(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 868 words.)