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  Sonnets Milton’s “plagiarism”  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 15. Paradise Lost.

On the origin, date and circumstances of the great poem that broke his silence, a very great deal has been written. That Paradise Lost was entered at Stationers’ Hall (that is to say, that it was printed and ready for sale) on 20 August, 1667, is the main documentary fact. Four months earlier, on 27 April, Milton had executed with Samuel Simmons the famous agreement for four payments of five pounds each, one down, the second when 1300 copies should have been sold, the third when a second edition on the same scale should have been absorbed and the fourth at the exhaustion of a third. But, in each, Simmons was allowed an extra 200 copies on which he was to pay nothing. The MS., of course, had been submitted for licensing;  7  and the actual censor—a chaplain of the archbishop of Canterbury named Tomkyns—had made slight objections but had not persisted in them. The volume, a small quarto, with the poem in ten books, not twelve, was published at 3s., and the second payment fell in about a year and a half (26 April, 1669) after the first. Further, the variations of title-page, and, in a less degree, of text, usual in the same edition of books at the time, are unusually great here, and have been carefully tabulated, so far as possible, by Masson. The most important is the notable addition on “The Verse,” which did not appear till 1668.   42
  These things, in their various degrees, are certainties; and it is a further certainty that, after Milton’s death, his widow compounded for the third five pounds (already due) and the fourth which was accruing, for the present payment, in December, 1680, of eight pounds. The popular version of the matter seldom gets the total—£18—right; but that is not the most important blunder or fallacy connected with it. It is as certain that the offer of £18,000 will not produce a Paradise Lost, as that the actual fee or guerdon of £18 did not prevent its production.   43
  With regard to the actual time occupied in composition, and the sources, as they are vaguely called, of the poem, we know very little—practically nothing. There is no doubt that, just before his energies were diverted into pamphleteering, Milton had planned a great epic; and, as his Latin poems show, had thought of something from the legends of the Bruts, or stories of Britain, to match the Iliad and the Aeneid. It is further certain that, about 1640, or a little later, he wrote out a long list (actually existing at Trinity college, Cambridge) of subjects from British and Scriptural history for dramatic treatment. Not only is Paradise Lost among these, eo nomine, but four successive drafts, each more elaborate than the preceding, exist of the persons and the distribution of subject—the last and fullest, however, having its title changed to “Adam Unparadized” [sic]. Edward Phillips says that the opening lines of Satan’s speech  8  (“O thou that with surpassing glory crowned”) were originally written and shown to him and others “several years before the poem was begun,” as the overture of the tragedy. On Phillips’s authority, Aubrey gives “15 or 16” years for “several”; while the same vouchers assign the actual date of beginning the epic to 1658 or there-abouts. If we believe the quaker Ellwood, it was actually finished by 1665; but plague and fire stopped the way to the press. Aubrey antedates the finishing by two years or so. On the whole, this is gossip. What is certain is that Milton had had the subject before his mind, either for epic or dramatic treatment, quite a quarter of a century when it was published. The present writer has always, from internal evidence of a vague but not unsatisfying kind, been inclined to believe that the poem was actually begun not long after his blindness had become a settled fact to him, which would coincide with the 15 or 16 years above mentioned. The gossip has one more interesting item, whatever may be its positive value, that he wrote, or, rather, composed, it and his other poems by dictation during half the year only, “from the Autumnal Equinox to the Vernal.”   44

Note 7. The actual MS. of bk. I which was submitted passed into the possession of Tonson and thence to his descendants, who sold it a short time ago. It was, of course, in the hand of an amanuensis, not in Milton’s (see remarks below). [ back ]
Note 8P. L. IV, 32. [ back ]

  Sonnets Milton’s “plagiarism”  
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