Paradise Lost Turns 350

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

On Tuesday 20 August 1667, the publisher Samuel Simmons made his way through the streets of London to Stationers’ Hall. There he paid his fee of six pence and had entered into the company’s register his right to print and publish the following work: ‘Paradise lost, A Poem in Tenne Bookes by J. M.’

‘J. M.’ was of course John Milton, the English writer and polemicist, whose epic poem in blank verse about the corruption of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise went on to be recognised as one of the greatest works in English literature. Milton’s literary achievement is made even more impressive when one is reminded that he was completely blind by 1652 and ‘wrote’ the entirety of Paradise lost by dictation, his words taken down by amanuenses.

Engraved portrait of John Milton by William Faithorne, 1670 (REng MIL 1667 Para 1668)Engraved portrait of John Milton by William Faithorne, 1670 (REng MIL 1667 Para 1668)

To mark the 350th anniversary of Paradise lost this post highlights the publication of the first edition and its variant title-pages, drawing on the Alexander Turnbull Library’s world-class collection of works by John Milton amassed by Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull (1868–1918) and developed further through subsequent acquisitions made by the Library.

Milton entered into contract with Simmons on 27 April 1667. The contract, which has survived and is held by the British Library, stipulated that Milton be paid £5 upon signing and a further £5 once 1,300 copies were sold. No more than 1,500 copies were to be printed and Milton signed over all future rights to his poem.

Simmons printed the maximum number, but did not publish all 1,500 copies at once. Scholarly opinion is that he was nervous to do so and with good reason. It was a risky venture. In the words of Milton biographer William Parker, Paradise lost was ‘a poem on an unstylish subject, in an unstylish literary form, [written] by an author who was still anathema to a multitude of people’. The man whose book Simmons agreed to publish supported the Parliamentarians during the civil war period, which saw King Charles I beheaded in January 1649 and the establishment of a republican government known as the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Milton was appointed Secretary for Foreign Tongues and his publications while in office aligned with republican ideals.

With the death of Cromwell in 1658, however, the Commonwealth crumbled and the English monarchy was restored when the son of Charles I returned from exile in May 1660 to be crowned Charles II. In August, Parliament passed an act that pardoned all past treason against the Crown, excluding those people involved in the trial and execution of Charles I. Milton was exonerated. In 1667, however, the name John Milton was still associated in many circles with the Commonwealth. This is the likely reason that Simmons took a cautious approach and entered the author’s initials ‘J. M.’ rather than his full name in the Stationers’ register, even though the work was fully licensed to be published.

Not knowing how receptive readers might be, Simmons decided to publish the 1,500 copies in stages and printed six different title-pages for the edition over the course of three years, two each dated 1667, 1668 and 1669, respectively.

The two title-pages dated 1667 are as follows:

1st and 2nd title-pages dated 1667 (REng MIL 1667 Para; copies 1 and 2)1st and 2nd title-pages dated 1667 (REng MIL 1667 Para; copies 1 and 2)

The layout of each title-page is exactly the same with one exception: the size of Milton’s name, which is larger in what is considered to be the first title-page. Harris Fletcher, in his four-volume John Milton’s complete poetical works, suggested that Milton’s name was printed in a smaller font size in the second title-page because it presented a better balanced page and was more pleasing to the eye, but added that there is ‘no proof of priority’ as to which title-page truly came first. What is notable in both title-pages, however, is that Samuel Simmons’s name is nowhere to be found, the publisher unwilling to be openly associated with Milton or the publication lest it failed.

Initial sales were slow, as Simmons feared. In late autumn or winter, he printed a third title-page dated 1668 for the upcoming year. Again, his name was omitted, and he replaced Milton’s name with the author’s initials. Fletcher theorised that this reduction was made because the presence of Milton’s name on the title-page was the reason for the poor sales. This theory was challenged by the bibliographer Hugh Amory, who argued that this was the earliest issue of the first edition and not the third (despite the 1668 date), and speculated that Simmons decided to maintain the author’s anonimity as he had in the Stationers’ register due to his wariness.

3rd title-page dated 1668 (REng MIL 1667 Para 1668)3rd title-page dated 1668 (REng MIL 1667 Para 1668)

Regardless of the disagreement about the order of publication, sometime in 1668 Simmons changed his approach. With the fourth issue he included Milton’s Arguments, or brief summaries of each book in the poem, along with an explanatory note on the text as prefatory material. The accompanying title-page not only included Milton’s name in large italic capitals, but also the line ‘Printed by S. Simmons’, the first appearance of the publisher’s name on the title-page. Simmons’s confidence in Paradise lost might have been restored due to the increased sales seen in 1668. The fact, too, that a presentation copy was accepted into the royal library would have done much to alleviate the publisher’s concerns.

4th title-page dated 1668 (REng MIL 1667 Para 1668)4th title-page dated 1668 (REng MIL 1667 Para 1668)

Two further issues with new title-pages were published in 1669, but were not in circulation for long. On 26 April, nearly two years to the day after Milton and Simmons signed their contract, the author received the agreed upon second payment of £5 upon the sale of 1,300 copies. In fact, all 1,500 copies in the edition sold out.

Despite the apparent success of Paradise lost, a second edition was not published until 1674. It is unclear why Simmons waited so long to publish this edition. A possible reason proposed by Parker was that the publisher desired to reprint the epic poem along with Milton’s Paradise regained, which the poet was busy completing. ‘If this was … his motivation’, summarised Parker, ‘[Simmons] was to be disappointed, for when … Paradise regained was ready, Milton took it to another publisher’. The motto emblazoned on Alexander Turnbull’s bookplate affixed to his copies of Paradise lost seems very apt: ‘Fortuna favet audaci’ – Fortune Favours the Bold.


Hugh Amory, Things unattempted yet: A bibliography of the first edition of Paradise lost (London: The Collector, 1983) ATL G 821 .4A Milton AMO 1983

Harris Francis Fletcher (editor), John Milton’s complete poetical works reproduced in photographic facsimile: A critical text edition …. (Urbana, Illinois: The University of Illinois Press, 1943–1948) ATL G q821 .4K

William Riley Parker, Milton: A biography Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1968) ATL G 821 .4B

By Anthony Tedeschi

Anthony is Rare Books and Fine Printing Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Ruth Lightbourne August 21st at 9:10PM

Well done!

Helen Smith August 22nd at 11:16AM

Very informative, thank you.

Stephanie Mayne August 22nd at 2:11PM

Most interesting, thanks!