VII. THE OLD POET: 1660–67

He found some solace in playing the organ and singing; he had, Aubrey tells us, “a delicate, tuneable voice.” 101 In 1661 he moved again, and again in 1664, this time to his final home on Artillery Walk, where a private garden allowed him to stroll without other guides than his hands and feet. His nephews, their beatings forgotten, came often to see and aid him; friends dropped in to read to him or take his dictation. His three daughters served him impatiently but arduously. Anne, the oldest, was lame and deformed, and had a defect of speech. Deborah was his amanuensis. She and Mary were taught to read to him in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish, though they could not understand what they read. 102 Indeed, none of them had ever gone to school; they had had some private tutoring, but they were poorly educated at best. Milton sold most of his library before he died, as his children cared little for books. He complained that they clandestinely sold his books, that they neglected him in his need, that they conspired with the servants to rob him in household purchases. 103 They were unhappy in that somber home, under a stern, demanding, irritable father. When daughter Mary heard that he was planning another marriage, she said “that there were no news to hear of his wedding; but if she could hear of his death, that were something.” 104 In 1663 Milton, aged fifty-five, took a third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, aged twenty-four. She served him faithfully to the end of his days. After seven years with this stepmother, whom Aubrey describes as “a gentle person, a peaceful and agreeable humor,” 105 the three daughters left the paternal home and went out, at Milton’s expense, to learn various trades.

The Restoration had cost him much—almost his life; but it made Paradise Lost possible. Without it he might have exhausted himself in embattled prose, for the fighter in him was as strong as the poet. Nevertheless, amid his campaigns, he had never quit hope of writing something that England would cherish for centuries to come. In 1640 he made a list of possible subjects for an epic or a drama; the story of Adam’s fall was in that list, along with the legends of King Arthur. He wavered between Latin and English as the language he would use; and even when he had decided on Paradise Lost as his theme, he thought of writing it in the form of a Greek tragedy or a medieval mystery play. At various times he composed lines or passages which were later fitted into the poem. Not till Cromwell was dead did Milton have the leisure to work upon the epic daily; and then (1658) he was altogether blind—

On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;

In darkness, and with dangers compass’d round. 106

Lines came to him as he lay helpless and sleepless in bed; bursting with them he would call for an amanuensis, saying that he “wanted to be milked.” 107 A fever of composition would come upon him; he would dictate forty lines “in a breath,” and then laboriously correct them as they were reread to him. Probably no poem was ever written with such toil and courage. Milton found strength in his consciousness that he was playing both Homer and Isaiah to England, for he believed that the poet is the voice of God, a prophet divinely inspired to teach mankind.

In 1665, when plague struck London, an imprisoned Quaker friend, Thomas Ellwood, arranged that Milton should be guided to Chalfont St. Giles in Buckinghamshire, and occupy Ellwood’s ten-room “cottage” there. In this “Pretty Box” the poet completedParadise Lost (June, 1665). But who would publish it? London was in turmoil in 1665–66, with fire coming on the heels of plague; and what joy remained was largely Restoration roistering, in no mood for 10,558 lines on original sin. Milton had received a thousand pounds for his Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio; now (April 27, 1667) he sold all rights to Paradise Lost to Samuel Simmons for five pounds down and an agreement for additional payments of five pounds each, contingent on sales; all in all he received eighteen pounds. 108 The poem was published in August, 1667. In its first two years thirteen hundred copies were sold; in its first eleven years, three thousand. Probably not that many readers, in any year, read it through today. We have so little leisure now that we have invented so many labor-saving devices.

The poem shares with the Aeneid the drawback that it came after “Homer”; so its battle scenes and supernatural warriors lose force by being imitations. Doubtless Homer too followed earlier models, but we have forgotten them. Johnson thought that Paradise Lost, “by the nature of its subject, has the advantage, above all others, that it is universally and perpetually interesting”; but he confessed that “none ever wished it longer than it is.” 109 The subject,

Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

was timely enough in Milton’s youth, when the Book of Genesis was received as history, and heaven and hell, angels and devils, were in the fabric of daily thought. Today the subject is the poem’s greatest handicap, a fairy tale recited to adults in twelve cantos; and a sustained effort is now required to accompany from beginning to end so long an exposition of so harsh and antiquated a theology. But never has nonsense been made more sublime. The grandeur of the scene, embracing heaven, hell, and the earth; the solemn, stately march of the blank verse, the manipulation of the complicated plot, the fresh and tender descriptions of nature, the successful effort to give reality and character to Adam and Eve, the frequent passages of majestic power—these are some of the reasons whyParadise Lost remains the greatest poem in the English language.

The story opens in hell, where Satan, pictured as a bird of “mighty stature” and “expanded wings,” exhorts his fallen angels not to despair:

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

. . . To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power

. . ., that were low indeed,

That were an ignominy and shame beneath

This downfall; . . .

the mind and spirit remains

Invincible . . . 110

This sounds like Cromwell defying one Charles, and Milton another. Several passages describing Satan remind us of Milton:

A mind not to be changed by place or time.

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. 111

In the early cantos Milton’s eloquence lured him into drawing an almost sympathetic picture of the Devil as the leader of a revolt against established and arbitrary power. The poet saved himself from making Satan the hero of the epic by representing him later as the Father of Lies, who “squat like a toad,” or as a serpent sliding sinuously in the slime. 112 But in that same canto Satan stands forth as the defender of knowledge:

Knowledge forbidden?

. . . Why should their Lord

Envy them that? Can it be a sin to know,

Can it be death? And do they [Adam and Eve] only stand

By ignorance? Is that their happy state,

The proof of their obedience and their faith?

. . . I will excite their minds

With more desire to know . . . 113

And so he argues with Eve like a rationalist attacking an obscurantist Church:

Why, then, was this forbid? Why but to awe,

Why but to keep you low and ignorant,

His worshipers? He knows that in the day

You eat thereof, your eyes, that seem so clear

Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then

Open’d and clear’d, and ye shall be as gods . . . 114

The angel Raphael, however, bids Adam check his curiosity about the universe; it is not wise for man to desire to know beyond his mortal scope; 115 faith is wiser than knowledge.

We should have expected Milton to interpret the “first sin” not as desire for knowledge but as sexual intercourse. On the contrary, he sings a quite unpuritanic paean to the legitimacy of sexual pleasure, within the bounds of marriage; and he represents Adam and Eve as indulging in such tactile values while still remaining in the “state of innocence.” 116 But after the “fall”—eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge—they begin to feel shame in sexual congress. 117 Now Adam sees Eve as the source of all evil, “a rib crooked by nature,” and mourns that God ever created woman:

O why did God

. . . create at last

This novelty on Earth, this fair defect

Of Nature, and not fill the World at once

With men as angels without feminine,

Or find some other way to generate

Mankind? 118

Whereupon, so soon in the Biblical history of marriage, the first man makes a plea for the easier divorcing of the wife by the husband. Almost forgetting Adam, Milton here repeats in verse what he had said in prose about the proper subordination of woman to man.119 He will return to that refrain in Samson Agonistes; 120 it is his favorite dream. And in his secret De Doctrina Christiana he pleaded for the restoration of polygamy. Had not the Old Testament sanctioned it, and had not the New Testament left that wholesome and manly law unrepealed? 121

However interpreted, “man’s first disobedience” proved too narrow a theme to fill twelve cantos. An epic required action, action, and action; but as the revolt of the angels is over when the story begins, its drama can enter the poem only through reminiscence, which is a fading echo. The battle scenes are well described, with due clash of arms and cleaving of heads and limbs, but it is hard to feel the pain or ecstasy of such imaginary blows. Like the French dramatists, Milton indulges a passion for oratory; everyone from God to Eve makes speeches, and Satan finds hellfire no impediment to rhetoric. It is disturbing to learn that even in hell we shall have to listen to lectures.

God, in this poem, is not the indescribable effulgence felt in Dante’s Paradiso; he is a Scholastic philosopher who gives long and unconvincing reasons why he, the omnipotent, allows Satan to exist, and allows him to tempt man, all the while foreseeing that man will succumb and bring all mankind to centuries of sin and misery. He argues that without freedom to sin there is no virtue, without trial there is no wisdom; he thinks it better that man should face temptation and resist it than not be tempted at all, quite unforeseeing that the Lord’s Prayer would beg God not to lead man into temptation. Who can help sympathize with Satan’s revolt against such an incredible sadist?

Did Milton really believe in this predestinarian horror? Apparently, for he expounded it not only in Paradise Lost, but in his secret essay De Doctrina Christiana; 122 long before the creation of man, God had determined which souls should be saved, and which should be damned. That secret essay, however, contained some heresies; Milton never published it; it was not discovered till 1823, and did not reach print till 1825.

It is a remarkable document. It begins piously enough by assuming, without argument, that every word in the Bible was inspired by God. Milton admits that the Biblical text has suffered from “corruptions, falsifications, and mutations,” but even in its present form it is the work of God. He will not allow any but a literal interpretation. If the Scriptures tell us that God rested, or feared, or repented, or was angry or grieved, these statements are to be taken at their face value, and not diluted as metaphors. Even the corporeal parts and qualities ascribed to God are to be accepted as physically true. 123 But in addition to this external revelation of himself in Scripture, God has given us an internal revelation which is the Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts; and this internal revelation, “the peculiar possession of each believer, is far superior . . . , a more certain guide than Scripture.” 124 However, in his arguments, Milton quotes the Bible as the final and clinching proof.

On the basis of Scripture he rejects orthodox Trinitarianism, and prefers the Arian heresy: Christ was literally the Son of God, but he was begotten by the Father in time; therefore he was not coeval with the Father, and never equal with Him. Christ is the agent created by God as the Logos through whom all else was to be created. Milton does not admit Creation ex nihilo, out of nothing; the world of matter, like the world of spirit, is a timeless emanation from the divine substance. Even spirit is a fine, ethereal matter, and should not be too sharply distinguished from matter; ultimately matter and spirit, and in man body and soul, are one. 125 These views bear considerable resemblance to those of Hobbes (1588–1679) and Spinoza (1632–77), both of whom died in the same decade with Milton (1608–74). Probably Milton knew the works of Hobbes, which were making considerable noise in the court of Charles II.

Milton’s personal religion remained a strange mixture of theism and materialism, of Arminian freedom of will and Calvinistic predestination. He seems in his writings to have been a profoundly religious man; yet he attended no church, even before his blindness, and practiced no religious rites in his home. 126 “In the distribution of his hours,” wrote Dr. Johnson, “there was no hour of prayer, either solitary or with his household; omitting public prayers, he omitted all.” 127 He scorned the clergy, and lamented Cromwell’s retention of a state-paid clergy as a form of “whoredom” injurious to both Church and state. 128 In one of his last pronouncements (Treatise of True Religion, Heresy, Schism, Toleration, and the Best Means to Prevent the Growth of Popery, 1673) he went directly counter to Charles II’s second Declaration of Indulgence (1672) by warning England not to tolerate Catholics, atheists, or any sect that did not recognize the Bible as the sole basis of its creed.

It was this man, bristling with heresy, anticlericalism, and nonconformity, who gave its noblest modern exposition to the Christian creed.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!