History of Paradise Lost Composition

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      Sublimity and grandeur are the two words most often associated with Milton’s poetry. Something of that lofty grandeur attaches to the life of Milton himself. From one point of view Milton’s whole life seems to gravitate towards one central point and that obviously is the great epic with which his name will forever be associated. It might even be said that he lived a sort of dedicated life, a life dedicated from the very outset to the accomplishment of a great literary object. Thus although Paradise Lost saw the light of day only in the year 1665, the idea behind Paradise Lost is seen to be developing in Milton’s life as early as about twenty years back.

      In his Vacation Exercise, which might be dated around 1628, there are already indications of his desire to choose some great subject on which he might write a great and immortal poem. In the year 1637 he writes to his friend Carlo Diodati, "Do you ask what I am meditating? By the help of Heaven an immortality of fame. But what am I doing? I am letting my wings grow and preparing to fly, but my Pegasus has not yet feathered enough to soar aloft into fields of air." Similarly in one of his prose pamphlets, he details out the particular ideal which he had set before himself even as a young man "that what the greatest and choicest wise of Athens, Rome or modern Italy and that Hebrew of old did for their country, I, in my proportion, with this over and above of being a Christian, might do for mine: not caring to be once named abroad, though perhaps I could attain to that, but content with these British islands as my world." In other words, Milton’s ambition from very early days seems to have been to take rank as a great national poet and to do for his country what Homer did for Greece and Virgil for Italy. His early life has in fact been one great preparation for accomplishment of a great epic, something which, in his own words, "the world would not willingly let die." The thoughtful biographer of Milton, cannot fail to be impressed with what Masson points out in his Life of Milton, "There are few facts in literary history more remarkable than this predetermination of Milton in his early manhood to the subject of the greatest work of his later life."

      For a poet of such an enormous range of reading as Milton, it must certainly have been a problem as to what he should choose as the theme of the immortal national poem on which he had set his heart. In a manuscript notebook dated probably about 1640, we have jottings for about 99 different subjects, set down, evidently, as each suggested itself to the imagination of the poet. Analyzing the nature of these subjects, we find that they can be roughly divided into two kinds, one British and the other scriptural. Ancient British history of the pre-Norman and even pre-Anglo Saxon days seems to have had a great fascination for the poet.

      Especially he seems to have been very much attracted to the romantic history of King Arthur and his knights of the Table Round. In a Latin poem, Mansus, he writes: "If ever I shall revive in verse our native kings, and Arthur levying war in the world below; or tell of the heroic company of the resistless Table Round and—be inspiration mine—break the Saxon lance beneath the might of British chivalry." No doubt that glamour of chivalry and knighthood is an influence to be traced to the Renaissance lore in which Milton was steeped; no doubt also the patriotic fervor of Milton found in this theme a subject as lofty as that of Homer or Virgil for their national heroes. But as the years rolled on and the cleavage between the Puritans and the Cavaliers became more and more pronounced, Milton’s old partiality for the Arthurian legends seems to be on the wane. This is, in fact, an interesting reflection on the growing ascendency of the Puritan element over the Renaissance spirit in the development of Milton’s literary genius. The Puritan poet was gradually drifting to an opposition against royalty and aristocracy as he found them in his own day. As events progressed the Arthurian legends became more and more a royalist theme unsuitable for a Puritan poet fighting against the Divine Right of Kings and the soulless pomp and levity of a licentious aristocracy. To a certain extent also, the poet was influenced by the discovery, after filler research, that the Arthurian legends were mainly mythical. Anyhow, by about 1642 the idea of a great historical and national epic seems to have been definitely abandoned and Milton has set his choice on some great scriptural theme.

      The choice of a great scriptural theme, the fall of Man as detailed in the Old Testament of the Bible, seems to have been made as early as 1642. But yet the Poet seems to have hesitated for a long time regarding the particular literary form in which he would embody the great theme. For a long time he seems to have had in mind the production of a drama on this theme: and we have even now a draft in hand writing in which that great speech of Satan with which Book IV opens, figures as the opening speech in his drama entitled Adam unparadised. Had the idea of the drama materialised we would of course have had a classical tragedy very much on the lines, of Samson Agonistes With its long soliloquies, its choruses, and all the other accompaniments of the Greek drama. It is also certain that if finally, Milton had chosen the dramatic instead of the epic form, the full scope could not have been given to his imagination nor full justice done to the greatness of the theme. There is also one draft in which he seems to have thought of a pastoral poem on this great theme. The final decision to write it, in the form of an epic, might have been influenced by the element of artificiality that pertains to both a pastoral poem and a drama; and possibly the puritan’s dislike of the dramatic form was also, to some extent, responsible for Milton’s abandoning the dramatic form, in connection with the lofty theme that he had on hand.

      For some time Milton seems to have hesitated even about the language in which he should write the great epic which he had visualized before him. Like Dante before him, the question was whether he should write it in the Vernacular tongue or in the classical or literary language which was then in fashion among scholars, namely, Latin. The use of English as the medium for a great poem placed the poet at a great disadvantage as far as recognition in foreign countries was concerned. In writing in the English language Milton knew that he would have to rest content with the applause of his own countrymen and that he would not meet with any great acceptance as far as the great scholastic fraternity of Europe was concerned. However, two great considerations must have influenced Milton in his decision regarding the language. One was his undoubted patriotism and his love for the language of his country; the other must have been an absolutely more materialistic consideration, that as a Latin poet he could not possibly hope to rival Virgil or Horace, and that at best, he could have taken rank only as a second-rate Latin poet. In any case, and to the undoubted advantage of the literature of his own country, Milton finally chose English as the medium of expression for the great epic which he contemplated.

      Thus, then, Milton had finally come to visualize the great epic in its definite shape by about the year 1658. The theme of human sin of which he saw terrible evidence everywhere around him; the original cause according to Christian philosophy, namely, the fall of the first man; God’s redeeming grace in which we trust to bring good out of evil and light out of darkness—these became the topics on which he set out to sing of Man’s first disobedience, and in the course of his song "to justify the ways of God to man." It was a great theme and a great enterprise and as Dr. Johnson points out, Milton was faced with a theme vaster and sublimer than the theme with which both Homer and Virgil set out in writing out their great epics.

      A definite start on the great epic seems to have been made as early as 1658 when Milton was Latin Secretary to the Republican Government. The death of Cromwell and the disasters which followed it, along with several personal difficulties and worries with which he himself was faced, must have compelled him to lay aside the poem after his having made a beginning on it. After the short interruption therefore between 1659 and 1660 he could again retire into safety and obscurity and so he must have continued his work with the result that by about 1663 the epic was finished. Milton seems to have been exceedingly careful and fastidious about revising his works, and that explains why it took another two years before the manuscript was eventually sent out into the world. The two years between 1663 and 1665 were obviously spent in continuous revision and correction. Finally finished in 1665 it was submitted for the censors’ examination. In 1666, i.e. a year after that, arrangements were made for its publication. The agreement between Milton and his publisher now preserved in the British Museum makes for interesting reading. According to it Milton was to receive £5 for the MS. with an additional £5 for each successive edition. In fact the poet received two such payments, that is £10 in all for the greatest poem in English literature. The grotesque inadequacy of the remuneration is apparent enough, yet as Mark Pattison points out, there is no cause for us to lament: "It is better to know that the noblest monument of English work had no money-value than to think of it as having been paid for at a pound a line and to compare it with the prices received by our popular novelists for their lucubrations."

      The reception accorded to Paradise Lost is by no means very complimentary to the literary or aesthetic tastes of the reading public of those days. Some 1300 copies of the poem seem to have been sold within about a year and a half, after the publication; and the second edition was published in 1674 with several changes by the author himself. It took four more years for the third edition to come out in print and even then it could hardly be said to be the result of a popular demand. This comparative lack of popularity can be explained by several reasons. To the large mass of mankind epic poetry of the highest type will have but scant appeal. Even in this highly educated age of ours, it is a question as to how many have gone through Paradise Lost in full. Secondly, during Milton’s own time there must have existed a great deal of prejudice against the Puritan poet who had written such pamphlets as the Eikonoklastes and the Defensio Pro Publico. We get an interesting illustration of this in Scott’s Woodstock, where a person with some literary tastes appreciates one of the Milton’s poems so long as he is ignorant of the name of its author, and then directly he comes to know that it was the work of a regicide like Milton, comes down on it with condemnation. In addition to these factors, the extremely learned character of the poem with its innumerable references and allusions to classical and contemporary learning and even the meter of the poem, must have stood in the way of its popular reception. In fact, as more than one editor of Milton points out, the appreciation of Milton is the last reward of scholarship. However, Milton seems to have gained immediate recognition among the scholars of his own day and thus according to his own desire, "fit audience found though few." In the succeeding century, his poems seem to have come into their due popularity, and as Prof. Dowden puts it, Milton’s scholarship was active throughout the whole of the 18th century.

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