John Milton was blind when he composed Paradise Lost, so he had to rely on others to record his masterpiece for him. There must have been piles of paper to hold the thousands of lines dictated by the poet, but this is the only manuscript that has survived. It is a fair copy of Book 1, written by a professional scribe around 1665. The text was probably transcribed from assorted notes made by Milton’s friends and family.
How did John Milton write Paradise Lost?
Milton often worked on Paradise Lost in the dead of night or in the early hours of the morning. He composed the lines in his head, and then memorised them until somebody came to record them. One of his first biographers tells how Milton used to wake early with ‘a good Stock of Verses ready’ for the copyist. If the assistant arrived later than usual, Milton ‘would complain’ saying ‘hee wanted to be milked’. Once the words were on paper, they were read aloud so that Milton could adapt them.
What was this manuscript used for?
This manuscript was used by the printer, Samuel Simmons, for the first edition of Paradise Lost. It was written by a professional scribe, and then corrected by at least five others, including Milton’s nephew Edward Phillips. Although the manuscript was finished in 1665, it was not printed until 1667 because of a paper shortage caused by plague, war and the Great Fire of London. On the inside cover of the manuscript (not shown here), there is an ‘imprimatur’ or publishing licence, granting official permission for the poem to be printed. This might explain why this section has been preserved, as it could have been used as evidence of the licence.
What part of the poem is shown here?
These two pages show the famous opening of Paradise Lost, in which the poet invokes the Muse to help him sing his ‘advent’rous Song’. Milton declares his grand ambition to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, and write things not yet attempted ‘in Prose or Rhyme’.
 The Life of Mr. John Milton (c. 1686), usually attributed to Milton’s friend and amanuensis Cyriack Skinner, or to his nephew John Phillips.
Of mans first disobedience, & the fruit
Of that forbidd'n tree, whose mortall tast
Brought death into the world, & all our woe,
With losse of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, & regaine the blisfull seate,
Sing heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb or of Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the Heav'ns & Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brooke that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aide to my adventrous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soare
Above th' Aonian Mount; while it persues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rime.
And cheifly thou O Spirit that dost prefer
Before all temples th' upright heart & pure
Instruct me, for thou know'st; thou from the first
Wast present, & with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abysse,
˄ And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is darke
Illumine, what is low raise & support;
That to the hig˄hth of this great argument
I may assert eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to Men.
Say first, for heav'n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep tract of hell, say first what cause
Mov'd our grand parents in that happie state,
Favour'd of heav'n so highly, to fall off
From thir Creator, & transgresse his will
For one restraint, Lords of the world besides?
Who first seduc'd them to that fowle revolt?
Th' infernal Serpent; hee it was, whose guile
Stirrd up with envy & revenge, deceav'd
The Mother of Mankind; what time his pride
Had cast him out from heav'n; with all his host
Of rebell Angells, by whose aid aspiring
To set himselfe in glory above his peeres,
Hee trusted to have equalld the most High,
If he oppos'd; and with ambitious aime
Against the throne & Monarchy of God,
Raisd impious warr in heav'n & battell proud
With vaine attempt. Him the Almighty power
Hurld headlong flameing from th' ethereal skie
With hideous ruine & combustion downe
To bottomles perdition, there to dwell
- Full title:
- Paradise Lost. Manuscript of Book I, in the hand of an amanuensis
- c. 1665
- John Milton, Anonymous professional scribe
- © The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York
- Usage terms
The Morgan Library & Museum. MA 307. Purchased by Pierpoint Morgan, 1904. Image: © The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
- Held by
- The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.