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The Complete English Poems (Everyman's Library Classics & Contemporary Classics) Hardcover – December 15, 1992
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“The theme that unites Milton’s greatest poems is temptation. In Comus and the epics temptation is central to the plot . . . His fondness for this theme is related to the moral and intellectual integrity that is such a prominent feature of Milton’s own character, and that shapes the character of his poems.”
—from the Introduction by Gordon Campbell
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In short, I find that the Penguin has the best notes, by far, but on every other count the presentation is inferior, in parts defective.
The Modern Library edition scores in offering some prose (and I would really only need a selection of the shorter poems, too); in giving introductions to each piece or group of pieces; in its generous introductory material; and in the presentation, which shows rare sympathy with the Kindle format. Navigation is easy, with multiple options, and the Kindle's 'Go To' function is full and allows total access (e.g. to individual books of Paradise Lost).
All the defects I could find in the Penguin I have reported through the 'Report Content Error' function on the Kindle, but they include things like setting the prose 'Arguments' at the start of each book of Paradise Lost as verse, or inserting a stanza break every five lines through the whole poem. And when you find 'the' misprinted as 'die', you know you can't trust the text! No prose is a fair enough editorial choice (though if you have the COMPLETE poems, why not some prose as well?), but the lack of introductions or even short context notes is indefensible. And Penguin's navigation is poor: you can't 'Go To' individual books of Paradise Lost, or directly to the Table of Contents!
The Penguin shines, though, in one crucial area: John Leonard's commentary. The Modern Library edition is much more concise, and there are fewer lines given a comment (which many people might like!). Leonard's commentary is very full, possibly only exceeded by the (printed) Longman editions (Fowler, Carey, et al.) - but so much more to the point and less obstructive of the flow than they are. Leonard consistently brings clarity and insight to many difficult passages, as well as others innocent-seeming, and adds a whole new layer of understanding. Here's one example:-
'Comus', line 440: note on 'arms of chastity'.
PENGUIN: The Elder Brother's beliefs suit an idealistic eleven-year-old, but the twenty-five-year-old M[ilton] knew of one famous occasion when Diana's bow (441) and Minerva's shield (447) failed to save a virgin. Pluto prevailed over both weapons when he seized Proserpine (Claudian, De Rapt. Pros., ii 204-32). M[ilton] had likened the Lady to Proserpine in an earlier version of [lines] 357-65 (see note).
MODERN LIBRARY: no comment.
This passage, up to line 447, is laden with irony, and the Modern Library edition only manages to touch the surface of it in its note to line 447. (At least that might be enough to alert the reader to investigate further.) It's a pretty extreme example, I have to admit, and the Modern Library edition often matches Leonard in quality. Here's an example where it has a longer note, and where the Penguin is a little unclear:-
'Paradise Lost', Book One, line 26: note on 'justify'.
PENGUIN: both 'justify to men' and 'ways of God to men'. (I suspect some missing text here as well: perhaps the note should read something like "both 'justify to men the ways of God' and 'justify God's dealings with men'".)
MODERN LIBRARY: vindicate; cp. Pope, Essay on Man: "Laugh where we must, be candid where we can,/But vindicate the ways of God to man" (1.15-16). Milton's word order permits dual readings: either "justify (the ways of God to men)" or "justify (the ways of God) to men." Cp. S[amson] A[gonistes]: "Just are the ways of God,/And justifiable to men" (293-94).
There's probably no choice now but to keep both, and use the Penguin as a supplement to the Modern Library's highly readable presentation and reliable text....Maybe one day Penguin will clean up their edition....
Many things make Milton great, not least that he is one of the few poets able to successfully combine beauty, artistry, and depth. He is usually considered the most learned English poet and was indeed among the most educated people of his day, perhaps of all time - a fearsomely well-read polyglot steeped in theology, philosophy, literature, science, and more. This has unfortunately kept many from reading him, but there is really nothing to fear; his intellect of course shows up but far more subtly than one would expect. Unlike Modernist writers with similar reputations, he is not obscure or massively allusive; nearly all his references are to the Bible and classical mythology sources that his readers would have immediately recognized. This is of course not as true now, but Milton remains remarkably readable for a poet of three hundred and fifty years' vintage - far more so, for instance, than Shakespeare.
Yet he is able to work weighty issues, particularly theology and philosophy, into his poetry in a way that only Alexander Pope, Shelley, and Thomas Hardy have been able to rival in English. Milton at his best is extremely thought-provoking but also remarkable for beauty and technical precision of a kind rarely achieved. Above all, his work is notable for a grand, epic sweep that is unmatched in English, putting him on a level with Homer, Virgil, and Dante. This is of course clearest in Paradise Lost, but even short works have it to a very high degree. Simply put, Milton's talent and stature are such that anyone even remotely interested in poetry must be familiar with his collected poems.
Anyone who loves poetry can only be dismayed at its historically low status; even the greats are read less than ever, and poetry seemingly gets only less popular. It is a testament to Milton's greatness that he has largely escaped this, continuing to be read not only by students and scholars but even remaining a popular culture presence, as numerous references in works as diverse as the film Seven and the songs of Nick Cave prove.
The Western world's ever-increasing secularism is probably the greatest obstacle to reading Milton, as nearly all his works and all the major ones deal with the Bible in some way. The passion with which he extols Christianity, particularly the dense intricacies with which he pursues an ongoing theodicy, can easily seem naïve, and it will be near-laughable to some that such a stout Christian was ever considered an intellectual giant. Even the most pious Christians may find Milton's distinct brand of Calvinism off-putting; for example, his Jesus is anything but the proto-hippie peacknik now so widely touted yet also not the fire and brimstone hurler currently favored by fundamentalists. Milton's religious thought may now be of mostly historical interest, but this should not keep anyone from reading and appreciating his great work. Whether one agrees with his views is irrelevant; his majesty and greatness transcend opinion. The vast majority of his poetry may be specifically Christian, and he makes more than a few topical references, but it is universal as only truly great art can be.
Milton's near-uniform excellence makes a collected edition of his poems essential, and there are many versions. This is one of the best both for true comprehensiveness and generous supplemental material. Indeed, the title sells the book rather short; it has not only all the English poems but also several Latin and Italian ones with translations as well as "On Education" and "Areopagitica," his most famous prose works, plus associated appendices. The prose makes up a substantial part of the book - over sixty pages out of 620 - and is a nice bonus. "On Education" details Milton's revolutionary teaching methods and remains an important contribution to a never-ending debate both for its still useful suggestions and as a peek into an era when education was very different from today. The appendix, a reminiscence from Milton's nephew and pupil, gives a more detailed look at the imposing curriculum. "Areopagitica" is Milton's legendary response to the Puritan Parliament's infamous Licensing Order authorizing book censorship. It of course has many contemporary references, but Milton's strong free speech defense is unfortunately still necessary. This is a classic treatise with many superb quotes and arguments that are still widely used and a cornerstone - indeed, a building block - of modern liberalism even if the fact that it seems strikingly conservative in some ways shows how much liberalism has changed, also making it historically valuable. The Order itself is also usefully included as an appendix.
This edition is also remarkable for secondary material. In line with other Everyman editions, it has a lengthy introduction giving an excellent overview of Milton's life and thought, the context of the poems, and some critical analysis; a Milton chronology; a bibliography; and extensive notes on the text. Unlike many Everyman editions, it also has numerous in-text notes. Milton's age and learning make notes necessary for most and invaluable for many, and these are exemplary - neither too few or too many and explanatory without forcing an interpretation. The binding is also very high quality, and we even get a built-in bookmark.
In short, this has everything general readers could ever want and will also suffice for nearly all others. The only ones who will be disappointed are the true purists and completists who want all the foreign language poems and those who want original spelling and punctuation. Anyone who has even glanced at seventeenth century texts is well aware that mechanics have changed so drastically that most readers would be lost without extensive footnotes and glosses. This avoids the problem by changing spelling to conform with current usage and altering punctuation when it is likely to confuse. Some will find this blasphemous, especially as it occasionally interferes with meter, but most will appreciate it. Anyone wanting a Milton book and unbothered by these caveats could do no better than this.