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Paradise Lost

More than any other literary forebear, John Milton's Paradise Lost stands as a continuing intellectual and mythic reference point for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Published as an epic poem in ten books in 1667, it was restructured for its second edition of twelve books in the year of Milton's death, 1674. Although immediately recognized as a masterpiece, its influence in its own time was minor due in large part to Milton's radical individualistic politics and puritan theology, which were associated with sedition after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. A generation later, after the Bloodless Revolution of 1688 extended the popular mandate by revising Britain's government from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, the poem's influence remained modest, to the generation of Pope more a stumbling block and inhibition than an inspiration. It was undoubtedly a monument, but in both style and thought it seemed out of step with the age.

All that was to change by the end of the eighteenth century, when for complex and even contradictory reasons, ranging from the recovery of Renaissance culture to sudden pressures for political reform, Paradise Lost claimed an unquestionable prominence, even preeminence, among the treasures of English literary art and began to exert a broad influence on the emerging literature of Romanticism. Although the impact can be felt on every one of the major Romantic poets, as well as on dozens of minor ones as well, it is a curious and even wonderful truth that nowhere in this rich literature does Milton's epic resonate as richly and subtly as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. That has been attributed by some critics to the orchestration of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a devoted follower of "the sacred Milton," as he referred to him in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound, and continually allowed his own work to resonate with deliberate allusions to Paradise Lost. Undoubtedly, he helped Mary with the polishing of her Miltonic textures, providing the epigraph, for example (X.743-45). But with a writing partnership that up to this point in England had only the short-lived relationship of Wollstonecraft and Godwin as a model, there is no reason to attribute the origin of any particular idea or theme to Percy Bysshe Shelley simply because he was older or male. And, indeed, it is possible to read his later comments on Paradise Lost in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound (1820) or in "A Defence of Poetry" (1821) as revealing how powerful an influence Mary's novel shed on his own conceptions of the work. On whomever the decision to foreground Milton's poem rests, Mary Shelley did write the novel and therefore is responsible for the complex patterns of allusion that amplify and contextualize her modernization of Western creation myths.