Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost by William Poole

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

William Poole’s publication is a testament to interesting academic scholarship. He defies the mantra that scholarly publications must, by their very nature, be arid publications. His style is pitched to an academic audience but is comprehensible without much effort by a group of undergraduates. The subtlety of the English language is paid due recognition time and again in the explication of some fine point that is not at first obvious but should have been all along. Surface understanding gives way on occasion to hidden comprehension. The book is an adventure into scholarship as joyful as it is enlightening.

This fascinating book is in two parts. Part One is about Milton as reader and scholar. Part Two (Chapters 14 – 22) presents the poem itself – its structure, its genre, its content, its purpose, its method, and what kind of reader it demands. Finally, as a coda, the author examines how the poem was turned into a classic by readers themselves. Poole describes it thus:

Paradise Lost “is, in brief, a double fall epic, with a creation epic embedded inside it, and a final visionary appendix bringing the poem to the end of human time – the first divine comedy, set within angelic and human tragedies, and then crowned with the final divine comedy, ending in salvation, at least for the just” (10).

At every turn Poole has something novel or unexpected to say. He tells his audience that the so-called birthday sonnet (discussed on page 39), addressing Milton’s underachievement to date, was written at the same time as “On Shakespear”- in which Milton “envisages the world of writing as one…in which great writers paralyze rather than inspire those who come after them…there is however…a hidden possibility in the grammar of the penultimate couplet…If we read the poem on the former grammar, Shakespeare is hard to escape, but if we read the poem on the latter grammar, Shakespeare must be escaped. Shakespeare only petrifies those who let him petrify them. There are here two poems living within one grid of words, and the second poem is more iconoclastic than the first” (39). Who has ever discussed this notion that Shakespeare was a petrifying force?

As if this is not original enough, Poole goes on with the argument that Milton is setting up Shakespeare as a writer of popular and insular drama for a fee-paying public, distinguished from Milton, “a polyglot European, as a late humanist, and wished both to root and to be praised for rooting his work in European, late humanist traditions” (40). Hence Milton’s put-down of Shakespeare – a vivid, but irrelevant force to the world of Milton. One might say that they occupy separate universes.

Part One continues to inform and entertain its readers but never fails to fire the shot that lights the imagination of those who thought they had a firm grasp on Miltonia. The poems of 1645 have always been uncomfortably located for they were written by a man who, at the time, professed Roundhead politics even to the extent of advocating the execution of a king, but who nevertheless wrote Cavalier-like verse. For Poole, the 1645 volume makes no sense if we begin from what we think we know of Milton’s politics and then try to make the poetry conform to that. As Poole well knows, Milton has a way around this awkward situation. Milton’s solution was, in part, to dematerialize his poems, to efface his political leanings on publication of his verse. Poole explains the implications of doing this as well as Milton’s mode of so doing.

(And then amid his description of the hustle-and-bustle and downright busyness of competitive poetry production comes Poole’s arresting description of Milton: “As a poet, he was a peninsula” (73). Always a pleasure to read you, Professor Poole, for of course Milton deliberately stood out from the rest, even to the extent of donating his [as yet largely unknown] works to John Rouse of the Bodleian).

An important section in Part One begins with Poole’s definition of systematic theology in Milton’s age as “a specific discipline, one directed toward assembling a coherent system of beliefs based on interconnected propositions, backed up by references to authoritative, that is to say biblical, texts” (90). From this Poole demonstrates Milton’s originality of understanding. His conception of God himself (with purity of compassion intact) and examples of Milton’s evolving thought about genuine philosophical problems. Poole sees Paradise Lost as a kind of experimental theology – “Milton challenges himself to make sense of the God of scripture, not simply through theological theory but in narrative practice” (94), describes Milton’s very dangerous belief that the Son is the first-begotten of all things, and therefore not God, and explicates the complicated Miltonic arguments that, in Milton’s creation God did not create out of nothing. He finds the origin of Chaos in God himself, not in nothing. Milton’s epic angels are far more like humans than any other early modern angels, but equipped with an elasticity of body and mind toward which even unfallen man could only strive. (101). Finally, when our heads can take no more, Poole levels us with the argument that, according to Milton, biblical text, if found repugnant to the inner conscience, may be safely ignored.

For Milton, logic is reason and reason is the manifestation of the internal scripture that is man’s ultimate guide to decision-making (103).

A change comes over the book when Chapter 11 begins to describe Milton’s response to going blind. The book takes on a pedestrian air for a brief time. Poole illuminates the response of his critics to Milton’s blindness, describes his use of amanuenses to take dictation from the poet, but then the tale morphs into an intricate but convincing argument that is in fact a warning that Milton issues to himself: Is it a mortal’s business to handle the things of the immortal? The answer to this question has obvious implications for the writing of Paradise Lost.

As Poole remarks in his climax to this chapter, “The slow reading of this crucial passage in Paradise Lost [3.3] produces an effect that challenges the faster, first encounter; blind Milton sees that he is handling holy things, and he trembles” (139).

It is at this point that Poole moves into Part Two with a graphic summary of Milton’s situation. It is early February 1658. “Milton is blind. His second wife dies on the third day of the month. Their infant daughter would very soon follow. It is a sizeable and increasingly fractious family for a sightless man to manage, and Milton is no longer really capable of discharging his official duties. He has not written any major poetry for several years…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” (145).

Poole likens the design of Paradise Lost to a complex clock “where every mechanism influences every other mechanism” (161). The poem describes almost the totality of imaginable time, from Heaven before the angelic revolt to the Second Coming. That is so vast as to be almost incomprehensible. But in this initial chapter Poole’s interest lies in structure, and through page after page of intricate argument he concludes that the original ten-book Paradise Lost “had its undoubted strengths of symmetrical parallelism around a central axis…while the twelve-book…[version] retains symmetry, while surpassing its earlier configuration in balance and harmony” (171).

From this point on the book becomes laden with references to works written before Paradise Lost; abstract discussions that only a scholar who had devoted his whole life to the study of this period would grasp, and esoteric references to past scholarship. The impression gained is that Poole is that scholar and is fully at home in the world of argument and counter-argument denied to the general reader.

This is a wonderfully stimulating book whose story advances our knowledge of the period while providing the heady excitement that so many books conceal. Highly recommended.

Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost


By William Poole

Harvard UP


$US29.95; 384pp



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