Poetic Works: Matthew Sturgis Hopes a New Show Will Reinstate Milton in the National Consciousness

Article excerpt

When travelling across England in 1782, Carl Philip Moritz was amazed to discover that his landlady, a tailor's widow, was a devotee of Paradise Lost, and that "her late husband first fell in love with her on this very account: because she read Milton with such proper emphasis." Milton and his epic were once part of the national consciousness. Paradise Lost was cited as an authority on everything from republicanism, political revolt and personal freedom to married love, landscape gardening and domestic cookery.

Yet now Paradise Lost has itself been lost. Who can even quote a line of it? Something of our great loss is revealed (and will, let us hope, be reversed) by an exhibition at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, Cumbria. The setting is apt. The Romantic poets were passionate admirers of Paradise Lost. Wordsworth was hailed as "the best knower of Milton" of his generation, and he even composed a sonnet to the poet. The exhibition points up these connections and weaves them into the unfolding story. But it triumphs as a collection of stupendous pictures.

There is Hogarth's seething, crepuscular vision of Satan, Sin and Death and James Gillray's jaunty skit on it (with William Pitt in the role of Death); fine works by minor artists, minor works by great ones (Turner's illustrations are pretty thin); and wall upon wall of William Blakes. With such riches, one can easily endure the disappointment of having only a small print of de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon--a late 18th-century precursor of the cinema, in which puppets performed scenes from Paradise Lost against a backdrop illuminated by a display of coloured lights.

No other English poem has inspired such a wealth of illustration. But it was a symbiotic relationship. It was, apparently, the first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost in 1688 that really ignited interest in the work. Only 3,000 copies were sold in the first 11 years of its literary life. After 1688, it became a bestseller. Over the next two centuries, editions proliferated and print runs lengthened, illustrators vying with each other to interpret the scenes laid out by Milton's bold, suggestive verse.

At one level, the basic matter of Milton's story--the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden--was a staple of western art. Illustrators could adapt, or even just adopt, the old conventions. The first interpreters appear conventional enough. …