Marcus Nevitt

Another Eden

William Poole uncovers the vast number of classical authors Milton consulted before embarking on Paradise Lost

In December 1996 Martin Amis told listeners of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs what would relieve his solitude were he to end up cast away in paradise with one piece of music, a luxury and a book for company. He chose Coleman Hawkins’s version of the jazz standard ‘Yesterdays’ as his only record — seduction music, he suggested — and opted for the luxury of an unlimited Sky Sports subscription package.

Amis’s preferred book, in this company, sounded similarly butch: John Milton’s Paradise Lost as edited by Alastair Fowler for the Longman Annotated English Poets series in 1968. Fowler’s edition of Milton’s epic poem remains a monumental feat of textual scholarship; a page frequently presents just half a dozen lines of blank verse above many hundreds of editorial words intricately tracing the poem’s echoes, the labyrinthine complexity of its allusions. Milton and Fowler are, Amis’s choice implies, Premier League.

So, too, is William Poole’s smart and original book on Paradise Lost, built upon the very best traditions of patient philological work represented by Fowler’s edition. It offers a complex literary history by way of an extended biographical reading of a single poem; it demonstrates with astonishing exactitude how Milton’s life and — most impressively of all — his reading enabled this epic.

It makes perfect sense to use this single poem as a focal point for the analysis of this particular life. Milton was from an early age absolutely convinced he would write his nation’s great heroic poem. During his tour of Italy, he impressed the literary academies by announcing himself as the writer of a Protestant epic (when he hadn’t yet written a word of it). And even though he didn’t much like his student days at Christ’s College Cambridge — he ‘never greatly admired’ the place, one early pamphlet remarks — he passed his time there with an unswerving clarity of purpose that would bring joy to the heart of many a modern careers adviser.

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