2. John Milton's Bed

Object type: Eugène Delacroix, Milton Dictating to his Daughters (ca. 1820)

Museum number: Exhibit 2

Materials: Oil on Canvas

Source: Wikimedia Commons, from the Yorck Project.  Original at Kunsthaus Zurich.

Location in MIAC: METAPHOR

John Milton's bed became an object of interest following Jonathan Richardson's 18th-century description of his writing process.  

[Milton] frequently Compos’d lying in Bed in a Morning.…  I have been Well inform’d, that when he could not Sleep, but lay Awake whole Nights, he Try’d; not One Verse could he make; at Other times flow’d Easy his Unpremeditated Verse, with a certain Impetus and Æstro, as Himself seem’d to Believe.  Then, at what Hour soever, he rung for his Daughter to Secure what Came (Milton, 1734).

Delacroix's painting was one of many inspired by Richardson's anecdote.  It stages the blind author between his bed, where he was inspired by his Muse, and his daughters, who put words on paper.  He has captured here a little assembly line of the poetic process, the blind seer between the moment of his inspiration and the work of expression, dreamwork and writing.  Indeed, he has caught him at an especially poignant moment.  Milton is evidently, incredibly, just finishing his magnum opus, Paradise Lost.  Its final scene, the expulsion of Adam and Eve, hovers indistinctly over the two attentive daughters.  This is an astonishing moment, captured here on canvas-- a critical moment in Western letter.  But the form would turn out to be quite ordinary; this three-part arrangement (read, in this case, from right to left: Muse, publisher, author) was to be many times repeated (see for instance Exhibit 3).

This isn't the only thing about this extraordinary painting that is nevertheless a bit cliché.  Writing from bed turns out to have been a common eighteenth-century activity.  More than one other author is known to have written while still in the cozy confines of his comforter-- not least because, during the winter months, bed was the warmest place in the house.  Alexander Pope is for instance known regularly to have called for pen, paper, and ink from behind the warmth of his curtains, especially in winter-time.  At least once, while visiting the home of a Peer, a special servant was assigned especially to be on call in case Pope's Muse (perhaps Egeria?-- see Exhibit 8) visited him in his sleep.

But this is about Milton, and Milton's muse was Urania, the muse of Astronomy.  Urania, if Milton can be trusted, descended into the space between coverlet and bed-tester, winding her way behind his curtains in order to inspire his verse.  This language, of rising and descending, inspiration and expression, was destined to become important for how Milton thought of the poetic process; the Muse is one figure that gives the struggles of composition voice, and it is for this reason that Milton's bed became a particularly charged place-- especially when Milton was describing the mechanics of inspiration.  And this was all the more true when Milton's bed, years later, was to turn up on the market.  What better than Milton's bed, if we were to want to get close to his poetic process?  Put differently, if we were particularly interested in Milton, the blind poet who was nevertheless the type and figure of the visionary seer, what better than the place where he lay when he dreamt?  What could have more value than a bed?

It was a question like one of these that confronted Mark Akenside when he was presented with precisely this, which precisely a bed that was asserted to have been Milton's.  I can only imagine what this meant to Akenside-- and for these imaginings, I point you to Akenside's Museum.  But it must have been one of those rare, lovely moments in history when Akenside was presented with Milton's redolent bed.  This was, after all, the site where Milton (by his own testimony) conceived the great epic of English letters, the story of our origins, of our first disobedience, and of the fruit of that forbidden tree-- in other words, the whole epic of Paradise Lost.  To Akenside, it must have seemed as though he was being offered the center of the universe, as a place to lay his head.  Milton's bed is, in other words, an object that loosely contains inspiration, of the most powerful and evasive kind.  

For these reasons alone, it is worth thinking about what Milton's bed might have looked like.  Here's a guess, a bed that might have been like Milton's.  It is a common bed-- for Milton was, at the time that he was penning Paradise Lost, living around the corner of the low-rent district of London literature (what is now the Barbican, but then, Grub Street).  And it was pieced together in a shop by a joiner who favored a certain cove moulding plane, a tool that produces a shallowly rounded, decorative trough.  It must have been the pride of his collection, the signature of his workshop and an object that he taught his apprentices to use, for he employed it, hissing the wood off the blade, wherever he had the chance.  Here's the bed, not Milton's (as far as anyone knows), but from the moment:  

Object type: Bed, ca. 1650-1700

Materials: Joined and turned oak, English manufacture

Location: Victoria and Albert W.34 to 9-1928, currently on loan at Woolsthorpe Manor

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Milton's bed is of course lost, but it is worth thinking about it, and what it might have looked like.  It might very well have looked like this bed, one of a type of bed that Constance Simon's useful English Furniture Designers (Batsford, 1907) tells us was common.  I'm especially intrigued by this example of this common bed less because of its wonderful original features, than because it has obviously been modified by a later craftsman.  The tester (its ceiling) has been raised by the addition of posts and panels-- and you can tell in part because the coloration of the sections of posts is a bit off.  Why was this bed heightened?  Perhaps tastes changed; perhaps it was owned by someone particularly tall.  I like to think, however, that this was done to make room for someone else, someone hovering, perhaps someone like a Muse.  What better way to invite a muse into one's bed than by making room for her to hover around?

I have one more thing to say.  This particular bed, the one with the definitive mouldings, is currently on loan to Woolsthorpe Manor, which is where I first learned about it.  By a wonderful stroke of luck, it graces the room Sir Isaac Newton slept in.  Newton was of course the man most reponsible for modernizing astronomy, a man of consuming curiosity and an inventor of calculus, whose was no doubt also visited by Urania, the Muse of the stars.  And putting this bed, this bed that reminds me of Milton, in his bedroom has the wonderful, felicitous quality of bringing together two people normally thought of apart; this bed, an ordinary bed made in an ordinary shop, thereby links one devotee of Urania with another.