Listen to Mark Rylance reciting the invocation to the muse from Paradise Lost and Sonnet XXII.
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.