Milton wrote Paradise Lost late in his life having lived through the English Civil War, the Commonwealth, Cromwell's rule, and the restoration of monarchy. Although Paradise Lost is an epic on a biblical theme it is, as well, Milton's political message for the nation following the turmoil it had endured.
Anna Beer's recent biography, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot comments on the form which Milton chose in order to make his voice heard.
"His response to his nation's crisis was in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, yet another sign of his opposition to current literary fashion...Milton's chosen meter is the closest to to the natural rhythms of English speech, and remains familiar now since it is the dominant mode of Shakespeare's plays. Milton's choice suggests not only his vision of epic as a kind of drama, not only, perhaps, as a nostalgia for the rhythms of the drama of his youth, but, more importantly, the use of blank verse is a further indication that the author intended his epic to do political work. Milton made this point explicitly in the note on the 'measure' added in 1668. To use blank verse, he writes, is to restore ancient liberty to the 'Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage to Rhyming. Even the choice of the meter is an attempt to to free the English people from bondage. Milton's epic was designed in both structure and content to minister to a nation in distress." (Page 344)
Blake remarks on his desire to further free poetry from 'bondage' as Milton himself had done, by using 'variety in every line, both of cadences & number of syllables.'
Jerusalem, Plate 3,(E 145)
"When this Verse was first dictated to me I consider'd a
Monotonous Cadence like that used by Milton & Shakspeare & all
writers of English Blank Verse, derived from the modern bondage
of Rhyming; to be a necessary and indispensible part of Verse.
But I soon found that
in the mouth of a true Orator such monotony was not only awkward,
but as much a bondage as rhyme itself. I therefore have produced
a variety in every line, both of cadences & number of syllables.
Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit
place: the terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific
parts--the mild & gentle, for the mild & gentle parts, and the
prosaic, for inferior parts: all are necessary to each other.
Poetry Fetter'd, Fetters the Human Race! Nations are Destroy'd,
or Flourish, in proportion as Their Poetry Painting and Music,
are Destroy'd or Flourish! The Primeval State of Man, was Wisdom,
Art, and Science."
We are given a view of circumstances under which Milton worked by Beer, and from Milton's own words how he was dependant on nightly visits of inspiration to compose his epic.
"Paradise Lost was a great achievement in itself but an even more remarkable one for an elderly, blind man living in a world of persecution and plague. According to Milton's nephew, the epic was composed in his uncle's mind, often in the early hours of the morning, and then, the day begun, the new lines were dictated to anyone who could write the words." (Page 305)
Paradise Lost, Book IX
"If answerable style I can obtaine [ 20 ]
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor'd,
And dictates to me slumb'ring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse:"
Blake too claims not to be the author of his verse but to receive it in the night to be set down in the morn.
Jerusalem, Plate 4, (E 146)
"Of the Sleep of Ulro! and of the passage through
Eternal Death! and of the awaking to Eternal Life.
This theme calls me in sleep night after night, & ev'ry morn
Awakes me at sun-rise, then I see the Saviour over me
Spreading his beams of love, & dictating the words of this mild song."
Blake became a collaborator with Milton by illustrating Il Penseroso and L'Allegro which portray the two moods of passivity and activity. These two illustrations might represent the night in which the mind receives inspiration, and the morn in which the inspiration is productive of results.
"I woo to hear thy eeven-Song ;
And missing thee, I walk unseen [ 65 ]
On the dry smooth-shaven Green,
To behold the wandring Moon,
Riding neer her highest noon,
Like one that had bin led astray
Through the Heav'ns wide pathles way"
"Som time walking not unseen
By Hedge-row Elms, on Hillocks green,
Right against the Eastern gate,
Wher the great Sun begins his state, [ 60 ]
Rob'd in flames, and Amber light,
The clouds in thousand Liveries dight.
While the Plowman neer at hand,
Whistles ore the Furrow'd Land,
And the Milkmaid singeth blithe, [ 65 ]
And the Mower whets his sithe,
And every Shepherd tells his tale
Under the Hawthorn in the dale."
Read Milton's poetry at this Dartmouth website.