Paradise Lost by John Milton, with Photogravures by William Strang.
It may seem an improbable leap to move seamlessly from Struwwelpeter last week, to Paradise Lost this week, but beautiful illustrations and the devil are my linking themes, and I do love the juxtaposition of a seemingly odd pair.
Paradise Lost was first published in 1667. It was written in blank verse and describes Adam and Eve’s departure from Eden, with the fallen angel Satan being the central character. Milton wrote it as an explanation of God’s ways, and it is a work of great imaginative power about rebellion, longing and the desire for redemption.
It originally was divided into ten books, but later editions contained twelve books. This 1905 edition is made absolutely beautiful by the dark and detailed black and white photogravure illustrations of William Strang.
Gustave Doré, a french nineteenth century illustrator and engraver also illustrated Paradise Lost with magnificent grand, rather fantastical images. William Blake’s illustrations for Paradise Lost are altogether more decorative and elegant, whilst still containing tremendous power. Strang’s photogravures however are more personal and intimate. They show a more domestic, sensual relationship between Adam and Eve, and God himself is portrayed as human and fatherly.
Photogravure and gravure prints have warm blacks and a gorgeous range of all sorts of subtle shades of gray. The earliest forms of photogravure were developed in the 1830’s by the original pioneers of photography itself, one being Henry Fox Talbot. Photogravure printing was invented around 1879 and involves photographically transferring, then etching, an image onto a metal plate, then printing from it. Karl Blossfeldt (1869-1932), Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934), Edward Steichen (1879-1973), and Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1946) are the best known for developing beautiful photogravure printing.
If you have not yet read Paradise Lost, the following photogravures from this edition, and the accompanying poetic excerpts will definitely entice you to do so;
“Forthright upright he rears, from off the pool,
His mighty nature; on each hand the flames,
Driven backward, slope their pointing spires, and rolled
In billows, leave i’ the midst a horrid vale.”
Satan, originally one of God’s angels, rebels against God and there is a three day large scale battle between God’s faithful angels and Satan’s forces.
“Voluminous and vast, a serpent armed
With mortal sting: about her middle round
A cry of hell-hounds never ceasing barked
With wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous peal…...black it stood as night,
Fierce as ten furies, terrible as Hell ...”
Satan and his rebel angels are defeated and banished to Hell, and Satan vows to corrupt the newly created earth, and God’s favourite creation.
On our first father; half her swelling breast
Naked met his under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her beauty and submissive charms
God gave Adam and Eve total freedom and power to rule over all creation, with one explicit command.
“...Though in heaven the trees
Of life ambrosial fruitage bear, and vine
Yield nectar; though from off the boughs each morn
We brush mellifluous dews, and find the ground
Covered with pearly grain: yet God hath here
Varied his bounty so with new delights,
As may compare with Heaven…”
“A mighty sphere he framed, unlightsome first,
Though of ethereal mould: then formed the moon
Globose, and every magnitude of stars,
And sowed with stars the Heaven thick as a field…”
“Grace was in all her steps, Heaven in her eye,
In every gesture dignity and love.”
“Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine,
Fair to the eye, inviting to the taste,
Of virtue to make wise: what hinders then
To reach, and feed at once both body and mind?”
“Fooled and beguiled; by him thou, I by thee:
To trust thee from my side, imagined wise,
Constant, mature, proof against all assaults;
And understood not all was but a show,
Rather than solid virtue; all but a rib…”
“Convulsions, epilepsies, fierce catarrhs,
Intestine stone and ulcer, colic pangs,
Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy,
And moon-struck madness, pining atrophy…”
Adam witnesses everything that will now happen to Mankind, up to the great flood. He is so upset by this that he is then told, by the angel Michael, about Mankind’s potential redemption.
“With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”
As Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden, angel Michael offers reassurance that Adam and Eve may find an alternative paradise within themselves. This is indeed the essence of living a spiritual life, no matter what religion if any you adhere to. As Milton observes;
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
I am, of course, less than enthusiastic about the role given to Eve in the creation story. I obviously don’t want to open up a can of giant worms, with creationists, but we all know Eve gets a tough rap, and that her daughters have been reeling ever since. As Tenzin Palmo, a Buddhist nun says in her book “Cave in the Snow”;
“If the man didn’t have desire...(lust), nothing the woman could do would cause him any problem at all. It’s the man’s problem and he blames it all on the woman!... It’s all unbelievable projection.”
That said, Milton’s poetic version of the Christian creation story is epic, yet remains profoundly intimate, and contains within it, a tender celebration of love, as Eve surrenders to temptation partly to be closer to Adam, and Adam chooses to join her, rather than lose her.
If, however, reading anything based on patriarchal Christianity makes you choke on your lovely shiny red apple, then it’s good to know that there are creation stories and myths from many other cultures that positively honour and celebrate women. Even so, I challenge you to go beyond the original biblical story and experience Milton’s version, read aloud with it’s rhythms, harmonies, and sounds; and let the weight, taste and texture of his writing carry you through this magnificent, exhilarating poetic epic.
So….if you desire this book, and would like to own it (the book, and your desire)...I am happy to tempt you!
This 1905 edition is for sale for only £45 and is definitely a delicious bargain...so make a visit to our Darwin Rare Books Room and come and see this beautiful illustrated edition for yourself.
Written by Diane Newland, Darwin Bookseller.
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