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Richard Bentley: The First Poststructuralist? The Recension of Paradise Lost

Richard Bentley: The First Poststructuralist? The Recension of Paradise Lost

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Bentley embraces instability, understood, however, not in its current deconstructive sense of free-play, pansemiosis, undecidability, and festive aporia,

but as strictly symptomatic of historical corruption—a sickness conceived

in textual genesis and transmission. To Murray Krieger’s chivalric definition

of editors as ‘‘Knights Errant whose quest is to discover damsels in distress

called True Virgin Texts as intended by Authors’’ (, ) Bentley adds a

rich complication: an editorial practice, both unsettling and erudite, that

can be truly designated as a poststructuralism avant la lettre.

‘‘[T]he movement of analysis, in its endless process, is precisely to explode the text, the first cloud of meanings, the first image of content’’

(Barthes , ). Bentley carries this analytic momentum into the domain

of textual criticism two and a half centuries before its articulation by Barthes

in a textual procedure that anticipates the semiosis of infinite homophonic

play found in Brisset.William Empson admits to a ‘‘fundamental sympathy

with Bentley’s outlook’’ (, ), pointing to his ‘‘ample vigour and good

sense’’ and insisting ‘‘it was not that his methods were wrong but that the

mind of Milton was very puzzling’’ adding, ‘‘it is refreshing to see the irruption of his firm sense into Milton’s world of harsh and hypnotic, superb

and crotchety isolation’’ (–).

Perry Miller’s description of Bentley as ‘‘the sort of bulldog who, ordered

to find proofs, would bring back dozens of them between his jaws’’ (,

–) appears as effete a caricature as it is an affectionate one. A more

accurate tribute came earlier from Samuel Parr:

The memory of Bentley has ultimately triumphed over the attacks of

his enemies, and his mistakes are found to be light in the balance, when

weighed against his numerous, his splendid and matchless discoveries

. . . He was one of those rare and exalted personages, who, whether

right or wrong in detached instances, always excite attention and reward it, always inform where they do not convince, always send away

their readers with enlarged knowledge, with animated curiosity, and

with wholesome exercise to those general habits of thinking, which enable them, upon mature reflection, and after more extensive inquiry, to

discern and avoid the errors of their illustrious guides (, :).



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Bentley’s publishing history reads like a manual of contingent calculation and acutely apposite strategy with each work seeming to derive from a

premeditated intervention into some current Donnish wrangle or fashionable intellectual dispute. His  Discourse on the Letters of Phalaris was

a calculated move within the debates on the Ancients and Moderns (pioRichard Bentley: The First Poststructuralist? 



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neered by Sir William Temple and developed by William Wooton), which

won Bentley his legendary place in Swift’s Battle of the Books.2 The earlier

Boyle Lectures of  mark a timely attempt to popularize the then novel

theories of Isaac Newton.3 His edition of Paradise Lost is certainly no exception to such strategic calculation. Although Bentley allegedly undertook

the task at the suggestion of Queen Caroline, there is little doubt that the

prime motivation for its January  publication was to coincide with the

opening of a new session of Parliament in which proceedings were to be

resumed for a reversal of judgment passed the previous year by the Court

of King’s Bench in favor of Bentley retaining his post as Master of Trinity

College, Cambridge (Mackail , ). Bentley himself testifies to the temporal exigencies of the project in his preface: ‘‘I made the Notes extempore,

and put them to Press as soon as made.’’ 4 Its motivation seems, in part, to

have been the new quarto edition of Paradise Lost published, with a Life of

Milton, by Elijah Fenton in . In the Life, Fenton mentions that textual

errors could have entered the work via mistakes made by Milton’s amanuenses and that corrections could be made by the substitution of other words of

similar sound (Mackail , ). It is this identical principle of approximate

homonomy that became the governing logic of practice behind Bentley’s

editorial procedure; to borrow a famous formula from De Man, it might

be said that Milton’s blindness is Bentley’s insight.

Bentley interrogates the rudiments of textual identity when the latter is

established by the forces and complexities of a dictatorial method of production folded into a basal disempowerment of the author. The essential

interrogative stance to the editorial challenge is clear.What in fact authenticates the probity of dictatorial transmission? The Lord dictates to Jeremiah,

who in turn dictates to Baruch, but what guarantees that what is spoken is

truly what is written? A. Meillet observes that against the textual stability

offered by printing, copyists ‘‘in part by choice, in part without thinking

about it, modernized the texts as they reproduced them’’ (in Certeau ,

). The transit from oral to scriptural economies is constantly threatened

by errancy and even a willful clinamen in mendacity—the transcribed frequently passing over into the translated.

Bentley’s self-admitted practice is that of ‘‘conjectural emendation’’

based on what he calls his ‘‘divinations.’’ The purported task is nothing

less than ‘‘a restoration of the genuine Milton’’ from the corruptions of the

earlier editions. (In Kierkegaard’s terms, he works toward closing the gap

between what Paradise Lost is and what it ought to be.) The preface elaborates three causal agencies for this corruption. First, ‘‘Our celebrated Au



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thor, when he compos’d this Poem, being obnoxious to the Government,

poor, friendless, and what is worst of all, blind with a GUTTA SERENA,

could only dictate his Verses to be writ by another. Whence, it necessarily

follows, that any Errors in Spelling, Pointing, nay even whole Words of a

like or near Sound in Pronunciation, are not to be charg’d upon the Poet,

but on the Amanuensis.’’ The second culprit is the infamous ‘‘phantom Editor’’ whose faults and mendacity are described later in the preface: ‘‘But

more Calamities, than are yet mention’d, have happen’d to our Poem: for

the Friend or Acquaintance, whoever he was, to whom Milton committs his

Copy and the Overseeing of the Press, did so vilely execute that Trust, that

Paradise under his Ignorance and Audaciousness may be said to be twice

lost.’’ The friend is held responsible not only for the swarm of typographical faults (asserted by Bentley to be ‘‘many hundreds’’ and rendering the

first edition of Paradise Lost as ‘‘polluted with such monstrous Faults, as are

beyond Example in any other Printed Book’’) but for several unwarranted

poetic interpolations of his own. ‘‘For, this suppos’d Friend, (call’d in these

Notes the Editor) knowing Milton’s bad Circumstances . . . thought he had

fit Opportunity to foist into the Book several of his own Verses, without the

blind Poet’s Discovery.’’ 5 Bentley’s third culprit is the blind author himself.

‘‘And yet a farther Misfortune befell this noble Poem, which must be laid

to the Author’s Charge, though he may fairly plead Not Guilty; and had

he had his Eye-sight, he would have prevented all Complaints. There are

some Inconsistencies in the System and Plan of his Poem, for want of his

Revisal of the Whole before its Publication’’ ().

The consequent criterion for emendation is conjecture focused upon

these alleged textual misfortunes—and more than eight hundred are offered.6 They fall consistently into four general categories of redress: those

of willful editorial interpolation; of careless editorial alterations; of spelling

and pointing mistakes by the amanuensis and/or typesetter; and of Milton’s

own lapses in poetic system and logical consistency. All the emendations

are directed to a common goal of establishing ‘‘correctness’’ arrived at by a

rigorous application of logic or by appeal to a Cratylean measure of true and

original intention.7 The fourth category, however, carries a supplementary

complication, for it induces an unavoidable contestation between Bentley

and Milton as agonistic agencies. (This competitive positioning of editor

versus author may be implicit in the edition’s preliminary feature of two

confronting portraits of Bentley and Milton, present in some copies.)

Such rivalry reduces to the simple issue, in localized aspects of the poem,

of who exercises the better poetic judgment. It is at these moments where

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the fissure in respective taste becomes apparent. Milton’s Baroque complexity of thought, Italianate and fueled by metaphoric license, is pitted

against Bentley’s uncompromising insistence on logical correctness and

rational consistency. Detectable at these times is an unbreachable gap in

poetic taste, a Lyotardian differend at the root of Bentley’s assurance that, if

Paradise Lost were to be established as a classic, it must be purified of what

he calls its ‘‘romantic rubbish.’’

How feasible are Bentley’s editorial prostheses, those referents required

to justify and validate his editorial procedure? The historical data are unavailable that would allow us to test the phantom editor against reality. De

Quincey concludes that the editor-friend is a strategic fiction acting prudentially to save Bentley ‘‘from the necessity of applying his unmeasured

abuse immediately to Milton. This middleman, the editorial man of straw,

was literally a mediator between Milton and the Bentleian wrath of damnation, which is already too offensive even as applied to a shadow’’ (, :).

Milton’s nephew and biographer, Edward Phillips, established the normative view that Milton started work on Paradise Lost in  and concluded it

in , thereby allowing an appeal to certain known facts around the poet’s

dictational methods. Jeremie Picard was employed as his personal scribe

from  to  (McColley , ), and Phillips, in his Life of Milton,

claims that during the early years of composition, Milton dictated verse to

‘‘whoever was at hand.’’ During the years of Picard’s employment, Milton

is described as ‘‘waking early’’ and as having had ‘‘commonly a good stock

of verses ready against his amanuensis came’’ (quoted in McColley ,

). Aubrey, in his brief life, corroborates this schedule. Rising early at

: .., Milton then had the Hebrew Bible read to him a half hour later.

His man returned at : .., ‘‘then read to him and wrote till dinner; the

writing was as much as the reading’’ (, ). Milton’s sisters Deborah

and Mary also read to him. Deborah did so in Latin, Italian, French, and

Greek and could well have acted in a secretarial capacity.

Historical data certainly confirm the method of composition via dictation and would endorse a range of theoretically culpable amanuenses: from

the specific Picard to Phillips’s tantalizingly general ‘‘whoever was at hand.’’

Despite David Antin’s refreshing skepticism around the poem’s linear genesis, the facts of the matter sanction nothing beyond a plausible conjecture for Bentley’s case.8 But Bentley’s argument gains plausibility when it

shifts to compositorial errors. For one thing, such textual corruption is not

anomalous but characteristic of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts.9



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Under the rule of the compositor’s measure, words were often contracted





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or altered in the print shop (for abbreviation’s sake) to semantically similar

words in order to avoid a line break in the text.10 There is general agreement

that typesetting via a dictated copy did occur in the seventeenth-century

English print shop, but not as a general rule. The argument against such divided labor is economic insisting that compositorial dictation would follow

logical, grammatical phrase groups and would be oblivious to the material

economies of the page surface. Included in these economies would be the

relative spacing between words to eliminate, wherever possible, a broken

word at a line end. The facts are different in the case of poetic texts, however. With a poem like Paradise Lost, dictation would be facilitated by the

presence of a clear, repetitive—and hence predictable—pattern to govern

enunciation. It can be argued on solid ground that the chances of a poetic

text being dictated for setting would be more probable than that of prose.

Other factors could have influenced the use of dictation: work pressure,

the exigencies of deadlines (an irrefutable fact in the case of Bentley’s own

text), the periodic backlog of work in a shop, the use of temporary labor,

and, connected to all of these, the seasonable factor of nighttime typesetting. The lighting in seventeenth-century type shops was notoriously bad,

and twilight or nighttime setting would be facilitated by a ‘‘caller’’ to the

‘‘setter’’ of a text.11

The least controversial of Bentley’s emendations (and the ones on which

his genius as a textual critic find most effective demonstration) are those

arising from malaudition of a word or phrase enjoying a homophonic link

to others. These mistakes hinge on the biological contingencies of dictation and acoustic reception. Such emendations, where Bentley applies the

principle of approximate homonomy, are by far the most frequent (totaling

over eight hundred). Bentley first emends the following lines:

Sing Heav’nly Muse; that on the secret top

Of Horeb or of Sinai didst inspire



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altering ‘‘secret’’ to ‘‘sacred’’ on the grounds that mountaintops, because

of their height, are usually visible and so hardly ‘‘secret.’’ His explanatory

footnote extends for forty-one lines and addresses several proleptic counterarguments. To the assertion that mountaintops are frequently covered by

clouds, Bentley replies, ‘‘True; but yet it’s questionable, whether in the wide

and dry Desert of Arabia, Mount Horeb had such a cloudy Cap. I have in

my youth read several Itineraries, where the Travellers went up to the Top of

Horeb; and I remember not, that they take notice of its Cloudiness’’ (,

). Further scriptural evidence is supplied from Exodus , where the campRichard Bentley: The First Poststructuralist? 



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ing Israelites at the base of Horeb can find no water. ‘‘All Natural History informs us,’’ quips Bentley, ‘‘and Reason vouches it, That a Mountain, whose

Head is cloudy, has always running Springs at its Foot’’ (). The length and

information supplied in this opening footnote are typical, allied to the new

sciences; and uncompromising in its logical paradigm, it is characteristic of

Bentleian method.

Bentley notes a comparable semantic impropriety at :. Where the

standard text reads, ‘‘But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,’’ he alters it to,

‘‘But rather to tell how, if ought could tell.’’ Art as a civilized production is

anachronistic in Paradise: ‘‘What can Art mean here? the Art of Gardening,

or rather the Art of Poetry? Both are improper’’ (). The next, at :,

is another example of alleged homophonic slippage and one that induces a

further evaluative complication: ‘‘she spous’d about him twines / Her marriageable arms.’’ This Bentley claims is factually inconsistent: ‘‘Marriageable? capable of future Marriage? Why she was wed, spous’d already in the

Verse before. And why her Arms more marriageable, than the rest of her

Substance?’’ (). Bentley conjectures that Milton intended ‘‘manageable’’

as ‘‘that can twine and twist in any Situation,’’ but then rejects this on aesthetic grounds, offering the word ‘‘lascivious’’ as a better solution.

More questionable emendations involve the editorial tampering and

poetic interpolations by Milton’s so-called editor-friend. Dr. Johnson, referring to Bentley’s hypothesis of ‘‘the obtrusions of a reviser whom the

author’s blindness obliged him to employ, [assessed it as] a supposition

rash and groundless, if he thought it true; and vile and pernicious, if, as

is said, he in private allowed it to be false’’ (S. Johnson quoted in R. J.

White, ). Whatever credence can be loaned to the editor hypothesis, it

grants to Bentley a tactical advantage, legitimating his most ruthless excisions from the poem: the notorious ‘‘hooked’’ passages. There are 

lines expunged from the first three books alone, including some of Milton’s

most typical passages. The fifty-four lines comprising the famous Paradise

of Fools section, :–, are removed in their entirety as a ‘‘silly Interruption of the Story’’ (Bentley , ). They are further judged to be

patently un-Miltonic and ‘‘hence’’ a malicious insertion by the editor.12 The

celebrated passage at :–, much loved by later Romantic readers,

enumerating a vast procession of mythological and imaginative figures (lapland witches, night hags, ‘‘Vexed Scylla, bathing in the sea that parts Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore’’), Bentley rejects on moral criteria

worthy of Richard Allestree: ‘‘[L]et him take back his fabulous Night-Hag,

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his Dance of Lapland Witches, And his Smell of Infant Blood; and not

contaminate this most majestic Poem with trash, nor convey such idle, but

dangerous Stories to his young and credulous Female Reader’’ (, ).

It’s not difficult to guess at the kind of reception Gray’s Odes would have

got from Bentley.

The categorical resistance to anything nonclassical produces some amazing contractions—‘‘Joining the Tags of Verse together’’ is Bentley’s own

phrase for these hybrids. At :–, a five-line passage referring to Galileo’s telescope is deleted and the verse sutured into the following:

Earth and the Gard’n of God, with Cedars crown’d

Above all Hills. Down thither prone his flight

He speeds

Bentley zealously prunes Miltonic epithets because of their alleged logical

absurdity. The expunged passage reads:

As when by night the Glass

Of Galileo, less assur’d, observes

Imagin’d Lands and Regions in the Moon



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Here, two absurdities are noted: ‘‘The Glass, says he, observes: I thought

the Eye had done it through the Glass. Observes imagin’d Lands: so he

confounds two Opposites, Observation with Imagination. And what is the

difference between Lands and Regions?’’ (Bentley , ). Bentley is alert

also to the consequences of some of Milton’s prosodic decisions. Reacting to the poet’s placing of the accent in Jesus’ central question, ‘‘And shall

grace not find means?’’ (emphasis mine), he exclaims, ‘‘What accent is here?

Grace the emphatical word lies mute without Tone. No question, he gave

it thus; And shall not Grace find Means?’’ ().

Bentley is alone among early commentators in drawing attention to some

of the poem’s gender issues, chiding Milton’s depiction of Eve as one overly

preoccupied with external appearance at the expense of portraying her

inner thoughts and motivations (, ). In one of the most notorious

and drastic emendations, Bentley inserts Eve into the ‘‘Morning Hymn’’ of

book , dramatically recasting the poem into antiphonal verse form with

alternations between Eve and Adam. ‘‘It cannot displease,’’ quips the sardonic Bentley, ‘‘that I have given the Mother of Mankind her Share in this

fine Piece, and not let her stand mute, a Hearer only’’ ().

It is crucial, however, to approach Bentley’s edition with the double imRichard Bentley: The First Poststructuralist? 



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perative to read both the suggested emendation and the accompanying

footnote. The format of the  quarto is nonlinear and strategically facilitates comparisons. Bentley is assiduous in pointing this out in the preface.

Not one word of the received text is changed, ‘‘but all the Conjectures, that

attempt a Restoration of the Genuine Milton, cast into the Margin, and

explain’d in the Notes. So that every Reader has his free Choice, whether

he will accept or reject what is here offer’d him; and this without the least

Disgust or Discontent in the Offerer.’’ It is highly consequential that Bentley’s footnotes are not relegated to the back of the book but are placed on

the same page as the area of text commented on.13 Each page commands

a threefold attention on the reader’s part: to the textual crux presented in

an italicized embed; to the floating word or phrase that Bentley offers as an

alternative reading; and to the prose footnote placed strategically visible at

the bottom of the same page. This polytextual structure, in fact, inhibits

any monologic reading, forcing readers to negotiate between competitive

and interactive textual features. The effect may be likened to a bibliographical application of Brecht’s ‘‘alienation effect,’’ and its aggressive sociotextual

consequences are brought out in Ralph Hanna’s words that articulate precisely Bentley’s impact: ‘‘I intervene in the text, with brackets [in Bentley’s case italics] to mark my incursion, to a degree that most readers have

found anything from unsettling to odious. I thus always make explicit the

bounded conventions behind my decision to annotate: to say a text is canonical is to say it is a fixed text, accepted by a community in a single form’’

(quoted in Barney , ). Footnotes, marginalia, and annotations form

a secondary, derivative discourse articulated as a subaltern tactic, whose relationship to the primary text is as Laurent Mayali points out, a relation to

power rather than to meaning (in Barney , ).

Fredric Jameson draws attention to the dialectical potential in the footnote, promoting it almost to the stature of a minor genre. ‘‘The footnote

. . . may indeed be thought of as a small but autonomous form, with its

own inner laws and conventions and its own determinate relationship to

the larger form which governs it. . . . The very limits of the footnote (it must

be short, it must be complete) allow the release of intellectual energies, in

that they serve as a check on the speculative tendency that might otherwise run wild. . . . The footnote as such, therefore, designates a moment in

which systematic philosophizing and the empirical study of concrete phenomena are both false in themselves; in which living thought, squeezed out

from between them, pursues its fitful existence in the small print at the

bottom of the page’’ ().14 The footnote’s law is to maintain subservience

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in a master-servant relation, yet that law is never free from the subversive

effects brought about in what Derrida calls the ‘‘pragmatics of annotation’’

(in Barney , ). The spaciousness of the quarto page permits Bentley not only to inscribe acts of writing but to manipulate spatial motions

and a corresponding retinal sliding. ‘‘[T]he very subordination of the footnote assures a sort of framing, a delimitation in the space that gives it a

paradoxical independence, a freedom, an autonomy. The footnote is also

a text unto itself, rather detached, relatively decontextualized or capable of

creating its own context, such that one can read it quickly and directly for

itself ’’ (Derrida, quoted in Barney , ). In the case at hand, through

a play of reversals, we don’t read Bentley for Milton but Milton for Bentley.

It’s in the auxiliary spaces of the footnotes, too, that Bentley presents his

most skeptical side in a robust, idiomatic English rich in irony. Bentley’s

irony is coordinated upon three compositional loci: the absurd editorial

interpolations, the conjectural emendation offered, and the assignment of

the latter to Milton’s own intention. The strategy, as De Quincey clearly

perceives, is to disguise as a purported alliance a direct contestation with

Milton. It is an irony that masquerades as a Cratylean model of textual restoration, supporting the fabric of the editorial prosthesis, while at the same

time demolishing the received text with a powerful, overriding alternative.

As a subtextual accumulation, the footnotes present the image of a bungling editor incapable of matching the poetic criteria offered by Bentley

himself. At :, for instance:

So to the Sylvan Lodge

They came, that like Pomona’s Arbour smil’d

With flourets deck’d and fragrant smells



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Bentley’s manner of refuting this passage is characteristic of his hybrid approach of textual criticism and prosthetic fiction: ‘‘Lucky for this Editor,

that he’s hitherto unknown, and consequently ever like to be so. He’s always

grafting into the Poem his Likenesses. Here’s Pomona brought in for a Likeness, and presently again,Wood-Nymphs, and Three Goddesses. Throw but

away his silly Insertions, Pomona’s Arbour and fragrant Smells; and the Author’s true Words, pick’d up, like Hippolytus’s scatter’d Limbs, compose a

numerous Verse’’ (, ). It is surely a deliberate irony that, in a critique

of simile, Bentley interpolates a simile of his own.

The direct contestations with Milton are, understandably, less frequent,

but they merit comment. Toward the close of book , Bentley challenges

the following passage:

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And fast by hanging in a golden Chain

This pendant World, in bigness as a Star

Of smallest Magnitude, close by the Moon.

‘‘ ’Tis difficult here to excuse the Poet himself,’’ writes Bentley, in a rare

show of direct confrontation. ‘‘[N]o pragmatical Editor can come here to

acquit him. ’Tis credible that for Joy that he was finishing his Second Book,

he relax’d his Attention, and forgot his own System: in which this pendant

World hanging in a Chain is not the Earth, as here inadvertently said, but

the whole visible Heavens’’ (, ). A comparable lapse is observed when

Milton asserts that the earth is close by the moon. According to Bentley, this

is the same as claiming London is ‘‘near Chelsea’’ ().15 The strategy behind this direct opposition seems less to criticize than to humanize Milton.

The majority of footnotes protect Milton’s genius and—though the fiction

is ironic—his reputation remains intact throughout Bentley’s ruthless pursuit of logical aporia. In the end, however, it is safe to say that Bentley’s

self-appointed task is a complete recension in order to rehabilitate the poem

within current taste.16 Bentley’s historic achievement is to be the first critic

to attempt a recension of Paradise Lost and to maintain throughout this

endeavor a radical, skeptical stance before the poem.

The editorial method, however, does not originate in the Paradise Lost.

Indeed, most aspects of it are evident in Bentley’s  edition of Horace.

To cite just one example to support this claim, there is a passage in the

Ars Poetica that he rejects as spurious. The Horatian phrase reads ‘‘et male

tornatos incudi reddere versus’’ (ill-turned verses on the anvil again), to

which Bentley responds, ‘‘ ‘Ill-turn’d’—‘anvil’! what has a lathe to do with

an anvil?’’ On the strength of this material inconsistency, Bentley feels justified in replacing the phrase ‘‘male tornatos’’ with ‘‘male ter natos’’ (thrice

shaped amiss). Resolution of a crux here, as in the Miltonic recension, is

based on a homophonic substitution, but significantly without the prosthetic appeal to a phantom interpolator. The Horace likewise foreshadows

Bentley’s robust empiricality. In the First Epistle occurs the fable of the fox

who, when hungry, crept through a crack in a granary wall, fed on the grain

inside, and grew too fat to get out (:vii.). Bentley’s sarcastic empiricism

is evident in his boisterous response: ‘‘[T]o the rescue, ye sportsmen, rustics, and naturalists! A fox eating grain!’’ The insight gains executive status

when he alters the text from ‘‘fox’’ (volpecula) to ‘‘fieldmouse’’ (nitedula)

( Jebb , ).

This similarity in editorial method has been insufficiently stressed by





P R I O R TO M E A N I N G



6379 McCaffery / PRIOR TO MEANING / sheet 93 of 363

Tseng 2001.8.8 16:02



Bentley’s biographers and the few critics who have written on his work.

It dates the recensional technique to a year much earlier than , which

would be the earliest possible date for Bentley’s commencement of the

Milton project.17 Moreover, it provokes questions as to its own antecedents.

If Fenton’s Life of Milton in the  quarto of Paradise Lost provides the

catalyst behind Bentley’s project, and if the resumption of Parliament in

 gives the secular incentive to its publication, then Bentley’s  edition of Horace pioneers the methodology subsequently reused. The Horace

demonstrates what the Paradise Lost reaffirms: that the germ of Bentley’s

editorial procedure lay in the theories of Lucretius, encouraging an understanding of words as the mutant, material compounds of numerous atomistic, protosemantic particles: letters. Bentley’s textual criticism emerges by

way of this genealogy (like the Brissetism noted in chapter ) as a species

of erudite paranomasia, harnessed to collateral particle practice, in support

of a syllogistic procedure.

Perhaps the seed of the Milton was sown in Bentley’s Boyle Lectures of

, which have never been causally connected to the grand quarto of .

Manuscript evidence supports the fact that Bentley was hard at work on

Lucretius as early as —four years prior to the publication of the Lectures

( Jebb , ). The latter have earned their place in intellectual history as

the first popular attempt to elucidate Newton’s cosmic theories and to utilize them in a refutation of atheism.18 Jebb contends that Bentley’s ‘‘first object in studying Newton’s cosmical system had been to compare it with that

of Epicurus, as interpreted by Lucretius’’ (). Without question there is a

latent contestation with Lucretius running through all eight lectures. Atomism, espousing a natural in opposition to a supernatural order, together

with its uncompromising deterministic materialism, readily lent itself to an

atheistic platform. (It is fundamental, for example, to the thought of both

Hobbes and Gassendi.) Bentley first read Newton’s Principia in , and

in the last three of the eight Boyle Lectures he attempts to refute atheism

(and its atomistic justification) by an appeal to the irrefutable new physics

of Newton.19

In confuting Descartes, who argued that planetary motion occurs around

the sun, with each planet occupying a discrete vortex, Newton demonstrated the stability of planetary orbits by a force termed ‘‘gravity,’’ postulated as an invariant law effecting a constant attraction to the sun. Combining with gravitational force is what Newton terms a ‘‘transverse impulse’’

projecting all planets tangentially to their orbits. In contrast to gravity, the

transverse impulse is not uniform, but adjusted to the place of each separate

Richard Bentley: The First Poststructuralist? 



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