Editing De Doctrina Christiana

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John Hale writes…

The narrative of the editing of De Doctrina Christiana for Oxford’s new The Complete Works of John Milton is like that of the Muppet Movie, a “narrative of very heavy duty proportions”. Our task began back in 1993, when I joined a group researching the authorship of De Doctrina. Because Milton’s authorship had been questioned, this multidisciplinary group tested it by diverse means – statistical, bibliographical, stylistic and so on. With the authorship upheld, my task shifted around 2000 to transcribing the manuscript, before editing and translating it, for the new Oxford University Press Complete Works of John Milton. In 2003 I was joined by Donald Cullington. Ten years later, we are free men again, and looking forward to holding the two thick volumes in our hands. Publication day was 13 September in the UK, though the authorial copies haven’t arrived yet.

We are the fourth such collaborative edition. The first edition was in 1825 by Charles, later Bishop, Sumner. Miraculously he completed the work in only two years. He had some help, whose nature and limits are not clearly defined, from William Walker; also from green tea and a wet bandage for the forehead  to enable him to “sit up night after night until three or four o’clock in the morning.” He saved some time, and introduced distortions of Milton’s Latin bible, by using the English King James version for the teeming citations which comprise half of the whole huge text. The next collaboration, that of James Holly Hanford and Waldo H. Dunn for the Columbia collected Milton (1930s), has left no record of how their work was done. It derived much from Sumner’s. Third came volume VI of the Yale Prose Works edition. Yale is unsurpassed in its annotations and scholarship, both historical and theological. But it offers no Latin text. Milton’s own words are not to be found. John Carey’s brilliant translation, which rightly included his own fresh rendering of the thousands of biblical citations, is widely used nowadays, as if its lucid and concise self-consistency might replace Milton’s diverse and uneven Latin, which ranges from high to low to confused register.

Our own edition seeks fidelity, the fidelity of transcribing the manuscript afresh, warts and all, and only emending when it becomes nonsense; and correspondingly of translating with literal accuracy, and completeness, as aims we place ahead of elegance. We did it like this in order that the English might show more of Milton’s real style, which is often otiose, excessively periodic, turgid or partisan; soaring and sinking by turns; in a word, idiosyncratic. Computer applications have helped, naturally, and retirement is another advantage we have enjoyed. Our routine has been the opposite of Sumner’s. Not late nights, but early mornings. As the work neared its eventual completion, 3 or 4 a.m. became for each of us the time of starting not finishing for the day. No green tea nor wet bandages in sight.

In the intervals of copy-editing, and of four stages of proof-reading (OUP are marvellously thorough!), we have been writing notes, essays, talks and blogs, on some of the trains of thought which the requirements of time and of the edition precluded. A joint essay is appearing in December in Milton Studies. These by-products are continuing, in the form of an address to the recent International Milton Symposium in Tokyo (August), to the forthcoming British Milton Symposium meeting (October), and in a talk in Washington DC on my way home (November). Publication in America is later than in the UK, so this talk should serve to keep the pot boiling, as do the various blogs written for OUP and for the Otago research theme.

 

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