Milton’s Paradise Lost
A Short History of the Poem
In 1667, John Milton published Paradise Lost to an English nation fresh out of a civil war. It was a chaste, fierce poem that seemed to align in tone with the Commonwealth regime that Milton supported and participated in several years earlier. The very first edition was largely bare- it was simply the title page, licensing, and then the poem, until the publisher asked that prose arguments be inserted in subsequent books.
A Short History of the Publisher
More than 150 years later, Joseph T. Altemus was making a living bookbinding in Philadelphia, and alongside his brother, Samuel, he founded Altemus and Co. based on the craft. When he died in 1953, his son, Henry, took over and developed the company into one of the largest bookbinders in the country. During the American Civil War, Altemus and Co. begin manufacturing photographic albums, and the company became known for this. Later, the bookbinder began making Bibles, declaring theirs “the cheapest, the handsomest, and the best.” They advertised this service prominently. From now on, books created by the company used the Henry Altemus logo.
A Slightly Longer History and Description of the Book
The first non-Bible productions from the company were a series of classics with illustrations by Gustave Dore. The Dore’s Masterpieces Series was printed from 1889-1903 and included the Divine Comedy and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, along with Paradise Lost. This series produced the copy of Paradise Lost found in the Ringling Mansion in Sarasota, Florida, currently stewarded by the Ringling Library nearby. It is the second volume in format 1 of the series, which comes in 6 colors. This particular copy, with dimensions of 9.75 x 12, has a brown cloth cover with the Dore design was partly polished with gold, in accordance with Altemus tradition. The edges are also gold. The front has an elaborate illustration of Adam surrounded on the left and right by demons and angels, respectively. Above them, a beautifully fonted title displayed the words: “MILTON’S PARADISE LOST.” What one notices immediately is the exaggerated “P” in “PARADISE” that takes up most of the left side of the cover. Slithered around the letter is a fearsome serpent, who obviously is the satanic creature of the creation story. The title and Adam are glossed in gold. Under the entities and on the bottom of the cover are the words “ILLUSTRATED BY GUSTAVE DORE” glossed in silver and in a similar but more liberated font compared to the title’s. All of the artwork is indented into the cover, giving the huge book an even more embellished feel. Overall, the design is regal, flowery, and elaborate, but also metallic and certainly modern.
To any customer, what must have been most striking (and they must continue to strike us today) are the illustrations within. They are engravings of the most dramatic scenes of the poem, from the casting from heaven to the exile from Eden. This is a major departure from the book of Milton’s time, which was bare of almost everything but the text. Considering poetry is such an illustrative literature, it would seem near inappropriate to have such boisterous art interrupt the Miltonic iterations. The form of the poetry should evoke the images within themselves, or rather prod them from the soul of the reader, as a romantic might say it. In this way, reading puts burden on the reader and not the author, giving literature a more individual, organic, and interpretive focus than the visual arts, which are by nature more expressionistic. This juxtaposition was bound to happen now that this type of art can be easier placed in the pages of a book, but this situation is even more apparent in our digital age. The line between picture and word is becoming increasingly fine.
With this in mind, let us consider who this book was intended for. Likelier than not, Paradise Lost may have been a Christmas gift to John Ringling, perhaps more of a decoration than a tome to be seriously read. As a matter of fact, the book can neatly be described as “not serious”; it may be more of a novelty. Milton’s poem exists as one function of the decoration, or work, which is the “meat,” or the nominal reason to make a book in the first place. In this instance, the text acts as a skeuomorph in a sense of the increased disposability of books and their need to become increasingly ordinate to keep their worth. This can be insinuated as a theme of the Gilded Age and the life of luxury at the disposal of John Ringling.
On the inner sleeve of the book we see John’s name written in pencil. It seems to be a dedication, similar to the notes people write on books as Christmas presents. Considering that these books are released by Altemus every Christmas season, it can be guessed that this book was a holiday gift to Ringling, and one he might not have been expected to read, but to enjoy by other means. Looking through his collection, one sees many books that are more often status symbols than conveyors of information as they are traditionally. We have experience with these types of tomes today in the form of coffee table books. We rarely sit down to read them thoroughly, but enjoy their fashionable presence and erudite aura, along with a hint of courtesy to any guest, as they are given an opportunity to meander through the pages, appreciate the words, and enjoy the illustrations in the event of a lull in the entertainment. We know how much the Ringlings cared about making their guests comfortable and thoroughly impressed.
The Book in Context
I can’t imagine readers wishing to immerse themselves in Milton’s complex and nerve-racking language in that oversized monster with the drama flanked by Dore’s fairytale-esque renderings. Milton’s poem belongs in a medium suited for intensive concentration rather than a leisurely resignment. I suspect that John received this gift and then promptly placed it on a shelf or table where it could easily be handled again, glancing through its spacious, cloudy pages every once in a while as a nervous reflex. He may have, as I did, poked around the little golden Adam, admiring the superior work of the Philadelphia bookbinder-publisher in a forgetful daze. Years later, the book has found itself filling largely the same occupation.
Henry Altemus Company. 2014. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.
Orgel, Stephen. Goldberg, Jonathan. Introduction. Paradise Lost. By Orgel and Goldburg. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. vii-xxxiv. Print.