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John Lundberg

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Scholar Unearths a Dirty Milton Poem

Posted: 09/26/10 09:00 AM ET

A bawdy poem might force scholars to look at one of the great poets of Western Civilization in a new light. John Milton, the high-minded creator of "Paradise Lost," along with some of the most celebrated sonnets, elegies and other written works in the English Language, may have also written the decidedly low-minded poem "An Extempore Upon a Faggot." The newly discovered "Extempore" compares a woman's response to sex to the burning of a bundle of sticks (a "faggot").

Milton, you see, is well known for composing lines like this:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe

or this:

How soon hath Time the suttle theef of youth

Stoln on his wing my three and twentieth yeer!

No one imagined him capable of writing anything like this:

Have you not in a Chimney seen
A Faggot which is moist and green
How coyly it receives the Heat
And at both ends do's weep and sweat?
So fares it with a tender Maid
When first upon her Back she's laid
But like dry Wood th' experienced Dame
Cracks and rejoices in the Flame

Dr. Jennifer Batt, a lecturer at Oxford University, discovered the short, steamy poem--attributed to Milton--while sorting through the Harding Collection of poetry anthologies and songbooks at Oxford. She found the experience to be a little jarring:

"To see the name of John Milton, the great religious and political polemicist, attached to such a bawdy epigram, is extremely surprising to say the least. The poem is so out of tune with the rest of his work, that if the attribution is correct, it would prompt a major revision of our ideas about Milton."

Batt quickly entered into the sort of damage control usually reserved for politicians and celebrities.

"It is likely that Milton's name was used as an attribution to bring scandal upon the poet, perhaps by a jealous contemporary."

Batt even identified a probable culprit, Sir John Suckling, a fellow poet who disapproved of Milton's republican beliefs.

We may never know if the poem is, in fact, slander or is evidence of some hidden impishness on Milton's part. But as Milton said of truth in his great speech Areopagitica, "Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter." Batt and her colleagues will no doubt begin that grappling. Milton, meanwhile, will be rolling--or laughing--in his grave.