Artists have illustrated John Milton’s Paradise Lost more than any other poem in the history of English literature. This large and lavish copy, published by Jacob Tonson in 1688, was the first edition to include illustrations. Its title page advertises that it is ‘Adorn’d with Sculptures’ – a word used here to mean engravings, or prints.
The Verse and the Arguments
The first edition of Paradise Lost (1667) was small and plain, with no preface or portrait of the author. But gradually, new features were added to make it more enticing to readers. In late 1668, Milton added a note on ‘The Verse’, explaining that he was writing ‘without Rhime’ because it has ‘no true musical delight’. That same year Milton also added ‘The Argument’ ‒ a prose summary of each section ‒ and in 1674 he divided the work into 12 books rather than ten.
How did Tonson sell and promote the first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost?
Tonson used his commercial know-how to bring these features together and add illustrations, boosting the poem’s popularity, value and prestige. The publisher also included an engraving of Milton, with a verse by John Dryden comparing him to the great Roman and Greek epic poets. The book was sold at a high price to 500 subscribers, who are listed at the back of the book to give it additional kudos.
Medina’s illustrations of Satan in Paradise Lost
In this work there are 12 engravings, one at the start of each book. These were mainly designed by Sir John Baptist Medina (1659–1710) and engraved by Michael Burgese, but the image for Book 4 is signed Bernard Lens.
As we move from Book 1 to Books 2 and 9, the shifting image of Satan is particularly striking. The figure becomes less human, less dominant on the page, and increasingly demonic. By Book 9, Satan’s wings are less angelic; his face darker and more distorted; his body more twisted and beast-like than it was in Book 1.
Making the invisible visible
Milton’s poem is richly visual, but he seems aware of the paradox of describing the indescribable and depicting invisible things. In Book 3, when Satan is flying towards God’s new world, he sees the ‘Kingly Palace Gate’ of Heaven. Its portal is said to be ‘inimitable on Earth / By Model, or by shading Pencil drawn’ (ll. 505; 508‒09). Yet, despite these challenges, generations of artists from 1688 onwards have been inspired by the poem’s ambitious subject and breath taking imagery. They often draw on early Christian images of Heaven, Paradise and Hell, and create new visions of chaos inspired by Milton’s words.
- Full title:
- Paradise Lost. A Poem in Twelve Books ... The Fourth Edition, Adorn'd with Sculptures.
- Book / Folio / Engraving / Illustration / Image
- John Milton, John Baptist Medina [artist], Bernard Lens [artist]
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Roberta Klimt
- Politics and religion
From his politics and religious writings to Paradise Lost, Roberta Klimt traces how the life and work of John Milton was guided by the principle of freedom of thought and how in doing so he challenged fundamental aspects of 17th-century society.
- Article by:
- Philip Pullman
- Politics and religion, Gender and sexuality
Philip Pullman first read Paradise Lost as a schoolboy and was dazzled by the sound of its poetry as he and his classmates read it aloud. Since then, he has become fascinated by Milton's tremendous powers of storytelling, and the ways in which he creates narrative tension, complex moods and vivid characters.
- Article by:
- Sandra M. Gilbert
- Gender and sexuality, Politics and religion
Eve in Paradise Lost is vain vulnerable and evidently intellectually inferior to Adam. However, Sandra M Gilbert argues that, though Milton portrays her as a weak character, he also puts her on a par with Satan in her refusal to accept hierarchy and because of her ability to move the plot of Paradise Lost forward.
Related collection items
Related teachers' notes
Through exploring characterisation and setting in Paradise Lost, students will reflect on how transgressive actions and their consequences are presented, with particular reference to Books I, II, IX and X.
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