Introduction. Seven university exercises in oratory, or prolusions, composed by John Milton while a student at Christ's College, Cambridge, were originally published in 1674 by the bookseller Brabazon Aylmer in a volume entitled Epistolarum Familiarium Liber Unus: Quibus Accesserunt, Eiusdem, jam olim in Collegio Adolescentis, Prolusiones Quaedam Oratoriae. Originally Aylmer wanted to collect in one volume Milton's personal letters and the letters of state he wrote as Secretary for Foreign Tongues (1650-58), but he could not get permission to publish the latter, so he included the seven prolusions instead. The substitution was probably Milton's own idea.

Prolusion exercises were held by universities in advance of holiday vacations or commencement exercises, so they have both an academic and a ludic flavor. As academic orations, they were composed and delivered in Latin. The topics, which may appear to us to be challengingly trivial, were assigned by professors and tutors. The point was not so much to argue the correct side, but to argue either side better than your opponents, as with debating societies today. In this first prolusion Milton has been assigned the "Day" side in the question "Whether Day or Night is the More Excellent." Milton makes serious arguments with a very light though learned touch.

The translation here closely follows that of Phyllis B. Tillyard in the Yale edition of Milton's prose.

Polydamas. Attius Labeo appears as a kind of byword for a poor "scribbler" in Persius's first Satire. The narrator jokes that the "Trojan crew/Led by Polydamas" may be misled to prefer "A scribbling Labeo" to himself. Labeo is said to have attempted a translation of Homer's Iliad in the first century.

few though they be. One cannot help but think of Paradise Lost 7/31.

frogs of Seriphus. According to Eugene S. McCartny of Northwestern University, "Frogs that had the misfortune to be born [on Seriphus] were mute." He cites Aristotle, Aelius and Pliny as sources ("Themistocles and the Seriphian" in Classical Journal 17 [1921-22]: 225).

Heraclitus. According to Wikipedia, "From the lonely life he led, and still more from the riddling nature of his philosophy and his contempt for humankind in general, [Heraclitus] was called 'The Obscure,' and the 'Weeping Philosopher.'"

these speechifiers. Young Milton makes bold here to insult his fellow students. Some of this may be ascribed to the kind of playful tone expected of academic exercises, but we know from a letter he wrote to Alexander Gill in July 1628 that he held most of his Christ's College peers (and even some of their masters) in relative contempt: "There is really hardly anyone among us, as far as I know, who, almost completely unskilled and unlearned in Philology and Philosophy alike, does not flutter off to Theology unfledged, quite content to touch that also most lightly, learning barely enough for sticking together a short harangue by any method whatever and patching it with worn-out pieces from various sources—a practice carried far enough to make one fear that the priestly Ignorance of a former age may gradually attack our Clergy" (Yale prose, volume 1, 314).

task meted out to me this morning. Are we to understand that Milton had only a few hours to compose this oratorical performance? Probably.

Titans. For the story of the Titans war on Zeus, see Hesiod's Homeric Hymns and Homerica.

offspring of portentous stature. See Hesiod's Theogony.

Typhoeus. Son of Tartarus and Terra (Hell and Earth) Typhoeus was a fire-breathing giant who waged war on Jupiter, but was defeated. See the story in Hesiod's Theogony 820-880.

Briareus. Cottus and Briareos and Gyes were, according to Hesiod's Theogony, three giant sons of heaven and earth, each with fifty heads and a hundred arms. See Hesiod's story in Theogony 147-210.

Pallas. For the great power of Pallas Athena, or Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, see Ovid's stories in Metamorphoses 4.800, 5.297 and 6.6-25.

Bacchus's triumph. Ovid's Metamorphoses 6 imagines an invocation to Bacchus which addresses him by many names, including Liber, the Latin name Milton uses here. For more about Bacchus or Dionysus, see Britannica.

Hesiod. Hesiod in his Theogony 1.123.

like Semele. Homer tells the story of Semele's destruction in Ovid's Metamorphoses 3.261-313.

Martial. Martial's epigram (book 8, numer 35) reads like this in Latin:

Cum sitis similes paresque vita,
uxor pessima, pessimus maritus,
miror non bebe convenire vobis.

and in English:

XXXV. TO A BAD COUPLE.
Since you are so well matched, and so much alike in your lives, a very bad wife, and a very bad husband, I wonder that you do not agree.

Milton expected his audience to recognize the humor of the change from the negative to positive.

from a bad crow a bad egg. The proverb probably originated in Greece, but Erasmus included it in Latin in his Adagia (1558) as Mali corvi malum ovum (see a list of Erasmus's adages, number 825).

Democritus's notions. This probably refers to the atomist and materialist teachings of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Democritus. atomism and materialism were understood to be inconsistent with Christianity, though Milton later held both atomist and materialist positions himself.

Demogorgon. generally believed in Milton's time to be an ancient Greek god, Demogorgon is probably an invention of late antiquity. He was thought to be the father of Night.

Chares of Lindus. Chares of Lindos or Lindus sculpted the Colossus of Rhodes in 282 BCE.