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 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.
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.
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.
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.