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Seeing Milton's Voice

Seeing Milton's Voice, or Illustrations to Paradise Lost; a social history of Great Britain

Lecture by Professor Howard JM Hanley, FSA

Camel Sadly, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is now a classic; the kiss of death! But not always. Quite the contrary, for Paradise Lost was in almost every English household for more than 200 years after its publication in 1667 with hundreds of editions published, at least sixty between about 1770 and 1825 alone. The publishers made Milton a Personality: a figure larger than life who fought battles for the common man and whose English prickliness acted as a bulwark against decadent, dangerously Catholic, continental Europe. To lower the bar, Milton emerged as a patron saint of marriage (despite his record on that score), and was cited as an authority on landscape gardening, cookery, astronomy and military equipment. And to lower the bar further, Paradise Lost was so well-known that John Cleland could quote from it in his lascivious, pornographic Fanny Hill.

The idea of the lecture is to show how this publication phenomenon came about and how it gave rise to an astonishing outpouring of Miltonic themes in the visual arts, of which the illustrations to Paradise Lost were a major segment. Moreover, the evolution of the illustrations’ iconography reflects a history of what people thought of themselves as society moved from the gothic age to the industrial age. The work of many artists – including Hogarth, Turner, John Martin, Fuseli, Romney and Blake - make this point.

Howard Hanley had a career as a research scientist in the United States, the Middle East and Australia. He is currently with the Research School of Physics and Engineering, at the Australian National University. His publications on JMW Turner and John Milton show his interests in social history and British art.

Image: Satan exhorting his rebel angels cast into Hell “Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n.” (PL. I, 330).  After Richard Westall, Paradise Lost, 1794. Speaker’s copy.

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