Was JOHN MILTON a student of the occult? I had forgotten just how extensive his grasp of demonology was until the publication of a new edition of "Paradise Lost" (Modern Library: 424 pp., $11 paper), annotated and introduced by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich and Stephen M. Fallon. (This edition has been peeled off from an enormous Modern Library collection published last year.)
Think of the "Stygian council" in the early pages -- the rebel angels' gathering in Hell to decide what next after their defeat by the heavenly forces. Strategies are argued by the wrathful Moloch, who calls for more war; the patient Belial; Mammon, who won't consider any sort of truce; grave, dignified Beelzebub; and, finally, there is Satan's lawyerly dissection of all who oppose him.
It's that knowingness in Milton's characterizations of these figures, the specific angelic qualities he gives them, that seem to me drawn from one of the grimoires that cataloged the infernal ranks and circulated in Milton's day. Surely, as one of the greatest readers of any era, he must have known about these black magic books. Milton, to borrow from another much later poet, is vast; he contains multitudes.
This edition addresses how much "Paradise Lost" is an oblique record of the 17th century -- of Milton's attacks on tyrannical authority, his heretical views of Christ, even his encounters with contemporaries like Galileo, whom he mentions three times in his epic. We're steered toward passages of great beauty that show why blank verse was the meter franca of all high talk: "Heav'n opened wide / Her ever-during gates, harmonious sound / On golden hinges moving, to let forth / The King of Glory in his powerful Word / And Spirit coming to create new worlds." That passage takes a long backward glance to "The Nativity Ode," the poem that announced that Milton was in the house.
The editors also remind us of just how difficult it must have been to compose this seamless poem in light of Milton's hardships -- the deaths of family members, his blindness and the enemies he made. His life was so tragic that it was truly a wonder that Milton was able to compose at all. He attributed his inspiration to visits from the muse Urania, "my celestial patroness, who deigns / Her nightly visitation unimplored, / And dictates to me slumb'ring." That visitor, we're told, was a metaphor for the return of Milton's poetic powers. But was Urania just a metaphor or some unearthly caller? One can't help but wonder. Nick Owchar