Tuesday, February 10, 2009

John Milton: "A good Booke"

John Milton, Areopagitica
New York Public Library
(Image provided by Martin Hyatt)

One of the scholars on the Milton List was searching the New York Public Library for the quote above from Areopagitica, which was then supplied in the photograph by Martin Hyatt, who I initially thought might be the novelist and author of A Scarecrow's Bible but who has informed me that he is not the novelist. Be that as it may, for those who can't make out the tiny wording -- the quote says:
A good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a mafter fpirit, imbalm'd and treafur'd up on purpofe to a life beyond life.
Or in more modern lettering and orthography:
A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
This can be found in the third paragraph of Areopagitica:
I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors: For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet on the other hand, unlesse warinesse be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life. 'Tis true, no age can restore a life, whereof perhaps there is no great losse; and revolutions of ages do not oft recover the losse of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole Nations fare the worse. We should be wary therefore what persecution we raise against the living labours of publick men, how we spill that season'd life of man preserv'd and stor'd up in Books; since we see a kinde of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdome, and if it extend to the whole impression, a kinde of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elementall life, but strikes at that ethereall and fift essence, the breath of reason it selfe, slaies an immortality rather then a life. But lest I should be condemn'd of introducing licence, while I oppose Licencing, I refuse not the paines to be so much Historicall, as will serve to shew what hath been done by ancient and famous Commonwealths, against this disorder, till the very time that this project of licencing crept out of the Inquisition, was catcht up by our Prelates, and hath caught some of our Presbyters. [Areopagitica, paragraph 3, Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, February, 2009]
I'm no expert on Areopagitica, which is usually cited by defenders of free speech, but I find intriguing that Milton does not deny the right to control 'speech':
I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how Bookes demeane themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors....
And he gives as reason: "For Books are not absolutely dead things."

The fact that books are 'living' is what makes them precious but also dangerous, for like living individuals, they can work good or ill. How distinguish the two? Milton seems to be suggesting that all books be allowed publication, after which comes the judgement: "thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors."

But experts can correct me on this point, for I make no authoritative claim. Rather, I want merely to note that Milton takes his image of the book as 'living' and stretches that image so far that the analogy becomes a mixed metaphor in the quote given:
A good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master fpirit, imbalm'd and treafur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life.
Undoubtedly, Milton was thinking of such Old Testament passages as Genesis 9:4:
But flesh with the life thereof, [which is] the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.
But in what sense can blood be "imbalm'd"? Doesn't the embalming process require the removal of blood? Does Milton have something specific in mind in referring to "life-blood" as "imbalm'd"? But even if blood could be embalmed -- in the sense of preserved chemically -- that blood is certainly no longer living in a "life beyond life".

The quote is really rather odd in treating something embalmed as alive. Still, it sounds kind of neat and looks nice carved into wood, painted with gold lettering, and placed above that door in the New York Public Library, which has set that quote in the larger context of a window shimmering with light, another reading room, perhaps?

If anyone can tell us what lies beyond that door, I'd appreciate it.

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At 3:35 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Jeffery,

That doorway (which happens to be a mere two blocks from my office) is the entry to the Main Reading Room from the Catalog Room.

At 7:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Malcolm, I've posted the information on the Milton List for all to see. Scholars around the world will thank you.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:12 AM, Blogger Dario Gomez Escudero said...

Yes. I was the one interested in knowing where to find MiltonĀ“s quotation in the NYPL. I am really impressed to see the quality of the photograph you have managed to take. I do appreciate your effort very much.Thank you so much.
Dario Gomez Escudero (Warsaw)

At 3:45 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

My pleasure, Dario, though I certainly wouldn't want anyone to have the impression that I took any of these photos.

At 5:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome, Dr. Dario Gomez Escudero, but like Malcolm, I emphasize that I've not taken any of these photographs. The two displayed on this entry came by way of Martin Hyatt, and the two linked to in these comments came by way of Malcolm Pollack, but neither Martin nor Malcolm took these photos. All were located on the omniscient internet.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:02 PM, Blogger Dario Gomez Escudero said...

Thank you very much anyway. What matters is that with your help, I can see now what I had been looking for for months. By the way, it was nice to read that you called me Dr, but I am not a doctor yet. How knows if in the future...
Thank you very much again.

Dario Gomez Escudero

At 6:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dr. or no Dr., thanks for visiting . . . and for your own thanks.

Jeffery Hodges

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