Paradise Lost: A Milestone Edition at the Worth Library
Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic English blank verse poem about the Fall of Man, is regarded as one of the foremost works of the English language, an epic on par with those of Virgil and Homer. First published in 1667, the poem only sold 3,000 copies in the next 11 years, possibly due to Milton’s low reputation during this period. The poem did not become widely circulated until the rights were acquired by Jacob Tonson, a prominent bookseller in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and one of the most influential figures in the development of an English literary canon.
Tonson was a longtime fan of Milton, and in 1683, he purchased half of the copyright to Paradise Lost from Brabazon Aylmwe, and seven years later he bought the remaining half. Tonson didn’t publish the first edition of the poem until 1688, when he still only owned half the copyright and jointly published the volume with Richard Bentley. It was published as a subscription edition, a method that was popularized though not invented by Tonson. 538 subscribers, including many eminent people of the time, paid for the edition.
This fourth edition of Paradise Lost was adorned with beautiful illustrations, or “sculptures.” This first illustrated copy of the poem started a long tradition of Paradise Lost artwork, and included illustrations by Bernard Lens, John Baptist Medina, Peter Paul Bouche, and Henry Aldrich.
The Worth Library’s copy of Paradise Lost is the sixth edition, and includes several other works by John Milton. It was published by Jacob Tonson in 1695. In addition to illustrations and other writings from Milton, it boasts annotations and a reference table, neither of which had been printed before and both of which represent a milestone in Milton scholarship.
The author of the annotations has been identified as Patrick Hume, a Scottish schoolmaster living in London, who stylized his name as the Greek word meaning “friend of poets,” as can be seen in the above photo. Tonson enlisted Hume to write the Milton annotations, and Hume covered a wide variety of topics, from Biblical references to classical allusions to obscure word meanings. Though Hume’s annotations did receive some criticism, it is widely acknowledged that many later Milton commentators borrowed heavily from Hume’s originals, often without giving Hume credit.
This edition also included a table organizing the most important speeches and moments in Paradise Lost. The table and annotations combined were the first serious attempt at Milton scholarship, the beginning of a lengthy attempt to probe the myriad meanings and allusions of Paradise Lost. It is believed to be the first attempt at a complete annotation of any English poet’s work. The annotations were also significant in helping the reader to understand obscure and difficult words and phrases, making the poem far more accessible and thus bringing Paradise Lost to a wider audience.
60 separate editions of Paradise Lost were produced between 1770 and 1825, along with a large volume of paintings, drawings, and engravings inspired by the epic poem. By this time, largely thanks to the work of Jacob Tonson, Paradise Lost was firmly ensconced in the English literary imagination.
“Hume, Patrick (fl.1695)”. Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
Lynch, Kathleen. Jacob Tonson, Kit-Cat Publisher. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971. Print.
Paulin, Tom. “This way to paradise: Milton’s great poem – an English republican allegory – has inspired generations of writers and illustrators. Now their work has been gathered together at Wordsworth’s cottage. Tom Paulin drops in for a visit.” London: The Guardian. Published 17 July 2004.
Raynie, Stephen A. “Francis Hayman Reading Paradise Lost in the 1740s.”Studies in English Literature 1500-1900.Volume 44.3, 2004. 545-570.
Text: Ms Brianna Mac Gregor, Third Year Student, Harvard University.