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Vol. 57 no. 2: Fall 2023

William Blake’s Annotations to Milton’s Paradise Lost: New Evidence for Attribution

21 October 2023
24 Oct. 2023


In 2000–​01, three books believed to have been owned or annotated by William Blake were displayed in an exhibition at Tate Britain that focused on the state of Blake scholarship at the time. Two of the works, collections of engravings, are thought to have belonged to the young Blake: Historia del Testamento Vecchio dipinta in Roma nel Vaticano da Raffaelle di Urbino … al sig. Annibale Carracci (Rome: Giovanni Orlandi, 1603 [Amsterdam: Excudit C. J. Visscher, 1638]) and A Political and Satirical History of the Years 1756 and 1757. In a Series of Seventy-Five Humorous and Entertaining Prints (London: Printed for E. Morris, n.d. [1757?]). The third book on display was a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, edited by Richard Bentley and published in 1732. All three belonged to Michael Phillips, guest curator of the exhibition, and are now held by Victoria University Library (Toronto). Following the critical reaction to these books, and particularly to the attribution to Blake of annotations signed “WB” in the Bentley Milton, Mark Crosby thoroughly examined the Milton volume and published an article in the Book Collector in 2008 in support of the book’s having passed through Blake’s hands. Crosby compared the annotations in question, on pages 355 and 398, with the handwriting employed by Blake in his Vala manuscript. He also identified unique features in George Vertue’s portrait engraving of Milton on the frontispiece of Bentley’s edition that are mirrored in Blake’s tempera portrait of the poet, one of eighteen heads commissioned by William Hayley to decorate his Turret House library. These paintings were commissioned and completed during the period in which Blake would have had access to the edition in Hayley’s library.