An Otherworldly Vision: 'Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost'

William Poole manages to deliver a spectacularly structured, tightly written, and captivating addition to literary studies.

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.

Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost

William Poole

(Harvard University Press)

October 2017

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".





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.