Literary daybook, Aug. 20

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published August 20, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Aug. 20, 1960, Rachel Price turns 17.
-- "The Poisonwood Bible" (1998)
by Barbara Kingsolver

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in Literary History
On this day in 1667, John Milton's "Paradise Lost" was entered in the Stationers' Register by printer Samuel Simmons. Milton's agreement with Simmons -- 5 pounds at signing, another 5 for each 1,500 copies sold on a first edition of 4,500 -- is the earliest preserved author's contract. At this point, the 58-year-old Milton had been totally blind, probably from glaucoma, for 15 years. His habit during the decade it took to write "Paradise Lost" was to compose at night and then present himself to a scribe -- a nephew, daughter, or secretary -- each morning to be, as he put it, "milked." Such determined coping might add a personal level of interpretation to Satan's famous defiance in Book I:

" ... Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." Some of Milton's contemporaries complained of the blank verse, aghast at the idea of anyone attempting to write an epic "freed of the troublesome and modern bondage to rhyme." Later generations would complain that the poetry was too successful, insofar as Milton's attempt to "justifie the wayes of God to men" gave too many good lines to Satan. But the poem sold well enough for Milton to make his money on the first edition before he died in 1674, and passages such as this one from the end of Book XII continue to move most readers beyond complaint:

"They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng'd and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through EDEN took thir solitarie way."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal