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This article is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.

Pictures from a Library 14: John Milton

'Weak witness' or 'live-long monument'? William Marshall's Portrait of John Milton
Stella Halkyard
Portrait of John Milton

R4772, John Milton’s Poems, in English and Latin, 1645.
Copyright The University of Manchester.

The story of William Marshall’s portrait of Milton, which was published as a frontispiece in the first edition of his Poems, in English and Latin from 1645, is well worn within Miltonic circles. Our ‘Lady of Christ’s College’, with the cherry lips and auburn hair pictured in the Onslowe portrait which Marshall was charged to copy, was reputedly displeased with the likeness that he got, which represents him to his readers as a ‘warty lop-sided poet with withered arms’ (A.N. Wilson) and a ‘rather stupid face’ (Neil Forsyth). The Parliamentarian Milton appears to have had the last word by intruding a stanza of verse into the space of the engraver that denounced the portrait as ‘the botched effort of an incompetent artist’ in Greek, a language that the Royalist Marshall could not read, but was obliged to engrave.

Yet, politics aside, the first edition of Poems, in English and Latin is a place where another kind of warfare rages as words battle with images for power as modes of meaning. For Milton, words make better monuments than pictures, as exemplified by the speaker in his poem ‘On Shakespeare’, but for Marshall the images in a book exist and operate on an equal basis with its words. So the words of the poet are compromised because an insubordinate artist who ‘violates the integrity of the work by engraving a bad portrait rather ...

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