Milton's Ten Pound Epic

Dan Graves, MSL

Milton's Ten Pound Epic

This date is preeminent in literature for one transaction. On this day, April 27, 1667, Milton sold the most magnificent epic in the English language, conveying the rights for Paradise Lost to Samuel Simmons.

Although the author was well-known, the sale roused little notice and the book went for a pittance, nor was there any urgency to get it through the press. Paradise Lost was not be published until August 20th. Despite this inauspicious start, it would become ranked by many next to the Bible.

The blind poet's lofty narrative required twelve books to tell. He dealt with the highest dramatic events known to us: the rebellion of Satan and the fall of man, both of which he accepted as literal facts. He shows Adam and Eve naive of evil and delighted with the garden of Eden; their sin and consequent woe; and God's promise of eventual restoration of all things through Jesus Christ.

Milton presented his epic in blank verse, knowing that rhymes would make it trite and weary the ear in that vast span of words. The majesty of iambic pentameter would best suit his conception. Theological truths which would not easily bear rhyme would work well with an unobtrusive alliteration. For example, God says of Adam and Eve:

". . .they themselves decreed
their own revolt, not I. If I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault."

It is remarked that Milton achieved his finest effects depicting the rebel Satan. A Puritan, Milton participated in the revolt against Charles I. No doubt this helped him frame the sentiment he ascribed to Satan: "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav'n." Try as he will to pervert God's purpose, however, Satan is ultimately thwarted; evil is transformed by God into the means for good.

"Who seeks to lessen thee,
against his purpose serves
To manifest the more thy might: his evil
Thou usest, and from thence creat'st more good."

To write such lines, Milton must have meditated long on Joseph's words to the very brothers who had sold him into slavery: "You intended it for evil, but God meant it for good, for the saving of many lives."

This work of unparalleled genius earned Milton £ 5 with promise of £5 more at publication and £5 for each reprinting. According to the agreement entered that April day the number of copies to be printed with each impression was limited. "[The] impression shall be accounted to be ended when thirteen hundred books of the said whole copy, or manuscript imprinted shall be sold or retailed off to particular reading customers. . ." Millions have sold since.

Bibliography:

  1. Bagehot, Walter. "John Milton." Literary Studies. London: J.M. Dent, 1911.
  2. Chateaubriand, François-Réné. The Genius of Christianity: or, The spirit and beauty of the Christian religion; Translated by Charles I. White. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1856. See the chapter on "Paradise Lost."
  3. Collins, Rowland L. Fourteen British and American Poets. New York: Macmillan, 1964. pp. 54 - 75.
  4. Gehring, Albert. The Religion of Thirty Great Thinkers. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1925.
  5. Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Milton's Paradise Lost. London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.
  6. Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Essays on Milton and Addison. Edited for school use by Thomas Marc Parrott. New York and Chicago: Globe School Book Company, 1901.
  7. Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Various editions.
  8. "Milton, John." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  9. "Milton, John." Kunitz, Stanley L. British Authors Before 1800; a biographical dictionary. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1952.
  10. "Milton, John." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  11. "Milton, John." Websters New World Companion to English and American Literature. New York: Popular Library, 1976.
  12. Ruoff, Henry W. Masters of Achievement; the world's greatest leaders in literature, art, religion, philosophy, science, politics and industry. Buffalo, New York: The Frontier press company, 1911.
  13. Thorpe, James, Editor. Milton Criticism; selections from four centuries. New York: Rinehart, 1950.
  14. Untermeyer, Louis. "Blind Visionary: John Milton." Lives of the Poets. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.
  15. Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945.

Last updated April, 2007.

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