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and sends out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases. To this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs — till which in some measure be compassed, at mine own peril and cost I refuse not to sustain this expectation from as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best pledges that I can give them.'
There is evidence that, about the time when Milton thus announced to the public his design of some great English poem, to be accomplished at leisure, and when he was privately considering with himself whether a tragedy on the subject of Paradise Lost might not best fulfil the conditions of such a design, he had actually gone so far as to write not only the foregoing drafts of the tragedy, but even some lines by way of opening. Speaking of Paradise Lost, and of the author's original intention that it should be a tragedy, Milton's nephew, Edward Phillips, tells us in his Memoir of his uncle (1694): 'In the Fourth Book of the Poem there are six (ten?) verses, which, several years before the Poem was begun, were shown to me, and some others, as designed for the very beginning of the said tragedy.' The verses referred to by Phillips are those (P. L. iv. 32-41) that now form part of Satan's speech on first standing on the Earth, and beholding, among the glories of the newly-created World, the Sun in his full splendor in the Heavens: —
O thou that, with surpassing glory crowned,
I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere,
Phillips's words 'several years before the Poem was begun' would not, by themselves, fix the date at which he had seen these lines. But in Aubrey's earlier Memoir of Milton (1680), containing information which Aubrey had derived from Phillips, this passage occurs: 'In the 4th book of Paradise Lost there are about 6 verses of Satan's exclamation to the Sun wch Mr. E. Phi. remembers, about 15 or 16 years before ever his poem was thought of; wch verses were intended for the beginning of a tragoedie, wch he had design'd, but was diverted from it by other besinesse.' Here we have indirectly Phillips's own authority that he had read the verses in question at a date which we shall presently see reason to fix at 1642. He was then a pupil of his uncle, and living with him in his house in Aldersgate Street.
Alas! it was not 'for some few years' only, as Milton had thought in 1641, that the execution of the great work so solemnly then promised had to be postponed. For a longer time than he had expected England remained in a condition irr which he did not think it right, even had it been possible, that men like him should be writing poems. Only towards the end of Cromwell's Protectorate, when Milton had reached his fiftieth year, and had been for five or six years totally blind, does he seem to have been in circumstances to resume effectually the design to which he had pledged himself seventeen years before. By that time, however, there was no longer any doubt as to the theme he would choose. All the other themes once entertained had faded more or less into the background of memory, and Paradise Lost stood out, bold, clear, and without competitor. Nay more, the dramatic form, for which, when the subject first occurred to him, Milton had felt a preference, had been now abandoned, and it had been resolved that the poem should be an epic. He began this epic in earnest almost certainly before Cromwell was dead — 'about 2 years before the K[ing] came in,' says Aubrey on Phillips's authority; that is, in 1658, when, notwithstanding his blindness, he was still in official attendance on Cromwell at Whitehall as his Latin Secretary, and writing occasional letters, in Cromwell's name, to foreign states and princes . . .
As the Great Plague was then  raging in London, Milton had removed from his house in Artillery Walk to a cottage at Chalfont-St.-Giles, in Buckinghamshire, which had been taken for him, at his request, by Thomas Ellwood, a young Quaker, whose acquaintance with him had begun a year or two before in Jewin Street. Visiting Milton here as soon as circumstances would permit, Ellwood was. received in a manner of which he has left an account in his Autobiography. 'After some common discourses,' he says, 'had passed between us, he called for a manuscript of his; which, being brought, he delivered to me, bidding me take it home with me and read it at my leisure, and, when I had so done, return it to him with my judgment thereupon. When I came home, and had set myself to read it, I found it was that excellent poem which he entituled Paradise Lost.'
The anecdote proves the existence of at least one, and most probably of more than one, complete copy in the autumn of 1665—which may, accordingly, be taken as the date when the poem was considered ready for press. The delay of publication till two years after that date is easily accounted for. It was not, says Ellwood, till 'the sickness was over, and the city well cleansed, and become safely habitable again,' that Milton returned to his house in Artillery Walk; then, still farther paralyzing business of all sorts, came the Great Fire of September, 1666; and there were difficulties, as we have seen, about the licensing of a poem by a person of Milton's political antecedents and principles.
Whether the time spent by Milton in the composition of Paradise Lost was five years (1658-1663), or seven or eight years (1658—1665), it is certain that he bestowed on the work all that care and labor which, on his first contemplation of such a work in his earlier manhood, he had declared would be necessary. The 'industrious and select reading,' which he had then spoken of as one of the many requisites, had not been omitted. Whatever else Paradise Lost may be, it is certainly one of the most learned poems in the world. In thinking of it in this character we are to remember, first of all, that, ere his blindness had befallen him (1652), Milton's mind was stored with an amount of various and exact learning such as few other men of his age possessed; so that, had he ceased then to acquire more, he would have still carried in his memory an enormous resource of material out of which to build up the body of his poem. But he did not, after his blindness, cease to add to his knowledge by reading. At the very time when he was engaged on his Paradise Lost, he had, as his nephew Phillips informs us, several other great undertakings in progress of a different character, for which daily reading and research were necessary, even if they could have been dispensed with for the poem — to wit, the construction of a Body of Divinity from the Scriptures, the completion of a History of England, and the collection of materials for a Thesaurus, or Dictionary of the Latin tongue. Laboriously every day, with a due division of his time from early morning, he pursued these tasks, by a systematic use of assistants whom he kept about him. As at the time when the composition of Paradise Lost was begun the eldest daughter, Anne,- was but twelve years of age, the second, Mary, but ten, and the youngest, Deborah, but six, and as when the poem was certainly finished their ages were about eighteen, sixteen, and twelve respectively, their services as readers during its composition can have been but partial. But, whether with them as his readers, or with young men and grown-up friends performing the part for hire or love, he was able to avail himself for his poem, as well as for the drier works on which he was simultaneously engaged, of any help which books could give. He may, accordingly, at this time, if not before, have made himself acquainted with some of those poems and other works, Italian and Latin, in which his subject, or some portion of it, had been previously treated. He was very likely to do so, and to take any hint he could get.
It would not be difficult to prove, at any rate, that, among the 'select readings' engaged in specially for the purposes of Paradise Lost while it was in progress, must have been readings in certain books of geography and Eastern travel, and in certain Rabbinical, early Christian, and mediaeval commentators on the subjects of Paradise, the Angels, and the Fall. Nothing is more striking in the poem, nothing more touching, than the frequency, and, on the whole, wonderful accuracy, of its references to maps; and, whatever wealth of geographical information Milton may have carried with him into his blindness, there are evidences, I think, that he must have refreshed his recollections of this kind by the eyes of others, and perhaps by their guidance of his finger, after his sight was gone. In short, for the Paradise Lost, as well as for the prose labors carried on along with it, there must have been abundance of reading; and, remembering to what a stock of prior learning, possessed before his blindness, all such incre