When Johann Jakob Bodmer translated John Milton’s Paradise Lost into German in 1732, the biblical epic plummeted into a fiery abyss. Branded “allzu romantisch” (“too romantic” in German), the epic first had to be smuggled past Friedrich Wilhelm’s pietist censors. It had been banned in Germany for treating so sacred a theme with the baroque gallantry of a medieval romance; at the time, dressing Genesis in Homeric clothe was scarcely better than re-writing the gospel story in the style of Rambo today.
But it was not only Lutheran authorities in Prussia and the Reformed magisterium in Switzerland who took offense at Milton’s epic: Lumières of the French Enlightenment also found reason to sneer. To Voltaire, Milton’s “sublimity” was so much hot air. In his Essai sur la poésie épique (1728), Voltaire wrote of Paradise Lost’s war in heaven: “The most judicious critics have found in this section no taste, likelihood or reason.” In other words: The work for which Milton has now won the utmost of artistic recognition was at first the object of religious censorship as much as secular disdain.
It was largely due to the Olympian efforts of Bodmer, Milton’s chief apologist in Europe, that Paradise Lost was at last salvaged from these attacks. It can be said without exaggeration that the German-Swiss writer’s life’s work was the translation, defense and dissemination of Milton’s Paradise Lost for the first time among a wide German readership. From 1732 to 1780, Bodmer published no less than six different German translations of the epic. He, together with his colleague at the University of Zürich, Johann Jakob Breitinger, had been engaged in a debate with Johann Christoph Gottsched, the Professor of Philosophy at Leipzig who recycled Voltaire’s critiques of 1728 and bolstered them with the rationalist poetics. His chief argument was that Milton’s poetry violated the principle of Wahrscheinlichkeit or “verisimilitude,” meaning Milton not only depicted many events in poor taste, but certain actions and characters were simply too far-fetched to be convincing. As the Roman poet Horace said, poetry ought to be enjoyable and instructive; it followed that poetry must depict events and characters which can actually occur in the natural world.
Bodmer and Breitinger used the occasion not only to defend Milton, but also to articulate a theory of poetic creation that defended the Romantics of the succeeding century. In response to Gottsched, Bodmer and Breitinger invoked Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s theory of “possible worlds” — that is, with an infinity of possible worlds at his disposal, Milton was not violating the principle of verisimilitude but simply narrating one possible series of events, which, because it does not contain any internal contradictions, could occur. They eventually substituted the principle that the poet ought to “imitate nature” with the idea that the poet “creates new worlds” by painting sublimities onto the blank slate of the mind.
By mid-century, enough pamphlets littered the literary turf to kindle an enlightened ordeal. Milton emerged triumphant to the Romantics, an inspiration to even Immanuel Kant. Bodmer’s cultural campaign was successful, and Milton today seems to have been one of the chief agents in the transition between the German Aufklärung, or Enlightenment, and Romanticism.
Adam Foley is a doctoral candidate in the history department at Notre Dame. He is currently writing his dissertation on the first Latin translations of Homer in the Renaissance, and he loves writing creatively, too.
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