John Milton's Hell
The Atlantic|January - February 2022
Cast into political exile, and into darkness by his failing eyesight, the poet was determined to accomplish “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”
By James Parker, Illustration by Christ Hellier; Corbis; Getty

Take us back, little time machine, with your bleepings and your flashings; take us back to crusty old London in the late 1650s, so we can clap the electrodes onto the sleeping head of blind John Milton. Let’s monitor the activity in the poet’s brain. Let’s observe its nocturnal waves. And let’s pay particular attention as his sightless eyes begin to flick and roll in deepest, darkest, dream-friendliest REM sleep, because it is at this point (we presume) that the spirit whom he calls Urania, a nightly visitor with a perfect—not to say Miltonic— command of blank verse, will manifest before his un conscious mind and give him the next 40 lines of Paradise Lost.

Is that really how it happened? Is it possible that the most monumental and cosmically scaled poem in the English language, nearly 11,000 lines of war in heaven, snakes in the garden, and the slamming of the gates behind Adam and Eve, was dictated by a voice in a dream? Did Milton—to put it another way—write Paradise Lost in his sleep? We’ve got only his word for it, of course, although it appears to be a fact that he arose each morning with lines of verse fully formed and ready for transcription. (For this task Milton seems to have availed himself of whoever happened to be around—to have “employed any casual visitor in disburthening his memory,” as Dr. Johnson wrote in his short biography.) Another fact: If he tried composing later in the day, he’d have no luck.

The conditions of the composition of Paradise Lost, we learn from Joe Moshenska’s new Making Darkness Light: A Life of John Milton, are a crucial part of the poem itself. Supernaturally inspired, spoken in darkness to one who lived in darkness, to an elected poet who also happened to be a disappointed revolutionary, this epic about the Fall of Man intimately concerns the fall of a man—one John Milton—and what he chose to do about it.

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