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A Bawdy Milton Poem, Or 17th Century Fraud?

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

John Milton wrote the great Christian epic "Paradise Lost." But did he also write smut?

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, that unlikely question is now being asked by researchers at Oxford University. And a warning, this story contains some language that may be offensive - well, to 17th century listeners.

PHILIP REEVES: This is truly hard to believe. John Milton, England's great 17th century religious poet and political polemist, Milton, the puritan of puritans, writing bawdy poems? Could he? Did he?

These questions have arisen for a reason. Archivists at Oxford University were recently cataloging a book of verse, published 34 years after Milton's death in 1674. In this book, they found a poem.

Dr. ABIGAIL WILLIAMS: The title of the poem is "An Extempore upon a Faggot" by Milton. The word faggot actually means, in the early 18th century and in this context, it means a bundle of wood which you put on a fire.

REEVES: Dr Abigail Williams says the poem had the words By Milton printed next to it, yet Williams isn't convinced it's his. She says the poem's really not much good, and the Milton she knows wouldn't have agreed with a word in it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: It's a bawdy little poem, which compares a damp pile of wood put on the fire with a virgin and her body, and then the effects of fire on older sticks, and the effects of passion on older women.

REEVES: What if it really was Milton's?

Ms. WILLIAMS: If it were by him, it would prompt us to change our ideas about Milton as a writer and many of his ideas. But I just think it's much more likely to have been presented as a work of Milton in order to cast a slur on his name.

REEVES: Who would want to defame the great man? A rival, perhaps, or maybe a Monarchist. Milton was one of those who supported the execution of King Charles I. After the king's death, the monarch's long-haired supporters took to hanging out in bars, penning bawdy ditties deriding their enemies.

The Oxford researchers think this disputed, rude and sexist little poem was probably one of these.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Reading) Have you not in a chimney seen a faggot which is moist and green? How coyly it receives the heat, and at both ends does weep and sweat? So fares it with a tender maid, when first upon her back she's laid. But like dry wood, the experienced dame cracks and rejoices in the flame.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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