Citizen Milton
Title page of Paradise Lost (2nd ed. 1674)

Bodleian Library Bodleian Library, Oxford
Dec 2007 - Apr 2008

Text by Sharon Achinstein

Site designed by Richard Rowley

4. 'To Justify the Ways of God to Men': Paradise Lost

Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe.

So begins Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, with an ominous sense of failure. With Milton's republican cause lost, Cromwell's Protectorate gone, and monarchy re-established in England in 1660, Milton was not exempted from the general Act of Pardon. Nor were twenty-nine men who had supported the execution of Charles I, who were soon tried and publicly executed. Even those bodies of now-dead regicides were exhumed and subject to posthumous, public corporal punishment. Milton's books were publicly burned and the author arrested and imprisoned in Autumn 1660. However Milton was pardoned in December and released from prison. This experience of political and personal loss was recreated in his great poem, written after the return of monarchy, where the bard reflects that he is fallen "On evil dayes…/ In darknes, and with dangers compast round." To Milton, the republican experiment had yielded because the English were not yet ethically equipped to live under self-governance in a virtuous commonwealth. The poem depicts characters of exemplary virtue, those who dared to remain true to their commitment to liberty, as Milton writes of the loyal angel Abdiel: "To stand approv'd in sight of God, though Worlds/ Judg'd thee perverse." Paradise Lost seeks a remedy to history, to loss, and to doubt, in a wholescale education of its readers, to reclaim their place in the cosmos and their multiple responsibilities to their faith, to the natural world, and to each other.

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

Milton's great theme, set out in the opening line--"Of Man's First Disobedience"--hails acts of human choice as the focus of the entire poem. Adam and Eve's story is interwoven with that of God, Satan, angels and all of subsequent human history. This first edition appeared during a brief window of loosening of censorship—after the Fire of London and during a political upheaval--its undistinguished quarto format disguising the potentially incendiary ideas within.
4o H 58 Th.

Reading Paradise Lost
Milton's ideal citizen was to be an active reader, able to discern good from evil. Indeed, as he wrote in Areopagitica, "the knowledge and survey of vice in this world [is] necessary to the constituting of human virtue." Milton's readers wrestled with the powerful music, structure and themes of his great work, and evidence of their engagement lies in the marks they left in his books.

Reading Paradise Lost (1668)

Even poetic form has a political meaning. For the third state of the first edition, Milton added a polemical "Note on the Verse," defending his use of unrhyming blank verse. Then an unorthodox choice of poetic form for the prestigious genre of epic, Milton sees the liberation from rhyme as a recovery of "ancient liberty" from the "troublesome and modern bondage of Riming". The seventeenth-century reader of this copy appreciates Milton's metrical experimentation, as here where a change in rhythm is noted.
Douce MM 459

Paradise Lost (1668)

The anonymous reader was a theologian, reading and annotating first edition of the poem in the 1740s. Marking througout this copy, the reader praised especially fine passages in the poetry whilst contesting Milton's theology over questions of freedom. Especially notable is the rewrite of Milton's ending so it offers a more upbeat ending, certain of God's assurance.
Keble Spec. Col. XS (Misc) 16. Copy kindly lent by Keble College, Oxford.

A first notice of Paradise Lost.

In this letter to his cousin, date 22 January 1667, Sir John Hobart, a Norfolk Presbyterian M.P. who had supported the Commonwealth in the 1650s, and who later became a Whig leader, commented on his own personal response as well as on the poem's wider London reception:

"I have sent you a Poem, more extraordinary for the matter than verse, though the last is not very common. The subject great… in the opinion of the impartial learned, not only above all modern addepts in verse, but equal to any of the Ancient Poets. And his blind fate does not barely resemble Homer's fate, but his raptures and fancy brings him upon a nearer parallel. I must confess I have been strangely pleased in a deliberate and repeated reading of him…. I can say truly I never read any thing more august."

In a subsequent letter, dated 30 January 1667, Hobart had found out the identity of the author: "The author a criminal and obsolete person," but ranked the poem as of the very highest quality.
MS Tanner 45, f.258

Paradise Lost (1674)

For the second edition of the poem, Milton divided the ten books into twelve, reclaiming the model of Virgil's Aeneid from the courtly Augustanism of Dryden and Davenant. This octavo version, published July 1674, includes the last changes he finished before he died 8 November 1674. Milton was buried in St. Giles Cripplegate church.
From the title page of Paradise Lost (2nd ed. 1644).
Title page the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674).
[Full size image]
Dunston B1345

Paradise Lost (1674)

This is the first twelve-book edition of the poem, in a nicely printed octavo format, with a portrait engraving of Milton aged 63 made by William Dolle.
12 THETA 1123

Paradise Lost (1688)

Come the Whig revolution of 1688, Milton was hailed as a hero in the struggle for liberty, and this lavish edition of his poem became itself a proud landmark of English poetry. The fourth edition of Paradise Lost, published by Jacob Tonson in 1688, was the first to contain illustrations, with striking images by John Baptist Medina. By the time of Addison's influential essays for The Spectator (1728), the poem was proclaimed England's national epic.
Amand fol. 61(1)

Andrew Marvell's Milton
Milton came to know Andrew Marvell in the 1650s, and the two became friends. After he became totally blind, Milton took on the able Latinist Marvell as his assistant in the work for the Council of State. Come the Restoration, it may have been Marvell, then M.P. for Hull, who payed the fine for Milton's release from prison in December 1660. Marvell's commendatory poem was published in the 1674 Paradise Lost. When Milton was attacked in print in the early 1670s during the controversy over religious toleration, Marvell came to his defense in this witty pamphlet, which also defended toleration for religious dissenters.

Andrew Marvell, 'On Paradise Lost,' Paradise Lost (1674).

12 Theta 1123

Andrew Marvell, Rehearsal Transpros'd, the second part (1673).

8o C 558 Linc.

Top image: From the title page the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674).