John Milton: great writer, bad bargainer

On this date in 1667 English writer John Milton sold the copyright for Paradise Lost for the seemingly insignificant sum of £10.

Even more galling in retrospect, given that Paradise Lost is now considered one of the greatest literary works in the English language, is that Milton didn’t even get all his money up front.

He received £5 outright and a further £5 to be paid each time a print run of between 1,300 and 1,500 copies sold out, as the blog Armchair Anglophile points out.

Given that Milton died in 1674 as a second edition was being planned, he therefore reaped but one extra payment of £5.

In fairness, that’s worth a total of about £15,000 today, but given that millions of copies of Milton’s book have been printed over the centuries, it still seems like a paltry sum.

The Toronto Globe and Mail called Milton’s rendering of the Fall of Man “the greatest epic poem in the English language, the anvil of words on which every subsequent poem has been forged, the only contender to Shakespeare’s greatness, (and) quite possibly the most profound meditation on good and evil ever written.”

The story behind the book – and the man – is as remarkable as the work itself.

Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost between 1558 and 1564 and composed it in chunks in his head.

“He would wake every morning calling for one of his daughters to come and ‘milk’’ his brain,” according to a 2008 New York Times story.

“But despite his blindness, or perhaps because of it, his poem is full of visionary detail, the stuff of fantasy and science fiction – the crystal parapets of heaven, with the pendant universe hanging from a golden chain; the sulphurous halls of Pandemonium; the ‘thrice threefold’ gates of hell circled with fire and guarded by gruesome monsters right out of a horror movie.”

Milton lived in turbulent times, as the Armchair Anglophile points out.

He was born at the start of the Stuart dynasty, and attended Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1629. With a goal of becoming an Anglican priest, Milton stayed on to obtain his Master of Arts degree in 1632. 

Milton witnessed the outbreak of the English Civil War and was given a place in public office under the Commonwealth.

“His writings during that period defended popular government and even sanctioned the regicide of King Charles I, which did not put him in a good position when the Restoration came about in 1660,” the Armchair Anglophile writes.

Milton not only lost his official position but had to go into hiding when Charles II returned to the throne.

Milton was found and actually imprisoned for a brief period; influential friends were able to secure his release.

He eventually sold the copyright to Paradise Lost to publisher Samuel Simmons because the work had brought him little money.

The first run sold out in 18 months and a second edition was being planned when Milton died in 1674.

Milton followed up Paradise Lost with its sequel, Paradise Regained, in 1671.

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