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5. On Writing Paradise Lost, Essay Two
Barbara Lewalski, in her superb biography of Milton (Milton: A Literary Biography), tells us that surviving from the early 1640s is the so-called Trinity manuscript in Milton's hand, which preserves a list of about 100 topics from Bible and British history, with plot summaries, which Milton thinks might become grist for his authorial mill. One epic topic emerges from that list: a possible "Heroicall Poem" that would be written "somewhere in Alfreds reign" (Lewalski, p. 123). By this time Milton had given up the idea of writing such an epic based on King Arthur, as he concluded that the historical record was just too scant for composing such an epic. What is fascinating, however, is that the phrase "Paradise Lost" appears in this manuscript, though it probably referred in the early 1640s to a possible drama Milton would compose.
Life, rather than intent study, overtook Milton for more than a dozen years beginnning in the early 1640s. Plagued by discord at home, Civil War in the nation, and a gradually diminishing eyesight, Milton turned more to writing occasional political tracts than to poetic or theological expression. After the deposition and execution of Charles I (January 1649) and because of his superb facility in Latin and his sympathy with the Parliamentary cause, Milton became the Secretary for Foreign Tongues of the Puritan regime. He must have felt for a time that a national epic was still possible, and perhaps he might have begun the epic with the story of King Alfred and finished it with the glorious days of the Revolution of the Saints in the 1650s. But he was busy with political affairs, and by the mid-1650s, it was clear that this revolution wasn't going to "stick." Thus, when the Restoration came in 1660, with Charles II on the throne, Milton not only had to rethink the concept and scope of his epic but had, figuratively and literally, to run for his life.
Compassed round as he was by a growing ocular darkness (he was blind by 1652), political opponents, a family that had fallen apart and an uncertain future, Milton still didn't abandon his idea of his epic creation. But now he had to separate it from any historical theme, just as 20 years earlier he had to separate it from the romantic story of King Arthur. Exactly how he came upon the story as is told in PL today is one of the beautiful mysteries of his life, but we see it as a perfect response to the limitations he faced (he could treat no historical theme) and the skills he had (classical knowledge; biblical and theological training). And, perhaps with the impending and real loss of the Puritans last best chance to run the nation, the notion of loss was so deeply etched in Milton's mind that he most naturally thought of the other paradise that was lost, that lost by our first parents, Adam and Eve.
Milton's Method of Composition
But even if he had decided on the theme and content of his epic, the compositional method and length was still a bit of a mystery. Most scholars think Milton began to dictate PL in the mid-to-late 1650s, completing it by 1663 or 1664. We know that he would meditate, compose and memorize his "lines" in the evening and then speak them to his amanuenses in the morning. Milton had studied until midnight since he was 12 years-old; the return to the routine of productive study at late hours that he had begun 40-45 years previously would have provided a wonderful comfort for him, as well as a great creative focus. We also learn that Milton only wrote in the colder months; thus his creation of PL probably took about six or so "half years." This would mean an average of about 10-12 lines a night, if he created seven days a week for six months of those six years. Discipline pays off...
But there was one final problem that confronted Milton as epic writer and that was the length of the piece. The standard length of epic was twelve books or a multiple of that (the Iliad, for example, is twenty-four books; the Aeneid is twelve). And, people who were still talking about epic and the renewed monarchy in the 1660s in England wrote twelve-book creations. In order to separate himself from that royalty-affirming approach, Milton decided at some point to use a ten-book format. Thus, when the first edition of PL came out in 1667 it was only ten books in length. His effort thus would not be confused with efforts to undergird the restored monarchy nor even to create an "ideal" monarchy based perhaps on Virgil's narration of Roman pre-history and history. He would speak of another kind of monarchy--the heavenly one, and another kind of battle--that between an angelic force and the Father/Son, but he would not want his content or form to be mistaken for a commonplace story of the 1660s.
it was not until 1674 and the publication of the second edition of PL that it assumed its current twelve-book format. But it isn't as if Milton had written much new material between 1667 and 1674. Book VII in the original, which was 1,290 lines, was now broken up into two shorter books, Books VII and VIII, the former of which is about 640 lines and the latter 650. And, the original Book X, which became Book XI in the revised version, was also divided. Originally it was hugely long at 1,540 lines; now it comprises books XI and XII. Milton added some lines, changed some words, and added the "Argument" before each book. Can we conclude then that by 1674 there really wasn't a concern that PL would be mistaken for a royalist epic?
You wonder how much knowledge a reader must have truly to appreciate the grand achievement of Milton in PL. It isn't just enough, I believe, to be able to track down the Scripture or theological references or to be able to narrate skillfully the Greek myths on which many of Milton's stories are told. It isn't enough to be familiar with Parliamentary debates in the 1640s-1650s that might give us a sense of how Milton might have shaped the presentation of Satan and the Rebel Angels, especially in their "conclave" at Pandemonium in Book II. In order really to understand Milton we also need to be sympathetic with memorizing long chunks of poetry (for he must have done that to his entire work); we need to be steeped in the Scripture so that we know not just which Scripture was chosen but be able to ask questions about why others might have been neglected. We need to know the rhythms and precise words of the epics so that even phrases dropped in PL of apparently little significance (like "three times" or "the signal having been given" or countless other instances) can be seen to be bequeathed to us by Milton as mediator of a classical tradition. Only then can we truly appreciate his artistry. But, as the essays which follow will argue, we can go a long way in understanding PL just by going "line-by-line" and letting the imagery open up to us.