Milton's great epic (1667) is built upon the stories and myths — in the Bible and in the classical tradition — through which Western men and women have sought to understand the meaning of their experience of life. Attention to some of these materials and to the ways in which Milton draws upon, and departs from, other versions and interpretations of those stories will enrich the reading of his poem.

The foundation story, of course, is the Genesis account of the Creation of the world and of Adam and Eve, culminating in the drama of their temptation and Fall. By Milton's time, the seventeenth century, that story had been reformulated in many translations in many languages and had accumulated many centuries of interpretive commentary, Jewish and Christian. Milton, in undertaking an imaginative, poetic re-creation of that story, had necessarily to accept, revise, or counter the views offered by such influential commentators as Saint Augustine and the Reformation theologian John Calvin. He probably did not know Rachel Speght's commentary, A Muzzle for Melastomus (NAEL 8, 1.1546-49) , or Aemilia Lanyer's poem Eve's Apology in Defense of Women (NAEL 8, 1.1317–19), but these texts provide the first examples of women turning Genesis commentary to feminist account. The various commentators' views — about Adam and Eve, about the Edenic garden, about prelapsarian conditions of life, about the Tree of Knowledge, about the nature of man and woman as created, about marriage as first instituted, and about the causes of the Fall — can be usefully compared to Milton's own analyses in his theological tract Christian Doctrine, which remained unpublished until the nineteenth century, as well as his poetic representations of such matters in Paradise Lost.

During his tour of Italy in 1638–39, Milton probably saw some of the numerous representations of aspects of the Genesis story in Renaissance paintings and tapestries. We do not know which ones he saw, but certain remarkable images may have stimulated his imagination. A representative sample is included here: Veronese's Creation of Eve, Cranach's Adam and Eve, Dürer's The Fall, two of the Medici tapestries presenting The Fall and The Judgement of Adam and Eve, and Masaccio's The Expulsion.

[Click on image to enlarge] Milton's poem also draws on such repositories of classical myth as Ovid's Metamorphoses (NAEL 8, 1.704-05) and other literary analogues. Ovid's narrative of the myth of Narcissus resonates throughout the story told by Milton's Eve about her first coming to consciousness (NAEL 8, 1.1897). Two allegorical interpretations of the Narcissus myth — by Milton's contemporary George Sandys, the translator of Ovid, and by Sigmund Freud — may highlight how Milton reworks that myth. The poetic version of the Fall story in Guillaume Du Bartas's hexameral poem The Divine Weeks and Works provides another kind of literary analogue. In Joshua Sylvester's translation that work was extremely popular, and Milton certainly knew it. Finally, the epic tradition itself was a major literary resource for Milton: it is sampled here through the opening passages — propositions and invocations — of four epics central to Milton's idea of that genre: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered. Milton's epic proposition and invocation (NAEL 8, 1.1832-33) may be compared to these, and also Milton's defense of his better kind of tragic epic (NAEL 8, 1.1973–74). Homer and Virgil did not use rhyme, and Milton scorned it in heroic poems as a "troublesome and modern bondage"; accordingly, the classical epics are represented here by modern unrhymed translations. Tasso did employ rhyme, as did his Elizabethan translator Edward Fairfax.

The first important criticism of Milton's epic was provided by his good friend the poet Andrew Marvell, in a commendatory poem published in 1674 along with the second edition of Paradise Lost. It invites comparison with later prose criticism by Addison (NAEL 8, 1.2485) and Samuel Johnson (NAEL 8, 1.2769).

Responding visually to Paradise Lost are a set of engravings by John Baptist Medina that were included in the elaborate folio edition of Paradise Lost in 1688. Several of the Medina images, notably those included here, provide their own interesting interpretations of crucial scenes in the poem.

Not surprisingly, the Genesis text and its interpretive tradition resonate in many literary texts, among them Ben Jonson's To Penshurst (NAEL 8, 1.1434), Lanyer's Description of Cooke-ham (NAEL 8, 1.1319), Marvell's Bermudas and The Garden (NAEL 8, 1.1698, 1710). Many later texts, among them Denham's Cooper's Hill, Pope's Rape of the Lock and Essay on Man (NAEL 8, 1.2513, 2540), Blake's Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, Thel, and Marriage of Heaven and Hell (NAEL 8, 2.81, 87, 97, 110), Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality and The Prelude (NAEL 8, 2.306, 322), and Yeats's Adam's Curse (NAEL 8, 2.2028), respond not only to the Genesis story but also to Milton's poetic development of it.


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