Exhibitions | Online | John Milton's Paradise Lost
Click play button to listen to Mark Rylance reciting the invocation to the muse from Paradise Lost and Sonnet XXII.
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John Milton was born in London on 9 December 1608. During the 1640s
he wrote a series of pamphlets in defense of political, religious, and
civil liberty, becoming the foremost polemicist of his day. He published
his first collection of poems in 1646. Three years later, after the execution
of Charles I, Milton was appointed secretary for foreign tongues
(similar to the position of secretary of state) for the Commonwealth,
England's republican government from 1649 to 1660. For the next
ten years, he was the chief propagandist for Oliver Cromwell's regime
as lord protector and the lightning rod for European reaction to the
execution of the king.
Milton composed the ten books of Paradise Lost between 1658
and 1663. He had first planned the work as early as 1640, intending to
write a tragedy titled Adam Unparadised. By 1652 he had become
completely blind, probably due to glaucoma. Blindness forced him
to compose orally, rendering him entirely reliant upon amanuenses
(casual copyists among his friends and family circle) to whom he gave
dictation. He composed the poem mostly at night or in the early
morning, committing his composition to memory until someone was
available to write down his words. He revised as his text was read back
to him, so that a day's work amounted to twenty lines of verse.
According to contemporary accounts, when dictating, the poet "sat
leaning backward obliquely in an easy chair, with his leg flung over
the elbow of it" or "composed lying in bed in the morning."
The only surviving manuscript of Paradise Lost is this 33-page
fair copy, written in secretary script by a professional scribe, who probably
transcribed patchwork pages of text Milton had dictated to
several different amanuenses. This fair copy was corrected by at least
five different hands under Milton's personal direction and became the
printer's copy, used to set the type for the first edition of the book.
The Licensing Act, which was suspended during Cromwell's term as
lord protector, was renewed in 1662. Printers and publishers therefore
required a license in order to legally print and distribute any book.
Printing was authorized only when an imprimatur (Latin for "let it be
printed") was granted by the Stationers' Company. The imprimatur
for Paradise Lost appears on the inside cover (the first page of the
manuscript in the digital facsimile). Soiled with ink smudges and compositor's
marks, printer's copy manuscripts were customarily discarded or recycled
after printing. In this case the presence of the imprimatur may
account for the survival of Book 1—no manuscripts of the nine other
books of Paradise Lost survive.
Milton sold Paradise Lost to the printer Samuel Simmons for £5.
The contract is dated 27 April 1667; the book was published in late
October or early November 1667. Although Milton had completed
Paradise Lost by 1665, publication was delayed by a paper shortage
caused by the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague (during
which over eighty London printers died), and the Great Fire of London,
1666, which destroyed many of the city's presses. The absence of
Simmons's name on the earliest title pages indicates that he may have
been unable to print the book himself. The title pages that do bear
Simmons's name do not give an address, suggesting that the printing
of the first edition was assigned to Peter Parker.
Approximately thirteen hundred copies of the first edition were
printed, with no fewer than six different title pages. Marketed at three
shillings a copy, the first printing was sold out within eighteen months.
This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Rudy L. Ruggles, Jr.
Photography by Graham Haber.
The images of the Paradise Lost manuscript have been digitally enhanced and do not show conservation treatment.
Digital facsimile of Paradise Lost »
Read and listen to page 1 »
Related items »
Read and listen to Sonnet XXII »