On Writing Paradise Lost I
Bill Long 12/23/09
A Long Road to Glory
Epics don't just happen. They are the work of years or, more frequently, of decades. Sometimes, as in the Homeric epics, the work of many prior poets was synthesized, summarized, distilled and refined by the blind bard to whom we now attribute the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey. The epic writer has to make so many decisions and be equipped with such refined and specialized tools that epic almost exceeds the capacity of any individual to write. For example, before writing PL Milton had to deal with some of the following issues: (1) Is the notion of epic still viable? (2) If so, what should be the major/heroic subject of such a work? Is it a national story? An international story? Who is the epic hero or anti-hero? (3) To what extent does religious faith underpin the work? (4) And, if faith plays a role, does it do so as an adjunct to the work or as the central category of the work? (5) What is the purpose of an epic work? (6) How long should it be? (7) Who are the main characters and from where does one derive the literary and historical prototypes for some characters? On and on it goes.
Then, Milton had to have some of the "specialized tools" to write epic. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard says (paraphrased), 'if you want to be a poet, you study poets; if you want to be a novelist; study novelists.' Thus, Milton had to have studied the epic tradition. This meant the mastery of at least three languages (ancient Greek, Latin, Italian) so that the words of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tasso, Ariosto and others could ring deeply in Milton's ears. But if the epic is going to connect with faith, this also requires a deep acquiantance with the riches and complexities of the Christian tradition, not simply the Bible but the debates of theology both historically and in Milton's own day. In fact, so daunting is the notion that most people give up the task without even considering the possibility of it. It is reminiscent of what one person said regarding 17th century Dutch painting, "When I look at a Hals, I want to take up painting. But then, when I look at a Rembrandt, I want to give it up." Epic, then, is like a literary Rembrandt. You see it and read it, and you want to cry "uncle" and give up the thought that you could ever produce something like that.
But Milton didn't give up. The purpose of these two essays is to trace the compositional and developmental history of PL in Milton's mind, to show how it emerged and then took shape in his fecund imagination. What these essays will show is that the idea of a large poetic contribution was present in Milton's mind from early days (he was born in Dec. 1608) but that it really didn't take shape in the present twelve-book form until almost his death in 1674. While he was living and writing, marrying and divorcing, serving in the Puritan government and being buffeted by war and the ills of life, the notion of epic was simmering in the back burners of his mind. Finally, in his mid-50s, it took root and flourished. But more on all of this below.
Christopher Ricks and Barabara Lewalski are two of the leading scholars of Milton's literary biography; my account is indebted by their work. Milton was the beneficiary of a superior classical education thanks to the devoted efforts of his father, a well-to-do scrivener (part lawyer, part banker, part real estate agent), who hired tutors to teach him Latin and Greek as a youth. Though seemingly destined for the ministry, Milton showed an early aptitude and ambition for poetry. As early as 1628, while still 19 years-old and a student at Cambridge University, Milton took part in a vacation exercise, composing an ode to his native tongue. In that exercise he lets his "wand'ring Muse" take over to ruminate about his own poetic ambitions:
"Yet I had rather if I were to choose,
Thy service in some graver subject use..
Such where the deep transported mind may soar
Above the wheeling poles, and at Heav'ns door
Look in, and see each blissful Deity
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie,
Listening to what unshorn Apollo sings...
(quoted in Milton: Paradise Lost and Regained, ed. by Christopher Ricks, pp. viif.).
He had more to say even in that poem, but the crucial thought was born. He would aspire to look into the heavenly realm to see what everyone was doing.
The late 1620s and 1630s saw a burst of Milton's creative effort that resulted in his 1629 poem "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity;" his Comus mask in the mid-1630s; the famous poems L'Allegro and Il Penserosos from that time; and the memorable Lycidas, which memorialized the death of a friend at sea. He capped off decade of the 1630s by a 15-month European tour in 1638-39 where he met many famous individuals, such as the Dutch jurisprudent Hugo Grotius, the Italian scientist Galileo and the biographer of Tasso, Giovanni Batista.
It is in this context of intense study and travel of the 1630s that Milton penned a 1637 letter to his intimate friend Charles Diodati explaining his ambition yet further:
"Hearken, Theodotus, but let it be in your private ear, lest I blush; and allow me for a little to use big language with you. You ask what I am thinking of? So may the good Deity help me, of immortality! And what I am I doing? Growing my wings and meditating flight; but as yet our Pegasus raises himself on very tender pinions," (Ricks, p. viii).
Thus as a 28 year-old he was aware both of his soaring ambition but also of his adolescent status as a writer and poet. His ambition, however, was stoked yet more through an unexpectedly warm reception he had to his writing when touring Italy in 1638-39. Writing three years after he returned, in The Reason of Church Government, he says,
"But much latelier in the private academies of Italy, whither I was favoured to resort, perceiving that some trifles which I had in memory, composed at under twenty or thereabout...met with acceptance above what was looked for...I began thus far to assent both to them and divers of my friends here at home, and not less to an inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labour 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 aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die," (Ricks, p. ix).
He goes on in this long passage to declare his interest in writing an epic, even if it is unclear whether it should be "diffuse," such as Homer, Virgil and Tasso, or more compressed, with the Book of Job as a model. He is unclear also about the content: he is unsure "what king or knight before the conquest (i.e., before 1066) might be chosen in whom to lay the pattern of a Christian hero." We see his great ambition and craving for fame but the nature and focus of the work is still undecided. Yet, it is growing in him, like a 30-year pregnancy.
The next essay brings us to the creation of PL.