Saturday, January 31, 2009

"You knew I was a snake when you took me in..."

Asp Biting Cleopatra
Steel Engraving, 19th C. Book of Shakespeare
Collection of the Yuko Nii Foundation

In a recent email from either Terrance Lindall or Yuko Nii, I received a notice about an upcoming talk on John Milton by Dr. Robert Wickenheiser at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center on May 10, 2009.

Dr. Wickenheiser is famous among Milton scholars for his Wickenheiser Collection, which he has built up over a thirty-five year period and which has more than 6,000 volumes, including more than 60 early editions of Milton's writings as well as other 17th-century Miltoniana, as the email informs me (else I wouldn't recall the numbers).

These details and more about the Wickenheiser Collection can be found at the University of South Carolina's Rare Books and Special Collections website.

Lindall and Nii's interest in this collection probably derives from the fact that the Wickenheiser Collection focuses especially on illustrated editions. As artists and curators themselves, they also collect illustrated books. Thus, as the email explains, on display will be not only many Miltonian items from Wickenheiser's personal collection but also a number of famous illustrated books from the Yuko Nii Foundation's collection.

One of the books from the collection of the Yuko Nii Foundation is the 19th-century Shakespeare edition shown above, which is opened to a page revealing an asp biting Cleopatra's breast. Not especially clear due to the image's small size is the asp's apparent aim -- the nipple of Cleopatra's right breast.

I call attention to this not for prurient reasons but because it reminds me of the traditional belief that serpents suck on teats for milk . . . though usually the teats of animals. Milton alludes to this belief in a Paradise Lost passage in which Satan, speaking through the serpent, tempts Eve by comparing the fruit that he claims to have eaten with milk directly from teats:
When from the boughes a savorie odour blow'n,
Grateful to appetite, more pleas'd my sense,
Then smell of sweetest Fenel or the Teats
Of Ewe or Goat dropping with Milk at Eevn,
Unsuckt of Lamb or Kid, that tend thir play. (PL 9.579-583)

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, January, 2009]
The belief that serpents suck on teats of animals has been traced back to at least the first-century A.D. author Pliny the Elder, who refers to the "boa" of Italy, serpents that "are nourished, in the first instance, with the milk of the cow." The remark can be found in Book 8 of Pliny's Natural History. John Bostock's 1855 edition, from which I have borrowed, can be found online at Perseus.

Whether or not the illustration above is itself alluding to this tradition about serpents and teats, I do not know, but perhaps some kind and knowledgeable reader will have the relevant information.

While we're waiting for that expert kindness, here's an Oscar Brown Jr. morality tale about nursing a serpent in one's bosom, performed by Al Wilson.

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