Milton and the Sexy Seals: A Peephole into the Horton Years
John K. Hale
University of Otago, NZ

Hale, John K. "Milton and the Sexy Seals: A Peephole into the Horton Years." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 5.1-12 <URL:

  1. The materials for this note are Milton's copy of Lycophron's Alexandra, containing his numerous marginalia. It is in the Library of the University of Illinois. I consulted also the notes of Leo Miller concerning it, in the Library of the University of Colorado at Boulder. I am grateful to the Librarians and staff of these institutions for help freely given me in 1993. Most of the material is published, over the name of Harris F. Fletcher, in Milton Quarterly 23. 4 (1989), 129-58: Fletcher's notes were seen into print by John T. Shawcross. They are, however, more esoteric and cryptic than will suit all Milton specialists, not to mention general readers of Milton; and Leo Miller and I both found things to add to Fletcher. I offer the following note as a more narrative, and expository account of just one such marginal moment (Fletcher, 142-43) in the reading life of Milton in the 1630s; it is chosen as being quaint, and yet also extended enough to represent Milton's mind and method at work on a Greek poet then.

  2. Legends of the loves of humans for non-humans or part-humans are many and entertaining; but usually unhappy too, because whether or not progeny resulted the lovers themselves became necessary misfits, having crossed a line of nomos -- custom, law, the way things are. From Pasiphae to forsaken mermaids to Thomas the Rhymer, the stories describe too much given up, too high a price paid.

  3. It is curious, therefore, to read in Aelian about a female seal who became enamoured of a sponge-diver. They met for love in a cave by the sea. Aelian's point is that although this diver was the ugliest of all sponge-divers the seal did not think so. In fact, says Aelian, "Even human beings have frequently loved the less beautiful of their kind, being quite unaffected by the best-looking . . ." (Historia Naturalis, 4. 56). The pleasant outcome of this idle musing is that the seal in the story behaves according to human nature after all.

  4. More often, nevertheless, seals are the last creatures to attract human affection because (as Homer puts it), "The smell of seals is appalling: who would choose one to sleep with?" (Odyssey, 4. 441-42). So more usually when stories of seals loving humans are narrated in Greek myth, their tenor is one of forbidden fruit, and of terror and moral confusion. Thus one of Cassandra's prophecies about the fall of Troy in the Alexandra of Lycophron declares that female seals, inflamed with desire, leap upon the beds of male mortals" ("arsenon broton," l. 85). The general context is of total inversion, of sea-creatures grazing on land; and the vision of disorder climaxes with the cross-species mating.

  5. Enter Milton. Reading his copy of Lycophron's poem in 1635 or so, he made two marginal notes about the line. The first pondered the participle "thourosai," which I have rendered "inflamed with desire." He worked philologically, back to the root "thoros," semen. The seal was in heat because of its "humore foetifico," its fructifying liquid: Milton draws his phrase from Pliny (Historia Naturalis, 9. 160). He interprets the obscure word in the text first etymologically, then physiologically (going like others to ancient authors for scientific information).

  6. In his second note Milton becomes more insistent. Lycophron writes prophecies, so his diction and allusion are densely obscure -- even the ancients thought so, calling him "skoteinos," "the dark or obscure" poet. Well might Milton wish to comment. But having as he thought explained the line better than the editor whom he is reading, Willem Canter (1542-75), he found that Canter's Latin translation still missed the point. Canter had rendered the line, as "female seals which rushed violently upon human beds, those of males" ("Quae in humana virorum irruebant cubilia"). "Quae" and "virorum" preserve the genders of the Greek; "Quae" is the feminine plural form, and "virorum" means "males." But then Canter amplified the sense by an expansion or paraphrase ". . . hominumque cubilia devenisse, et illic fuisse commistos ubi solebant homines somnum capere" -- "and resorted to human beds, and mated with each other there where humans customarily took their sleep." This lets men off the hook, and dilutes the sense of cataclysmic inversion. Canter is toning things down in general: his note says, "The scholiast says seals are sexually attracted to humans. Let others see whether this is true. To me it seems more likely that the poet is saying in flood-time sea-creatures ranged freely everywhere, even into houses." This is certainly true, but adds nothing to the preceding lines. Milton thinks the poet does more than repeat, and I agree he does.

  7. So Milton's second note replaces "irruebant" with "polluebant." The female seals did not just whizz through the air to land on the beds, they were explicitly polluting the beds, looking for male, human companionship (as in the folk-stories cited earlier). Thereby the topos of the world upside down is expressed more completely.

  8. Philaletheia, the disinterested love of scholarly truth, can lead one into some strange places. The connection of the two marginalia is the urge to recover the sense of an ancient text in full and accurately; to probe past the obscurity of poet and translator alike, to what Lycophron's persona thought was to happen in those beds.

  9. Now as the expositor of all this I begin to feel the onset of fixation myself. So I leave it to others to speculate whether Milton's urge was anything more than scholarly; that is, whether it had any deviance or prurience in it. (It has truly been said that the late twentieth century is as obsessed with sex as the nineteenth was with religion; and it shows in some Milton studies.) Equally I resist the thought that this topos gave James Thurber the idea for his cartoon of the conjugal couch where the man says, "I tell you I did hear a seal bark."

  10. Instead, I see this curious moment in Milton's margins as affording us a peep into his mental life in the 1630s at Horton in the country. He filled it with philological zeal. Multiply this little reading episode by a factor of 80 or thereabouts; add the comparable body of marginalia extant from copies of other Greek authors he owned; and allow for marginalia in other books which were his but which are not extant: this was a mental life of serious yet empathetic diligence, able and willing to follow an argument wherever it went, however bizarre or dotty. By such strange paths Milton was teaching himself to be, lifelong, scholarly and persistent in the cause of truth -- even a trivial truth.

  11. Or to put that another way, emendation was more than a hunt for the words of an ancient author, done by rummaging through dictionaries. It was a hunt for the things observed or imagined by that ancient author, and lying behind those words: the life of antiquity, actual or imaginative. Not only is this philology in the broad, continental sense (Altertumswissenschaft) rather than the narrower, lexical English one. It launches him on a search into strange folkways of the Greek mind, that unreason which gave rise to their more admired life of reason. Milton may have idealised Greece, or rather Athens (in Areopagitica for instance). But in his less public moments he might be prompted by the love of poetic exactitude, and also I imagine by curiosity. The example shows him not satisfied with the stock topos of the world turned upside down, in which routinely floods cause sea-creatures to mate and whelp in human bedchambers -- a topos familiar enough from the opening of Dryden's All for Love or the Flood imagery of Milton's own Paradise Lost. He latches on to the fact that Lycophron had reanimated and intensified the topos: so mixed up were the domains of land and sea, that seals mated with humans in bedrooms.

  12. Not merely was the world upside down, then. Milton is insisting on a stronger point altogether. Taboos were broken, taboos even one step beyond incest. The disgusting apocalypse seemed to Milton more worthy of Lycophron's Cassandra, doomed prophet of doom.
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(RGS, rev. 2 March 1998)