A couple of months ago I had the privilege of taking students in one of my electives to the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. We were there to see some Shakespeare materials, but I can never visit the library without going on a pilgrimage of sorts to the Salomon Room on the third floor. The room is dominated by Mihály Munkácsy’s 1877 oil painting “The Blind Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to His Daughters.”
Milton is seated in his chair at the table, his blind gaze fixed toward the floor in front of him as he recalls the lines that (should we believe Milton and Aubrey) had come to him in the night before. His three daughters surround the table. One, perhaps Mary, takes down dictation. Across the table from our perspective, Deborah sits and appears to be embroidering, although it is hard to tell. The eldest, Anne, stands gazing at her father. At least, these are my identifications, but more on that below.
Milton tells us that his verses came to him during the night. In the invocation to Book IX he laments he must change his notes to “tragic,” but hopes the argument will be “not less but more heroic” than traditional epic plots:
If answerable style I can obtain Of my celestial patroness, who deigns Her nightly visitation unimplored, And dictates to me slumbring, or inspires Easy my unpremeditated verse… (IX, 20-19)
Milton worries that if the Muse that nightly inspires his verses is not actually the source of the words, the inhospitable climate of England and his own advanced age will “damp my intended wing / Depressed, and much they may, if all be mine / Not hers who brings it nightly to my ear (IX, 45-7).
In Munkácsy’s painting, the look of concentration on Milton’s face always seems (to me at least) to reflect his effort to separate his own words from those of the Muse. What a burden to weigh each line and decide if it is worthy of divine inspiration or not!
The account left us by the “anonymous biographer,” a figure Helen Darbishire identified as Milton’s nephew John Phillips, gives us a more vivid account of Milton’s process:
And hee waking early (as is the use of temperate men) had commonly a good stock of Verses ready against his Amanuensis came; which if it happened to bee later than ordinary, hee would complain, Saying hee wanted to bee milkd. (Darbishire, 33)
My own mental image of this, and how my ever-unfinished stageplay about Milton opens, is of a quarrelsome old man in his bed, calling out through the house that he must be milked while the daughters draw straws to see who has to deal with him, or simply ignore his increasingly frustrated cries while they wait for another amanuensis, such as his nephew Edward Phillips, to arrive.
John Aubrey’s roughshod, scattered notes on the early life of Milton suggests the role of the daughters. He writes, “Deborah was his Amanuensis, he taught her Latin, & to read Greeke and Hebrew to him, when he had lost his eiesight.” and “Deborah could read to him Latin: Ital. & French & Greek. The other sister is Mary, more like her mother.”
Aubrey doesn’t mention Anne in relation to Milton’s work, and Edward Phillips gives us some idea why. Phillips reports that Milton’s firstborn “was a brave Girl, born within a year after; though whether by ill Constitution, or want of Care, she grew more and more decrepit”(67). Later, Phillips’ account seems to indicate that Anne was developmentally challenged. He reports that Milton trained his daughters to be useful to him, except Anne, who was excused “by reason of her bodily Infirmity, and difficult utterance of speech (which to say truth I doubt was the Principal cause of excluding her).”
It is Edward who first gives us the image of Milton’s daughters as living in intolerable servitude to their father’s muse. Excepting Anne,
the other two were Condemn’d to the performance of Reading, and exactly pronouncing of all the Languages of whatever Book he should at one time or other think fit to peruse; Viz. The Hebrew (and I think the Syriac), the Greek, the Latin, the Italian, Spanish and French. All which sort of Books to be confined to Read, without understanding one word, must needs be a Tryal of Patience, almost beyond endurance; yet it was endured by both for a long time; yet the irksomeness of this imployment could not always be concealed, but broke out more and more into expressions of uneasiness; so that at length they were all (even the Eldest also) sent out to learn some Curious and Ingenious sorts of Manufacture, that are proper for Women to learn… (77-8).
Munkácsy’s painting draws me to the NYPL third floor for several reasons. First, as many have noted, it is a dark painting. The room recedes into the shadows around Milton and his daughters. Examining it closely on my laptop I find there is detail back there in the murky gloom – a cabinet, maybe a bookshelf. The light from the window to Milton’s right offers only a transpicuous gloom – a “darkness visible.” And then there are the daughters. The one I think of as Anne, standing in the background… I can’t read her expression, but I always think of Edward Phillips’ report that the girls found their task burdensome. Even Anne?
Finally, the painting always makes me revisit the mythos surrounding these girls, this romantic picture.
In 1660, at which point Milton had probably been working on his great epic for two years, Anne was 14. Mary was 12. Deborah, the daughter most remembered as his helper, was only 8. Even if Milton worked on Paradise Lost late into 1665, Deborah would have been but 13. How strange it seems that she, not Mary, is recalled as the one who helped him most. Was this because Deborah was known and available to talk with the compilers of the early lives while Mary was not? Or was the youngest really trained up to the task at such a young age, not only to read to her father in languages she couldn’t understand, but to diligently copy down the verses he had gathered in the night? Richardson reports in his later life of Milton that Deborah, later in life, could still recite some Homer from having read it to her father.
And what of Anne? I’ve sought through Milton’s writing for some indication of Anne’s condition and its impact on the Milton household, or on his sensibilities. I’ve found none, although there are times when his concern with bodily sickness is quite evident. Maybe others have found some trace of Anne’s presence in Milton’s poetry or prose?
– David A. Harper, 27 June 13
Mihály Munkácsy’s oil painting is on display in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor of the NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
References from Milton’s poetry come from the Modern Library edition edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen Fallon.
The accounts of Aubrey, both Phillips, and other early lives are from Helen Darbishire, The Early Lives of Milton (London: Constable & Co., 1932)