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Versions of the Sublime: Illustrating Paradise Lost



Milton understood colonization as an aspect or consequence of expulsion, whether it was the transformation of hell into the city state of Pandemonium, or the entry into the world and history of Adam and Eve, or the departure of the puritans to New England: 'what numbers of faithful and freeborn Englishmen, and good Christians, have been constrained to forsake their home, their friends and kindred, whom nothing but the wide ocean, and the savage deserts of America, could hide and shelter from the fury of the bishops?' 29 He also focused his reader’s attention, as does Richard Westall in his illustrations, on the moral and spiritual drama which originates in subjectivity, manifests itself in rhetorical engagement with others in society, and transcends the specifics of history.

But he also, to use a phrase of Golder's, attempted to penetrate the ‘dark futurity’ of modernity, an attempt which perhaps became fully readable only in the first decades of the nineteenth century and which was exemplified in the designs of John Martin. The potentials in Paradise Lost which are most like those which are now recognisable as distinguishing the industrial phase of western society from its Prehistory in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment are those most fully associated with the demonic agencies of the poem: energy, physical and mental, applied to the transformation of inorganic nature and the huge expansion of space-time as the environment in which these energies achieve expression and effect. The immense imagined spaces of Paradise Lost, which are the spaces of the material universe, are created in poetry and art by embodying the acts of imagination in the materiality of paper, ink, and paint, and in time and space by the transformation of matter by intellect and technology. In Paradise Lost they are the products of divine and demonic powers, but they foreshadow their imitation as fallen humanity works to mitigate the effects of the fall and to achieve dominion over the rest of the material world. In this respect, they also signify and model the application of energy and technology to the 'subjection' of nature and its incorporation into ‘civilization’. As William Golder put it, 'promise and realities/Conjoin’d’. 30

29 John Milton, 'Of Reformation in England', in Prose Writings (London, 1965), p. 34.

30 Golder, The New Zealand Survey, p. 63.