The Only Surviving Manuscript of John Milton’s Paradise Lost Gets Published in Book Form for the First Time

In The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, William Blake adds a note to the text that became a famous adage about John Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lostthe 10,000-line, 17th cen­tu­ry blank verse epic about the war between heav­en and hell and the failed test­ing of God’s pre­mi­um prod­uct, human beings. Mil­ton “wrote in fet­ters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at lib­er­ty when he wrote Dev­ils & Hell,” Blake declared, “because he was a true Poet and of the Dev­il’s par­ty with­out know­ing it.” The state­ment inspired “oth­er Roman­tic and Goth­ic writ­ers to view Satan as a hero,” the British Library writes.

Blake him­self illus­trat­ed Par­adise Lost in three sep­a­rate com­mis­sions over the course of his career as an engraver and print­er. His deep admi­ra­tion for the poem helped it become a “Bible of the Roman­tic move­ment,” writes the man­u­script pub­lish­er SP Books in their intro­duc­tion to a rare new book pub­li­ca­tion of the only sur­viv­ing man­u­script of the work.

Only 1,000 num­bered, large for­mat copies of this print­ing are avail­able. (We do hope a sub­se­quent edi­tion will appear, maybe with a tran­scrip­tion and anno­ta­tions. But it will not be as beau­ti­ful as this sky-blue cloth-cov­ered book with Blake’s full-col­or illus­tra­tions.)

The book pre­serves the only part of the poem that sur­vives in man­u­script: 798 lines from Book One of Par­adise Lost. These are not in Mil­ton’s hand — he had been blind since 1652, and the poem was first pub­lished in 1667. He con­ceived the epic in his 50s, his career in gov­ern­ment over after the Eng­lish Civ­il Wars and the brief peri­od of the Cromwells’ Pro­tec­torate end­ed in the Restora­tion of Charles II. “Mil­ton com­posed ‘Par­adise Lost’ aloud, in bed or (per wit­ness­es) ‘lean­ing back­wards oblique­ly in an easy chair,’ ” Lau­ren Chris­tensen writes at The New York Times, “mem­o­riz­ing the stan­zas to be tran­scribed in anoth­er’s hand.”

These first few hun­dred lines show why Satan seems so noble to Mil­ton’s read­ers; speech­es by and about him por­tray his doomed cam­paign as a right­eous assault on heav­en­ly tyran­ny. The Roman­tics’ use of Par­adise Lost reflects their own pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, while also echo­ing con­tem­po­rary sus­pi­cions of the poem. “The author­i­ties were con­cerned,” for exam­ple, Tom Paulin notes at The Lon­don Review of Books, by an image in Book One describ­ing Satan:

as when the sun new ris’n
Looks through the hor­i­zon­tal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse dis­as­trous twi­light sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change

Per­plex­es mon­archs.

“Accord­ing to Mil­ton’s ear­ly biog­ra­ph­er, the Irish repub­li­can John Toland, Charles II’s Licenser for the Press regard­ed these lines as sub­ver­sive,” Paulin points out, “and want­ed to sup­press the whole poem.” It’s sur­pris­ing he was able to pub­lish at all. Mil­ton had vocif­er­ous­ly sup­port­ed the Puri­tan rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who over­threw the king’s father, Charles I, and removed his head. Mil­ton lat­er pub­lished sev­er­al pam­phlets in defense of regi­cide. In 1660, when Richard Cromwell’s Pro­tec­torate fell apart and Charles II returned, Mil­ton’s works were banned by roy­al decree and the poet went into hid­ing until a gen­er­al par­don.

Lat­er crit­ics have point­ed to Mil­ton’s polit­i­cal writ­ings as evi­dence that he knew exact­ly whose par­ty he was of. Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty’s Michael Bryson has gone so far as to argue that Mil­ton was a secret athe­ist. In any case, he was a pas­sion­ate believ­er in the over­throw of kings and the estab­lish­ment of republics (for which he has become a lib­er­tar­i­an hero). Paulin sums up the crit­i­cal case for Par­adise Lost as an alle­go­ry for the “lost cause” of the rev­o­lu­tion:

Mil­ton knew that the poem he was dic­tat­ing to his ama­neuen­sis would be scru­ti­nized by the recent­ly restored monar­ch’s Licenser of the Press, so he cod­ed the Eng­lish peo­ple’s for­ma­tion of a repub­lic as the cre­ation of the “heav­ens and earth.” The idea passed the cen­sor by, just as it has passed by many read­ers, but it was nonethe­less Mil­ton’s found­ing inten­tion in com­pos­ing his epic.

The charge that Mil­ton made Satan a hero is hard to ignore when, read­ing Book One, we find the poet giv­ing the Chief of Fall­en Angels the best lines, as any­one who’s read Par­adise Lost will remem­ber. If you haven’t, just see the clas­sic exam­ple below.

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What mat­ter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom Thun­der hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not dri­ve us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambi­tion though in Hell:
Bet­ter to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.

Learn more about this rare man­u­script edi­tion at The New York Times’ review and pur­chase one (if one remains) at SP Books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Milton’s Hand Anno­tat­ed Copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio: A New Dis­cov­ery by a Cam­bridge Schol­ar

The Oth­er­world­ly Art of William Blake: An Intro­duc­tion to the Vision­ary Poet and Painter

Spenser and Mil­ton (Free Course) 

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

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