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Thread: When did John Milton conceive Paradise Lost?

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    Registered User PSRemeshChandra's Avatar
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    When did John Milton conceive Paradise Lost?

    It is known that the actual writing of Paradise Lost was done after Milton lost his sight and the epic was being dictated to his daughter who wrote it down. Many consider this great epic as an appendage and suffix to his religious essays of later years. Moreover, Paradise Lost fits the description of a religious work. But in one of his very earlier poems, there is a reference that he writes that poem to escape from the tediousness and sadness of indulging for too long in such themes as were attempted to be elaborated in Paradise Lost. Thus we will have to believe that the theme of Paradise Lost was conceived far earlier than what has been generally accepted, conceived at least in his mind, though actually not had been written it seems. The evidence in this poem is such strong that we may have to theorize Paradise Lost was not at all a religious creation by Milton, but that it was created out of juvenile fancy and fascination for the cosmic and the eternal. It would be good and interesting to know what information is available with the learned Forum Members in this regard.

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    I remember reading about this after I first read PL several years ago, and I do know that you're right insofar as Milton had conceived of creating an epic poem in English on part with the Greek and Roman greats. Though, IIRC, he originally intended it to be about King Arthur. I don't remember what I read about his decision to change the subject matter, or for how long his cosmological, character, poetic, narrative, etc. models had been floating around in his head. I have to believe it was quite a while, because PL is so pristinely, minutely crafted, although that was also probably a product of how much time and care he took in writing it.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

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    Pro Libertate L.M. The Third's Avatar
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    Yes, from an early age he intended to write an "English" epic poem, modeled on the epics of other cultures and languages. I believe John Rogers (his Yale lectures on Milton have been posted on a thread here and are thoroughly fascinating) believes his change from the more-clearly "English" subject of King Arthur to the story of the creation and the fall was influenced by his part in the revolution under Cromwell and deposition of the monarchy. Everyone knows how well and sympathetically Milton portrayed Satan, rebelling against the theocracy of heaven and ostensibly trying to institute a more democratic form of government. I think that the appeal to the blind revolutionary is obvious.

    One of these lectures (I can't remember which - it's probably one of the first on PL) goes into his choice and its influences further.
    http://oyc.yale.edu/english/milton/c.../sessions.html

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by L.M. The Third View Post
    One of these lectures (I can't remember which - it's probably one of the first on PL) goes into his choice and its influences further.
    http://oyc.yale.edu/english/milton/c.../sessions.html
    Thanks for that link. I'm definitely going to make it a point to read it ASAP. Milton is one of the few poets who, and whose works, I never tire reading about.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    It depends. At the latest, in his very early twenties he resolved that he would write an epic - he most likely got this idea in his late teens while he was attending Christ's College at Cambridge. He always had an affinity for poetry, though; at St. Paul's School in London (he attended 1620-25) he read works by Spenser and Guillaume Du Bartas and was purportedly greatly influenced by them. I think his idea about making the epic (that would eventually become about Satan) about King Arthur probably stemmed from a desire to complete the second half (books 12-24) of The Faerie Queene; if not, it was at least inspired by it. Not sure why he changed his mind, but it's easy to speculate. There are probably more reasons behind it than the one L.M. has given.

    If we ask when was Paradise Lost as we know it conceived then my answer is this: from the moment he put down his pen. The whole conception of it was an evolution, though, which started when he was considerably young.

    Quote Originally Posted by PSRemeshChandra View Post
    The evidence in this poem is such strong that we may have to theorize Paradise Lost was not at all a religious creation by Milton, but that it was created out of juvenile fancy and fascination for the cosmic and the eternal.
    Many of the religious elements in the text are pretty much beyond question - the attack on idolatry first springs to mind. Even so, he starts out by declaring that he's going to out-do the Bible; the man wasn't dumb enough to make hollow claims like that, and if it is chutzpah it's certainly not disingenuous chutzpah.
    Last edited by Cunninglinguist; 03-31-2011 at 12:34 AM.
    Dare to know

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    RE: When did John Milton conceive Paradise Lost

    There is some very interesting scholarship both on the potential dating of Paradise Lost's conception, and on the sources/influences that led to this. We do know that as late as 1651, Milton was altering his concept for the epic. He had moved from his desire to write of King Arthur possibly for political, as well as historical reasons (King Arthur had come to be associated with the royalists, and swiftly developing historical research was discrediting the supposed historicity of Geoffrey Monmouth's History of the King's of Britain, which linked the monarchy to a supposedly historical figure of Arthur). During this period, we know that Milton began to take an interest in Anglo-Saxon history- he made many notations in the Cambridge manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, which also contained the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. One such notation speaks admiringly of Alfred the Great, and it appears at this time that Milton shifted his attractions from a royalist, fictional figure of Arthur to the more parliamentarian Alfred. Of course, this bears the question of why he did not write an epic depicting Alfred. The answer to this may also be contained in the Anglo-Saxon works- the Cambridge manuscript contains a notation Milton made beside the 9 lines Bede wrote of an Old English poet, Caedmon (most frequently know by literature students for Caedmon's Hymn)- Bede said very little, but what he did effected Milton greatly, as he credited Caedmon with creating a religious epic and revival of religious fervor in Anglo-Saxon period. Milton wrote an enthusiastic note of this in commonplace book which contained Bede's entry.

    The reason it is believed that Milton did not begin true conception of the religious nature of his epic until this time, is due to the discover in 1651 (by a Dutch Philologist Franciscus Junius) of a manuscript of Caedmon's previously undiscovered work, Genesis . This work bears striking similarities to Paradise Lost, enough so that scholars began researching the possibility that John Milton might have been familiar with it. The work was not made available publicly until 1655, and by this time Milton would have been blind for three years. However, there is correspondence between Milton and Junius during the year 1651, and dated after Junius would have been in possession of the Genesis manuscript. As the correspondence gives the impression that the two scholars had a relatively close relationship, it is entirely possible that Milton became familiar with Caedmon's text and, given his earlier admiration and inspiration to become a religious poet from Bede's remarks, it is not unlikely that the conception for a religious epic began around 1651, and was more fine tuned once he became familiar with Caedmon's Genesis.

    In terms of similarities, scholars note Caedmon's depiction of Satan in particular; he too gave the fallen being a voice, and crafted him with marked rhetorical genius. There is, however, a dissimilarity between the works: Caedmon depicts Satan as chained in Hell, much as Milton does at the start of Book I, however, Caedmon writes the fallen angel as trapped there, and still contained in the chains, thus having the temptation of Eve carried out by a minion in the form of a serpent, rather than Satan himself. The reason for this is likely the different religious concerns of the two writer's time periods, and their purpose in writing the works; Caedmon was writing in the 7th century, pre-Reformation (creating a different religious context) in addition to this, Caedmon's work is a mere 106 lines and, though it certainly contains interesting characterization of Satan, it appears more concerned with a simple retelling of the Genesis story, rather than producing a complex doctrinal reading/refashioning of the biblical text. The potential reasons for that are, unfortunately, a discussion for another time.

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    Pro Libertate L.M. The Third's Avatar
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    This was the Caedmon who was associated with the Abbess Hilda, right? May I ask what your primary source on him was and where I might read his Genesis? And how widely circulated was it after its discovery?

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    Registered User PSRemeshChandra's Avatar
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    Link to Caedmond's Genesis.

    Caedmond's Genesis is still in circulation. For L.M.The Third's reference, a link to his 18 poems including 17 from Genesis is noted here. Hope they would be interesting to read in the present times.


    http://www.poemhunter.com/caedmon/

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