A quarter of a century before Milton finished Paradise Lost, the young poet began listing topics for his future masterpiece. Ardent devotees who imagine the poet foreordained to create a great religious epic might be surprised to learn that his list of more than a hundred ideas contained thirty-three from British history. His leading idea, at the time, was an Arthurian epic. This, he imagined, might become the British national epic. The idea for Paradise Lost—or Adam Unparadised, as he imagined he would title it—caught his imagination and prompted him to draft an outline. In that form, it was still a five-act tragedy, a Shakespearean form with un-Shakespearean content.
Milton’s handwritten notebook, known as the Trinity Manuscript, gives us an insight into his nature, and maybe the nature of poetry itself. As early as age nineteen, he thought of his poetry as already existing inside him, but in an undifferentiated state. He thought of his unwritten lines the way biologists think of stem cells, capable of taking on any form and function. All he had to do was direct them, choosing their theme and sound. The human body can signal its stem cells to become any kind of cell it requires. The same stem cell can become a liver cell and sequester toxins from the blood, a cardiac myocyte contracting and relaxing hundreds of times a day, or a T-cell that seeks and destroys viruses. Milton thought of the poetry in him as, potentially, an epic poem or a verse tragedy. It might tell the story of Arthur, or Adam, or any of a number of English kings or Biblical characters. All he had to do was choose.
Why write about Genesis if Genesis never seized him in a flash as the imperative subject for his creativity? Rilke claimed that he heard the opening line of his first Duino Elegy while standing on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic. J. K. Rowling claims to have conceived the entirety of the Harry Potter series while sitting on a train delayed between Manchester and King’s Cross in London. Generally, people have come to think of poetry, at its truest, as springing from an inner imperative—maybe from past trauma, or present injustice, or mystical transmission. In our culture, the poetic goad is as imperative as breath itself. We use the word inspiration routinely in literary and artistic contexts, forgetting that its original sense was religious, related to the prophet’s calling, not the poet’s. The Milton of the Trinity Manuscript, by contrast, approached poetry the way some novelists approach fiction. His equivalent in modern-day Brooklyn might jot down a list of potential subjects for a Great American Novel.
If Paradise Lost was simply a work Milton decided to write (and not a work that demanded to be written), what motivated him to spend years creating it, even after he went blind? Here, too, the comparison with fiction writers is key. The chimerical ambition to write the Great American Novel relies on a sense of past Great American Novelists. The aspiring novelist aims to do for our era what F. Scott Fitzgerald did for his or Harper Lee did for hers. Milton came from a different, longer tradition, but he shared that mindset. His original wish to write a national, Arthurian epic was a way of doing, for his time, what Virgil did with the Aeneid.
Poets today study under and imitate contemporaries, but their art has a long tradition of direct competition with the dead. Virgil, after all, wanted to go up against Homer. He intended his work to be appreciated side by side with its template. Nor was there any sense that poetry produced this way was derivative or second-rate simply because it came after, and took after, some distant predecessor’s. Horace, who wrote famously of wanting to create a “monument more lasting than bronze,” did so in a series of Odes explicitly modeled, down to their meters, after Greek lyric masters. All of the major Romantic Era poets, including Keats, tried their hands at a Shakespearean blank verse drama at least once. Every poetic form, in some sense, pits the poet against generations of poets who have written in it. The power of Shakespeare’s best sonnets stopped no one from attempting the form—least of all Milton, who wrote some powerful ones himself. If anything, they serve as examples, challenges, and goads.
That was, and is, the generative force of a tradition. After all, Milton moved the German poet Klopstock, the English poet Blake, and the American poet Lowell to create poetry that echoes his at the level of form, feel, or line. A poet temperamentally the opposite of Milton—the rakish and wild Lord Byron—wrote, in Cain, page after page of blank verse about the sons of Paradise Lost’s main characters.
Tradition does not insist exclusively on reverence. Irreverence has a revered place in any tradition. Milton himself, invoking the Muse in the manner of his classical models, wrote of soaring above the “Aonian mount.” A literary tradition does not oppress creativity because the top of the hierarchy, the peak of Mount Parnassus, is always within reach of the upstart. It does not constrain; it galvanizes. Tradition inspires young writers to resurrect the dead by copying the dead, and to immortalize themselves by outwriting the dead—by striving, as Milton did, to write “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”
Amit Majmudar’s latest poetry collection is What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). His memoir, Twin A, is forthcoming from Slant Books.