The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at
liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the
Devil's party without knowing it.
Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1790-93)
Milton's Paradise Lost is an epic poem, written in blank verse, that is an
imaginative retelling of the story of the Fall of Man from the biblical
account in the Book of Genesis. The narrative extends to encompass Christ's
atonement for the original sin of Adam and Eve, which had led to their
expulsion from Paradise. The book was first published in 1667 and is
recognized as one of the great works of English literature.
Milton's heroic cadences and sublime characters and themes had special appeal
for artists at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the desire
to create a distinctively English school of history painting was shared by
artists whose opinions could otherwise differ greatly (eg. Sir Joshua
Reynolds and Blake). Henry Fuseli was one artist close to Blake who executed
a series of important paintings on Miltonic themes.
Although Blake disagreed with some of Milton's religious views, notably on
sin and redemption, Milton's writings were a very important source of subject
matter for his art throughout his life. Blake's earliest series of
illustrations to Paradise Lost date from 1807. A second set of twelve
watercolours was made (at the request of Thomas Butts) in 1808. In 1820 the
artists John Linnell - the most important patron of Blake's last years -
commissioned copies in watercolour of the complete Butts set. Two of these
are now in the Gallery's collection. They are close copies of the Butts
watercolours, but executed with a miniaturist's touch instead of the broader
wash style of the earlier works.