BMCR 2021.03.58

John Milton: Epistolarum familiarum liber unus and uncollected letters

, John Milton: Epistolarum familiarum liber unus and uncollected letters. Supplementa humanistica Lovaniensia, 44. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2019. Pp. xvii, 556. ISBN 9789462701878 €90,00.


In the last two years of his life, as attacks of the gout to which he would succumb increased in severity and duration, John Milton (1608–1674) was clearly attending to his legacy.[1] In November 1673 appeared a second, expanded edition of the 1645 Poems that had cemented his poetic reputation, and to which he now appended the didactic prose treatise Of Education from the same period; in July 1674 he published a revised edition of Paradise Lost freshly divided into a classically Virgilian twelve books instead of its original ten;[2] and sometime in the interim (no later than May 26 of that year), the London bookseller and printer Brabazon Aylmer (fl. 1671–1707) brought out a slim octavo of thirty-one selected letters and seven collegiate orations entitled Epistolarum Familiarium Liber Unus: Quibus Accesserunt, Eiusdem, jam olim in Collegio Adolescentis, Prolusiones Quaedam Oratoriae (London, 1674). According to the printer’s preface, the original plan had been for this publication to contain not only the author’s private letters but also his official correspondence as Latin Secretary to the Commonwealth’s Council of State (“Epistolae cum Publicae tum Familiares,” in Aylmer’s formulation); but since permission to print the latter was denied by the Restoration censor (and longstanding enemy of Milton) Roger L’Estrange, the relatively harmless Cambridge Prolusions were substituted to fill out the volume.

The book under review consists of an edition, facing-page translation, and commentary on Milton’s Epistolae familiares, to which are added seven letters to the German diplomat Hermann Mylius (1603–1657; also the addressee of Ep. fam. 11), three uncollected vernacular letters, and an appendix of untranslated Latin letters addressed to the author (and helpfully cross-referenced to his extant replies). With the exception of the early vernacular “To an Unnamed Friend” (ca. 1633), all these supplements usefully shed light on Milton’s public service in partial fulfillment of his publisher’s stated intent. Thus, Haan’s edition does not entirely replicate the contents of the editio princeps (the Prolusions will have to await similar treatment), but rather presents, translates, annotates, and expands its epistolary first half. It is a remarkable work of scholarship that admirably achieves its editor’s goal “to provide a work that is accurate, thorough, and accessible to readers” (Editorial Policy, p. xix) and that is certain to remain Miltonic epistolography’s edition of reference for a long time to come.

In keeping with BMCR’s target audience, this review will focus on aspects of Haan’s edition that will be of special interest to classicists, but its value to students and scholars of seventeenth-century vernacular literatures, Neo-Latin, Renaissance humanism, and reception studies is self-evident and already drawing praise from specialists in those fields.[3]

The volume combines the familiar Loeb and Cambridge “Green and Yellow” formats, mostly to good effect. A concise, but copiously annotated introduction guides the reader through the trajectory of Milton’s persona over the course of the collection; contextualizes his letters within the traditions of classical and humanist epistolography (foregrounding Cicero, Petrarch, and Erasmus, but duly noting less pervasive models such as Horace, Seneca, and Pliny the Younger); and groups them into four sections comprising Milton’s formative years (Ep. fam. 1–7), his Italian journey (Ep. fam. 8–10), and its long aftermath, in which the poet and civil servant interweaves correspondence between pupils and pedagogues on the one hand, and foreign visitors to London on the other. There follows a judicious general headnote explaining what we know (and more extensively, do not know) about the 1674 edition’s preparation, principles of selection, and organization, after which each letter is given its own headnote, facing-page translation, and commentary. Latin orthography is normalized per Lewis and Short.

The book’s opening epistle, addressed to the still teenaged Milton’s former tutor Thomas Young (ca. 1587–1655) is not at all subtle in signaling its author’s classical self-fashioning. Invoking Cicero implicitly (cf. Fam. 2.1; Att. 7.19) and Aristotle directly, the letter encloses the Catullan gift of an “epistolium quoddam numeris metricis elucubratum” worked out on metaphorical “tabellas” and dedicated to Young in recompense for his own gift of a Hebrew Bible to the author. Thus, as Haan convincingly notes, “the first epistle of the 1674 volume appropriately inducts its reader (as if in a methodological mirroring of Young’s induction of Milton) into Latin, and into the Liber itself, advertising an epistolographer, poet, orator, and rhetorician, who is versed in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew” (p. 39). The young Milton had great ambitions, and already understood the classical conventions for conveying them through his letters—a fact his older self apparently wished to underscore by allotting this example privileged first place in his collection.

The youthful epistles that follow continue in a similar vein, whether praising the “Virgilianum… ingenium” (Ep. fam. 2.2) of his friend Alexander Gil the Younger (1596/7–1642?), engaging in a quasi-Catullan exchange of verses with same (Ep. fam. 3 passim; cf. e.g. Catull. 1, 50), comparing Young’s country house to Zeno’s Stoa or Cicero’s Tusculan villa (Ep. fam. 4.11–12), and so on. But as Milton matures, these relatively superficial (though hardly insignificant) flourishes gradually yield to a deeper engagement with the classical tradition, as in his letters to Charles Diodati (Ep. fam. 6–7), “possibly the closest friend that Milton ever had” (p. 89), whom he figuratively casts as an Atticus to his Cicero in their mutual discourse on friendship (cf. Pl. Phdr.; Cic. Amic. passim) before his schoolmate’s untimely death in 1638. (Milton would subsequently compose the Latin Epitaphium Damonis in his memory.)

Of particular interest to the history of scholarship are the three letters pertaining to Milton’s Italian sojourn (1638–1639) addressed to the Tuscan philologist and Dantist Benedetto Buonmattei (1581–1648), the Vatican librarian and Hellenist Lucas Holstenius (1596–1661), and the Florentine polymath and Galilean disciple Carlo Dati (1619–1676), respectively. Each fascinates in its own way, but any classical scholar who has followed in Milton’s footsteps will experience a frisson of recognition across the centuries as the Englishman warmly thanks Holstenius for welcoming him to the Vatican library, and memorably compares Greek authors in manuscript awaiting printed editions to Virgil’s souls anticipating their return from the underworld (Ep. fam. 9.12–13, adapting Verg. Aen. 6.679–80). Nor are the implications of a visit between the foremost Dante scholar of his age and the future author of Paradise Lost at all insignificant, though we can only speculate about what (if any) conversations about the Commedia they may have had during Milton’s time in Florence (pp. 135–36 on Ep. fam. 8.46–47, with further discussion in headnote; cf. p. 165 on Dati, Milton, and Galileo).

The Italian letters mark a clear break in the collection, after which the author’s concerns following his return to England become more pervasively diplomatic than scholarly (except in his letters to students); but again, Ciceronian and humanist precedents for combining these two aspects of his epistolary persona never truly recede. Especially noteworthy for its fusion of Latin rhetoric and Greek learning is Milton’s second letter to Leonard Philaras of Athens (ca. 1595–1673), a fellow scholar-diplomat who during a visit to London offered to consult an eminent French ophthalmologist on his now blind friend’s behalf, and to whom the author gives a moving written account of his symptoms, culminating in a comparison with Phineus in the Argonautica (Ep. fam. 15.32–34, quoting Ap. Rhod. 2.203–5). Further examples abound, and Haan’s notes ably contextualize them all.

Haan’s translations tend toward the literal, presumably to free up space in the commentary that would otherwise be devoted to grammatical assistance. For instance, in the aforementioned letter to Holstenius, for “Cum enim tui conveniendi causa in Vaticanum ascenderem” (Ep. fam. 9.5) Haan gives us, “For when I went up to the Vatican for the purpose of meeting you” rather than the more idiomatic “For when I went up to the Vatican to meet you” favored by at least two prior translators.[4] This is not an isolated example. For the reader whose eye will be drawn primarily to the English side of the spread, such an approach gives the unfortunate impression that Milton is a rather stilted prose stylist, but does have the salutary effect of clarifying “conveniendi causa” for those who might have difficulty construing the Latin. In some cases, Haan’s literalness leads to obvious improvements, as in the description of the Greek authors in manuscript who, like Virgil’s souls, “expeditas modo typographi manus et μαιευτικὴν poscere videbantur” (Ep. fam. 9.14). Haan translates, “seemed to be demanding the agile hands and the ‘midwifery’ of the printer,” which nicely captures the (Neo-)Platonic valence of the Greek term as opposed to the “delivery into the world” (CPW) and “obstetric skill” (Hale) of her predecessors.

If the translation errs on the side of the literal, the commentary can occasionally stray a little further into the interpretational than might be considered appropriate. To remain with the letter to Holstenius (Ep. fam. 9), this reader was not persuaded by Haan’s assertion of a sustained “‘anabasis’/‘katabasis’ motif” throughout the epistle (pp. 152–63 passim) activated by the Virgilian quotation; surely the fact that Milton’s addressee was renowned for his (bilingual, Greco-Latin) edition of Porphyry’s Vita Pythagorae (Rome, 1630) among other works on Pythagoreanism suffices to explain the author’s brilliant reimagining of Virgil’s transmigration of souls in this context. Other examples could be adduced, but such minor disagreements are almost inevitable in a work of such impressive scope and erudition.

One small criticism: on the subject of the longstanding tradition of bilingual editions, readers of BMCR will perhaps be surprised (as this one certainly was) by the editorial decision to print Milton’s Latin on the recto and Haan’s translation on the verso, contrary to convention as exemplified not just by the Harvard bilingual libraries, but also by the Collection Budé, Reclam Verlag, and others. This policy is nowhere explained, but again may be motivated by a desire to focus the reader’s attention on the original language. One gradually grows accustomed to it, but the choice does seem unnecessarily contrarian.

In his introductory lecture at University College London in 1892, Housman opined that “Milton was steeped through and through with classical literature; and he is the one English poet from whom an Englishman ignorant of Greek and Latin can learn what the great classics were like.”[5] Thanks to Estelle Haan, students and scholars regardless of their linguistic training are now well positioned to appreciate yet another dimension of Milton’s classicism in this accurate, thorough, and accessible edition of his Epistolae familiares and related correspondence. In presenting this material to the world, she and the general editors of Supplementa humanistica Lovaniensia at Leuven University Press have undoubtedly expanded Milton’s “fit audience… though few” (PL 7.31), for which they deserve the gratitude and congratulations of all who love the classics in any language.


[1] On Milton’s activity toward the end (“cleaning out his desk drawers and turning that housekeeping to good account”), see B.K. Lewalksi, The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography (Rev. ed. Oxford, 2003), 489–538, esp. 506 on his letters.

[2] On Milton’s Virgilian self-fashioning in this edition, see J.K. Hale, “Paradise Lost: Twelve Books or Ten?” Philological Quarterly 74 (1995), 131–49; and more generally Craig Kallendorf’s entry on Milton in R.F. Thomas and J.M. Ziolkowski (eds.), The Virgil Encyclopedia (Chichester, 2014), 2.829–30.

[3] e.g. J.K. Hale, Seventeenth-Century News: Neo-Latin News 68 (2020), 94–97; W. Chernaik, The Modern Language Review 116.1 (2021), 15–20.

[4] So Turner & Turner in D.M. Wolfe (gen. ed.), The Complete Prose Works of John Milton (New Haven, 1953–82), 1.333; J.K. Hale (ed., trans.), John Milton: Latin Writings. A Selection (Assen, 1998), 113.

[5] A.E. Housman, The Name and Nature of Poetry and Other Selected Prose (New York, 1989), 10.