‘Milton’ and ‘Rochester’ on why women are like fire

Posted by Jenny Batt on Saturday, June 19, 2010 with 1 comment

In Elijah Fenton’s Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany Poems (1708) is a poem with a rather astonishing attribution:

An EXTEMPORE upon a Faggot, by Milton

Have you not in a Chimney seen
A Faggot which is moist and green;
How coyly it receives the Heat,
And at both ends do’s weep and sweat?
So fares it with a tender Maid,
When first upon her Back she’s laid;
But like dry Wood th’ experienc’d Dame
Cracks and rejoices in the Flame. (pp. 286-287)

Is John Milton, religious and political polemicist and author of the great blank verse epic Paradise Lost, really responsible for such a bawdy epigram? The poem is so out of tune with the rest of his work, that if attribution is correct, it would prompt a major revision of our ideas about Milton.

In The Life Records of John Milton (1949-58) J. Milton French dismisses the notion of Milton’s authorship:

The poem is coarse and erotic, far more likely to have been the composition of a man like the Earl of Rochester than of Milton...It is highly unlikely that Milton wrote it. (V, p. 115)

Given the Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany Poems is the only place where the attribution to Milton is made, it seems reasonable to agree with French that Milton’s authorship is ‘highly unlikely’, and to suggest that the attribution was probably made with the intention of bringing scandal upon the poet.

So did the notorious libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, write the poem? A variant version with the title ‘A Description of a Maidenhead’ appears with other poems attributed to Rochester in The Works of the Right Honourable Earls of Rochester and Roscommon (1709). In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, ‘Rochester’ was a leading brand name in bawdy and erotic poetry. Many poems of this type were wrongly attributed to Rochester, and in their respective editions of Rochester, both David Vieth (1968) and Harold Love (1999) believe that ‘Have you not in a Chimney seen’ is one such misattributed poem.

If Milton and Rochester didn’t write the poem, who did? Searching Early English Books Online throws up several leads. A variant of the poem is included in several miscellanies and song books produced by John Playford, including Wit and Mirth. An Antidote against Melancholy (3rd ed, 1684). In Playford’s Catch that Catch Can, or the Second Part of the Musical Companion (1684) and The Second Book of the Pleasant Musical Companion (1686), the poem appears together with a musical score, and is attributed to ‘Mr. Robert Smith’. Smith was a highly regarded composer (see the ODNB) and though it is possible he wrote the words, it is perhaps more likely that he was setting a pre-existing text to music.

EEBO also shows up an earlier version of the poem, in John Phillips’ translation of Paul Scarron’s Typhon: Or, The Gyants War with the Gods. A Mock Poem in Five Canto’s (1665). In this mock-heroic poem, the lines crudely refer to the weeping Callisto, a nymph who has been raped by Jupiter:

Have you not in a Chimney seen
A sullen Faggot moist and green;
How slowly it admits of heat,
And does not onely weep, but sweat?
So fares an unexperienc’d Virgin,
When Jupiter himself is urging:
But dry-wood-like, the practick Dame
Cracks and rejoyces at the flame. (p. 33)

It would appear, then, that by the 1680s, this epic simile from Phillips’ poem had been extracted and transformed into a free-standing epigram.

However, a search of the Union First Line Index of Manuscript Poetry suggests there may have been a yet earlier version of the poem, and that Phillips himself may have drawn on a pre-existing text. In some of the entries for the poem in the First Line Index, it is attributed to Sir John Suckling. It’s not clear where this attribution derives from, but as Suckling died in c. 1641, if his authorship were proved, the poem would be pushed even further back into the seventeenth century.

The exact authorship of this poem remains, for now, a mystery, but this single case shows how slippery notions of authorship and attribution were in the long eighteenth century, and hints at the complicated publication histories poems might have. These are subjects which the Digital Miscellanies Index will enable scholars to confront. By indexing the contents of over a thousand poetic miscellanies, and recording the attributions that occur in those miscellanies, the Digital Miscellanies Index will provide scholars with a wealth of information about authorship and publishing in the eighteenth century.