Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868
In Milton: A Poem, Blake continues the argument with Milton that he had begun in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). In that book, Blake had identified the Christ of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) with the restrictive values of reason and conventional morality, and Milton’s Satan, whom Christ casts out, with the passionate energies of humankind, which to Blake were the sources of creativity. Blake thought that, although Milton was a great poet, he had put himself in service of a bad theology, and this had divided him against himself. In Milton: A Poem, which was written more than one hundred years after Milton’s death, Milton is in heaven but unhappy. He decides to return to earth to redeem his errors and be reunited with his “sixfold emanation,” the feminine aspect of himself, which is still wandering in torment in the earthly sphere. Historically, the emanation represents Milton’s three wives and three daughters; symbolically, they are the aspects of his creative imagination that he repudiated in his earthly life.
Milton’s decision to return to earth is prompted by his hearing of the Bard’s Song, a key passage that occupies Plates 3 to 13 of this forty-three-plate, two-book poem. It is based on an episode in Blake’s life, when he was living at Felpham under the patronage of William Hayley. Hayley urged Blake to pay more attention to earning a living, to put his artistic talents in the service of the commonsense world of “good taste.” Blake thought that Hayley was a spiritual enemy who was trying to deflect him from his true artistic and prophetic path. In Milton: A Poem, Blake creates a cosmic allegory out of the conflict between them. Hayley becomes Satan; Blake is Palamabron, one of the sons of Los, the imagination. When the quarrel is brought out into the open, Hayley/Satan, whose crime is to assume a role that is not his own, reveals the tyrannical and arrogant self that hides behind his surface appearance of benevolence. He is the enemy of true poetic inspiration.
When Milton hears the Bard’s Song, he recognizes himself in Hayley/Satan and resolves to return to earth, to cast off this false selfhood in an act of “self-annihilation.” He passes through the different levels of Blake’s cosmology, from Eden, the highest realm of imaginative activity, to Beulah, a feminine, sexual paradise, to the abyss of Ulro, the material world. There, in Plate 19, he encounters Urizen, the personification of the unenlightened rational intellect, who attempts to freeze Milton’s brain. As they struggle with each other, Milton works like a sculptor, creating new flesh on the bones of Urizen; the shaping, enlivening vision of the artist strives to impart life to the Urizenic death principle.
A crucial moment now follows: The spirit of the descending Milton, like a falling star, enters Blake’s left foot one day as he binds on his sandals. Blake becomes aware that in this tremendous instant, Los, the imagination, has also entered and taken possession of him, and he knows that he is ready to fulfill his destiny as the poet-prophet of England, the seer whose task it is to awaken his country to the reality of the divine, and fully human, life. Much of the remainder of the first book of the poem is devoted to a transfigured vision of the time and space world, seen as the creative work of Los, whose task is accomplished in the single, eternal moment of poetic inspiration.
In book 2 of Milton: A Poem a female character named Ololon descends from Beulah to Ulro. It later transpires that she is Milton’s emanation. She descends to Blake’s cottage in Felpham, and he perceives her as a young girl. Ololon’s sudden appearance in what Blake calls the Mundane Shell (the physical world) is another crucial moment in the poem. Like Blake’s union with Milton and Los in book 1, it occurs in a timeless moment of mystical illumination, which Blake associates with the song of the lark and the odor of wild thyme. In this moment of heightened perception, eternity streams into time, and the effect is so powerful that it cancels out all the mistakes and perversions of the entire span of Christian history. A new era is at hand.
All the remaining events of the poem take place in this one instant. Milton, still continuing his descent into the physical world, appears in Blake’s garden as the Covering Cherub, a symbol derived from the Bible that, in Blake’s mythology, signifies the final manifestation of all the errors of the Christian churches. The Covering Cherub is closely linked with Satan the selfhood, who also now appears; the inspired Milton, who is hidden within the Covering Cherub, recognizes the false selves to which he formerly surrendered. In a great speech in Plates 40-41, he casts them off in an act of self-annihilation, giving his allegiance solely to the truth of poetic inspiration. Hearing Milton’s speech, O1olon is cleansed also, and in a purified form she is able to unite with Milton. The poem ends on a note of apocalyptic hope for the reawakening of the entire humanity.