The Reading Room
Obfuscating John Milton’s Paradise Lost
As Caroline Breashears has recently discussed, John Milton (1608-74) was a prominent champion of the freedom of the press, something he most famously exhibited in his 1644 tract Areopagitica. But Milton’s own writings were and continue to be subject to various types of censorship.
A particularly egregious example in Milton’s own lifetime took place in 1660 when Charles II, who had recently been crowned king amid the Restoration of the British monarchy, issued an August 13 proclamation against three tracts that had defended the January 1649 execution of the new king’s father, Charles I. Two of these tracts—Eikonoklastes (1649) and Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651)—were written by Milton. Milton, already in hiding, was charged by Charles II with writing “traitorous” books that supported the previous king’s “Murder.” Charles II’s proclamation also demanded that copies of Milton’s condemned tracts be given over and “publicly burned.” Copies of Milton’s tracts were publicly burned on three separate occasions in August and September of 1660, with Milton himself being arrested that fall and imprisoned in the Tower of London until December 15.
Upon his release, Milton refrained from writing further political prose and focused on composing his celebrated epic poem Paradise Lost (1667; revised twelve-book edition, 1674), which focuses on Satan’s rebellion against God the Father and his Son as well as the creation, fall, and anticipated redemption of Adam and Eve, concluding with the first couple’s expulsion from Eden. Paradise Lost has long been considered the greatest epic poem in the English language. And while this poem was well received in Protestant England, it eventually became the subject of centuries of ongoing censorship, something evidenced by Paradise Lost’s lengthy ban by the Roman Catholic Church and its selectively translation, anthologizing, and editing in ways that remove or obscure passages that would bring offense to particular audiences.
From 1758 to 1900, Paradise Lost appeared in one way or another in the Roman Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books). Significantly, in Areopagitica, Milton belittles the Index, saying that it was controlled by “two or three glutton Friars” who see fit to “rake through the entrails of many an old good author.” But Milton’s epic faced the Index’s censure when, in 1732 Rome decided to place Paolo Rolli’s 1729 translation of Paradise Lost—the first such translation in Italian—on the Index, a decision codified in the 1758 Index. Significantly, this decision was made even though Rolli had omitted from his translation the infamous Paradise of Fools passage (book 3, lines 474-97), in which Satan, journeying from Hell to Earth and passing through Limbo, sees among other things the following trappings of the Roman Catholicism that Milton condemns:
Cowles, Hoods and Habits with their wearers tossed And fluttered into Rags, then Relics, Beads,
Indulgences, Dispenses, Pardons, Bulls,
The sport of Winds: all these upwhirled aloft
Fly o’re the backside of the World far off
Into a Limbo large and broad, since called
The Paradise of Fools, to few unknownLong after, now unpeopled, and untrod. (3.490-97)
Moreover, future Italian translations from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries duly omitted this offending passage, with contemporary Spanish translators following suit, omitting these and other problematic lines, as did the first full French translation, which appeared in 1729. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church against Paradise Lost was such that the first Polish translation did not appear until 1791—some one hundred and seventeen years after Milton’s second edition—even though the first Polish translation of the Italian epic La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, 1581) was translated in 1618, less than four decades after the original. Indeed, even the 1902 Polish translation of Paradise Lost, published two years after Milton’s epic was removed from the Index, omitted passages offensive to the Church.
In any case, we may note that throughout the history of translating Paradise Lost, different translators have exercised creative license to either emphasize of obfuscate aspects of the text that either do or do not coincide with a given translator’s own religious and/or ideological leanings. For example, a curious contrast to the aforementioned excising of anti-Catholic passages is seen in Timotheos Kuusik’s early twentieth-century Estonian translation, in which Kuusik, hoping to advance the piety of his largely Lutheran audience, replaces Adam and Eve’s morning hymn to God in book 5 with a lengthy paraphrase of Psalm 148.
Outside of largely Christian Europe, Paradise Lost’s thoroughgoing presentation of a Christian understanding of reality long delayed its publication into various languages. For example, a full Arabic translation of Paradise Lost was not available until 2002. Earlier partial Arabic translations of Milton’s epic are careful to reduce Milton’s depiction of the Son of God in Paradise Lost books 3 and 6, a decision influenced by Islam’s teachings against the deity of Jesus and the Trinity. Among the many excised lines include where Milton’s narrator calls the Son “The radiant image of his [God the Father’s] glory” (3.63) as well as the following passage:
Beyond compare the Son of God was seen Most glorious, in him all his Father shone
Substantially expressed, and in his face Divine compassion visibly appeared. (3.138-410)
Similarly, no full Persian translations appeared until the twenty-first century, with one translation specifically substituting Milton’s proclamation of the coming of the “great Messiah” (12.44) with a proclamation of the coming of the “great Madhī,” thus replacing Milton’s incarnate Son’s atonement for Adam’s sin with a celebration of Islam’s eschatological savior.
Additional efforts to deemphasize Paradise Lost’s Christian message can be seen in various anthologies appearing in various countries, whether they use Milton’s English or whatever translation, simply by not including the more theological portions of Milton’s epic. One rather blatant example appears in volume C of The Longman Anthology of World Literature (2004), whose back cover boasts of containing “extensive selections from” Paradise Lost. In fact, however, this anthology excerpts only portions of Book 1 (emphasizing Satan’s most attractive speeches), most of Book 4 (emphasizing Satan’s jealous viewing of the happy interaction of prelapsarian Adam and Eve), all of Book 9 (which depicts Satan’s successful temptation of Eve, and Adam’s own subsequent fall), and a small portion of Book 12 (which depicts Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden). No passages depicting God the Father or the extensive heroism of Milton’s Son of God appear at all.
We should also note that Milton’s epic’s depiction of human sexuality has also been and remains highly controversial and thus a pretext for restricting readers’ exposure to Paradise Lost. Most recently, in July 2023 various news sources reported that Paradise Lost was being removed from many Florida high schools’ curricula and libraries because of a recent state law that makes easier parental challenges of material that depicts sexual contact. Evidently this passage describing Adam and Eve’s prelapsarian lovemaking was deemed problematic:
our general Mother, and with eyesOf conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half embracing leaned
On our first Father, half her swelling Breast
Naked met his under the flowing Gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her Beauty and submissive CharmsSmiled with superior Love . . . (4.492-99)
But long preceding Florida’s recent law has been the more subtle restriction exercised by instructors who, finding Milton’s depiction of human sexuality to be excessively patriarchal (although many scholars assert that Paradise Lost is remarkably egalitarian for its time period), have simply chosen not to teach Milton’s epic at all. I will conclude this essay by noting that this concern is not a recent one. In fact, Milton’s narrator’s assertion regarding Adam’s and Eve’s respective raisons d’être—“He for God only, she for God in him” (4.299)—was some three centuries ago deemed sufficiently problematic by the noted British philologist Richard Bentley that, in his controversial 1732 edition of Paradise Lost, he changed this offending line to “He for God only, she for God AND him” (the caps are Bentley’s), thus affording Eve the dignity of directly serving God as well as her husband. This emendation, Bentley argued, corrected what must have been an error on the part of an amanuensis or editor and thus better represented Milton’s true intent.