount Brackly, Lord Præsident of Wales, And one of his Maiesties most honorable Privie Counsell.
Eheu quid volui misero mihi! Aloribus austrum
Perditus London, Printed for Humphrey Robinson, at the signe of the Three Pidgeons in Pauls Church-yard. 1637.
In addition to this printed edition Milton's autograph draught is preserved at Trinity College, Cambridge, another manuscript copy at Bridgewater House, and the music of five of the six songs in Lawes' autograph at the British Museum.
It was in November of this year 1637 that Milton wrote the draught of Lycidas' (the corrections in which so saddened Charles Lamb), which also is preserved at Trinity College. The poem was published in 1638, with the signature J. M., in the memorial volume entitled : • Justa Edovardo King naufrago ab amicis mærentibus, amoris & uvelas xápur,' or as the English section of it was called, 'Obsequies to the memorie of Mr. Edward King, Anno Dom. 1638.'
After this no more of Milton's verse was printed till close on the end of 1645, when Humphrey Moseley, a publisher who through all the turmoil of the Civil War steadily fostered good literature, obtained his leave to
print his miscellaneous poems and a new edition of • Comus.' The title-page to this collection reads :
Poems of Mr. John Milton, both English and Latin, Compos’d at several times. Printed by his true Copies. The Songs were set in Musick by Mr. Henry Lawes, Gentleman of the Kings Chappel, and one of His Maiesties Private Musick.
Virgil, Eclog. 7.
Facing the title-page was the unlucky engraved portrait of Milton in his twenty-first year, which William Marshall, a very unequal artist, here shown at his worst, had apparently copied from a painting of the poet in his Cambridge days. Milton was now 37, but there was some appropriateness in choosing an early portrait. since most of the poems in the volume were early work. Unfortunately Marshall hardened the face till it looked like a grim gentleman of fifty, and Milton, as all the world knows, amused himself by letting the portrait go forth accompanied by a malicious Greek epigram which Marshall must have engraved in happy ignorance of its meaning.
'Αμαθει γεγράφθαι χειρί τήνδε μέν εικόνα
Γελάτε φαύλου δυσμίμημα ζωγράφου. . So runs the Greek and, as an epigram in English can hardly dispense with rhyme, we may make shift to translate it :
• Unskilled the hand that such a print could trace
The engraving is so distinctly below the average of Marshall's work that Milton may perhaps have imagined that the caricature was intentional—that Marshall, in fact, disagreed so much with his recently expressed views on divorce that he was aiding the evil tongues alluded to in the Virgilian quotation of the title-page, by drawing a most unpoetic face. If he entertained such a suspicion Milton's malice, otherwise a little unworthy, would be excusable enough. In any case, however, his wrath can hardly have extended to Humphrey Moseley, the publisher, who sent forth the book with this commendatory letter of his own :
THE STATIONER TO THE REader. It is not any private respect of gain, Gentle Reader, for the slightest Pamphlet is nowadayes more vendible then the Works of learnedest men; but it is the love I have to our own Language that hath made me diligent to collect, and set forth such Peeces both in Prose and Vers, as may renew the wonted honour and esteem of our English tongue : and it's the worth of these both English and Latin Poems, not the flourish of any prefixed encomions that can invite thee to buy them, though these are not without the highest Commendations and Applause of the learnedst Academicks, both domestick and forrein : And amongst those of our own Countrey, the unparallel'd attestation of that renowned Provost of Eaton, Sir Henry Wootton : 1 I know not thy palat how it relishes such dainties, nor how harmonious thy soul is; perhaps more trivial Airs may please thee better. But howsoever thy opinion is spent upon these, that incouragement I have already received from the most ingenious men in their clear and courteous entertainment of Mr. Waller's late choice Peeces, hath once more made me adventure into the World, presenting it with these ever-green, and not to be blasted Laurels. The Authors more peculiar excellency in these studies, was too well known to conceal his Papers, or to keep me from attempting to sollicit them from him. Let the event guide itself which way it will, I shall deserve of the age by bringing into the Light as true
1 Printed in this edition after the dedication of Comus,' Vol. II., p. 155.