I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

Philistines rejected John Milton's Samson

In 1887 St. James’s Gazette published the following letter:

The experiment noted below I found called for in the interests of my self-respect, and I dedicate it to all persons who would become litterateurs if the publishers would let them. Having differed with these literary police as to the value of a manuscript of my own, I resolved to try them with a manuscript of somebody else’s. So I copied out “Samson Agonistes,” gave it the taking title of “Like a Giant Refreshed,” and sent it the round. Not for years have I enjoyed myself so much. The following are some of the replies I received

Paternoster Square, E.C., July 11th, 1887.
Sir,-The above manuscript has received our careful attention, but we regret to say that we would not care to publish it. The market is now so flooded with sensational stories in shilling form that it is questionable whether yours would find its way to the bookstalls, where alone it would be likely to sell. Although, however, we must decline your interesting tale, we may say that we consider it a work of considerable promise, and that if, as we gather from certain discrepancies, it is a first work, you will probably do something much better yet. Kindly enclose stamps and we shall return it without delay.

The next letter I quote because it is one of the few answers which referred to the work as a poem. I treasure it on that account. The address in this case would reveal the firm,

Sir,—By this post we regret to return your poem entitled ‘Like a Giant Refreshed,’ which you were so good as to submit for our consideration. When we say we look upon it as a clever production you may wonder why we do not undertake its publication. The fact, however, is that the market is glutted with verso at present much of it of considerable merit. In ‘Like a Giant Refreshed’ we find writing in our opinion equal to the best of the minor poets (if you will pardon our saying so), but nothing to promise a sale. In prose a work may do well though it does not rise above a certain standard; but there are so many versifyers nowadays that the same cannot be said of poetry. “ Like a G. R.’ is a smooth piece of versification and contains some musical lines as well as elegant turns of thought, but its reflections are somewhat trite and the meaning here and there is obscure. We fancy it might be improved by revision and the elimination of certain passages; there are Scotticisms in it, for instance, which jar upon the ear. At tho same time we cannot advise in this matter, nor undertake to say that it would he worth your while to rewrite the poem.

After that the manuscript was returned to Paternoster square, and this time I had the gratification of being taken for a lady. The publishers, it will be observed, are too wary to classify it as a story or poem. They refer to it as “the book.”

Dear Madam,—We have read your book with much pleasure, and consider it very bright and clever. We shall be happy to publish it in a small volume on the following terms:—The risk in issuing a first work is, of course, considerable: and, high as our opinion of the book is, we could not undertake to publish it entirely at our own risk, We are, however, prepared to take half the risk—namely £30, if you provide another £30; and on receipt of your cheque for that amount we shall forward you a printed form to fill up, and go to press with the book at once, We would recommend you to consider this offer seriously.

With the above should be compared the following

Sir,—In answer to your favour of the 14th, enclosing manuscript called “Like a Giant Fresh,” we are prepared to publish it if you take the entire risk of production. A thousand copies would cost you about £65. Should this arrangement not suit you, we shall return the M.S. on receipt of stamps.— Yours, &c.

“Like a Giant Fresh” struck me as good; but perhaps the worst affront we got (by we I mean Milton and myself) was from another publisher, who wrote as follows

Sir, —We have looked through the manuscript which you were so good as to forward to us, and we herewith return it to you with many thanks. We by no means consider your poem devoid of merit; indeed the closing scene is written with considerable poetical feeling. We have, however, already made out our list of new books for the coming season, and so many important works are to be found among them that we do not see our way to printing this year that is not of the first merit.—We remain, &c.

That publisher sent me his printed list of books of the first merit inside the cover of the rejected manuscript. It included “There’s the rub!” (three vols.), “ Daisies Pied and Violets Blue,” “Who Poisoned Mrs Marjoribanks?” “Telling Talks with Sunny Seers,” “Peeps at Philosophy,” and “What Can I Do with Sixpence?” It was no wonder that “Samson Agonistes” was crowded out. Then I tried some of the magazines. The general opinion was that the poem was too long; indeed, I came to the conclusion that in some magazines you could get in anything if it was short enough. One editor, however, wrote that although “ the poem was ably written,” the subject was a risky one; and another more than hinted that it was suggested by Mr Rider Haggard’s works, “ Sensationalism,” he said, “ is better wedded to prose.” Then I tried one of the graver monthly miscellanies, and saw the manuscript no more. After the lapse of a month I got from the editor somebody else’s manuscript with ‘declined with thanks’ written on it. I returned it pointing out that there was a mistake, and then he sent me some other body's manuscript. It was an essay on Kant. This also I sent back, and explained that my manuscript was a poem. By return of post I got four long poems, from him, but none of them was mine. Since then I have written him regularly every week in the hope that I annoy him. He never answers now though.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,



I could not get the original article in St. James's Gazette, but many other newspapers reprinted the entire letter. They also identified "B" with Robert Buchanan. This seems plausible because Buchanan published in St. James's Gazette under his own name. Since this name is Scottish, it expains why one of the publishers found Scotticisms in Milton's poem.

An opposite hoax was done in 1877 by the unrecognized poet James Whitcomb Riley. After receiving another letter of rejection from an editor he took one of his poems and passed it as if it was a newly discovered work of Edgar Allan Poe. This poem was, of course, published and recognized as a masterpiece. Take this quiz to see if you can tell Poe from Riley.

In a recent experiment, Oxbridge and Ivy League people couldn't tell the prose of Charles Dickens from that of the worst writer in history of letters.

Mikhail Simkin
June 20, 2014

Feedback   Discuss   RSS   Newsletter Twitter