Review: A Partial Manuscript of 'Paradise Lost,' by John Milton

Review: A Partial Manuscript of ‘Paradise Lost,’ by John Milton

When the Restoration ended his career in Britain’s Commonwealth government in 1660, John Milton turned his full attention to the verse tragedy he’d started around 1640, then called “Adam Unparadised.” By now in his 50s, blind and ailing, Milton composed “Paradise Lost” aloud, in bed or (per witnesses) “leaning backward obliquely in an easy chair, with his leg flung over the elbow of it,” memorizing the stanzas to be transcribed in another’s hand.

Of the resulting 10,000-line manuscript he sent to the Stationers’ Company in London in 1665, only 798 lines survive. These 33 pages correspond to Book 1 of 10 in the first, 1667 edition; a second edition, in 1674, would regroup the poem into 12 books. In the penmanship of a single, professional scribe, the pages are almost certainly a fair copy: a final, corrected version compiling the rough drafts that, in Milton’s case, would have borne the distinct markings of his various amanuenses, as they received his dictations .

This manuscript is the only known partial evidence of the creative process — collaborative by necessity — behind Milton’s magnum opus. Housed in the Morgan Library in New York City, the pages are presented for the first time in book form in PARADISE LOST (SP Books, $180), alongside paintings William Blake completed in the early 19th century to illustrate the epic poem.

The first page of the manuscript (above) presents the imprimatur of the Stationers’ Company, official instructions that were necessary at the time for printing and publishing a book. Translated from the Latin by the scholar Gordon Campbell, it reads: “Let it be printed. Thomas Tomkyns, one of the religious servants of the most reverent father and lord in Christ, Lord Gilbert, by divine providence archbishop of Canterbury. Richard Royston. Entered by George Tokefield, clerk.”

Stationers’ — founded as the Worshipful Company of Stationers in 1403 — is one of the City of London’s livery companies, a guild of paper makers and publishers that was granted a royal charter in the 16th century. It remains, albeit in an advisory role, to this day.

Below, the opening lines of the first book of “Paradise Lost”: “Of mans first disobedience, & the fruit / Of that forbidd’n tree, whose mortall tast / Brought death into the world, & all our woe.”

Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.

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