Jason Scott-Warren recalled the intense emotions he felt when he started to suspect that the scribbled notes in the margins of a copy of Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio,’ owned by the Philadelphia Free Library, were written by none other than John Milton.
One of the most prized and scrutinized books in the world, the ‘First Folio,’ published in 1623, was the first edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays. And here, in one of the 234 copies known to survive, were previously unrecognized traces of the greatest English poet being read by the man widely seen as the second greatest.
“It’s a combination of elation and fear, a certain kind of terror,” Scott-Warren, a lecturer at Cambridge University, said in an interview, describing his feelings.
“As a scholar, you get a sense of the fixed landmarks,” he said. “Suddenly, to have a new landmark to come right up through the ground is quite disconcerting; there’s something alarming about that.”
A few days earlier, his discovery, after being teased on Twitter, made headlines around the world. And now the book is on display at the library, which has suddenly found one of its most precious possessions at the center of a literary detective story mixing old-fashioned scholarship, social media virality and sheer coincidence.
Scott-Warren had his aha moment while reading a recent scholarly article about the anonymous annotations, which have long been known to scholars, by Claire M. L. Bourne, an assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.
The article was in a book that Scott-Warren, who studies the history of books as material objects, happened to have also contributed to. It also happened to contain copious close-up images of the annotations.
“I just looked at the hand and thought ‘There’s something familiar about that,’” he said. His initial suspicions were confirmed when he examined small details like the way Milton formed some letters. “They all turned out to fit perfectly with Milton’s known hand,” he said.
It was also a startling twist from the perspective of Bourne, who had begun studying the annotations 10 years ago, in her very first graduate school seminar.
A week and a half ago, she heard from Scott-Warren, whom she had never met, via a direct message on Twitter, saying he had a crazy hypothesis. He made his claim in a draft blog post he shared with her.
“My initial reaction was O.M.G., exclamation point,” she said.
After he posted a link to his blog post on Twitter (‘Shakespeare and Milton: A rash proposition,’ he wrote), the reactions from other scholars, including “card-carrying Miltonists who have been living and breathing his handwriting,” as Bourne put it, poured in, quickly converging on a consensus that yes, the annotations were most likely Milton’s.
“It’s quite unusual for consensus to be formed as quickly as it has,” she said. “Part of that may be due to the fact this was disseminated on Twitter, so it got so many people looking at the evidence quickly.”
Scholars have long believed that the annotations — which range from tiny textual markings to a handwritten addition of the Prologue to ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ which was not printed in the ‘First Folio’ — were done by two separate 17th-century readers. But after looking at Scott-Warren’s research, Bourne said she is “increasingly convinced” the annotations are all by Milton, but made at different times.
The notes appear to show Milton editing the text — not to better Shakespeare, as some reports have suggested, but to correct typographical and other errors, which were common in different early editions of Shakespeare (and still stir arguments among scholars today).
“Our desire is to see Milton, who is seen as a literary inheritor, wanting to improve Shakespeare,” Bourne said. “But I think it’s more nuanced and complex than that.”
Milton, the author of ‘Paradise Lost,’ was born in 1608, eight years before Shakespeare’s death, and was known to have been an attentive reader of his forebear. His first published poem, as it happens, was a tribute, ‘On Shakespeare,’ which was included anonymously in the Second Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1632.
The discovery had made one of the Free Library’s most treasured holdings even more remarkable.
“We already knew that Milton was inspired by Shakespeare,” Caitlin Goodman, curator of the library’s Rare Book Department, said, “but now you can look at the annotations in a new way and almost get into his mind.”
The ‘First Folio’, she said, “is still telling us new stories.”
* Jennifer Schuessler is a culture reporter covering intellectual life and the world of ideas. She is based in New York.
The above article was taken from The New York Times.