William Blake composed this brief epic poem to explain Christianity to a troubled England. Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton before him wrote on that theme, but Blake created a far more personal and highly original myth. As he saw it, England’s Christianity traded supernatural spirituality for scientific rationality. Blake thought scientific rationality, or what he called natural religion, would lead to commercial imperialism, dehumanizing mechanization of work, and worldwide wars. One may say that he was right. He blamed natural religion on John Milton’s Puritanism with its orthodoxy, dualism, hypocritical moral virtue, militancy, and bondage to law.
Blake wrote Milton to correct the errors of this religion, which overvalued reason, undervalued love, and lacked any concept of the Holy Spirit. In his domestic life, Milton was tormented by the sinister aspects of female will. In Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) he blamed the Fall on Adam’s adoration of Eve and depicted their love as dangerous and lustful. Milton’s Messiah reminded Blake of Job’s Satan, and Blake thought Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Milton saw man after the Fall struggling under law in fear of punishment until the Last Judgment. Blake’s epic follows that cycle of fall, struggle, redemption, and apocalypse. For Blake, the Fall was caused by an usurpation of reason by emotion, and redemption liberates man from laws of moral virtue.
Blake’s epic is almost without a plot. Milton finds himself unhappy in heaven. A bard’s song moves him to return to earth, where he is reincarnated in Blake. Through mighty struggles with symbolical characters, he purges himself of intellectual error and unites with his female counterpart, Ololon.
Action is spare in this epic because its meanings are revealed not in events but in various unfolding perspectives of characters on those events as Blake presents them throughout the poem. The readers’ experience is unlike anything else in literature. Blake puts readers through mental contortions designed to reveal new modes of perception. They must enter Blake’s mythical cosmos with the characters interpreting revelations as they happen.
The epic action is actually a single flash of inspiration, and the narrative relates events that are virtually simultaneous. Perspectives shift without warning. Characters are not only personalities but also places, states of mind, systems of thought, and historical epochs. They multiply and divide, travel through time as well as space, and merge with one another to make points about ideas they symbolize. Milton can be discussing philosophy in Beulah at the same time he is falling to earth, struggling with Urizen by the river, and entering Blake. The poet’s objective is to take readers’ minds completely out of the ordinary, beyond the confines of familiar time and space, in order to comprehend humankind’s past and future as a single mental form, eternally human and divine. Milton is a poem about how a poet envisions eternal truth with the fourfold power of imagination.
Some background in Blake’s cosmic mythology is helpful. Before the fall, Albion (fourfold man) was united with his bride Jerusalem (heaven), and the Four Zoas (aspects of man) presided over their respective realms. The realms are Tharmas (body), Urizen (reason), Luvah (emotion), and Urthona (imagination). When Luvah encroaches on Urizen, however, all fall and split asunder. Luvah is divorced from Vala (nature) and turns into Orc (revolt). Urizen casts off his Emanation, Ahania (pleasure). Tharmas becomes Enion (lust), and Urthona divides into Los (time) and Enitharmon (space). All howl in discord, each claiming to be God. They exist within Albion’s bosom and throughout the cosmic vastness beyond the Mundane Shell that encloses earth, where Los labors in Golgonooza, giving form to uncreated things. His four-dimensional gates open onto Eden, Beulah, Generation, and Ulro, places like Milton’s heaven, Eden, earth, and hell.
Interestingly, Blake’s myth foresees modern psychology, for he portrays fallen man with a split personality: a masculine, reasoning, ravenous, selfish Spectre, and a feminine Emanation, an elusive shadow representing all the Spectre desires....