Essence of Milton

Gill Partington

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The strangest parcel I’ve received in the post recently is a plain black box about the size of a paperback. It doesn’t contain a book, though, or at least not at first sight. Instead there is another, smaller box labelled ‘Milton’, which opens to reveal a row of delicate, inch-tall glass vessels, each with around ten white pills in it. There is no explanation, but the accompanying photographs tell the story. In one, against a plain background, is a quotation from Milton’s Areopagitica:

Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

The other four images document what looks like a demented science experiment. A battered Everyman edition of Milton’s collected works is immersed in a jar of fluid, becoming soggy and misshapen. Some of the liquid is then extracted by pipette and transferred it onto the pills.

It’s the work of the artist and writer Stephen Emmerson, who has some serious form when it comes to book destruction. He’s grown mushrooms on Rilke’s poetry, and sanded and painted E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. But his specialism is ‘pharmacopoetics’ (or ‘pill poems to be swallowed with a glass of water’), based on a homeopathic principle. He soaks books in water to extract their essence, then infuses a sugar pill with the solution. Miraculous effects are promised: as the pill dissolves under your tongue, ‘you will be able to write like Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Lucy Harvest Clarke, John Berryman and many others.’ For his performance piece Pill Poem, Emmerson asked audience members to swallow a capsule with the word ‘poem’ on it, then stare a blank sheet of paper. In Placebo Exhibition, participants were asked to take a pill, then led into an empty space and out again.

Emmerson clearly enjoys playing absurdist games with the pretensions of literature and art. But there’s a special irony in subjecting Milton to this treatment, since it takes the poet at his word, turning his metaphorical talk of essences and vials into something weirdly literal. Areopagitica, a pamphlet published in 1644, at the height of the Civil War, is an anti-censorship polemic that equates the destruction of books not only with the destruction of ideas, but with the murder of their authors: ‘As good almost kill a man as a good book.’ The rhetoric may be a bit overblown (and that ‘almost’ is doing a lot of work), but it’s a familiar idea. In destroying a book you’re not simply obliterating the paper, ink and board, but something more numinous. ‘He who destroys a good book,’ Milton wrote, ‘kills reason itself.’

Squeamishness about the destruction of books often revolves around their dual identity. The book is two things in one: a strange Janus-faced meeting of container and content. Emmerson has fun prising the two apart. What if you really did extract a book’s essence? his work asks. What if we literally enacted other bookish tropes about reading as ‘consuming’ or ‘devouring’? What would happen if you took at face value the supposed therapeutic effects of books? The result is a comical anti-alchemy that reduces the lofty idea of literature’s essence to an icky mess of congealed and sodden pages, or a bottle of dubious-looking pills. Videos of Emmerson’s performances show bemused audience members being plied with homeopoetry. Some, understandably, seem reluctant. What would this homeopathic dose of Milton achieve? What effects would it have and what ailments would it remedy? Before lockdown is over, I may yet open the vials and find out.


  • 17 May 2020 at 11:28am
    Shane Anderson regent's international school says:
    I strongly suspect a homeopathic dose of Milton would be just as effective as other homoeopathic doses. Hope you can resist the temptation. Perhaps this what Trump had in when he suggested ingesting disinfectant?

  • 18 May 2020 at 4:22pm
    Nicholas Myers says:
    Hate to be pedantic, but if it's only the prose writings then it's hardly the collected works. That would exclude Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus. And I might be forgetting something.

  • 19 May 2020 at 6:50pm
    Robin Fox says:
    As a part-time bassoonist I have long been seeking a commercial outlet for the fluid that accumulates in the bottoms of our instruments. My idea is that this 'music juice', having taken up something of the player's artistry, could be marketable as an aid to performance. Emmerson's technique suggests the long-awaited answer; the juice could be dripped onto sugar tablets. The active dose of bassoon juice has yet to be established and there could be supply issues since the fluid consists mainly of condensate, yielded in modest quantities. Homoeopathic dilution might be the answer here. Critics have suggested that brass instruments, with their much higher fluid output would be a better source of music juice than the bassoon. However, their product is less appealing aesthetically, not only because of because of the limited musical repertoire of the players but also because of the higher proportion of saliva.

  • 20 May 2020 at 12:27pm
    Billy Bradley says:
    Gill Partington was the leader of a seminar I attended at university. We had to build a house out of paper in the shape of the house in 'House of Leaves', but our house kept collapsing.

    Now that I am a secondary English teacher, I get my pupils to build similar structures. They, too, feign disinterest until the scissors come out. Thanks Gill!

    • 22 May 2020 at 2:04pm
      Reader says: @ Billy Bradley
      Oh - oh - please sir! Please sir!

      Ask me sir!

      You don't mean "disinterest", you mean "uninterest". "Disinterest" means "impartiality, objectivity".

      In fact with today's creeping illiteracy, "disinterest" has begun to appear in the dictionaries with the secondary meaning with which you used it. But somehow it sounds a little pretentious as well as just wrong.

      But what do I know? I'm just a bucolic old scientist living the wilds of Yorkshire tending my allotment. Eey oop, back to t'tatties.

    • 23 May 2020 at 11:16pm
      Billy Bradley says: @ Reader
      With less picky dictionaries, this becomes a question of style, surely, and one for the allotment, the lab and the classroom?

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