Milton’s Century is now at-press with Wildside Publications. It is a massive book, some 700 pages, that attempts a timeline of the literary, political, religious, and social context of John Milton’s life. Entries for some of the years extend over as many as a dozen pages, including explanatory notes and annotations.
As a kind of preview to the book, I am posting the entry for one of the more fascinating years, 1674, the year of Milton’s death.
I chose this year in part because it gives clear examples of how Milton’s Century is arranged: general events germane to Milton’s life (in boldface); significant publications for which I could find no specific dates; general biographical and historical information; then a timeline of specific events during the year. I’ve deleted the notes because they proved too difficult to format for Collings Notes.
I also chose it because is a highly significant year in terms of literary history. Four key writers died in 1674. The first, on October 10, was Thomas Traherne. Traherne was essentially the last of the 17th Century Metaphysical poets, following the trail blazed by John Donne, George Herbert, John Cleveland, and others. He was a priest, at times secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Seal. At his death, he has published almost nothing, and as a poet he was unknown until the 20th century, when manuscripts of his works as transcribed by his brother were discovered. With their publication, it became apparent that the Metaphysical movement had more immediate consequences during the century than previously anticipated. Beyond that, he is simply an intriguing poet with an Escher-like imagination that invited readers to view their world from unexpected perspectives.
On October 15, Robert Herrick died at the remarkable age of 83. Nearly thirty years before, during the English Civil War, he had published a single book of verse, Hesperides. The volume contained literally hundreds of short verse lyrics in the Cavalier mode, including the classic carpe diem poem that begins “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” His death was essentially the last breath of a literary movement that included Sir Richard Lovelace and Edmund Waller and that gave voice to the Royalist worldview.
On December 19, Edward Hyde, the 1st Earl of Clarendon, died. The father-in-law of King James II and grandfather of Queens Mary and Anne, he was one of the pioneers of what might be called modern historical writing. His History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England looks forward to the great histories of the next century, including Gibbons History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
And on November 8 (a month shy of his 66th birthday), John Milton, called by many the last true Renaissance poet. With him died an epoch and a world view that had served writers for nearly half a millennium. I could say much more about him, but that would take up far too much time and space. Suffice it to say that he was arguably one of the four greatest poets in Western culture (the others being Homer, Virgil, and Dante), the greatest poet in the English language, and one of the most influential writers on the formation and direction of the modern world.
All four of these 17th century writers either ended or began a mode of seeing the world and exploring it through words…and they died within three months of each other, most likely each unaware of the others’ deaths and, in Traherne’s case at least, of their writings.
Enough background. For anyone who has persisted reading this essay to this point, here is the truly important part—a hint of what students of the period will find in Milton’s Century:
Milton referred to as a “great agent of libertinism”
Christopher Milton serves as a M.P. (also 1676 and 1679)
Robert Barclay, The Anarchy of the Ranters, Quaker treatise
Nicholas Boileau, Le Lutrin; Art Poétique
Robert Boyle, Suspicions about some hidden Qualities in the Air
Thomas Flatman, Poems, published (4 augmented editions by 1688)
Elkanah Settle, Notes and Observations on the Empress of Morocco Revised, response to John Dryden, Thomas Shadwell, and John Crowne
Samuel Vincent, The Young Gallants’ Academy
William Wycherley, The Plain Dealer, stages at Lincoln’s Inn
Nicholas Rowe b. (d. 1718), Poet-Laureate and first biographer of William Shakespeare
Elizabeth Singer b.
Isaac Watts b. (d. 1748), hymnist
Marriage proposed between William of Orange and Princess Mary, first cousins and grandchildren of King James I
Jan 7 — Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, buried
Jan 29 — Sir William Temple, Upon the Excesses of Grief, written to the Countess of Essex
Feb 9/19 — Peace of Westminster signed, concluding the Anglo-Dutch War, Parliament having refused to vote Charles II further monies to continue hostilities
Feb 28 — Elkanah Settle m. Mary Warner
Mar 25 — The King’s Company opens new theater in Drury Lane
— Mary Lee m. George Chudleigh (later 3rd Baron Chudleigh)
Spring — Mary Beatrice of Modena suffers her first of eight miscarriages
Apr — Thomas Shadwell, The Tempest, performed (published 1674)
Apr 17 — John Dryden’s dramatization in rhymed couplets of Paradise Lost, The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man, registered
Apr 23 — John Dryden, revival of Marriage a la Mode
May — Nathaniel Lee, The Tragedy of Nero, produced
May 26 (?)— John Milton, Joannis Miltoni Angli Epistolarum Familiarium liber unus: quibus accesserunt ejusdem jam olim in collegio adolescentis prolusiones quaedam oratoriæ (Familiar Letters), identified as being by Joannes Miltonus, Anglus, echoing his quarter-century old controversy with Salmasius and reminding his readership of his identity; published by Brabazon Aylmer
— John Milton, Prolusions (College exercises—see issue above)
Jul (?)— John Milton, A Declaration, or Letters Patents of the Election of this present King of Poland, John the Third (John Sobieski, King of Poland), Elected on the 22d of May last past, Anno Dom. 1674…., translated by Milton, published anonymously by Brabazon Aylmer; Milton’s last publication during his lifetime
Jun 25 — Sir Orlando Bridgeman, former lord Keeper of the Seal, d., in retirement in Teddington
Jul 3 — Sir Orlando Bridgeman buried, in Teddington
Jul 6 (?)— John Milton, Paradise Lost. A Poem in Twelve Books. The Author John Milton. The Second Edition Revised and Augmented by the Same Author, with dedicatory poem by Andrew Marvell
Jul 14 — James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, appointed Chancellor of Cambridge University
Jul 20 (?)— Milton makes oral will; his health declining seriously
Jul 27 — Anthony à Wood, Historia et Antiquitates Universitatis Oxoniensis (History and Antiquities of Oxford University), published, Latin rendition of Wood’s history of the university: “My book published at Oxon. Full of base things put in by Dr. John Fell to please his partial humor and undo the author....”
Sep 27 — Thomas Traherne makes his will
Oct 10 — Thomas Traherne buried beneath the reading desk, Teddington Church
Oct 15 — Robert Herrick buried (b. 1591), at Dean Prior
Nov — Elkanah Settle, Love and Revenge, drama, performed (published 1675)
Nov 8 — John Milton, poet, d., in Bunhill, London
Nov 12 — Milton buried near his father at St. Giles, Cripplegate, London
Dec — Calysto, masque, performed at Court by ladies only, with Princess Mary taking the title role
Dec 19 — Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, former Lord Chancellor of England, d. in Rouen, still an exile from England