I have spent months reading Paradise Lost, and because I tend to deep-dive into topics, I have been reading around the poem and the poet. The story of Adam and Eve in Eden is an amazing story that is fundamental to Judaism, Christianity and Islam (although the story in the Koran contains many fascinating differences with that of Genesis). Also fascinating are the many elaborations of the basic tale that were already in place at the time of the writing of the Christian gospels, so that the writings of the Apostles, St. Paul and St. John of Patmos have all provided grist to Milton’s mill (which he then baked into his epic poem).
Things I did not know … By the mid-seventeenth century many Protestants had acquired the ability to read the Bible in Latin (Vulgate), Greek (Septuagint), Hebrew, and even in what they called Chaldean, what we call Aramaic. I had fancied that Milton might have been a prodigy, but this was not so. The wife of a friend of Milton maintained a European correspondence in Hebrew. Religious belief had reached maniacal proportions at that time, and the Protestant belief that they were individually and personally responsible for their salvation meant that Biblical scholarship was not only for an elect. A side effect of this was a fascination with secondary material – remarks by Rashi in the Rashi Bible, Jewish commentaries on Genesis and so on. Milton is an unexpectedly rich source of Haggadah (non-Biblical elaborations preserved in the Talmud and other ancient commentaries). There is even speculation as to whether he anticipated the idea of tzim-tzum (that the first act of creation was the withdrawal of God).
A few years after Milton’s death a large compendium of Zoharic and other Kabbalistic material was published in Frankfort-on-the-Main in Latin as the Kabbalah Denudata (1684) by Knorr von Rosenroth. I feel sorry that Milton did not live to see it.
This article is primarily an excuse to post a woodcut illustration by Gustav Dore. Dore was a prolific illustrator in the mid 19th century, and is famous for illustrating Paradise Lost , Dante’s Divine Comedy, and many other popular works. I have been able to obtain (at some expense!) a massive folio 19th century copy of Paradise Lost complete with the 50 illustrations that Dore made for the poem. The illustration above, my own reproduction, shows Satan navigating the abyss on his way to the newly created Earth.
And because I like to deep dive, I have found an enjoyable biography of Gustav Dore written by Blanche Roosevelt in 1885. I love reading contemporary material. It’s fabulous.