This highly valued manuscript, owned by Trinity College, Cambridge, is John Milton’s working notebook. It has early notes on Paradise Lost from around 1640, revealing how Milton’s ideas evolved, long before the poem was completed in 1665. Rather than being struck by one moment of inspiration, he toys with different characters and tries out different genres – tragic and dramatic. This raises important questions about what Milton kept or re-ordered in his final epic poem, and how he used dramatic features such as soliloquy and dialogue.
‘Paradise Lost’ as a five-act tragedy
On f. 35, Milton jots down several cast lists for a biblical drama about Adam and Eve’s fall. He seems inspired by morality plays, in which characters such as ‘Death’ and ‘Faith’ personify virtues and vices. Alongside Adam, Eve and Lucifer, Milton considers whether to include Moses, Michael, ‘the Evening Starre’ and a Chorus of Angels. He also notes ideas for ‘other Tragedies’ on biblical themes, such as ‘The flood’ and ‘Adam in banishment’.
Just under the line that divides the page, you can faintly see Milton’s first use of the title ‘Paradise Lost’. He then gives a brief outline of a five-act drama, opening with a debate about ‘what should become of man if he fall’, and ending with Adam and Eve being ‘driven out of Paradice’.
On f. 40, Milton still seems undecided about his title, crossing out ‘Adams Banishment’ and writing ‘Adam unparadiz’d’. He then writes a more detailed prose outline of a play about the Fall, starting with the ‘angel Gabriel’ coming ‘to keep his watch in Paradise after Lucifers rebellion’. At the end of the piece, the Angel shows Adam a ‘mask of all the evils of this life’, prompting him to repent and submit to his banishment. Milton writes a note reminding himself to ‘compare this with the former draught’.
The Cambridge manuscript
The notes are part of a folio notebook, known as the Cambridge or Trinity manuscript, which can be seen in full here. It contains drafts of early poems including the elegy ‘Lycidas’ (1637), as well as a masque called Comus (first performed in 1634). Many pages, including those shown here, are written in Milton’s own hand. Others are the work of different scribes, who worked for Milton after he went blind in around 1652.