John Milton’s Paradise Lost

He had great hair!

He had great hair!


On this day in 1667 John Milton’s Paradise Lost was entered in the Stationers’ Register by printer Samuel Simmons. Milton’s agreement with Simmons — five pounds at signing, another five for each 1500 copies sold on a first edition of 4,500 — is the earliest preserved author’s contract. At this point, the fifty-eight-year-old Milton had been totally blind for fifteen years, probably from glaucoma. His habit during the decade it took to write Paradise Lost was to compose at night and then present himself to a scribe — a nephew, daughter, or secretary — each morning to be, as he put it, “milked.” Such determined coping might add a personal level of interpretation to Satan’s famous defiance in Book I:

. . . Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

Some of Milton’s contemporaries complained of the blank verse, aghast at the idea of anyone attempting to write an epic, as Milton put it, “freed of the troublesome and modern bondage to rhyme.” Later generations would complain that the poetry was too successful, insofar as Milton’s attempt to “justifie the wayes of God to men” gave too many good lines to Satan. But the poem sold well enough for Milton to make his money on the first edition before he died in 1674, and passages such as this one from the end of Book XII continue to move most readers beyond complaint:

They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through EDEN took thir solitarie way.

Milton worked for Cromwell at one point and was anti-royalty. Peter Ackroyd’s 1996 novel, Milton in America — this belongs to the “historiographic metafiction” genre in which biographer-novelist Ackroyd specializes — plucks Milton out of possible danger in Restoration England and plunks him down in Puritan New England. Milton is blind, but with the help of Goosequill, his Sancho Panza-smarty pants helper, he warms to the idea of a new Eden:

“Ah, Goosequill. You find me at a propitious hour.”
“Yes, sir. I feel propitious.”
“I am raising the savages to a knowledge of their Savior.”
I did not know if he meant himself or someone else. “I am glad to hear it.”
“Thank you. It would be a mighty thing to establish a nation of God in this western world. He rolled out of his hammock, and took my arm. “What a majestic chronicle might be unrolled to future ages! Think of Diodorus among the Greeks, and Livy among the Latins.”
“I am trying, sir.”
“I shall be Milton among the Americans! And you shall write it down.”

Things start well, but Part Two of the book is entitled, “Fall.” The last line: “The blind man wandered ahead and, weeping, through the dark wood took his solitary way.”





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