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One conclusion, pertinent to the subject, which might have been suggested by the mere titles of so many books, appears to have been missed. The subJect of Paradise Lost, it would seem, it only on the bibliographical evidence so collected, was one of those which already possessed in a marked degree that quality of hereditary and widely diffused interest which fits subjects for the purposes of great poets. Milton, it may be said, inherited it as a subject with which the imagination of Christendom had long been fascinated, and which had been nibbled at again and again by poets in and out of England, though by none managed to its complete capabilities. There are traces in his juvenile poems-as, for example, in his Latin poem In Quintum Novembris-of his very early familiarity, in particular, with some of those conceptions of the personality and agency of Satan, and the physical connexion between Hell and Man's World, which may be said to motive his great epic. Nothing is more certain, however, than that, though thus signalled in the direction of his great subject by early presentiments and experiments, he came to the actual choice of it at last through considerable deliberation. The story of the first conception of Paradise Lost, and of the long-deferred execution of the project, is one of the most interesting in the life of Milton
It was in 1639, after his return from his Italian tour, in his thirty-first year, that Milton, as he tells us, first bethought himself seriously of some great literary work, on a scale commensurate with his powers, and which posterity should not willingly let die. He had resolved that it should be an English poem; he had resolved that it should be an epic; nay, he had all but resolved -as is proved by his Latin poem to Manso, and his Epitaphium_Damonisthat his subject should be taken from the legendary history of Britain, and should include the romance of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Suddenly, however, this decision was shaken. He became uncertain whether the dramatic form might not be fitter for his purpose than the epic, and, letting go the subject of Arthur, he began to look about for other subjects. The proof exists in the form of a list-written by Milton's own hand in 1640-1, or certainly not later than 1642, and preserved among the Milton MSS. in Trinity College, Cambridge—of about one hundred subjects, many of them Scriptural, and the rest from British History, which he had jotted down, with the intention, apparently, of estimating their relative degrees of capability, and at last fixing on the one, or the one or two, that should appear best. Now at the head of this long list of subjects is PARADISE Lost. There are no fewer than four separate drafts of this subject as then meditated by Milton for dramatic treatment. The first draft consists merely of a list of dramatis personæ, as follows:·
"The Persons:-Michael; Heavenly Love; Chorus of Angels; Lucifer; Adam, Eve, with "the Serpent; Conscience; Death; Labour, Sickness, Discontent, Ignorance, with others, "Mutes; Faith; Hope; Charity."
This Draft having been cancelled, another is written parallel with it, as follows:
"The Persons :-Moses [originally written 'Michael or Moses,' but the words 'Michael or' "deleted, so as to leave Moses' as preferable for the drama]; Justice, Mercy, Wisdom; Heavenly Love; the Evening Star, Hesperus; Lucifer; Adam; Eve; Conscience; Labour, Sickness, Discontent, Ignorance, Fear, Death, [as] Mutes; Faith; Hope; Charity."
This having also been scored out, there follows a third Draft, more complete, thus :
"PARADISE LOST :-The Persons: Moses πpoλoyiče, recounting how he assumed his true body; that it corrupts not, because of his [being] with God in the mount; declares the like of "Enoch and Eliah, besides the purity of the place-that certain pure winds, dews, and clouds preserve it from corruption; whence exhorts to the sight of God; tells them they cannot see "Adam in the state of innocence by reason of their sin.- [Act I.]: Justice, Mercy, Wisdom, "debating what should become of Man if he fall. Chorus of Angels sing a hymn of the "Creation.-Act II.: Heavenly Love; Evening Star. Chorus sing the marriage song and "describe Paradise.-Act III.: Lucifer contriving Adam's ruin. Chorus fears for Adain and "relates Lucifer's rebellion and fall.-Act IV.: Adam, Eve, fallen; Conscience cites them "to God's examination. Chorus bewails and tells the good Adam hath lost.-Act V.: Adam "and Eve driven out of Paradise, presented by an Angel with_Labour, Grief, Hatred, Envy, I War, Famine, Pestilence, Sickness, Discontent, Ignorance, Fear, [as] Mutes-to whom he 'gives their names-likewise Winter, Heat, Tempest, &c.; Death entered into the world; 'Faith, Hope, Charity, comfort and instruct him. Chorus briefly concludes."
This is left standing; but in another part of the MS., as if written at some interval of time, is a fourth Draft, as follows:
"ADAM UNPARADIZED:-The Angel Gabriel, either descending or entering-showing, "since the globe is created, his frequency as much on Earth as in Heaven-describes Paradise. "Next the Chorus, showing the reason of his coming-to keep his watch, after Lucifer's rebel"lion, by the command of God-and withal expressing his desire to see and know more concerning this excellent and new creature, Man. The Angel Gabriel, as by his name signifying a Prince of Power, passes by the station of the Chorus, and, desired by them, relates "what he knew of Man, as the creation of Eve, with their love and marriage. After this, "Lucifer appears, after his overthrow; bemoans himself; seeks revenge upon Man. The "Chorus prepares resistance at his first approach. At last, after discourse of enmity on either "side, he departs; whereat the Chorus sing of the battle and victory in Heaven against him "and his accomplices, as before, after the first Act, was sung a hymn of the Creation.
Here again may appear Lucifer, relating and consulting on what he had done to the destruction of Man. Man next and Eve, having been by this time seduced by the Serpent, appear confusedly, covered with leaves. Conscience, in a shape, accuses him; Justice "cites him to the place whither Jehovah called for him. In the meantime the Chorus enter-. "tains the stage and is informed by some Angel of the manner of the Fall. Here the Chorus "bewails Adam's fall.Adam and Eve return and accuse one another; but especially "Adam lays the blame to his wife-is stubborn in his offence. Justice appears, reasons with him, convinces him. The Chorus admonishes Adam, and bids him beware Lucifer's example of impenitence.- -The Angel is sent to banish them out of Paradise; but, before, causes to pass before his eyes, in shapes, a masque of all the evils of this life and world. He "is humbled, relents, despairs. At last appears Mercy, comforts him, promises him the "Messiah; then calls in Faith, Hope, Charity; instructs him. He repents, gives God the glory, submits to his penalty. The Chorus briefly concludes.- Compare this with the
These schemes of a possible drama on the subject of Paradise Lost were written out by Milton as early as between 1639 and 1642, or between his thirty-first and his thirty-fourth year, as a portion of a list of about a hundred subjects which occurred to him, in the course of his reading at that time, as worth considering for the great English Poem which he hoped to give to the world. From the place and the proportion of space which they occupy in the list, it is apparent that the subject of Paradise Lost had then fascinated him more strongly than any of the others, and that, if his notion of an epic on Arthur was then given up, a drama on Paradise Lost had occurred to him as the most likely substitute. It is also more probable than not that he then knew of previous dramas that had been written on the subject, and that, in writing out his own schemes, he had the schemes of some of these dramas in his mind, Vondel's play was not then in existence; but Andreini's was. Farther, there
is evidence in Milton's prose pamphlets published about this time that, if he did ultimately fix on the subject he had so particularly been meditating, he was likely enough to make himself acquainted with any previous efforts on the same subject, and to turn them to account for whatever they might be worth. Thus, in his Reason of Church Government (1641), taking the public into his confidence in various matters relating to himself, and informing them particularly how his mind had been recently occupied with thoughts of a great English poem (whether an epic or a drama he had not, he hints, quite determined), and with what reluctance he felt himself drawn away from that design to engage in the political controversies of the time, he thus pledges himself that the design, though necessarily postponed, shall not be abandoned: "Neither do I "think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader that for some few years 'yet I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist, or the trencher-fury of a riming parasite, nor to be obtained by the "invocation of Dame Memory and her Siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and "sends out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify "the lips of whom he pleases. To this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and "affairs-till which in some measure be compassed, at mine own peril and cost 'I refuse not to sustain this expectation from as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best pledges that I can give them."
There is evidence that, about the time when Milton thus announced to the public his design of some great English poem, to be accomplished at leisure, and when he was privately considering with himself whether a tragedy on the subject of Paradise Lost might not best fulfil the conditions of such a design, he had actually gone so far as to write not only the foregoing drafts of the tragedy, but even some lines by way of opening. Speaking of Paradise Lost, and of the author's original intention that it should be a tragedy, Milton's nephew, Edward Phillips, tells us in his Memoir of his uncle (1694): "In the "Fourth Book of the Poem there are six [ten ?] verses, which, several "before the Poem was begun, were shown to me, and some others, as designed "for the very beginning of the said tragedy." The verses referred to by Phillips are those (P. L. IV. 32-41) that now form part of Satan's speech on first standing on the Earth, and beholding, among the glories of the newly-created World, the Sun in his full splendour in the Heavens:
"O thou, that, with surpassing glory crowned,
Till pride and worse ambition threw me down,
Warring in Heaven against Heaven's matchless King!"
Phillips's words "several years before the Poem was begun" would not, by themselves, fix the date at which he had seen these lines. But in Aubrey's earlier Memoir of Milton (1680), containing information which Aubrey had
derived from Phillips, this passage occurs: "In the 4th book of Paradise Lost "there are about 6 verses of Satan's exclamation to the Sun weh Mr. E. Phi. "remembers, about 15 or 16 years before ever his poem was thought of; wch verses were intended for the beginning of a tragoedie, wch he had design'd, "but was diverted from it by other besinesse." Here we have indirectly Phillips's own authority that he had read the verses in question at a date which we shall presently see reason to fix at 1642. He was then a pupil of his uncle, and living with him in his house in Aldersgate Street.
Alas! it was not "for some few years" only, as Milton had thought in 1641, that the execution of the great work so solemnly then promised had to be postponed. For a longer time than he had expected England remained in a condition in which he did not think it right, even had it been possible, that men like him should be writing poems. Only towards the end of Cromwell's Protectorate, when Milton had reached his fiftieth year, and had been for five or six years totally blind, does he seem to have been in circumstances to resume effectually the design to which he had pledged himself seventeen years before. By that time, however, there was no longer any doubt as to the theme he would choose. All the other themes once entertained had faded more or less into the background of memory, and PARADISE LOST stood out, bold, clear, and without competitor. Nay more, the dramatic form, for which, when the subject first occurred to him, Milton had felt a preference, had been now abandoned, and it had been resolved that the poem should be an epic. He began this epic in earnest almost certainly before Cromwell was dead-"about 2 yeares before the "K[ing] came in," says Aubrey on Phillips's authority; that is, in 1658, when, notwithstanding his blindness, he was still in official attendance on Cromwell at Whitehall as his Latin Secretary, and writing occasional letters, in Cromwell's name, to foreign states and princes.
The uncertain state of affairs after Cromwell's death, or, at all events, after the resignation of his son Richard, may have interfered with the progress of the poem; and, when the Restoration came, there was danger for a time that not only the poem but the author's life might be cut short. That danger over, he was at liberty, "on evil days though fallen, and evil tongues, to prosecute his labour in obscurity and comparative peace. He had finished it, according to Aubrey, "about 3 years after the K.'s restauracion," i.e. about 1663. If so, he had been five or six years in all engaged on the poem, and the places in which he had successively pursued the task of meditating and dictating it had been mainly these-first, Petty France (now York Street), Westminster, till within a few weeks of the Restoration; next, some friend's house in Bartholomew Close, West Smithfield, where he lay concealed for a while after the Restoration; then, a house in Holborn, near Red Lion Fields, whither he removed as soon as it was safe for him to do so; and, finally, from 1661 onwards, in Jewin Street, close to that part of Aldersgate Street where he had had his house some eighteen or nineteen years before, when Paradise Lost first occurred to his thoughts. During the five or six years occupied in the composition of the poem in these places Milton's condition had been that of a widower, his first wife having died in 1652 or 1653, in the house in Petty France, leaving him three daughters; the second, whom he had married in Nov. 1656, while residing in the same house, having survived the marriage little more than a year; and his marriage with his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, not having taken place till February, 1662-63, when, if Aubrey's account
is correct, the poem was finished, or nearly so. It is probable, however, that, though Milton may have had the poem in some manner complete in Jewin Street, before his third marriage, there may have still been a good deal to do with the manuscript in the house in Artillery Walk, Bunhill Fields, to which he and his wife removed shortly after their marriage (in 1663 or 1664), and which was the last of Milton's many London residences, and that in which he died. We have an interesting glimpse of this manuscript, at any rate, as in Milton's possession, in a satisfactory state, during the summer of 1665. As the Great Plague was then raging in London, Milton had removed from his house in Artillery Walk to a cottage at Chalfont-St.-Giles, in Buckinghamshire, which had been taken for him, at his request, by Thomas Ellwood, a young Quaker, whose acquaintance with him had begun a year or two before in Jewin Street. Visiting Milton here as soon as circumstances would permit, Ellwood was received in a manner of which he has left an account in his Autobiography. After some common discourses," he says, "had passed between us, he called for a manuscript of his; which, being brought, he delivered to me, bidding me take it home with me and read it at my leisure, and, when I had so done, "return it to him with my judgment thereupon. When I came home, and had set myself to read it, I found it was that excellent poem which he entituled "Paradise Lost."
The anecdote proves the existence of at least one, and most probably of more than one, complete copy in the autumn of 1665—which may, accordingly, be taken as the date when the poem was considered ready for press. The delay of publication till two years after that date is easily accounted for. It was not, says Ellwood, till "the sickness was over, and the city well cleansed, and become safely habitable again," that Milton returned to his house in Artillery Walk; then, still farther paralysing business of all sorts, came the Great Fire of Sept. 1666; and there were difficulties, as we have seen, about the licensing of a poem by a person of Milton's political antecedents and principles.
Whether the time spent by Milton in the composition of Paradise Lost was five years (1658-1663), or seven or eight years (1658-1665), it is certain that he bestowed on the work all that care and labour which, on his first contemplation of such a work in his earlier manhood, he had declared would be necessary. The "industrious and select reading," which he had then spoken of as one of the many requisites, had not been omitted. Whatever else Paradise Lost may be, it is certainly one of the most learned poems in the world. In thinking of it in this character we are to remember, first of all, that, ere his blindness had befallen him (1652), Milton's mind was stored with an amount of various and exact learning such as few other men of his age possessed; so that, had he ceased then to acquire more, he would have still carried in his memory an enormous resource of material out of which to build up the body of his poem. But he did not, after his blindness, cease to add to his knowledge by reading. At the very time when he was engaged on his Paradise Lost, he had, as his nephew Phillips informs us, several other great undertakings in progress of a different character, for which daily reading and research were necessary, even if they could have been dispensed with for the poem-to wit, the construction of a Body of Divinity from the Scriptures, the completion of a History of England, and the collection of materials for a Thesaurus, or Dictionary, of the Latin tongue. Laboriously every day, with a due division of his time from early morning, he pursued these tasks, by a systematic use of