Until the twentieth century, one of the books at the top of the reading list for every English speaker was Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is the next long read which I’m going to look at here. Although it has inspired fewer painters and illustrators than the epics of the Italian Renaissance, the extent and quality of works by artists including William Blake make up for that lack of popular appeal.
My original subtext in covering Paradise Lost was to mark the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. Since that tragic event at the end of January, we have all been overwhelmed by an even greater catastrophe in the form of Covid-19. Our normal lives, although not exactly Paradise, have been abandoned as if we too had been expelled from the Garden of Eden. Like all great and timeless literature, we don’t have to look too far to see its relevance today.
John Milton (1608-1674) didn’t write Paradise Lost until late in his life, by which time he had already gone blind. Although he’d already established himself as the greatest British writer in his day, Paradise Lost stands out as his greatest achievement by far; had he never started it, he would probably have remained quite a minor literary figure rather than the towering giant he became.
Milton lived at a turbulent time. He was born in central London, into a relatively well-off family who could afford to pay for him to be taught by a private tutor. This enabled him to enter a major school, where he received a fine education in the classics, and he started writing poetry. Between 1625-29, he attended Christ’s College in Cambridge, graduating towards the top of his year. He intended to become an Anglican priest, so stayed on to complete his Master of Arts degree in 1632.
When he returned home from Cambridge, Milton undertook a further six years of independent study, during which he also wrote poetry, then toured France and Italy for just over a year, which included a visit to the great astronomer Galileo, who was under house arrest near Florence. He later met Torquato Tasso, author of the epic Jerusalem Delivered.
His return to England in the summer of 1639 landed him in a country which was rapidly progressing to civil war, and his personal life fared no better. He wrote tracts and pamphlets in support of the Puritan cause, and in June 1642, aged 35, he married Mary Powell, then only 16. She left him to return to her family a month later, and spurred Milton to publish pamphlets expounding the legal and moral case for divorce. After the success of Parliamentary forces in the Civil War, Milton was even more open with his republican views, and implicitly supported the execution of the king. With this reputation, in 1649 he was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State, which required him to compose the state’s foreign correspondence in Latin, to write propaganda, and act as censor.
He served the new government well, successfully defending its position against Royalist tracts, and explicitly defended the execution of King Charles I. By this time, Milton had become completely blind as a result of eye disease. For the remaining twenty-two years of his life, every word in his writing had to be dictated to one of his assistants.
After the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the state collapsed until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. As a prominent Parliamentarian, Milton feared for his life and went into hiding. A warrant for his arrest was issued, and his writings were burned in public. When a general pardon was issued, he re-appeared, only to be arrested and briefly imprisoned.
It was during this period, when completely blind, rightly concerned that he could be arrested and sentenced to death, and the state around him was undergoing major change, that Milton wrote much of Paradise Lost. Its first editon was published in 1667, when its author was almost sixty, and a second in 1672, just two years before Milton died of kidney disease.
Paradise Lost takes the roots of its story from the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, the Fall of Man and their eviction from the Garden of Eden, from the book of Genesis. In its twelve books, it elaborates considerably into a combination of a domestic drama about primal man and woman, and a much grander epic about Satan and his rebellion against the angels who remain faithful to God. The first is set in the Garden of Eden, the latter in the grandeur of the cosmos itself.
Among its themes are relationships between partners, the sin of idolatry, civil war, and the forces of good and evil. Many have read Paradise Lost and concluded that Milton is far too accommodating in his treatment of Satan.
The success of Paradise Lost was rapid, and in 1688 a fourth edition included limited engravings. Since then, many illustrated editions have been published, with the foremost artists responsible including William Blake and Gustave Doré, who provide the bulk of the images I am using in my acccount here. Sadly, one significant series of colour engravings can’t be shown here because they are still subject to copyright: they were made in 1974 by Salvador Dalí.
I hope you will join me for the first episode next week.
Dartmouth’s superb annotated version in its John Milton Reading Room.
John Leonard (ed) (2000) Paradise Lost, John Milton, Penguin Classics. ISBN 978 0 140 42439 3.
Gordon Teskey (ed) (2005) Paradise Lost, John Milton, Norton Critical Editions. ISBN 978 0 393 92428 2.
Louis Schwartz (ed) (2014) The Cambridge Companion to Paradise Lost, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 1 107 02946 0.