Selling Yourself Cheap

It was on this day in 1667 that John Milton sold Paradise Lost for twenty pounds to the printer Samuel Simmons.  Twenty British pounds in the late seventeenth century could buy a lot of material goods, but when we set “the story of all things” next to them, the exchange turns out to be one of the worst in literary history from an author’s point of view.

On the other hand, the deal did get the poem published.  The cliches we’ve occasionally attached to its production–Milton old, blind, defeated in his political career with Cromwell’s Protectorate–obscure the fact that the poet had been working with the subject of the fall of humanity for a long time, in drama as well as poetry.  The cliches should not obscure the fact, however, that Milton did suffer for Cromwell’s cause.  The Royalists wanted to take his ears as a punishment, and only the intervention (probably) of fellow poet Andrew Marvell saved Milton the disfigurement.  Milton was discouraged that the English people did not rally more vigorously to a conservative–and yet, from Milton’s point of view, a more liberating–form of government; but, ultimately, the poet kept going, believing as he always had that he was a servant in a much greater cause than any human endeavor.

What makes Paradise Lost such an astounding performance, though, is its combination of that which is fully human–and thereby subject to failure–and that which is fully divine.  Most of us, even if we are religious, no longer respond very well to the divine in the poem, but it is there, in the calmness of Book III, the justice of Books V and VI, and the compassion of Book XII.  We have few problems responding to the human in the poem, because we recognize in Satan’s bruised ego and in Adam and Eve’s efforts to alter the ways of life they were given parts of our own experience.  Milton recognized these things in himself, too.  He had, after all, defended the beheading of King Charles, and supported the dismantling of the Anglican compromise that had stood since the days of Elizabeth.  The modern playwright August Wilson once advised, “Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”  No writer anywhere, at any time, was a better exemplar of this kind of man than Milton; and no reader, having beheld the subtlety of Satan, the anguish of Adam and Eve after the Fall, and the twilight mercy of their banishment could fail to believe he had not, in some measure, succeeded in his impossible task to explain our loss of Paradise and tell us how it felt.

[NOTE:  Peter Lindenbaum’s article from the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal does not mention the year of the article’s publication, but it’s in Volume 10, which corresponds to the academic year 1991-92.  Lindenbaum’s conclusions about the value of the contract–five pounds up front, plus five more pounds each for up to three editions–have been accepted by Barbara Lewalski in her Life of John Milton, pp. 453-54 and the publishing contract itself is included in the wonderful Life Records of John Milton, ed. by J. Milton French, vol. IV, pp. 429-31.]

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