Events & Exhibits
Milton's Paradies Lost


The Williamsburg Art & Historical Center has acquired a copy of the first illustrated (Sir John Baptiste Medina) edition of John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost" (1688 and 1695), the greatest poem of the English language. Besides being the first illustrated edition of PL, it is also "The earliest serious effort to illustrate an important work of English Poetry" -Edward Hodnett. Originally purchased at Edward Moxon's sale by Francis Jackson, a Jackson family bookplate is on the flyleaf with a written note below stating that Francis Jackson was born in 1810 and was a friend of Charles Lamb.




It is not known exactly when John Milton actually wrote his epic poem Paradise Lost, probably between 1650-1660. The only known existing fragment is located in New York City at the Morgan Library. Pierpont Morgan had a great interest in major British writers. A centerpiece of his collection was—and still is—the sole surviving manuscript of John Milton's Paradise Lost, The manuscript was discovered by Bishop Newton in the 18th century in the possession of Tonson, the publisher. This manuscript fragment of Book I, in the hand of an amanuensis, ca. 1665, was purchased by Pierpont Morgan in1904.

The first edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Milton entered into a publishing agreement with printer Samuel Simmons on April 27, 1667. The first edition was a small quarto, which sold for three shillings. Simmons printed some 1300 copies and had them ready for sale by August 1667, issuing them gradually over the next two years or so, with differently dated title pages and varying preliminary matter. Simmons found sales of the poem to be somewhat sluggish because of the difficulty of the text and the lack of any annotations or textual apparatus.

The second & third edition of Paradise Lost

The second edition was published in 1674 by Simmons and included these changes: Milton broke his original ten books into twelve, on the model of Virgil. It also contained Andrew Marvell's verse tribute to Milton, and an engraving from the portrait by William Dolle. The younger poet Marvell had befriended Milton in the 1660s and worked as an assistant. Milton's unrhymed blank verse had seemed strange to the readers. As a result, the publisher added a defensive preface and the poet John Dryden even offered to turn it into rhyme.

In 1680, after Milton’s death in 1674, Simmons settled with Elizabeth, Milton’s wife, and paid her £10 for the second and third editions as well as an additional £8 for copyright to the poem. The third edition of Paradise Lost is perhaps the rarest of the early editions of Milton's major work. Meanwhile, Simmons had arranged to sell the rights again to bookseller Brabazon Aylmer for £25. Aylmer did not publish Paradise Lost and sold the copyright to Jacob Tonson.

The fourth edition of Paradise Lost

This edition comes with a number of firsts:
1) First illustrated edition of Paradise Lost
2) First Large format Paradise Lost printed on high-quality paper with very handsome type
3) First serious effort to illustrate an important work of English poetry
4) First major English literary work with important engraved illustrations in the seventeenth century
5) First book to be sold by subscription (500 subscribers)

The text of this edition comes from the 1678 edition -- with the utmost care taken in the physical presentation of the book, but with some textual inaccuracy.

He published this edition jointly with Richard Bently for financial reasons. “As a result of this arrangement, three separate title pages can be found for this edition. The most prevalent title page lists the names of both men and is assumed to accompany texts available for sale to the general public. Subscription copies carry title pages designating the publisher responsible for soliciting the subscription. As Tonson solicited the majority of the subscriptions, more copies exist with his title page than with Bently's.” See University of Wisconsin Web-site

It was not until Jacob Tonson republished Paradise Lost for the fourth
time in 1688 that it reached a wide public. John Dryden described Tonson as "scruffy, smelly and scrofulous." But, he was one of the greatest publishers the British ever had. He is seen in Godfrey Kneller's 1717 portrait holding the fourth edition of Paradise Lost like a republican scepter in his right hand.

Tonson was quick to see the sales potential of illustrated books. On
December 5 1687, a year before the Whigs seized power, he placed this
advertisement in the London Gazette:

“Milton, John. PARADICE [sic] LOST. A poem in Twelve Books. The Fourth
Edition, Adorn'd with Sculptures. Printed by M. Flesher for R. Bentley and
J. Tonson. 1688. Published by subscription (500 subscribers).  John Milton,
Paradise lost. A poem in twelve books.
 The fourth edition, adorn'd with sculptures., or illustratsions. Printed by Miles Flesher, for Richard Bently and Jacob Tonson, 1688. “

This first illustrated edition also had the frontispiece portrait of Milton. The verses below the portrait, by John Dryden, linked Milton with Homer and Virgil:
“Three Poets, in three distant Ages born,
Greece, Italy, and England did adorn.
 The First in loftiness of thought surpass'd;
 The Next in Majesty; in both the Last.
 The force of Nature cou'd no farther goe:
 To make a s she joynd the former two.”

According to A. Coleridge:
“Jacob Tonson issued two collections in 1695, the parts of which are in large part the same, but with different arrangements. The first collection, which may be called the "Poetical Works", consists of a general Title Page, Paradise Lost, "A Table", Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, Poems and Hume's Annotations, usually (but not always) in that order. The second collection contains the same elements but no general Title Page and usually (but not always) binds Hume's Annotations after Paradise Lost and before Paradise Regained. The Poetical Works... often contain the 1688 printing of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, and less frequently have the 1688 Paradise Lost with a 1695 cancel title page... As noted above the 1688 edition of Paradise Lost can be recognized by having no line numbers... The second collection always contains the 1695 editions and is not always complete..." (Coleridge, p 274).

With this fourth edition, for the first time in large luxurious format, it has been estimated that some 4000 copies of the poem had reached print. Any 17th century edition of Paradise Lost is desirable. This fourth edition is a very rare and desirable edition indeed, considering how many great libraries should wish to own 17th century luxury illustrated edition of the greatest poem in the English language.

Milton's overall reputation at the end of the seventeenth century did not bode well for the sale of his literary works. First it suffered from his political views, and Paradise Lost came under intense literary criticism for not following conventional poetic standards. However, he did have a small, but vocal group of supporters. As with many great men of the arts, his genius triumphed over time,


In the fourth edition of 1688, each of the 12 books of the poem is headed by large-scale engravings, mainly by John Baptiste Medina (1659-1710), who painted in an almost Rubenesque style. The illustrations can be seen as a representation of the struggle against James II, who was regarded by many at the time as Satanic. Tonson, the radical publisher, clearly knew that the political tide was about to shift against the king, who was soon to be overthrown by a Dutch invasion organized by Whig aristocrats.


“It is the triumph of Milton's skill to have made his ideal world actual, if not to every English mind's eye, yet to a larger number of minds than have ever been reached by any other poetry in our language. Popular (in the common use of the word) Milton has not been, and cannot be. But the world he created has taken possession of the public mind…This success Milton owes partly to his selection of his subject, partly to his skill in handling it. In his handling, he presents his spiritual existences with just so much relief as to endow them with life and personality, and not with, that visual distinctness which would at once reveal their spectral immateriality, and so give a shock to the illusion. We might almost say of his personages that they are shapes, "if shape it might be called, that shape had none." By his art of suggestion by association, he does all he can to aid us to realise his agents, and at the moment when distinctness would disturb, he withdraws the object into a mist, and so disguises the incongruities which he could not avoid. The tact that avoids difficulties inherent in the nature of things, is an art which gets the least appreciation either in life or in literature.” Mark Pattison, RECTOR OF LINCOLN COLLEGE, OXFORD

What Pattison has so skillfully pointed out is that the successful visual illustration of this great epic is all but impossible. As a consequence, many of the illustrations throughout history seem inadequate to the job. Even Salvador Dali’s illustrations, for example are frivolous, and, although interesting, do not at all convey the weightiness of the subject. Martin’s Mezzotints of the 19th century come closer overall to the subject.


The history of illustrators since Medina includes, among others, Edward Burney, Richard Westall, Francis Hayman, and Bernard Lens. The most notable and popular illustrators include John Martin, William Blake, Gustave Dore, and Henry Fuseli. The continuing popularity of this great epic, even today, is proven by surreal/visionary artist Terrance Lindall's rendition which was published in hardcover in 1982 and which also appeared in ''Heavy Metal Magazine'' around that time. Lindall's version is considered to be the twentieth century's most notable contribution to the tradition of fine art illustrations in homage to Milton's visionary genius.

References for the historical information above:  Hodnett, Five Centuries of English Book Illustration, 1988; Lynch, Jacob Tonson, Kit-Cat Publisher 1971; Coleridge, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Milton Collection in the Alexander Turnbull Library, University of Wisconsin Library, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradise_Lost
Department of Rare Books and Special Collections South Carolina University: URL: http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/milton/milton.html


Many people are unaware that Sergei Eisenstein made a movie of Paradise Lost. Now, Hollywood has taken interest. The motion picture production of John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost is scheduled for release in 2007:
Produced by Vincent Newman and Directed by Scott Derrickson who directed “Hellraiser,” Screenplay by Phil DiBlasi; Stuart Hazeldine; Byron Willinger. Distributor: Warner Bros. (tentative); Cast: not yet announced; Budget: upwards of $100,000,000;


Terrance Lindall to recite passages from Paradise Lost and display his original illustrations with a presentation by Professor Karen Karbiener of New York University on
" ...Milton's Satan and his impact on countercultural artistic movements from William Blake to the Beat poets — in essence, the artists "between" Milton and Lindall, the radical artistic legacy."

WITH A Special Display: Charles Lambs’ copy of the fourth illustrated edition of Paradise Lost!

4th ed