OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse,that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
–John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I.
Memorize, Memorize, Memorize: Milton started to lose his eyesight in 1646. He never saw his son, John Jr., nor did he know the faces of his second and third wives. By 1652, he was completely blind and, according to his nephew, composed Paradise Lost in his head during overnight sessions that lasted well into early morning. By day, he dictated the text to whomever could write down the words.
Writing an epic in your head and then reciting it from memory? Consider the difficulties of tracking scansion and enjambment! Milton’s power to plot and then recall was remarkable. It was also the result of intense self-discipline. As a student (like many of his peers) Milton kept a “Commonplace” book. He filled its pages with poetry, quotations, practical information, political and rhetorical strategies. In essence, the book was a personal anthology of ancient and classical literature. By recording such material by hand Milton not only observed and absorbed a variety of linguistic strategies, he also practiced the art of memorization. Such training, one imagines, only aided the elderly man’s epic task of blind literary invention…
Utterly remarkable. The Riverside Milton is on my reading list. I look forward to digging in.