Without him nothing would be terrific, nobody would be sensuous, and we would never have gone into space. Those three words are among the many still in use that were invented by John Milton, author of Paradise Lost and second only to Shakespeare among English poets. This week, there is an unprecedented chance to see how his mind worked, when Cambridge University Library displays documents written by Milton rarely or never viewed by the public before.
Among them is a first attempt at his greatest work, although nothing like the epic poem that Paradise Lost became. Adam and Eve, Lucifer and the Chorus of Angels are listed as characters in a possible five-act play, crossed out, repeated and scrawled all over, as Milton gathers his thoughts. "They are priceless," said a spokesman for the library, which is displaying them to mark the 400th anniversary of the poet's birth.
Another 17th-century manuscript, notes written by the scientist Robert Hooke, sold recently for £1m – but the so-called "Trinity Manuscript", containing drafts of Milton's poems, would fetch many times that if it ever came up for sale. It contains the rarely seen original handwritten version of "Lycidas", regarded by some scholars as the finest short poem in English.
Personal material from Milton's time as a student at Christ's College, Cambridge, which has never been seen before, is also on display. He was a long-haired, delicate-looking young man of 20 when he wrote out – in sloped and confidently swirling letters – his Latin application to become a Bachelor of Arts.
Milton's influence on the modern world cannot be underestimated, says Dr Gavin Alexander, fellow of Christ's College: "His writing took epic realms like fantasy, romance and science fiction and combined them with ideas about politics, morality and human nature on a huge cosmic scale nobody had really seen before... Without him, it is possible we would never have heard of The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, or The Matrix."
"He is among the world's great poets," says Professor Christopher Ricks in the preface to the exhibition. "Living at this Hour: John Milton 1608-2008" opens at the Cambridge University Library on Tuesday.