The interesting life of John Milton
1. As a teenager, John Milton began writing an epic poem in Latin about the Gunpowder Plot. John Milton (1608-74) wanted to write an epic poem from an early age. He left his first attempt, in quintum novembris (‘Remember, remember…’), unfinished, but this early work shows how much the idea of Paradise Lost had gestated over a period of some forty years. It is Satan – the villain (antihero?) of Paradise Lost – who suggests the idea of the Gunpowder Plot to the Pope, who then enlists the help of Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, and the others. Later on, in his early thirties, Milton announced his plan to write a great Arthurian epic in English – like Spenser’s The Faerie Queene but with more classical control over the subject and narrative – but he never got around to writing the poem.
2. John Milton’s masterpiece, Paradise Lost, features all sorts of weird details. Among the oddest descriptions in Paradise Lost is the following passage, which is essentially about angels farting: ‘Tasting concoct, digest, assimilate, /And corporeal to incorporeal turn.’ Indeed, although it’s often viewed as a pious epic retelling of the Fall of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis, Milton’s depiction of God (as talking like a ‘constipated civil servant’, in Terry Eagleton’s phrase), and his portrayal of Satan as a seductive and charismatic villain, have led critics and poets to wonder whether Milton was – in William Blake’s phrase – ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. For the critic William Empson, the God of Milton’s poem was the real villain, and Satan the liberator.
3. The word ‘pandemonium’ was coined by John Milton as the name for the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost. It means ‘all demons’. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary also credits John Milton with the first known use of a whole host of other useful words. Among the words first found in Milton’s writing are awe-struck, cooking, criticise, damp, debauchery, disregard, exhilarating, extravagance, incidental, lovelorn, stunning, terrific, unconvincing, and undesirable. The word ‘space’ – in the sense of ‘outer space’ – also made its debut in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Meanwhile, Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ features the phrase ‘fresh woods and pastures new’, which gave rise to the misquotation ‘fresh fields and pastures new’.
4. In 1638, while in Florence, Milton met Galileo. One of the greatest English poets of the seventeenth century meeting one of the greatest astronomers of the age is rather exciting. It’s even been speculated that Galileo’s description of space and the planets influenced Milton’s description of the heavens in Paradise Lost. Milton recorded his meeting with Galileo in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, an important early defence of freedom of the press.
5. An 1852 edition of John Milton’s Poetical Works was bound in the skin of a murderer, George Cudmore. Cudmore, convicted of poisoning his wife, had been hanged in 1830. A bookseller named Clifford somehow came into possession of Cudmore’s skin, following the medical dissection of Cudmore’s body. Clifford bound a copy of the 1852 edition of Milton’s Works with Cudmore’s skin.
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Image: Picture of John Milton, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.