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Milton and Machiavelli's Discorsi by Maurice Kelley
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Page 123

Milton and Machiavelli's Discorsi
Maurice Kelley

IN MILTON'S COMMONPLACE BOOK APPEAR SEVENTEEN notes on his reading in Machiavelli's Discorsi; [1] but on the date at which Milton dictated these entries, scholars have not agreed. In his classic study of the Commonplace Book, Hanford[2] implied that the notes were entered sometime within the eleven-year period between 1648/9 and 1660, possibly between 1648/9 and 1652. Liljegren,[3] Haller,[4] and Fink,[5] however, have offered the entries as proof that Milton knew Machiavelli in the early 1640's and derived from his writings some of the ideas found in the anti-espiscopal tracts. And Bryant,[6] finally, has argued that Milton's knowledge of the Discorsi came "relatively late" in the poet's career. In their discussions, however, none of these scholars has given close attention to the handwriting found in the entries and in other Milton manuscripts; and preserved at Oldenburg are certain of Milton's private letters in which the handwriting enables us to date the Discorsi notes with some degree of assurance within a fairly limited space of time.

None of these seventeen entries is in Milton's autograph. They are rather all the work of his amanuenses, though the exact number of these scribes I have not been able to determine. Certain of the notes show significant similarities of handwriting which indicate that these entries constitute groups, or blocks of notetaking,


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made by a single scribe at a single sitting.[7] But while these groups tend to differ from one another in general appearance, they sometimes show similarities of letter formation and habits of lifting the pen which suggest that in some instances the notes were written by scribes who employed more than one style of handwriting.[8] In this puzzling complex of hands, however, there are two clearly distinguishable groups which would seem to furnish clues as to the date at which Milton dictated the whole corpus of his Discorsi notes.

The first of these is the group listed in footnote 7 as Group 2. In chronological order of entry, it is probably the second set of notes dictated by Milton;[9] and it consists of two notes on p. 197 of the Commonplace Book under the heading "De Religione quatenus ad Rempub: spectat". Both notes derive from Milton's


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reading of Book I, chapter 10 of the Discorsi, and both are written in a sharp, angular hand, that of Milton's nephew, Edward Phillips.[10] Likewise in Phillips' hand is the original of Milton's letter to Mylius, numbered in the Columbia edition FE., LXIII,[11] and preserved in the Niedersächsische Staatsarchiv at Oldenburg under the pressmark Bestd. 20 (Grafschaft Oldenburg), Tit. 38, No. 73, Fasc. 5, no. 8. As Plate I reveals, the Commonplace Book note and the letter show the same angularity of script and the same idiosyncrasies of formation in certain individual letters: for instance, the M with the slanted serif in "Machiavel." and "Miltonio" and the t in "mortales" and "postquam", which resembles somewhat the figure 4. The date of the letter, as Plate I also shows, is "Feb: 13tio 1651", that is, 1652.

The second of these two clearly distinguishable groups is that listed in footnote 7 as Group 9. In chronological order, it seems the last of Milton's Discorsi entries; and it consists of a single note on p. 198, deriving from Milton's reading of Book III, chapter 34 of the Discorsi. The scribe of Group 9 has yet to be identified; but as Plate III shows, his hand likewise appears in the original of Milton's letter to Mylius numbered in the Columbia edition FE., LVII,[12] and preserved at Oldenburg as Bestd. 20 (Grafschaft Oldenburg), Tit. 38, No. 73, Fasc. 5, no. 6. This same scribe also wrote at least four other of Milton's letters to Mylius not reproduced here but numbered in the Columbia edition FE., L, LIIa, LV, and LIX,[13] and preserved under the same pressmark at Oldenburg as


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nos., 3, 4, 5, and 7. The dates of these five letters run from November 7, 1651, to February 10, 1652.[14]

Such, then, are the similarities that exist between the handwriting found in two groups of the Discorsi notes and in six of the Milton letters preserved in the Oldenburg archives; and these similarities would seem to suggest the following conclusions. Between November 7, 1651, and February 13, 1652, Milton had in his service two amanuenses to whom he dictated six of his letters to Mylius written between those two dates. To these scribes, he also dictated two of the nine groups of his notes from Machiavelli, for their hands are found not only in the six letters but also in Groups 2 and 9 of the Discorsi entries. The hands of these two scribes, furthermore, appear in conjunction only in these two instances[15]— in the Mylius correspondence and in the Discorsi notes. We may assume, therefore, that the letters and the two groups of notes belong to the same period of Milton's intellectual activities. And since the Group 2 and the Group 9 entries seem to represent not only the second but also the ninth and last stage of Milton's recorded reading in Machiavelli's treatise, we may likewise assume that the whole body of Discorsi notes belong close to, if not actually within, this same period. If these two assumptions are justified—and they do not seem contrary to the logic of historical inference—, then the seventeen entries from Machiavelli's Discorsi should be tentatively assigned to the four-month period covered by the letters,


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to November and December, 1651, and January and February, 1652. And there these entries should remain until new evidence shows clearly that they belong to a different period of Milton's studies and political evolution.


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A Common-place Book of John Milton, ed. A. J. Horwood (1876), facsimile edition, pp. 148, 185, 193, 195 (two entries), 197 (two entries), 198 (three entries), 242 (three entries), 243 (two entries), 245, 246.


PMLA, XXXVI (1921), 281-283.


Studies in Milton (Lund, 1918), p. xviii.


The Rise of Puritanism (1938), p. 316.


The Classical Republicans (1945), p. 98.


MP, XLVII (1950), 217-221.


I suggest the following groups. Group 1: two notes from Discorsi I, 2 and I, 4 on pp. 193, 246 of the Commonplace Book. Group 2: two notes from I, 10 on p. 197. Group 3: two notes from I, 2 and I, 10 on p. 195 and index entry for Group 2 on index page of Commonplace Book. Group 4: two notes from I, 58 and I, 59 on pp. 185, 245, with the difference in appearance of the two notes resulting from the fact that the note on p. 185 has been crowded in between two earlier entries. Group 5: four notes from I, 58, II, 10, and II, 12 on p. 198, 243, 148, 242. Group 6: two notes from II, 18 and II, 19 on pp. 242, 243. Group 7: note from II, 24 on p. 242. Group 8: note from III, 1 on p. 198. Group 9: note from III, 34 on p. 198.


The close similarity of the cancelled note on p. 193 and the recopied form of it on p. 195 offers convincing proof that Groups 1 and 3 are by the same scribe; and a comparison of words and word forms common to these two groups and to Groups 4, 6, and 9 (the citations of Machiavelli, the words for "prince", and inflectional endings, such as "-are" and "-ere") suggests that Groups 4 and 6 are perhaps, and Group 9 very likely, also the work of the Groups 1 and 3 scribe. For a somewhat different, but likewise tentative, grouping, see Hanford, loc. cit.


Both the reading and the dictation of the notes seem for the most part to have been done consecutively. The position of the notes on p. 198 indicates that the entry from I, 58 (Group 5) was made earlier than the entry from III, 1 (Group 8) and III, 34 (Group 9), and the index entry for the two notes from I, 10 on p. 197 (Group 2) was made by the scribe who entered the notes from I, 2 and I, 10 on p. 195 (Group 3). Normally the scribe writing the heading of the new page was responsible also for the index entry in the back of the book; but the Group 2 scribe failed to make this entry, and it was left for the Group 3 amaneunsis to supply this omission later. This fact would seem to establish the priority of Group 2 to Group 3 even though the notes overlap. The two Group 2 notes, which come from Discorsi I, 10, derive from passages printed on pp. 56 and 60 of volume II of the Opere di Niccolò Machiavelli, Milano, 1804, while the note in Group 3 from I, 10 comes from a passage printed on p. 59 of the same volume. The work of the Group 3 scribe seems to have been that of gathering up loose ends: the recopying of the I, 2 note that he had entered on the wrong page while making the Group 1 notes, and the entering of a new note from a chapter already covered by the Group 2 scribe. A similar overlapping is present in Groups 4 and 5. The Group 5 entry from I, 58 on p. 198 of the Commonplace Book derives from earlier pages of the Opere than does the second entry in Group 4, but I have put Group 5 later than Group 4 because the other three entries in Group 5 come much later in the Opere than the second Group 4 entry.


Plate I shows only the first of these two notes, but those who wish to check the similarity of the handwriting found in the two notes may consult the facsimile edition of the Commonplace Book, cited in note 1. Compare, for instance, "Religione" and "esse" as they appear in both entries, and "laudatiores", "Respub:", and "Machiavel. discors l. 1. c. 10" in the first entry with "laudat", "Repub:", and "Machiavellus . . . discors. l. 1. c. 10" in the second. Horwood identified the scribe of these two notes as Daniel Skinner. Hanford, however, rejected this identification and suggested, "though not without hesitation," that the amanuensis was Edward Phillips. As a comparison of Plates I and II shows, Skinner's script is less angular and more ornate than that appearing in the Commonplace Book notes and in the example of Phillips' hand reproduced in Plate II. For further data on the autographs of Skinner and Phillips, see Sotheby, Ramblings in the Elucidation of the Autograph of Milton (1861), pp. 162, Plate XX, 190, Plate XXIV; and Darbishire, The Early Lives of Milton (1932), p. xvi and plate facing p. 12.


XII, 374, 411.


XII, 362, 410.


XII, 348-50, 352-54, 360, 368-70, 408-11.


To this same scribe may also belong a seventh letter, FE., LXV, noted in the Columbia edition, XII, 376, 411-12, preserved as no. 9 under the same Oldenburg pressmark, and dated "Feb. 21mo 1651", that is 1652. In the six Oldenburg letters we have a fairly clear case of a scribe who writes in more than one hand. The hand appearing in FE., L differs considerably from the hand appearing in FE., LV; but the two hands appear juxtaposed in the text of FE., LIIa, which seems to be the work of only one scribe. To my knowledge, none of these letters has been reproduced except the seventh, LXV, which appeared in facsimile in The New York Times, Dec, 31, 1927; but anyone wishing to check my conclusion that these letters are all by the same scribe, who also made the Group 9 entry in the Commonplace Book, should compare the Group 9 entry with "inserere", "dare", "perlegendam", "prolixiorem", "quandoquidem", "rem", and "remittatur" appearing in FE., LV, and "Comitem", "qua", and "rem" in FE., LVII, with "quam" and "res" in FE., LIX.


The two hands may possibly appear singly elsewhere in the Milton manuscripts. Darbishire (The Manuscript of Milton's Paradise Lost Book I, [1931], pp. xx-xxi) suggests that Edward Phillips's hand appears in the corrections of the text found in the manuscript of Book I of Paradise Lost, and the handwriting of the Group 9 scribe is somewhat suggestive of that found in the May 2, 1652 entry in the Milton family Bible and in the transcript of the Vane sonnet in the Trinity College, Cambridge, manuscript, which is to be dated July, 1652 or slightly earlier.