On the 350th anniversary of Paradise Lost - review by Orlando Reade

Orlando Reade

Rebel Verses

On the 350th anniversary of Paradise Lost


In a second-rate Victorian mystery novel, Fergus Hume’s The Indian Bangle, a young woman captures the fate of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. ‘Everybody talks about it’, she says, ‘and no one reads it.’ This witticism goes unappreciated. The woman’s friend, a Miss Slarge, responds humourlessly: ‘I have read it.’ The exchange is a fitting comment on literary classics, always on the brink of falling out of fashion, but enduringly famous. This is especially true of Milton’s biblical epic, which has had a rich afterlife in the modern age.

Paradise Lost was published in its final form in July 1674, exactly 350 years ago. It had been published seven years earlier, but the first print run had sold out and Milton took the opportunity to make some important changes. He reorganised it from ten books to twelve to imitate Virgil’s Aeneid, and added prose summaries of the plot to the beginning of each book. In doing so, the ageing poet, who was blind and reliant on secretaries to write down his work, made his poem more readable. He believed it would be appreciated only by a ‘fit audience … though few’ – a small group of highly educated and virtuous readers – but he was wrong. In the past four centuries, it has circulated among women and men, Christians and atheists, the fit and the defiantly unfit.

In the first century after its publication, Paradise Lost became a classic. In an age of neoclassical tastes, Milton’s ability to imitate the epics of Homer and Virgil, and in some ways even surpass them, was widely admired. Milton was a radical who supported Parliament in the English Civil War,

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