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Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost


William Poole


Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017

Hardcover. xiii+368 p. ISBN 978-0674971073. $29.95


Reviewed by Warren Chernaik

University of London






Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost is an excellent book, perhaps the most original and interesting book on Milton since John Leonard’s Faithful Labourers (2013) and Stephen Fallon’s Milton’s Peculiar Grace (2007). One of the strengths of the book is that, in spite of its wide scope, it is clearly focused: as Poole says in his introduction (and as “making” in its title implies), his “intention is to explain the genesis of the poem and how its writer came to be in a position to write it” [xii].The Milton of Poole’s book is definitely Milton the humanist, or Milton the scholar. There is little here about politics, still less about Milton the Dissenter (in a brisk aside, Poole says such subjects have been ‘done to death’ in Milton criticism [xii]), and such key prose works as The Readie and Easie Way and The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates get scarcely a mention. The book has two closely related halves. The first part traces Milton’s development in the 1630s and 1640s, his progress toward the great “undertaking”, the promise that he might “leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die”, and, if this is not ambitious enough, that he could also, by his narrative, justify the ways of God to men, offering a solution to the problem of the existence of evil [5-6]. The second part is a detailed, consistently illuminating commentary on Paradise Lost, with particular emphasis on its theology, on its relationship to the classical tradition, and on possible conflict between Christian and pagan sources influencing the poem. Poole’s Milton is backward-looking, highly conscious of the traditions in which he is working, aware of recent developments in scientific thought but suspicious of such innovations. Everything he reads and cogitates on is subordinated to the great task, the poem gradually taking shape and written, with the help of amanuenses, between 1658 and 1663, overcoming the terrible burden of blindness.

Poole has a gift for clear expository writing and equal clarity of argument, and the book is full of trenchant, often witty phrases. At the same time, the book is the product of a great deal of patient research into the obscure by-ways of scholarship, presented in formidable detail, and this may create a problem of intended audience. Much of the material presented in text and footnotes will be unfamiliar even to veteran Milton scholars, and some of it is genuinely illuminating. But not all readers are likely to want to know about Latin poems by Alexander Gil, whom Milton knew in his youth, or about “the primal creation narrative of the Phoenician hierophant Sanchuniathon, as reported by his Greek translator Philo of Byblis”, which may have found its way into Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel, which Milton may have read [220-223]. In treating Milton’s literary sources, Poole goes well beyond the familiar Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, and includes some fascinating material about the Hellenistic poet Apollonius of Rhodes and his epic Argonautica, as well as its sequel in Latin by Valerius Flaccus. Hesiod, Lucan, and Lucretius play prominent roles in Poole’s account, and he is always alert to ways in which Milton modified or reinterpreted the classical poets by whom he was influenced; his scholarship is always seasoned by a sharp critical intelligence.

In Part II, Poole is particularly interested in creation, cosmology, and scientific speculation in Paradise Lost: chapter headings include “Creating a Universe” and “Scientific Epic”, and like other recent Milton critics, he devotes a great deal of attention to Books VII and VIII. In Part I, there are excellent chapters on Milton’s own schooling and on his ideas about education, investigating how these principles may have been carried out in the school he ran (where the students included his nephews Edward and John Phillips). Poole shows that Milton’s own syllabus follows his advice in the tractate Of Education, and, though demanding, was not, as often has been said, the work of an impractical idealist. His experiences at university, which he hated, might have led him to contemplate a scheme of education that might “render the universities, at least as undergraduate institutions, obsolete” [63]. Another fine chapter, “Drafts for Drama”, uses a detailed analysis of Milton’s lists of possible Biblical subjects in the Trinity Manuscript to speculate on dramatic elements in Paradise Lost and on European Neo-Latin tragedy as another tradition underlying Milton’s poem. The chapters entitled “Ambitions” and “Securing a Reputation” make a case for the young rising poet not only pursuing a path through various genres, moving up from pastoral and georgic to epic, like his master Virgil, but engaged in a competitive struggle with contemporary rival poets. The claim that the young Milton “envisages the world of writing as one of not collaboration but competition” [39] seems to me an oversimplification, but these chapters include some perceptive comments on Milton’s self-presentation in his writings. Another good chapter, both economical and wide-ranging, treats Milton’s blindness, with (among other things) useful remarks on other blind poets and seers Milton cites in Paradise Lost. The chapter on “Creating a Universe” in Part II emphasises the way Milton meticulously constructs “a coherent cosmos and chronology for his poem” [184]: here I find the attempt to map out the exact chronology of events (with Satan whispering in Eye’s ear at 9 pm on the twenty-third day) less convincing than the way Poole raises questions about the presentation of Chaos in Book II and about the dialogue between Raphael and Adam on speculation and the cosmos in Book VIII.

Chapter 16, “Epic Disruption”, like the two chapters that follow on “military” and “scientific” epic, makes a convincing case to show how “epic imitation for Milton carries with it a subtle incrimination of what it imitates” [191]. The emphasis in these chapters is more on what Milton may have read and what use he made of it than on how a reader might approach Milton’s poem, but the concentration upon Milton the antiquarian casts light on Paradise Lost in unexpected ways. More or less as asides, there are some shrewd insights, neatly expressed: that one reason Satan has troubled readers is that, in epic tradition, “he was the ‘hero’ of the poem, and yet from every theological and ethical stance he was the ultimate villain” [192], and that Raphael’s account of the War in heaven has two audiences, the as yet unfallen Adam and “the fallen reader, who unlike Adam has a full knowledge of warfare” and its consequences [204]. “Pastoral Tragedy”, the chapter on Adam and Eve in Books IX and X, is one of the most accessible in Poole’s study, full of detailed observations on how Milton represents the Fall and its aftermath. By presenting Adam and Eve after their creation as grown-ups, Milton suggests, unconventionally, that “the actions of sexually mature adults are not in themselves sinful” [230], allowing for the possibility of sex in Eden.

The two most original and intellectually challenging chapters in Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost are chapters 20 and 21, “Contamination and Doubles” and “Justifying the Ways of God to Men”. By “contamination”, Poole means ambivalence, the way allusions, “twinnings”, comparisons work two ways, complicating the possible response of readers to passages in the poem, often suggesting a “darker internal narrative” [248, 261]. The comparisons of Eden to other gardens, “that fair field /Of Enna, where Proserpin gathering flours /Her self a fairer Floure by gloomie Dis /Was gatherd...”, for example, for all their beauty, showing how the true paradise surpasses all the “suppos’d” paradises imagined earlier, have threatening undertones [PL,IV.268-271, 281]. “Milton’s fallen gardens all allude to the coming fate of Eden, and they contaminate our encounter with Eden as a yet unfallen space” [250]. One source of contamination is when classical imitations are “Christianised,” thus subjecting Milton’s source to a critique while, at the same time, the Miltonic passages find themselves “contaminated by that very association” [244]. The chapter includes sensitive, subtle commentary on how Eve is both like and unlike Ovid’s Narcissus, on the implications of imagery of ascent and descent, on the parody of divine creation and of pagan myth in the birth of Sin from the head of Satan in Book II, and on how Adam’s account of his creation differs from that by Eve. More than in any other chapter in the book, Poole uses his command of classical learning to illuminate the poem, examined in close analytical detail.

Chapter 21 is one of two concerned with theology. The first of these, “Systematic Theology”, is largely a rehash of Poole’s earlier account in Milton in Context (2010), and gives a careful account of Milton’s heterodox theology, as set forth in De Doctrina Christiana. The later chapter shows how Milton’s unconventional anti-Trinitarian and Arminian beliefs have consequences in the action of Paradise Lost. Here Poole not only explains clearly what theological Arminianism is, but what this means for the poem, in its treatment of the two Falls, of angels and of Adam and Eve: “The reason why God is an Arminian is that for Milton to argue otherwise would be to deprive man (and angel) of moral agency” [266]. This of course is the position Milton sets forth in Areopagitica in presenting “freedom to choose” as God’s gift to Adam, Eve, and their descendants, differentiating rational beings from mere puppets. Though Poole points out that in certain respects, especially a belief in original sin, “universal culpability”, strict Calvinists and Arminians agreed, his claim that, because of this shared belief, Milton “in no sense believed in man’s radical freedom,” seems to me questionable, at variance with Poole’s overall argument [267]. In treating temptation and fall in angels and humans, Poole is alert to differences as well as similarities, making the important point that there is an “arbitrary” element in the test God sets for Adam and Eve and in the moment in Book V when God declares his Son the “Head” of all the angels, to be obeyed by them [270-273; PL, V. 600-615]. With Adam and Eve, the theological basis of the Fall (freedom to choose, and punishment if they choose wrongly) is similar, but there is more of an emphasis on their interaction, “as they work their way from recrimination to repentance”: “Milton ... details the human workings behind the theological concepts, investigating what kind of personal processes could lead to the known result” [276]. In this chapter and in the book as a whole, the experience of reading Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost is invigorating, bringing out aspects of the poem we might never have considered before.  


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