The challenge of writing about Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost is that there are few Western writers more intensely studied, referenced, or influential than John Milton. Like Dante or Shakespeare (with whom his life overlapped by only eight years), Milton has become so pervasive that his influence is nearly inescapable. From William Blake’s 1804 Milton: A Poem to Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, John Milton’s otherworldly visions, religious imagination, and religio-political subversiveness have driven the narrative in the nearly 350 years since he died.
With Paradise Lost John Milton re-imagined the oldest story in Western religious history and arguably rehabilitated its oldest villain. Of course, when Paradise Lost concludes, Satan remains a “villain”, but along the way, he also becomes one of the greatest characters in Western literature. Rather than a mere embodiment of evil, arch-nemesis of the Abrahamic God, Lucifer has become an iconoclast, a narcissistic rebel, but an individual — all characteristics that many readers find hard to root against. Even more incredibly, Milton expounded so much from a paucity of Biblical source material (extra-Biblical sources notwithstanding). With Paradise Lost, John Milton had allowed readers inside the mind of a character otherwise too evil to humanize; and it was inside the mind that Heaven or Hell was created, after all. It was quite the accomplishment for an admittedly cocky, self-assured, and blind poet, and one that has prompted dozens (hundreds?) of books interpreting and studying the epic poem and its author. Despite the abundance of Milton-derived literature already available, William Poole manages to deliver a spectacularly structured, tightly written, and captivating addition to literary studies.
Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost is divided into two parts along just that axis. Part one (“Milton”) gives readers a tightly-woven history of which influences made the man capable of writing such an enduring work of art. Aware of the plethora of Milton biographies available, Poole does well to stay on track and only recount the biographical elements most necessary to understanding Milton’s production of the poem. Part two (“Paradise Lost“) digs more deeply into the structure, production, and components of the poem itself. In transitioning from Part one to Part two, Poole concludes Chapter Twelve (“The Undertaking, Revisited”) with its own dramatic crescendo in which our hero builds to his momentous achievement: “There are in fact worse times ahead, but for now Milton might be forgiven for writing that he had indeed ‘fall’n on evil dayes’ (7.25), and for complaining that everything had gone completely wrong both in his domestic life and in the political life of his nation. This is the period in which he starts to dictate Paradise Lost.”
It’s the perfect end to Poole’s Milton narrative as we pivot to analyzing the making of the poem itself. At Part one’s conclusion, we understand the man, his politics, education, influences, and failures as he sits down to write. Although Chapter Thirteen (“Bibliographical Interlude: Publishing Paradise Lost), the last chapter in Part one, does help contextualize Milton’s efforts to publish, it noticeably stalls some of the swelling momentum Chapter Twelve concludes with. Nevertheless, the first chapter of Part two, “Structure”, does an excellent job setting the direction for the book’s last half.
In Poole’s last chapter, “Becoming a Classic”, we are told that, “For a work of literature from this period to achieve classic status, however, it tended to require four things: republication in deluxe folio format, commentary, translation, and imitation”. There’s no mistaking the fact that Paradise Lost has been the subject of endless commentary and translated countless times over. But an interesting connection can be drawn to Chapter Twelve (“Two Competitors: Davenant and Crowley”) in which Poole describes Milton’s two contemporary competitors for the crown of modern epic poet: William Davenant and Abraham Crowley. Poole provides each man’s recipe for epic poetry, along with the elements Milton borrowed or eschewed from each man’s poetic attempts. In fact, at one point, Poole even provides a comparison between remarkably similar passages of Cowley’s description of Goliath in the earlier Davideis and Milton’s description of Satan in Paradise Lost.
Poole concludes that Milton’s passage is “an obviously superior but still recognizable imitation”, and we are also reminded that Milton’s widow reported that Cowley was among the author’s favorite English poets. Poole makes a clear case for why John Milton is the more universally recognized name, and although Milton may have been influenced (and even imitated) certain contemporaries or predecessors, we are all certainly far more deeply indebted to John Milton than he is to others. His at-times provocative religious and political views caused his reputation to waver over the past 300-some years, but there’s no mistaking that John Milton did something remarkable in the making of Paradise Lost and Dr. Poole has curated an excellent commentary on “the greatest technical masterpiece in the English language”.