- - Friday, August 31, 2012

THE MILTON ENCYCLOPEDIA
Edited by Thomas N. Corns
Yale University Press, $150, 424 pages, illustrated

Few would argue that John Milton’s long poem “Paradise Lost” is one of the pinnacles of achievement in the centuries-long tradition of English literature. Not only is it THE English epic, worthy of comparison with its great classical predecessors, the Greek “Odyssey” and “Iliad” and the Latin “Aeneid,” but its subject, Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, was to resonate down through the centuries, providing the underlying theme for so many poems, plays and novels.

Its majestic opening lines : “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit/Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/Brought death into the world, and all our woe,/With loss of Eden” are well known to students but how many, in or out of school, know the thousands of lines that come after? For there’s no denying that reading “Paradise Lost” is a bit daunting, with its myriad classical and biblical allusions, to say nothing of its elaborate Miltonic style. And any work that takes as its stated aim “to justify the ways of God to man” will likely be imposing in the extreme.

Which is why “The Milton Encyclopedia,” packed with everything you might need to help you along the way, would be an invaluable guide to those deciding to embark upon finally reading this greatest of all English poems, the supreme epic of our language. Thomas Corns has assembled a team of Milton scholars to provide helpful entries, most quite brief, on almost every aspect imaginable of Milton’s oeuvre — its author, his life, times and career, plus the traditions in which it fits.

Of course, there is a great deal more to John Milton the poet than “Paradise Lost” and its lesser-known, even more Christian, successor “Paradise Regained.” His elegy “Lycidas,” written for a fellow student at Cambridge who drowned, is widely considered the finest such poem in English. Milton’s paired poems, “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” exploring the twin poles of happiness and melancholy were all-important in shaping English poetry in the century after his death. Those seeking enlightenment on the topic of all these works and more will of course find them in “The Milton Encyclopedia.”

Despite his prodigious output and its amazing density, loaded with elaborate imagery and allusion, Milton found time to hold high office in the administration of Oliver Cromwell, following the beheading of King Charles I. Often called a regicide because of his association with the king’s death warrant, Milton was lucky to keep his own head after the monarchy was restored in 1660. This encyclopedia tells us that Milton always preferred to think of himself as a tyrannicide, since he firmly believed in the necessity of ridding the nation of a tyrant. There is a host of information about Milton and the Puritan era of which he was so much a part.

But Puritan doesn’t always connote the obvious, as in this entry:

” ‘Paradise Lost’ valorizes the life of the senses, human eroticism, and passion: all are essential to Milton’s paradisal ideal. This passionate and sensual poem also explores the intense mutuality of Adam and Eve’s prelapsarian sexual relationship. In ‘Paradise Lost,’ Milton often writes as the unabashed poet of paradisal eroticism.”

“The Milton Encyclopedia” shows that there are a lot of surprises awaiting us in the Miltonic oeuvre. By the time the intrepid reader, immeasurably aided by Mr. Corns and his learned crew, reach the lines that conclude the epic they will have seen — to some extent even felt and experienced — the journey that has led the hapless pair to this plight:

“Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; /The World was all before them where to choose /Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:/ They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way.”

If there are more beautiful lines of poetry in our language or a more touching image in all of English literature, I don’t know them. This compendium of learning should help more readers discover the richness that is “Paradise Lost.” To say nothing of all those other Miltonic works.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.