The Source of Paradise Lost

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      A convention has grown up in English literature to trace out the ‘sources’ of the greatest works of literature. Thus, we have heard about the ‘sources’ of all of Shakespeare’s plays and about the sources of all the greatest poems of English literature including Paradise Lost. It seems to me that this sort of thing indicates a mentality that pays greater importance to petty details and partial adornments than to the general spirit of a great work of art. We might say that a man’s body is made up of so much of calcium, so much of iron, so much of water and all that, but to say that these represent anything like even the physical body of a man would be palpably absurd. The analogy might hold good even in tracing out the so-called sources of Paradise Lost.

      A great deal has been written about the sources of Paradise Lost and every commentator draws special attention to one particular author as having had the honor of being copied by Milton. They write as if Milton borrowed the ideas or copied the style and the treatment of some previous writer. What I would like to point out here is that there might be similarities, resemblances or even coincidences of ideas, but this would hardly justify us in saying that Milton copied from the early writers. We might quote what Virgil said on being reproached for his large-scale imitation of Homer, namely: "Let my detractors try to steal for themselves as they say. I have stolen for myself and they will find that it is easier to rob Hercules of his club than to rob Homer of a single verse." Milton himself in one of his prose works answers his detractors by saying that "to borrow and to better in the borrowing is not plagiary."

      We know how Milton trained himself for his vocation by "industrious and select reading" and a man who has had this great theme for an epic at the back of his mind and whose reading extended over a wide sphere could not help reproducing some of the ideas and perhaps even some of the phrases employed by previous writers on the same subject A certain amount of confidence in thought between two writers might also be explained as similarity in imaginative vision.

      The most important works to which references are made by editors as being the sources of Paradise Lost are - the Latin play called Adamo by an Italian poet, called Andreini; a Latin tragedy called Adamus Exul by one Hugo Grotious; another Latin poem called Angeleida; a fine Dutch drama called Lucifer by Vondle; Caedmon’s poem on the creation; a Latin poem called Locustae by Phineas Fletcher; and lastly, Sylvester’s translation of a poem on the creation by the French poet, Du Bartas. In short, editors have tracked out all the poems or dramas written up to the time of Milton with the creation for a theme and tried to find out the resemblance between them and Milton’s great epic.

      It was Voltaire who first popularized the idea that Milton was indebted for the theme of his epic to Andreini’s Latin Comedy Adamo. The similarity between Adamo and Milton’s Paradise Lost seems to be just the similarity in subject matter, and perhaps it would be as truthful to say that the real source of Paradise Lost is the Bible. However, we might note that the subject matter of Adamo was the fall of the man; the actor's God, the devils, the angels, Adam and Eve, the Serpent, Death and the seven mortal sins. According to Voltaire, "Milton tears through the absurdity of that performance with the hidden majesty of the subject, which being altogether unfit for the stage, yet might be the foundation of an epic poem. He took from that ridiculous writing the first hint of the noblest work which human imagination has ever attempted and which he executed more than twenty years after." What has given some little justification for calling this play one of the sources of Paradise Lost is that there is some similarity in the development of the theme and in certain places similarity in ideas. There is also some general resemblance between the characters in Andreini’s play and Milton’s epic. Thus, according to Mr. Hayley, Act IV scene III of Andreini’s comedy where the infernal Cyclops are summoned by Lucifer to make a new world at his command, may have suggested to Milton the building of Pandemonium by Mammon. There is also some resemblance between the personified abstractions like famine, despair, sin, death etc. which are common features to both the comedy and the epic. It is also thought that there is a close resemblance between Milton’s representation of the temptation of Eve and Andreini’s representation of the same theme. Occasionally also there is some slight verbal similarity as where in Book IV of Paradise Lost, Lucifer says:

Let us reign in Hell
Since there is more content
To live in liberty through all condemned
Than as His vassals blest.

      These similarities can be easily explained by the fact that Milton was certainly familiar with Andreini’s play and had possibly seen it act in Italy during his tour of that country. Such similarities, therefore, as we find between the Latin play and Milton’s epic can be ascribed to the unconscious blending of ideas brought about by Milton’s own knowledge of the comedy. Almost the same might be said regarding Milton’s indebtedness to Grotius’s tragedy, Adamus Exul, with the additional fact that Milton undoubtedly had a great respect for the learned scholar, Hugo Grotius. This, of course, naturally means that Millon would have read the works of Grotius with some attention and respect and that some parts of Grotius’s tragedy lingered in his memory. The general conception of Satan’s character and his motive as unfolded in Paradise Lost, Books I and II, are said to have a dose resemblance to Satan’s introductory speech in Adamus Exul. Attention is also drawn to the similarity in conception regarding the general idea of Satan’s escaping from Hell, surveying of Eden, his invocation to the powers of evil like Chaos and Night, the angels’ narration of the particulars of creation to Adam etc. No doubt, Milton’s mind having been led into a particular groove while reading Grotius’s tragedy, worked along die same track in his own epic; to this extent, it might be said that Milton was indebted to Grotius’s tragedy.

      Two great critics, Edmund Gosse and Edmondston, find the chief original for Paradise Lost in the Dutch poets, Vondle’s Lucifer. Vondel is considered to be the greatest of Dutch poets and he published in 165—that is, about four years before Milton set to work on his Paradise Lost— great drama called Lucifer. As the fame of Vondel’s genius had already traveled into England and as Holland and England were at that time in friendly relation with each other, a great scholar like Milton could not have missed having read it out to him and being impressed with Vondel’s Lucifer. The greatest resemblance with this work seems to be in connection with Milton’s account of the rebellion of Satan and his war with God and the faithful angels. One particular reference in regard to verbal similarity is pointed out in connection with that well-known line "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." This line seems to have its exact prototype in Vondel. It is, however, pointed out by other editors that this idea and this phraseology are by no means original even to Vondel. It seems to occur in one of the plays of Fletcher as also in a prose work by Stafford called Niobe. Anyway, the idea seems to have been rather a favorite with several writers, though Milton gave it that final form in which it has become matter for popular quotation. We might also mention here that vondel’s - Lucifer confines itself to the rebellion and fall of Satan and that therefore we can by no means say that a large part of Paradise Lost was inspired by Vondel’s drama.

      Hayley also draws our attention to a Latin poem called Angeleida in which the invention of artillery is attributed to the fallen angels. No doubt this might have suggested to Milton the idea of introducing artillery in his description of the great heavenly battle between God and the fallen angels.

      Among English writers Milton is supposed to be indebted to the first great Anglo-Saxon poet, Caedmon, who composed in the 7th century a long poem in which he describes the fall of the angels, the Creation, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise etc. No doubt a scholar like Millon could not have missed reading Caedmon’s poems. Several editors point to several parallel passages in Caedmon as well as in Milton. In fact there is a strong similarity of temper between these two great poets, each of whom in his own way got his inspiration direct from Heaven. This similarity in temper naturally shows itself in a similarity of treatment of the subject. One thing is certain that Millon was really familiar with Caedmon’s poem and that in certain arresting situations his mind traveled along the groove tracked out by the earlier poet.

      The story goes that Millon "ingenuously confessed that he owed his immortal work of Paradise Lost to Fletcher’s Locustae." This story lacks confirmation and in any case it is too exaggerated an estimate of the influence of Fletcher’s poem. All that we can say is that there are certain similarities in language and ideas between the speeches of Milton’s Satan and Fletcher’s fallen angels.

      Prominence is given among the several sources to Sylvester’s translation of a poem on the Creation by the French poet Du Bartas. It appears that this translation was published in the street in which Milton’s father lived, and it was rather popular when Milton was a boy. It is highly likely that Milton would have gone through it as a boy and been impressed with it. Possibly, too, it gave him a bent regarding the particular direction in which he himself was to write a great religious poem. All this, however, is just mere conjecture and there is nothing substantial to prove that there was any definite indebtedness in the case.

      It is, however, well to remember that parallelisms to individual passages or similarity in theme or treatment can in no way justify us in referring to these other works as the sources of Paradise Lost. As verity so succinctly points out: "It is well to realize wherein lies the greatness of Paradise Lost and to understand that all the borrowing in the world could not contribute a lot to the qualities which have rendered the epic a possession for ever. What has made the poem live is not the story, nobly though that illustrates the eternal antagonism of righteousness and wrong and the overthrow of evil; nor the construction, though this is sufficiently architectonic; nor the learning, though this is vast; nor the characterization for which there is a little scope; not these things, though all are factors in the greatness of the poem, and in all Milton rises to the height of his genius—but the incomparable elevation of the style, ‘the shaping spirit of imagination’ and ‘the mere majesty of the music’.

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