Paradise Found: Penn State Professor Helps Make Massive Literary Discovery With An Unlikely Tool

Social media has changed our lives infinitely, and the realm of literary scholarship is no different. Thanks to the collective hivemind of Twitter, one of the biggest literary discoveries of the decade was found in large part thanks to the work of a Penn State professor.

A copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio from 1623 that had been kept at the Philadelphia Free Library since 1945 has been revealed to contain annotations from John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, who is considered to be one of the most important and influential writers in the English language.

Penn State professor Claire Bourne has been studying the Philadelphia First Folio for almost ten years ever since her first semester of graduate school. While working on her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, Bourne first encountered Milton’s Folio while visiting the Free Library with a class she was in.

Considered to be one of the most influential books in the English language, Shakespeare’s First Folio was published in 1623 and contains 36 plays. 20 of the plays had been published previously, but the First Folio provides the only reliable source text for 20 of the included works. Classics like The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth may have been lost to time had it not been for their inclusion as parts of the First Folio.

The focus of the course was just studying how books were circulated and read during the time the First Folio was published. And Bourne remembers her fittingly humble first encounter with the book as “just another one of the books on the table.”

She doesn’t trivialize it however, despite this book’s grander importance being revealed much later, a First Folio is still a First Folio and its importance among the other books was noted immediately.

“Obviously the First Folio is an important book in literary history, and that was how it was presented among the others,” said Bourne.

While examining the Philadelphia Folio this first time, Bourne noticed some extensive marginalia and annotations throughout the text that interested her at first glance, enough so that she decided to begin studying it herself.

When she began her individual analysis, Bourne found herself impressed with the amount of “reader’s marks” as she calls them and how closely the reader was engaging with the work, especially with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, two plays considered to be among Shakespeare’s most canonical. She could tell from the handwriting that the reader was most likely alive around the time the First Folio was published.

“Usually what you get when you see readers’ writing in their books very early on is that they’re just correcting mistakes,” Bourne said. “They’re very rarely trying to improve or change the text in the way that this reader was trying to do.”

One of the most common annotation types found in Milton’s Folio are corrections and additions to the First Folio itself. In her essay on the text, Bourne argues that the writer is collating the Folio text against other versions of the 18 plays that had been out in publication already at the time. These differences are often small, but just single word choices can change entire meanings.

For example, in the First Folio’s printing of Hamlet, a key change can be seen. During the play that the title character puts on to convince his mother of his uncle Claudius’ role in the murder of Hamlet’s father, Claudius is called the “blunt” king. This is often thought to mean impotent and be taken as a jab at Claudius by Hamlet.

But in other printings, the scene remains the same but Claudius is referred to as the “bloat” king, meaning insatiable or indulgent, the opposite of what is printed in the First Folio. Milton doesn’t replace “blunt” with “bloat,” instead he merely marks the word and writes the alternate in the margins, a form of early footnoting, allowing two alternate meanings to stand. This was ahead of its time and meant just for personal use by Milton himself.

However, the true identity of the reader remained a mystery during Bourne’s study of the Folio. It took her 11 years to finish her essay and push the first domino forward. Within two weeks after her study had finally been published, her entire perspective on the text she had been pouring over for more than a decade had completely changed.

However, the true identity of the reader remained a mystery during Bourne’s study of the Folio. It took her 11 years to finish her essay where she analyzed the Philadelphia Folio, it was finally published in December 2018. Over a year after it went public, her entire understanding of the text she had spent over a decade studying was thrown out the window.

Jason Scott-Warren, a lecturer at Cambridge University, messaged Bourne regarding a theory he had about the identity of the anonymous author in her essay about the Folio’s annotations. The two had never met before, and Scott-Warren came across the essay by chance. It just happened to have been published in the same book Scott-Warren had worked on as well. After giving his theory two weeks to mature, he informed Bourne of the epiphany her essay inspired.

When Scott-Warren was looking at the pictures included in Bourne’s essay, he noticed certain similarities the handwriting had with that of Milton. Scott-Warren shared a blog post on his Twitter detailing his theories.

After a slew of other Milton and Shakespeare scholars came together on social media and discussed, a consensus was reached quickly. The author of these annotations was almost certainly John Milton.

Bourne found herself overwhelmed by the speed of the discovery that was based on her years of work but also excited at what it means for the future of scholarship.

“For it to take that long to write (the essay) and find a good place to publish it and within two weeks have my whole perspective on this book shift has been overwhelming, but also really exciting,” said Bourne. “We can never do scholarship in isolation, this is a real testament to the value of collaborative scholarship.”

The news of this discovery was able to spread far and wide, thanks to the power of Twitter and its ability to move information quickly.

“It’s really about exposure. When Jason floated his blog post a couple of weeks ago, it got eyeballs on the material very quickly,” Bourne said. “Even more senior Miltonists who are not on Twitter heard about this within 24 hours.”

This discovery could help spearhead a wave of other potential archival discoveries such as this one according to Bourne. Many old and rare book collections have relaxed their photography restrictions, allowing those who analyze these texts to post photos of them on social media, allowing other scholars from all over the world to contribute and over their own expertise.

“These little ‘aha!’ moments are happening all the time on Twitter,” said Bourne.

All sorts of questions can be floated out and considered instead of waiting months or years for long essays to be written.

“Twitter allows exposure to all sorts of material, but also rapid dissemination of hypotheses,” Bourne said. “There’s not yet that burden of proof on Twitter, so you can float something and ask questions. Sometimes I’m reading early modern handwriting and I just can’t figure out a word, so I post it on Twitter and crowdsource. It’s the new engine of scholarship online.”

Bourne’s next project has already seen the fruits of social media scholarship delivered. She’s attempting to reconstruct the library of a late 17th-century reader and has already found 40 books. A couple of those texts have been discovered with the help of other scholars and researchers on Twitter.

Much more can be learned from this discovery now that Milton has largely been accepted as the author of the annotations. His entire corpus can now be analyzed through Shakespeare’s confirmed influence on him, and Shakespeare can be analyzed differently as well, as Milton’s annotation help confirm theories of Shakespeare’s own influences, such as Milton noting the song the gravediggers from Hamlet sing is similar to a poem from Tottel’s Miscellany, the first printed anthology of English poetry.

Overall to Bourne, the magnitude of this discovery is almost impossible to deny, even from the average reader.

“It’s like the second-most-important writer in the English language reading the first-most-important writer in the English language,” said Bourne. “Other people might say it’s the first-most-important writer in the English language reading the second-most-important writer.”

Milton’s Folio has been put on display by the Free Library of Philadelphia for the first time since 2014 for the public viewing from September 16 until October 19. A first edition copy of Paradise Lost will also be on display next to the Folio during its showing.

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About the Author

Matt Paolizzi

Since graduating from Penn State in 2021, Matt is (hopefully) manning a successful job and (hopefully) living a happy life by now. In a past life, he was a writer for Onward State and remains a proud alumnus of the best student publication in the country. Check out Podward State too, Onward State's official podcast, that he co-founded alongside Matt Ogden and Mitch Stewart in 2019. It's his baby, give it a wave and make sure it's doing okay. Thanks to da king Sam Brungo and everyone who follows, it most definitely is.

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