William Blake’s Hallucinatory Illustrations of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

When I saw William Blake’s illus­tra­tions for the book of Job and for John Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso at the Mor­gan Library a few years ago, I was first struck by how small the intri­cate water­col­ors are. This should not have been surprising—these are book illus­tra­tions, after all. But William Blake (1757–1827) is such a tremen­dous force, his work so mon­u­men­tal­ly strange and beau­ti­ful, that one expects to be over­pow­ered by it. In per­son, his draw­ings are indeed impres­sive, but they are equal­ly so for their care­ful atten­tion to design and com­po­si­tion as for their heavy, often quite ter­ri­fy­ing sub­jects.

Look, for exam­ple, at the play of pat­terns behind the fig­ures in the illus­tra­tion above, from an edi­tion of Milton’s Par­adise Lost. The fig­ure in the cen­ter depicts Milton’s grotesque­ly graph­ic alle­gor­i­cal con­struc­tion of Sin. In Mil­ton, this char­ac­ter “seemed woman to the waist, and fair,”

But end­ed foul in many a scaly fold
Volu­mi­nous and vast, a ser­pent armed
With mor­tal sting: about her mid­dle round
A cry of hell hounds nev­er ceas­ing barked
With wide Cer­ber­ian mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous peal: yet, when they list, would creep,
If ought dis­turbed their noise, into her womb,
And ken­nel there, yet there still barked and howled,
With­in unseen.

Blake spares us the hor­ror of the lat­ter image—in fact he gets a lit­tle vague on the details of the creature’s nether­parts, which were always dif­fi­cult to imag­ine, and empha­sizes the “fair” parts above (in the ver­sion below, the serpent/dog thing looks like a cos­tume prop). Milton’s descrip­tion always seemed to me one of the cru­elest, most misog­y­nis­tic ren­der­ings of the female body in lit­er­a­ture. Blake’s por­trait relieves Milton’s nas­ti­ness, mak­ing Sin sym­pa­thet­ic and, well, kin­da hot, a Blakean feat for sure. The char­ac­ters to her left and right are Satan and Death, respec­tive­ly.


Blake loved Mil­ton, and illus­trat­ed his work more than any oth­er author. And he illus­trat­ed Par­adise Lost more than any oth­er Mil­ton, in three sep­a­rate com­mis­sions (peruse them all here).  The first set dates from 1807, com­mis­sioned by Joseph Thomas. (The Satan, Sin, and Death scene above comes from the Thomas set.) The sec­ond set, from which the image at the top comes, was com­mis­sioned in 1808 by Thomas Butts. Blake patron John Lin­nell com­mis­sioned the third set of illus­tra­tions in 1822. Only three of the Lin­nell paint­ings survive—none of the scene above. In one of the 1822 illus­tra­tions (below), Satan spies on Adam and Eve as they canoo­dle in the gar­den.

Blake’s obses­sion with Par­adise Lost inspired his own cracked the­o­log­i­cal fable, Mil­ton: a Poem in Two Books, with its bizarre pre­am­ble in which Blake promis­es to “buil[d] Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleas­ant land.” One writer calls Blake’s Mil­ton “a lengthy and dif­fi­cult apoc­a­lyp­tic poem with a fas­ci­nat­ing hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry qual­i­ty.” The poem caused many of Blake’s con­tem­po­raries to con­clude that “he was quite mad.” But I think his work shows us a man with all of his fac­ul­ties, and maybe a few extra besides, although his paint­ings, like his weird­er poet­ry, can also seem like crazed hal­lu­ci­na­tions. He meant his var­i­ous Par­adise Lost illus­tra­tions to cor­rect ear­li­er ren­der­ings by oth­er artists, includ­ing a polit­i­cal satire by car­toon­ist James Gill­ray in 1792 and a 1740 paint­ing by William Hog­a­rth that today resem­bles the cov­er of a bad fan­ta­sy nov­el. See both of those ear­li­er ver­sions here.

via Bib­liokept

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Dra­mat­ic Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

Alber­to Martini’s Haunt­ing Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1901–1944)

Spenser and Mil­ton (Free Course)

Find Works by Mil­ton in our Free Audio Books and Free eBooks Col­lec­tions

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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