Recognition that Paradise Lost is a classic came with Patrick Hume's publication of his Annotations on Milton's “Paradise Lost” in 1695. Hume demonstrated the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Italian architecture of the poem well before anything similar was shown for Chaucer, Spenser, or Shakespeare. Milton had encouraged such thoughts by making sure that this poem was the first in English published on ruled pages with lines numbered by fives. As is shown in our essay here on “Early Comment, ” readers of differing beliefs shared with the poet and his first commentator the sense of the poem's special place. Oral comment stimulated written commentary, which increasingly stimulated yet further commentary, much of it of very high quality in a criticism and scholarship reflecting the needs and interests of successive generations. That abundance is both a tribute and a problem. To apply witty Ovid, the plenty makes us poor.
The solution to abundance of commentary is socalled variorum editions. As Thomas Newton, editor of the first variorum edition put it, “My design in the present edition is to publish the Paradise Lost, as the work of a classic author cum notis variorum.” By the time of Henry John Todd, editor of a second variorum in 1801, it had become difficult to keep up to date, and he published altered versions in 1809, 1816, and 1842. It comes as no surprise, then, that there have been no further variorum editions, much as they are desired. New principles, new conceptions, and new practices are now required in lieu of Newton's and Todd's selections from the whole of the best written about the poem.
Although commentary differs from criticism it has the same end, making possible a fuller understanding of its object. In using commentary or criticism, a reader makes a new Paradise Lost, different to some degree from other understandings. Our aim is the devising of unprecedented means and a new selection of resources to make available the most information in the most usable ways. The demonstration of these things is the business of the remainder of this introduction.
There seems to be no way to assemble into order the critical knowledge of Paradise Lost. It is found, not only in books with titles beginning Milton and …or articles with the title of the poem as its first words, but widely scattered in other books and articles as well. We have therefore chosen commentary as the basis of our study. The difficulties with this approach are certainly great, but they grow from abundance and offer opportunity. The commentaries also are inherently open to understanding, because they can be put into historical order.
Before there were commentaries on Paradise Lost there were comments, most of them spoken and lost, but within weeks of publication there were letters. Published comments grew and came from major late seventeenth-century notables: Marvell, Dryden, Thomas Rymer, John Dennis, and so on with some lesser lights to that Janus figure, Addison. In 1695, Patrick Hume's remarkable Annotations appeared, and there has not been a generation since without its commentary. Given their evident usefulness, commentaries came by custom to be published in editions, although as Hume and others have shown, that is not inevitable. We shall discuss subsequently the commentaries we have drawn upon. But that information will make better sense after we have set forth our principal aims and the new design enabling them.
Our aims can be readily understood in terms of the philosophical issue of how things (or people) retain their identity while undergoing change over time. Attention to the identity of Paradise Lost is basically conservative in result, as attention to change is radical. These are the two different uses served by our commentary, and we may take the conservative first. Logically speaking, that which lacks identity cannot be known, and it is obvious that to speak of Milton's epic is to assume two identities, a poet and a poem. The premise of identity enables a professional guild to study, debate, and celebrate Paradise Lost in the confidence that the same entity is being known by all. Not only that. Numerous other identities are also assumed. It will set no river on fire to point out that the poem implies a language, a poetic tradition, an age, and numerous cultural values. It has been translated into various languages, remaining recognizably itself.
The conservative principle extends further to the multiple canonical statuses of Paradise Lost. There