ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Let's turn the page now to John Milton. He's the poet who created the epic "Paradise Lost," and he's generally thought of as the greatest English writer this side of Shakespeare. Milton would have turned 400 years old this Tuesday, and his fans around the world are whooping it up with literary events, exhibits, and readings. Tom Vitale has the story from New York.
TOM VITALE: At Cambridge University, where Milton himself studied at Christ's College, the faculty of the English department reads the entire text of "Paradise Lost," all 10,000 lines, in a 12-hour continuous live webcast.
Unidentified Man #1: Open ye heaven, your living doors. Let in the great creator from his work returned magnificent, his six days, a world...
Unidentified Woman #1: To whom thus Adam, cleared of doubt, replied...
Unidentified Man #2: How fully hast thou satisfied me, pure intelligence of heaven, Angel serene, and the freed from intricacies...
Unidentified Man #3: And the faithful armies rang Hosanna to the Highest...
VITALE: At the Morgan Library in New York City, preservationists have disbounded the only handwritten manuscript of "Paradise Lost" that survived from the 1660s and displayed the loose pages in a hushed exhibition space.
Mr. DECLAN KIELY (Curator, Morgan Library, New York City): You'll never have another opportunity to see as many openings as there are here. It's a 33-page manuscript, and you can see eight pages in the exhibition.
VITALE: It's all part of the events surrounding the 400th birthday of one of the most remarkable figures in English literature. William Kerrigan is editor of the Modern Library's "Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton."
Dr. WILLIAM KERRIGAN (Department of English, University of Massachusetts): He was a very great poet, a great mythmaker. He was one of the first European intellectuals to argue in favor of divorce on the grounds of lack of spiritual companionship. He published the first book devoted to censorship, all of this along with some of the greatest poetry in the history of the world.
VITALE: Milton's masterpiece, "Paradise Lost," is an unrhymed epic in iambic pentameter. Its subject is the fall of man, the creation, the battle of the angels, original sin, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. It is, says William Kerrigan, the greatest work of its kind in the English language.
Dr. KERRIGAN: It has great cosmic vistas. It describes gods and monsters. And the sublimity of its subject matter is matched by the sustained beauty of its language.
Mr. KIELY: People have almost genuflected in front of this manuscript at times.
VITALE: Declan Kiely is the curator of the Morgan Library's Milton exhibit.
Mr. KIELY: There's a great sense of reverence in the room whenever I visit it, and last week, we played a recording of the first 26 lines to a group that was visiting to look at the manuscript and the books here, and everyone bowed their heads as if they were in church.
Unidentified Man #4: (Reading) Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe with loss of Eden, til one greater man restore us, and regain the blissful seat, sing, Heavenly Muse...
VITALE: "Paradise Lost" is more remarkable for the way it was created. When Milton began writing the poem in 1658, he had been totally blind for four years. William Kerrigan says the entire work was recited by the poet to an assistant, 40 lines each morning for five years.
Dr. KERRIGAN: When the secretary was late, he was said to have grumbled around the house, I want to be milked. I want to be milked. So he was, day after day, packet after packet, and we have as a result this extraordinarily beautiful poem as a great act of human heroism that it was ever created.
VITALE: A rare first American edition of "Paradise Lost" is included in the Morgan Library exhibit published in 1777, one year into the American Revolution. Milton had opposed the monarchy in England, says Declan Kiely, and was read by America's Founding Fathers.
Mr. KIELY: His theories of the people's right to overthrow a magistrate or a king or any ruler if they were not carrying out the will of the people was directly influential on the Constitution of this country.
VITALE: Among other contributions John Milton made to our culture are new words. Milton coined the phrase self-esteem in a prose essay. The hundreds of newly minted words in "Paradise Lost," include pandemonium, literally the place of all the demons. And Milton, who visited Galileo in 1638, is the first writer to ever use the word space in the sense of outer space and to consider the infinite scope of the universe.
Unidentified Man #5: This earth a spot, a grain, an atom, with the firmament compared and all her numbered stars that seem to roll Space incomprehensible (for such Their distance argues and their swift return Diurnal)...
VITALE: Milton scholar William Kerrigan says some of the classical and biblical references in "Paradise Lost" are less familiar to today's readers than they were in earlier centuries, but Kerrigan says everyone can relate to the story.
Dr. KERRIGAN: It tells the story of the fall of man, and essentially, it's the story about losing perfection, coming to take responsibility for that loss and going on despite it, and in that sense, it's a very, very human story, and it touches most lives, I think.
VITALE: Kerrigan says the best way to read "Paradise Lost" is in a single sitting, as he did.
Dr. KERRIGAN: When I was a graduate student, I set aside 24 hours and put lots of coffee in front of me and some snacks and read all 9,500 plus lines of this poem, ending with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow through Eden, took their solitary way. I finished that poem with tears streaming down my face.
VITALE: When John Milton finished writing the poem, his publisher paid him five pounds for the manuscript and the copyright. "Paradise Lost" didn't receive critical acclaim until 30 years after Milton's death in 1674.
Unidentified Man #6: What in me is dark illumine, what is low raise and support that to the height of this great argument, I may assert Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to man.
VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.