Textual History: Producing a Paradise

John Milton’s Paradise Lost was a piece of work that had gone through some transformations on its way to the printing press and eventually eyes of the world. Milton’s eye-opening epic sheds light especially on a section of the bible called Genesis, and he elaborates on the fall of man. Milton’s purpose of writing Paradise Lost can be seen in Book I, “That to the heighth of this great argument/ I may assert Eternal Providence/ And justify the ways of God to men.” (lines 24-26, Milton). In order for Milton to fulfill his purpose in writing this epic, he had to take the fall of man as it was in Genesis, and create a whole new perspective out of it, along with individual viewpoints of each of the characters in Genesis as well. Milton went even further to create a Heaven, Hell, and Paradise to intensify his purpose. To create a work that would create a significant impact, Paradise Lost was produced out of many resources and influences that were at Milton’s disposal. In order to present this magnificent piece of work to the world, Milton had to develop a method and niche of delivering his message, use influences from past literature from classic authors, and consider the time and resources available to him.

Paradise Lost’s early workings were like a seed that had transformed into something bigger and Milton’s plan of creating a tragedy had transformed into an epic. Years before even starting on Paradise Lost, Milton had written up four drafts of a tragedy titled Adam Unparadized (Teskey xxiv). Adam Unparadized was a sort of an early outline for the final Paradise Lost draft. There is a manuscript that is called the “Trinity Manuscript”, which shows notes and outlines about historical and biblical tragedies such as Solomon being ruled by his wives and the Great Flood (Flannagan 71). Milton took these notes because they could be used as possible concepts and fodder for writing tragedies. Milton figured that he could use a “tragedy-type” format of writing and prose because Shakespeare had written works that had tragedies embedded in them. Milton saw this as a sort of niche and “vessel” to deliver his own message. However, Milton’s definition of a tragedy was entirely different than Shakespeare’s trademark Elizabethan style. Milton thought of tragedies as a way to educate and teach an English person valuable lessons about life through the use of instructive history and bible stories or a combination of the two (Flannagan 72). Paradise Lost initially started out as a plan for a tragic story, and it eventually evolved into an epic because of what Milton had to add to his drafts in order to make his purpose, “…to justify the ways of God to men”, known and understood.

The evolution and transformation of this tragedy into an epic had much to do with the structure and influences Milton had in mind. Milton observed the way Roman and Greek authors presented protagonists, antagonists, messengers; the unities of time, setting, and action; and plot devices such as epitasis and catastrophe (Flannagan 71). Traces of this type of protagonist and antagonist structure were obviously implemented into Paradise Lost, with Satan and God being at opposite ends of the universe Milton created in his epic. With a sort of structure in mind, Milton was able to build from this foundation in order to present something educational for his nation. Milton had to also create dialogue between Adam and Eve, Eve and the Serpent, motives for the Serpent, Satan IN and AS the serpent, and also motives for Adam and Eve to disobey the one rule God set for them (Flannagan 73). With all these factors and concepts put together, Milton would be able to describe what exactly it would mean to disobey God’s one commandment. Although blind during the majority of the production of Paradise Lost, Milton never lost sight of the importance of the origin of evil, which he wanted to include in his tragedy turned epic.

Milton called upon biblical sources and past literature as possible influences during the production of Paradise Lost. Solomon and his wives could very well be an influence, for Solomon being ruled by his wives could be the source of the dialogue and scene of Adam being swayed by Eve when she ate from the forbidden tree.  In the Trinity Manuscript, there were also notes about the theme of temptation which is obviously prevalent in Paradise Lost; Milton took notes on the temptation of the serpent with Adam and Eve, along with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Flannagan 71). Milton also used elements from Metamorphosis as an influence as well. Milton uses Ovid’s story of Narcissus to show how Adam and Eve reflect on each other and also how they reflect on the divine source whose image they both are as well (Kilgour 310). This single story of Narcissus echoes throughout Paradise Lost as Milton connects it and applies it in creating his epic. The creation of Eve from Adam also displays traces of the story of Narcissus in a way. Eve was created out of Adam, and Adam and Eve are in an intimate relationship with each other and they also act and think differently from one another. Influences such as these, intertwine together in order to create Milton’s ideal educational epic tragedy.

Upon completion of his epic in 1665, it was not until 1667 that it was published by a man named Samuel Simmons (Luxon). In the two years after the epic’s completion, there were events going on at that time that would have stunted both production and distribution of Milton’s epic. There was the second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665 that had created a paper shortage and the Great Fire of London in 1666 (Luxon). In 1667 when it was finally published, it was presented as a two-part tragedy in ten books, likely paying homage to its dramatic roots using Lucan’s Pharsalia as a structural model (Orgel & Goldberg xiv). It was from this year on however, that Paradise Lost began to transform from being a dramatic piece of work into an immortal epic. The publisher had also asked Milton to supply an Argument, therefore prose summaries were inserted before each book (Orgel & Goldberg xiv). Paradise Lost was a puzzling and challenging piece as well, so Milton was asked to write why he had chosen to write in blank verse instead of the conventional method of writing at the time which was rhyme verse (Orgel & Goldberg xiv). These changes and transformations have made Paradise Lost even more engaging and further help Milton’s goal of educating the masses. In 1674, the year of Milton’s death, Samuel Simmons opted to revise Paradise Lost and split two long books and added some transitional lines turning the old tragic Lucanian piece, into a Virgilian epic (Orgel & Goldberg xiv). The final 1674 version included all of these factors, two dedication poems in Latin and English, along with content by Andrew Marvell (Orgel & Goldberg xiv).

It is certain that Paradise Lost had gone through significant growth and evolution regarding the influences, structure, and resources Milton used when producing it. The final product was also at the mercy of the publisher, which had a significant impact on how we view, read, and analyze Paradise Lost today. Milton created a universe that encompassed Heaven, Hell, and Paradise, and within these realms he had also created characters that each had their own perspective and viewpoints. All at the same time weaving in themes and life lessons in the hopes that they would impact the lives of generations to come. Milton was successful at creating his own special writing niche, incorporating previous influences, and developing a final product that would turn into one of the greatest pieces of English literature. This particular piece of literature was and still is able to challenge the minds of readers and scholars everywhere.


Flannagan, Roy. John Milton: A Short Introduction, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers 2002

Goldberg, Jonathan. Orgel, Stephen. Paradise Lost, New York, Oxford University Press 2004

Kilgour, Maggie, ‘‘Thy perfect image viewing’’: Poetic Creation and Ovid’s Narcissus in Paradise Lost, Studies in Philology, Volume 102, Number 3, Summer 2005, pp. 307-339, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press 2005

Luxon, Thomas H., Ed. The Milton Reading Room, <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton>, March, 2008.

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