British poet John Milton is most famous for great religious and political poems like Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Lycidas.
However, he had a little bit of a dirty streak, possibly, and it came out through his innuendo-laden ditty called ‘An Extempore upon a Faggot’, which was rediscovered by Dr Jennifer Batt, an academic in English Literature at Oxford University.
She found the bawdy poem while sorting through the Harding Collection – the world’s largest but neglected collection of popular poetic anthologies and songbooks, owned by the Bodleian Library.
The poem, attributed to Milton, reads: ‘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’ experienced Dame/Cracks and rejoices in the Flame.’
The university is now launching the Digital Miscellanies Index, which is a project run by Dr Abigail Williams of Oxford University. It will enable online access to the world’s largest collection of miscellanies, or popular poetic anthologies, opening up the contents of these works for the first time since the eighteenth century.
Dr Batt said: “To see the name of John Milton, the great religious and political polemicist, attached to such a bawdy epigram, is extremely surprising to say the least.
“The poem is so out of tune with the rest of his work, that if the attribution is correct, it would prompt a major revision of our ideas about Milton.
“It is likely that Milton’s name was used as an attribution to bring scandal upon the poet, perhaps by a jealous contemporary.
“The Digital Miscellanies Index will expose the contents of this and thousands of other neglected miscellanies, giving us a much better chance than ever before, of working out who was reading what, when and how.
It’s a three-year Leverhulme Research Project grant, led by Dr Abigail Williams, and based at the University of Oxford, which will create an online database of the contents of the 1000 poetic collections, or miscellanies, published over the course of the 18th Century.