History of The Composition of Paradise Lost

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      Already in his sonnet on attaining the age of twenty-three, Milton had announced his great regret that till 1631 he had not produced any great work. As far back as 1641 that is, seven years before he began to write his great poem,— Milton had declared his intention of writing a monumental work. In his pamphlet, called Reason of Church Government, Milton stated his intention of devoting himself to a great work (Cf: Hiram Corson: An Introduction to the Prose and Poetry of Milton). He was not certain whether it would take the epic form, whereas the two poems of Homer, and those other two of Virgil and Tasso, are diffuse, and the book of Job a brief model: or whether the rules of Aristotle herein are strict to be kept, or nature to be followed, (i.e. only the spirit to be followed), which in them that know art, and use judgement, is no transgression, but an enriching of art. He had not then decided: “What king or knight before the conquest, (i.e. the Norman Conquest) might be chosen in whom to lay the pattern to lay the pattern to Christian hero.” He is also not certain at the time whether he should not adopt the dramatic form: "those dramatic constitutions wherein Sophocles and Euripides reign"—for he thinks that these would be found more doctrinal and exemplary to a nation. Whatever this work might finally be, whether dramatic or epic, whether with a scriptural theme or one of chivalry, he expected that it was to be a work not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapours of wine, like that which "flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist, or the trencher-fury of a riming parasite, nor to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her siren daughters [i.e. the Muses]: but by devout prayer to the Eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out His Seraphim with the hallowed fire of His altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases."

      What the exact nature of the work was going to be either in form or theme, had not been settled by Milton in 1641. But form or theme, had not been settled by Milton in 1641. But (he subject which Milton finally selected appears at the head of a list of subjects which he made out in 1640. In a Latin poem addressed to Manso, Marquis of Villa in Italy, who for some time had been his host in Italy during his Italian travels—a poem written about 1638—Milton declares his intention to write on the story of King Arthur. Masson gives a prose translation of the Latin poem of some of the verses, bearing on the Arthur topic. The following is from Cowper’s translation of the passage in question:—

Should I recall hereafter into rhyme
The Kings and heroes of our native clime?
Arthur, the chief who, even now, prepares,
In subterraneous being, future wars,
With all his martial knights to be restored
Each to his scat around the federal board!
And oh! if spirit fail me not, disperse
Our Saxon plunderers in triumphant verse.

      At about the same time, perhaps slightly later, in another Latin poem called the Epitaphium Damonis (Epitaph of Damon) occasioned by the death of his Italian school friend Charles Diodati, which occurred in the autumn of 1638—a poem which must have appeared in 1639,—Milton speaks of taking in hand a poem on the subject of King Arthur and the legendary descent of the ancient Britons from Tory.

      However, Milton does not seem to have commenced any poem on the Arthur legend. But between 1639 and 1642 he made no less than four schemes or “drafts” for a work which was to be called ‘Paradise Lost’ or ‘Adam Unparadized’. Two of these are mere lists of “the Persons”, while the other two are short abstracts, or “plots”, of a drama, which was evidently the form the poet intended at this time to give to his work—by “at this time,” we mean the period 1640-1642. In 1641 while writing in the Reason of Church Government, Milton seems to be wavering between the Epic and the Dramatic form. But between 1641 and 1642, he seems to have resolved on a drama. The “lists of Persons” and “plots” above referred to are described in full in Mr. Verity’s edition. Many of “the Persons” mentioned in these “Lists” are abstract characters like Labour, Sickness, Discontent, Ignorance, Faith, Hope, Charity, Death, Conscience. Most of these figures occur in both lists. Among what may be called human or quasi-human characters, we find Adam, Eve and Lucifer. Moses figures in the earlier list, the archangel Michael in the later. In both there is a Chorus of Angels. As regards the “drafts” of “Plots”, one draft gives a brief sketch in five Acts, though in some of these Acts, the sketch given is no longer than two or three lines. The fourth “Draft” gives a longer sketch without reference to Acts but references to “Chorus” speeches are made, which really served for division in the oldest Greek tragedy, which did not otherwise provide for division into five Acts, which became the later practice.

      During the storms and turmoil of the Civil Wars, the cares and worries of public employment and controversy left the poet no leisure to work on any of these “plots”. It was not till after the death of Cromwell—i.e. about 1658,—that Milton began actually to carry out his project. After the Restoration, though fallen on evil days, and utterly blind, Milton found leisure to take up his “plot”; but it was no longer dramatic, but epic in conception. Whether Milton wrote any part of Paradise Lost as a Tragedy is uncertain. The poet’s nephew, Edward Phillips, says that he did, and that Satan’s address to the Sun in Book IV of Paradise Lost, (IV, LI. 32-113) was originally written for this tragedy. Further, Phillips says he saw these lines in Milton’s proposed tragedy several years before the Epic was begun.

      Paradise Lost was finished either in 1663 i.e. about the time of Milton’s third marriage—or one or two years later. Plague was raging in London (the Great Plague of London, 1665, celebrated in Dryden’s Annum Mirabilis and in the Diaries of Pepys and Evelyn)—and Milton took the MS of the poem with him to his cottage at Chalfont St. Giles (Buckinghamshire) to which he had retired to avoid the plague. It was not published till 1667,—a further cause of delay having supervened on account of the Great Fire of London, 1666, which followed on the heels of the Great Plague. When the poem appeared first in 1667, it was under the title of Paradise Lost: a Poem written in Ten Books. In the second edition however, it was divided into twelve books. This was done by splitting the original Books VII and X, each into two, so that the original Book VII, became Books VII and VIII, the original Books VIII and IX, became Books IX and X and the original Book X became Books XI and XII. When Paradise Regained was published in 1671, along with Samson Agonistes the original poem still remained in ten books. These two were published just three years before the poet’s death. We have already related the story about the Quaker Ellwood, after reading the MS of Paradise Lost, asking the poet: “What about Paradise Regained?” This anecdote points to the fact that Milton began (and perhaps ended) the composition of the second poem also at Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire, in 1665,—that is to say before the publication of Paradise Lost, —though as a matter of fact, Milton rightly thought that the assurance about the Regaining of Paradise was already expressed in Paradise Lost, notably in Books III, X and XII, and did not require separate poem. But the separate poem was also written—dealing with the aspect of the Messiah’s story—the Temptation in the Wilderness—that great episode in the life of Christ.

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