Paradise Lost is the most influential work of poet and polemicist John Milton (1608-1674). In it, Milton’s speaker claims to seek the means to “justify the ways of God to men.” The epic poem, written in blank verse, recounts a Miltonic vision of the fall of man. With scenes from the war in Heaven, the gathering of fallen angels in Hell, and images from Eden on earth, Paradise Lost posits a cosmic scope such as had never before attempted.
Milton began composing this monumental piece sometime in the 1640s. It began as a tragedy in four drafts, with the final version titled “Adam Unparadised.” Milton most likely wrote in the early winter, working night or early morning. He would dictate the lines he wrote to a scribe, and Edward Philips would correct any spelling and punctuation errors. Milton’s composition was interrupted by his time in hiding and in prison during the Restoration. Upon his release from the Tower, Milton’s worldview had drastically changed. The poem began to resemble the form we know it as today sometime between 1658 and 1663, and strongly reflects his altered perspective as well as his preoccupation with his blindness, which became complete in 1652. Milton finished the composition of Paradise Lost in 1663, but it was not published until 1667 due to his reputation as a supporter of the republic. The poem was initially published as “Paradise Lost: a Poem in Ten Books.” A second edition of Paradise Lost, restructured into twelve books with the addition of two prefatory poems by “S.B.” and Andrew Marvell, was Milton’s final publication.
Supposedly, Sir John Denham declared the poem to be on of the most noble poems ever written, regardless of language. Once it was in print, though, the poem sold only modestly. Milton only received a total of ten pounds for the poem before he died. Milton’s third wife sold the rights to Paradise Lost to the printer, Samuel Simmons, for eight pounds. It was only with the fourth edition, published elegantly with gilt edges, that the poem was purchased by England’s more influential readers and gained the acclaim it retains today.
The influence of Paradise Lost on the literary world has been vast. In 1677, John Dryden converted the poem into an opera, The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man. Shortly after, John Hopkins paraphrased books four and nine, publishing it to offer assistance to a female readership. A shift from rhymed to blank verse followed the popularity of Paradise Lost in the eighteenth century. They style of Milton’s epic was imitated by the likes of Alexander Pope and Joseph Trapp, Sir Richard Blackmore, John Dennis, Matthew Smith, William Thompson. John Philips and John Gay parodied the poem. o Eighteenth-century translations included Dutch, French, Italian, Greek, Russion, Norwegian, Portuguese, Polish, Hungarian, and Manx. With the Romantic era, Milton’s portrayal of Satan became a focal point for many authors, notably taken up by Shelley and Blake as the representative Romantic hero.
Gordon Campbell, ‘Milton, John (1608–1674)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2009.