This year marks 350 years since John Milton’s Paradise Lost was published (1667). Its author was a controversial blind man who publicly advocated the execution of King Charles I before serving in the republican government. He was an anarchist who spoke out against the Catholic Church, didn’t believe in the Trinity and wrote pamphlets about the merits of divorce. But Paradise Lost would become his most important contribution.
And this week, Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust is ready to hit the stores. This new work is a prequel to the famous trilogy, His Dark Materials, which drew heavily on Paradise Lost for its themes, characters and settings. In fact, the very title, His Dark Materials, is taken straight out of Paradise Lost. As Satan sets off on his mission to tempt humankind, he comes across “the wild abyss” of Chaos in which the component qualities of the classical elements are “mixed confusedly” forever. That is, unless God decides “to create more worlds”, in which case these elements will form “his dark materials”.
Milton’s epic of over 10,000 lines is a dramatic, imaginative version of Satan’s rebellion against God and of Adam and Eve’s eviction from Eden. Set at the beginnings of human history, it shifts us across an expansive universe: Heaven at the top – Earth dangling from it – and Hell at the bottom, a dark gloomy Chaos in between. It tells the story of divine creation, human ambition and hopeless rebellion, but is perhaps most famous for its presentation of Satan, an intensely deep character.
Pullman’s self-professed fascination with Paradise Lost isn’t the only interesting fact about Paradise Lost. So, since it’s a twelve-book poem (and this article is no epic), here’s another dozen.
1. An MP took it to Parliament in 1667
There’s no confirmed publication date for Paradise Lost, but it’s been recorded that on the 10 October 1667, John Denham MP – also a poet – went into the House of Commons “one Morning with a Sheet, Wet from the Press, in his hand”. He was asked, “What have you there, Sir John?”, to which he replied, “Part of the Noblest Poem that ever was Wrote in Any Language, or in Any Age”. He continued to the session of Parliament on that day clutching Paradise Lost. For all we know, he may even have read it during the session (his equivalent to playing Candy Crush). Unlike Milton, this MP was a committed royalist, yet he’s probably the first person in recorded history to note how celebrated this poem would become.
2. It was translated on Yugoslav prison toilet paper
In the new book Milton in Translation, Slovenian poet Marjan Strojan reveals that parts of the first Serbian translation were written on toilet paper from inside a prison cell. Milovan Djilas, communist party official and one-time vice-president of Yugoslavia, was no stranger to imprisonment. So when he was sentenced in 1962 for allegedly revealing state secrets, he certainly made use of his time. While sharing cells with common criminals, he began to translate Milton’s epic using a tiny pencil which he hid from guards inside an orange. His diary entry from the 24 September 1964 notes: “I finished the ninth chapter of the third part of the second book [of Paradise Lost] on page 3126 of toilet paper.” I wonder whether it was the quilted type.
3. It was once bound in a murderer’s skin
One edition of Milton’s Poetical Works from 1852 is bound beautifully in leather. Only thing is, it’s actually human skin – George Cudmore’s to be precise. Convicted murderer Cudmore was a rat-catcher by trade. One day, instead of killing rats, he killed his lover. He was hanged in front of a thousand or so interested folk, before having his flesh stripped off his body. Somebody then thought it was a good idea to bind Milton’s book with it. Cudmore’s method of murder is fittingly absurd: he mixed arsenic into a tasty sounding potion of roasted apple and milk. A librarian involved in the book’s recent public display seems to have been hoping for even more absurdity. “There is no hair or stray nipple or anything like that,” says Tony Rouse. “It is outwardly unremarkable”. That’s a relief.
4. Frankenstein’s monster reads it
That’s right: you might not have finished reading Paradise Lost, but the world’s most famous fictional monster has (no, not Cookie Monster – he’s real). It’s one of the first things Frankenstein’s monster reads, and it becomes something of a formative experience. One night, foraging for food in the woods, the monster finds it in an abandoned bag. But he thinks Paradise Lost is a factual history, not an imaginative tale. He considers his similarities with Adam: “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence”, and wondering why he doesn’t have an Eve, asks for a companion. Reflecting on his life, he concludes that his creator, Victor, is treating him like God treated Satan: “Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.” Author Mary Shelley was given a copy of Paradise Lost by Percy Shelley the year before they married. She would end up using three of its lines as the epigraph to her novel: Adam’s anguished questions to God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man, did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?”
5. Milton got £5 for it (and Marx found that interesting)
When Samuel Simmons bought the publishing rights for Paradise Lost, he gave Milton a fiver (not the new polymer one). Over thirteen years, Milton and his widow earned a total of £28 from the poem. The way Karl Marx used this fact is fascinating, claiming that Milton “sold the product for £5 and thus became a merchant”. He writes: “Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, was an unproductive worker. On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker”. So, Stephen King? “Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature”, adds Marx, contrasting Milton’s personal, one-off endeavor with efficient, enduring workers who adhere to common causes: “But the literary proletarian … who produces books … at the behest of his publisher, is pretty near a productive worker, since his production is taken over by capital and only occurs in order to increase it”.
6. It introduces some “terrific” new words
Milton probably invented about three times as many words as Shakespeare; academic Gavin Alexander puts it at 630. Some of them are pretty impressive, like “satanic”, “terrific”, “stunning”, “enjoyable”, “sensuous”, “fragrance”, and famously, “pandemonium”. He created new concepts using words that already existed, like “outer space”. He also loved constructing negative forms of existing words, like “unaccountable”, “irresponsible”, “unprincipled”, and most ironically, “unoriginal”. Unfortunately, some words didn’t make it, like “opiniastrous” (though feel free to use it). My personal favourite is, um… “self-delusion”.
7. There’s a reason it doesn’t rhyme
No, Milton wasn’t too lazy to make his long poem rhyme: this was an artistic choice and even a political statement. The publisher was confused why he didn’t use rhyme, so Milton wrote an introduction saying that good poetry doesn’t have to, since rhyme is nothing “but the invention of a barbarous age”. In part, he’s having a go at the popular poets of his period, particularly the Royalists, who wrote in rhyming couplets. Instead, Milton uses blank verse: ten-syllable metrical lines that don’t rhyme. He writes of “the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming”, linking his choice with political debates. The most obvious of these is that the republican Milton advocates “freedom” from the “bondage” of monarchy, so opposing rhyme to write freely without having to put a certain sound at the end of each line symbolises non-conformism and political freedom.
8. Malcolm X read it in prison (and loved it)
“I read Milton’s Paradise Lost,” said the civil rights activist Malcolm X, recalling a time in prison when he immersed himself in the classics and used them to debate. Paradise Lost would go on to inform his political and religious ideologies. But unlike so many before and after him, he didn’t identify with Satan, despite the character’s challenge to authority. Instead, he interpreted Satan’s malicious intentions as a metaphor for whiteness, particularly as Malcolm’s newfound allegiance to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam linked the white man with the devil. After leaving the Nation to become a Sunni Muslim, Paradise Lost would still serve as a warning about white supremacy and European imperialism. His most memorable summary remains: “So Milton and Mr. Elijah Muhammad were actually saying the same thing”.
9. It addresses whether angels have sex – and fart
Of all the amazing and varied details discussed in Paradise Lost, can I justify choosing this? No. But it is fascinating because of its sheer weirdness when you come across it. The angel Raphael explains all sorts of things to Adam as they eat (yes, angels eat – and, surprise, surprise, Eve cooks). Adam opens up about his attraction to Eve, so when Raphael tells him that sexual love mustn’t transcend spiritual love, Adam questions what angels do about attraction. In a memorable moment, Raphael blushes “rosy red”, but his answer, pointing to an amalgamation of the physical, spiritual and emotional, does not disappoint: “Easier than air with air, if spirits embrace, / Total they mix, union of pure with pure / Desiring”. Doesn’t make a whole lot of practical sense, but it sounds amazing. In another section of the poem, Milton offers us the oddest description of the angelic digestive system: “Tasting concoct, digest, assimilate / And corporeal to incorporeal turn”. In other words, eat, digest, secrete. “Corporeal to incorporeal” means the food is turning from something physical to something that isn’t, presumably some sort of angelic gas. Told you it’s weird.
10. The Assad regime tried to use it as propaganda
In the book Milton in the Arab-Muslim World, it’s revealed that the Syrian government’s publishing body released an Arabic translation of Paradise Lost in 2011, but shortly after doing so, realised what they’d just done. At the start of the Arab Spring and with protesters thinking they might be able to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it wasn’t a good call to spread a text written by a non-conformist, let alone one about defiance and revolution in which Satan dares to challenge God. So a column in a state-run newspaper explained to citizens that in the poem, Satan is unable to undermine God, and in Milton’s life, the republicans do not succeed in overcoming the monarchy. God never lost control, it suggests, so neither will Assad.
11. Milton received words from a goddess and “milked” them out in the morning
Milton believed his words were inspired. He calls upon the Muse, the Goddess of Poetry, to help him: “What in me is dark/ Illumine”, a striking plea, particularly in light of his blindness. The verses came to him from the muse during the night and he would wake up in the morning with passages already in his head, itching to have them written. But he’d have to wait until friends or family arrived so he could dictate them. His nephew writes that “hee waking early (as is the use of temperate men) had commonly a good stock of Verses ready against his Amanuensis [i.e. scribe] came; which if it happened to bee later than ordinary, hee would complain, Saying hee wanted to bee milkd”. Milton was no silkworm with spontaneous poetry, but a frustrated man asking for someone to extract the verses out of him.
12. He was influenced by a meeting with Galileo
When Satan ventures from Hell to Eden to fulfill his ambition of bringing Adam and Eve down, his shield “massy, large and round … Hung on his shoulders like the moon”. I’ve always imagined Satan with a big trekking backpack on his shoulders, because by the end of the simile, it’s clear that his shield isn’t quite moon-big, but would look so if “through optic glass the Tuscan Artist views” it. This artist is the astronomer Galileo Galilei, who challenged 17th century Europe’s beliefs that the earth was the centre of the universe and that it doesn’t move, insisting that the sun is at the centre and that the earth moves around it. The Church wasn’t impressed, and in1633, he was forced to retract his theories and convicted of “heresy”, spending the rest of his life under house arrest. Five years later, a young Milton would travel to France and Italy, and while in Florence, pay a visit to the aged Galileo. The Italian was blind, had challenged authority but been forced to surrender his beliefs, and was under house arrest: exactly like Milton would be when writing Paradise Lost. The experience had a lasting effect on Milton, particularly his opposition to censorship. It seems he couldn’t wait to include Galileo in the poem (Satan’s shield is less than 300 lines in) and there are further references to the astronomer. American writer Jonathan Rosen captures Milton and Galileo’s meeting perfectly: “it’s like those comic-book specials in which Superman meets Batman”. Only real. And way more epic.
Islam Issa is an award-winning writer and curator. He is Senior Lecturer in English at Birmingham City University.