Paradise Lost, possibly the 'most read, most criticized, and most exalted' poem in the English language, has been published more often perhaps in the three hundred years of its existence than any other work of English literature. In the eighteenth century alone, when the English nation went Milton mad, more than a hundred editions were made available to the English reading public.
This study traces the transmission history of the poem from its first appearance in 1667, through the eighteenth century with its emphasis on conjectural criticism, to the present century when it was subjected to unwarranted 'restoration.' For the editor of Paradise Lost, who must seek the know 'everything there is to know' about the authoritative texts, that history is a complex one; it includes a first edition with internal variants in five distinct issues, a revised second edition redevised into twelve books, with more than a thousand variants between the two, and subsequent editions (including that of 1732 by 'slashing Bentley') which introduce and perpetuate many fresh errors and ultimately 'restore' the text to a state which Milton might have achieved had he not gone blind.
Moyles not only traces that history -- describing the text's treatment at the hands of such editors as Fenton, Tickel, Bentley, Newton, Darbishire, and Wright -- but raises questions regarding the authority of the original editions, an editor's choice of copy-text, the amount of emendation required, the matter of eclecticism, and the difficult of establishing authorial intention regarding the accidentals. In short, an editorial procedure for Paradise Lost is proposed. This, along with the historical and human context of the whole study, involves issues of interest not only to students of Milton but to textual scholars, students of bibliography, and students of literary history.
About the author
R.G. MOYLES is associate dean of arts at the University of Alberta.