About John Milton and the 1645 Poems


John Milton, son of scrivener, was born on the 9th of December 1608 in London. He grew up in a musical household and began learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian at an early age. He attended Cambridge from 1625 to 1629 for his Bachelor of Arts and returned to begin a Master of Arts in fall of that same year. That Christmas he wrote "On the Morning of CHRISTS Nativity."

In 1630 he was asked to contribute a laudatory poem to Shakepeare's second folio, which would mark his first publication (in 1632), although soon after he would write a memorial for the Marchioness of Winchester )despite not knowing her, but as part of the public mourning process). He then spent five years in studying on his own, only occasionally penning verse, although one of these was a commissioned masque, Comus. His writing career seems to have begun in earnest with "Lycidas," written in honor of a drowned fellow of Christ's College, Edward King. By the time of publication of the 1645 poems, Milton had traveled the continent, worked as a schoolmaster, and begun writing his polemical tracts, including The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in which he famously argued for a marriage of like minds, and with five religious tracts criticizing the Church of England. Attempts at controlling the publication of unregistered books, of which The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce was one, led Milton to compose Areopagitica, one of the most famous defenses of free speech.

His time as figure in the rebellion and as Cromwell's Secretary of Foreign Tongues was to come, as was his greatest work, Paradise Lost, but the many of the threads found in Paradise Lost can be identified in his earlier writings, such as Comus's resemblance to Satan and Milton's use of innovative syntax, much of which would punctuate the Latinate structure of Paradise Lost’s blank verse.


Although Milton’s epic poem attempting to “justify the ways of God to men” is his most famous, the 1645 poems, a collection of Milton’s early work, highlights his command of various genres, mastery of foreign languages, and one who has planned for the vocation of a poet, and who wishes to be compared to the other great poets of his age.

In “On the Morning of CHRISTS Nativity,” Milton runs the gamut of mythological foes to Christ’s birth, and many of the descriptions echo the description of Satan and his crew in Hell. In the first ten poems of the collection mounted here, I have highlighted pre-echoes of Paradise Lost in green so that one can see the seeds of this poem in their early state.

The Text

The text is based on the Project Gutenberg transcription of the original 1645 edition, and has been edited and checked for errors.

About the Project

I chose John Milton because I am very familiar with his poetry, and I have long wanted to experiment with mounting some of his texts on the web. Many of the Milton sites online today have not been updated in the last three to four years, (with the University of Virginia’s digital collection being a notable exception) and use static html to display his work. At Virginia, it is not possible to grab the raw source for the transcriptions and, if you click on the link, you will find that the poems are broken out into from the book without a way to navigate from poem to poem. In the future, a collaboration with Virginia might enable me to get encoded XML and enable them to have a site that navigates among collected poems.

I wanted to experiment with mark-up, so I went ahead and encoded < pl> to highlight lines that one might call prelapserian allusions, or echoes, of the giant leap Milton was to take in the 1660s after, having escaped a sentence of death for his part in the interregnum, he went on to publish a work that many deemed heretical. A hundred and fifty years later, William Blake would deem Milton “a true Poet and of Devil’s party without knowing it” for Milton’s compelling depiction of Satan. Twenty years before the publication of Paradise Lost many believe that drafts of some of the books had already been written, and this project hopes to tease out some of the language that more concretely links Milton’s early work to his epic poem.

Technical Details


These poems are only very lightly encoded at the moment, but I wanted to use the gold standard for literary mark-up so that I, or others, can go back and add richness while remaining compliant with the standards of literary digital humanists.


The development of an XSLT that counted lines accurately when I had not encoded line numbers (something to be done in the future!) was difficult and kept breaking. I would guess there is an easy script to insert line numbers into the xml documents, and I’d like to do that and then have every fifth line numbered, as at the Swinburne project. In addition, I’d like to correlate the lines marked as alluding to Paradise Lost to their respective counterparts in the later work. In many ways, I feel my XSLT is just getting off the ground after encoding these ten poems.

I would also like to better understand the formatting issues behind certain transforms and how one may trump another. Inserting correct line breaks for the poems took longer than it should have, even though I had coded breaks for the King James Bible and the periodic table—neither of the solutions I used in those XSLTs mapped to this one.

I really liked the way Cocoon fragmented different parts of the site, and I’d like to get some full color images of the 1645 poems to put up along with the transcriptions. Cocoon makes it easy to contemplate expanding the richness of this project without recoding what has already been done.

Lessons Learned

I learned that Milton’s structured verse in his early works, even before he abandons rhyme, lends itself not only to structural, but to semantic markup. I also learned that lightly encoding a text makes transformations much more difficult, despite the fact that this is what many literary digital repositories do to be TEI compliant. However, I wonder what the trade off is between hours spent doing rich encoding and running other kinds of semantic analysis tools. There were moments when I simply wanted to dump the texts into a SQL database and run queries from there.

I would like to learn more about XML’s ability to interact with relational databases and the best ways to use the tools afforded by each.

Future Directions

Aside from deeper encoding that will allow for more complicated transformations, I’d like to see this project grow to encompass all of the 1645 poems and Paradise Lost.