Aesthetic Rapture Between Heaven and Hell: William Blake Illustrates John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”
By Maria Popova
There is a rare confluence of joys about celebrated artists’ illustrations for literary classics, from Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy to Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses to Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975. But among the most breathtakingly beautiful are William Blake‘s illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost (public library). Blake created three different sets of artwork for the Milton classic that bellows down the hallway of time to remind us that “the mind is its own place, and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” — one in 1807, at the age of 50, under a commission by the Reverend Joseph Thomas; one in 1808, commissioned by Blake’s patron Thomas Butts; and one in 1822, commissioned by John Linnell, the same patron who facilitated Blake’s stunning illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first two sets contained twelve paintings each; the Linnell set was incomplete, with only three finished works surviving to this day.
Even though Blake created all of the Paradise Lost paintings late in life, Milton was his greatest influence and the writer whose work he illustrated more than any other. In a letter to his friend John Flaxman from September of 1800, Blake wrote:
Milton lovd me in childhood & shewd me his face.
And how beautifully Blake reciprocated that love — however one may feel about religion, there is something undeniably and immeasurably powerful about Blake’s paintings, an ineffable magic that sparks its very own source of divinity:
In 1976, a gorgeous leather-bound limited edition of Paradise Lost was published, collecting Blake’s work from the various sets. Complement it with Blake’s art for Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which he worked until his dying day, and Maurice Sendak’s little-known, formative illustrations for Blake’s own verses.
Published February 13, 2014