2005 National Championships of Great Britain - John Milton and Paradise Lost


If you want to know where the inspiration for 'Eden' comes from, then 4BR has found out all about the poet John Milton and his great work. Don't say we don't try and educate you...

John MiltonJohn Milton: 1608-1674:

"Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden."

(Paradise Lost)

One of the greatest poets of the English language John Milton's powerful, rhetoric prose and the eloquence of his poetry had an immense influence especially on the 18th-century verse. Besides poems, Milton published pamphlets defending civil and religious rights.

John Milton was born in London. His mother Sarah Jeffrey, a very religious person, was the daughter of a merchant sailor, whilst his father had risen to prosperity as a scrivener or law writer, also composed music, and the family was wealthy enough to afford a second house in the country.

Milton's first teachers were his father, from whom he inherited love for art and music, and the writer Thomas Young, a graduate of St Andrews University. At the age of twelve Milton was admitted to St Paul's School and five years later he entered Christ's College, Cambridge. During this period, while considering himself destined for the ministry, he began to write poetry in Latin, Italian, and English. One of Milton's earliest works, 'On the Death of a Fair Infant' (1626), was written after his sister Anne Phillips has suffered from a miscarriage.

Milton did not adjust to university life. He was called, half in scorn, "The Lady of Christ's", and after starting a fist fight with his tutor, he was expelled for a term. On leaving Cambridge Milton had given up his original plan to become a priest.

The next six years he spent at leisure in his father's home, writing during that time ‘L'Allegro', ‘Il Penseroso' (1632), ‘Comus' (1634), and ‘Lycidas' (1637), written after the death of his friend Edward King. In 1635 Milton moved to Horton, Buckinghamshire, where he studied Greek, Latin, and Italian. He traveled in France and Italy in the late 1630s, meeting in Paris the jurist and theologian Hugo Grotius and the astronomer Galileo Galilei in Florence - there are references to Galileo's telescope in ‘Paradise Lost'.

His conversation with the scientist Milton recorded in his celebrated plea for a free speech and free discussion, ‘Areopagitica' (1644), in which he stated that books "...preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect bred in them."

Milton returned to London in 1639, and set up a school. During this period he did not write much, although he had planned to write an epic based on the Arthurian legends. The Civil War silenced his poetic work for 20 years as War divided the country as Oliver Cromwell fought against the King, Charles I.

Concerned with the Puritan cause, Milton wrote a series of pamphlets against episcopacy (1642), on divorce (1643), in defence of the liberty of the press (1644), and in support of the regicides (1649). He also served as the secretary for foreign languages in Cromwell's government. After the death of Charles I, Milton published ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates' (1649) supporting the view that the people had the right to depose and punish tyrants.

In 1651 Milton became blind, but blindness helped him to stimulate his verbal richness. "He sacrificed his sight, and then he remembered his first desire, that of being a poet," the poet Borges wrote in one of his lectures.

One of his assistants was the poet and satirist Andew Marvell, who spoke for him in Parliament, when his political opinions arouse much controversy. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Milton was arrested as a noted defender of the Commonwealth, but was soon released and Milton paid a massive fine for his opposition. Besides public burning of ‘Eikonklastes' (1649) and the first ‘Defensio' (1651) in Paris and Toulouse, Milton escaped from more punishment after Restoration, but he became a relatively poor man. The manuscript of ‘Paradise Lost' he sold for £5 to Samuel Simmons, and was promised another £5 if the first edition of 1,300 copies sold out. This was done in 18 months.

In the 1660s Milton moved with his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, to Burnhill Row. The marriage was happy, in spite of the great difference of their ages and he spent the remaining years of his life there, apart from a brief visit to Chalfont St Giles in 1665, to avoid the plague. His late poems were dictated to his daughter, nephews, friends, disciples, and paid amanuenses.

Milton was married three times. His first marriage started unhappily; this experiences promted Milton to write his famous essays on divorce. He had married in 1642 Mary Powell, who was seventeen at that time. She grew soon bored with the poet and went back home where she stayed for three years. Their first child, Anne, was born in 1646. Mary died in 1652 and four years later Milton married Katherine Woodcock, who died in 1658. For her memory Milton devoted his sonnet 'To His Late Wife'.

Though Milton was Puritan, morally austere and conscientious, some of his religious beliefs were very unconventional, and were in conflict with the official Puritan stand. He did not believe in the divine birth, and "believed perhaps nothing", as Ford Madox Ford says in ‘The March of Literature' (1938).

Milton died on November 8, 1674 in Chalfont, St. Giles, Buckinghamshire. He was buried beside his father in St Giles', Cripplegate. Many writers believe that Milton's grave was desecrated when the church was undergoing repairs. All the teeth from his skull and it was reported, "a large quantity of the hair" were taken as souvenirs by grave robbers.

Milton's position in the field of poetry was recognized after the appearance of ‘Paradise Lost'. Before it the writer himself had showed some doubt of the worth of his work: "By labor and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life), joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die."

The theme of Fall and expulsion from Eden in ‘Paradise Lost' had been in Milton's mind from the 1640s. His ambition was to compose an epic poem to rival the works of ancient writers, such as Homer. It was originally issued in 10 books in 1667, and in 12 books in the second edition of 1674. The troubled times, in which Milton lived, left their mark on his theme of religious conflict. Milton, who wanted to be a great poet, had also cope with the towering figure of Shakespeare, who had died in 1616.

Paradise Lost is not easy to read with its odd syntax, difficult vocabulary, and complex, noble style. Moreover, its cosmic vision is not actually based on the Copernican system, but more in the traditional Christian cosmology of its day, where the Earth is the center, not the sun.

The poem tells a biblical story of Adam and Eve, with God, and Lucifer (Satan), who is thrown out of Heaven to corrupt humankind. Satan, the most beautiful of the angels, is at his most impressive: he wakes up, on a burning lake in Hell, to find himself surrounded by his stunned followers. He has been defeated in the War of Heaven.

"All is not lost; th' unconquerable Will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield... "

Paradise Lost

The Fall
The Fall

Milton's great epic (1667) is built upon the stories and myths — in the Bible and in the classical tradition — through which Western men and women have sought to understand the meaning of their experience of life. Attention to some of these materials and to the ways in which Milton draws upon, and departs from, other versions and interpretations of those stories will enrich the reading of his poem.

The foundation story, of course, is the Genesis account of the Creation of the world and of Adam and Eve, culminating in the drama of their temptation and Fall. By Milton's time, the seventeenth century, that story had been reformulated in many translations in many languages and had accumulated many centuries of interpretive commentary, Jewish and Christian. Milton, in undertaking an imaginative, poetic re-creation of that story, had necessarily to accept, revise, or counter the views offered by such influential commentators as Saint Augustine and the Reformation theologian John Calvin.

He probably did not know Rachel Speght's commentary, A Muzzle for Melastomus, or Aemilia Lanyer's poem Eve's Apology in Defense of Women, but these texts provide the first examples of women turning Genesis commentary to feminist account. The various commentators' views — about Adam and Eve, about the Edenic garden, about prelapsarian conditions of life, about the Tree of Knowledge, about the nature of man and woman as created, about marriage as first instituted, and about the causes of the Fall — can be usefully compared to Milton's own analyses in his theological tract Christian Doctrine, which remained unpublished until the nineteenth century, as well as his poetic representations of such matters in Paradise Lost.

During his tour of Italy in 1638–39, Milton probably saw some of the numerous representations of aspects of the Genesis story in Renaissance paintings and tapestries. We do not know which ones he saw, but certain remarkable images may have stimulated his imagination.

A representative sample is included here: Veronese's Creation of Eve, Cranach's Adam and Eve, Dürer's The Fall, two of the Medici tapestries presenting The Fall and The Judgement of Adam and Eve, and Masaccio's The Expulsion.

Milton's poem also draws on such repositories of classical myth as Ovid's Metamorphoses and other literary analogues. Ovid's narrative of the myth of Narcissus resonates throughout the story told by Milton's Eve about her first coming to consciousness. Two allegorical interpretations of the Narcissus myth — by Milton's contemporary George Sandys, the translator of Ovid, and by Sigmund Freud — may highlight how Milton reworks that myth.

The poetic version of the Fall story in Guillaume Du Bartas's hexameral poem The Divine Weeks and Works provides another kind of literary analogue. In Joshua Sylvester's translation that work was extremely popular, and Milton certainly knew it.

Finally, the epic tradition itself was a major literary resource for Milton: it is sampled here through the opening passages — propositions and invocations — of four epics central to Milton's idea of that genre: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered. Milton's epic proposition and invocation may be compared to these, and also Milton's defense of his better kind of tragic epic. Homer and Virgil did not use rhyme, and Milton scorned it in heroic poems as a "troublesome and modern bondage"; accordingly, the classical epics are represented here by modern unrhymed translations. Tasso did employ rhyme, as did his Elizabethan translator Edward Fairfax.

The first important criticism of Milton's epic was provided by his good friend the poet Andrew Marvell, in a commendatory poem published in 1674 along with the second edition of Paradise Lost. It invites comparison with later prose criticism by Addison and Samuel Johnson.

Responding visually to Paradise Lost are a set of engravings by John Baptist Medina that were included in the elaborate folio edition of Paradise Lost in 1688. Several of the Medina images, notably those included here, provide their own interesting interpretations of crucial scenes in the poem.

Not surprisingly, the Genesis text and its interpretive tradition resonate in many literary texts, among them Ben Jonson's To Penshurst,  Lanyer's Description of Cooke-ham, Marvell's Bermudas and The Garden. Many later texts, among them Denham's Cooper's Hill, Pope's Rape of the Lock and Essay on Man, Blake's Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, Thel, and Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality and The Prelude, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Yeats's Adam's Curse, respond not only to the Genesis story but also to Milton's poetic development of it.

This article on Paradise Lost is taken from the Norton Anthology of English Literature.


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