The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736

William Blake’s Milton: A Poem in 2 Books, like John Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671), is a short epic poem. Instead of using the more traditional pentameter, Blake wrote Milton in “fourteeners,” a long seven-beat line that he patterned after biblical verse. Milton is named for John Milton (16081674), Blake’s great seventeenth century precursor, and Blake makes Milton (or his vision of Milton) the poem’s protagonist.

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The first book of Milton describes the Bard’s song and Milton’s descent from Eternity to earth. Milton has been walking in Eternity since his death, unhappy because his “Sixfold Emanation” is “scatter’d thro’ the deep/ In torment.” This sixfold emanation may represent Milton’s three wives and three daughters, but critics have suggested that it could also symbolize Milton’s writings or Milton’s hopes for social reform in England. It takes, however, the Bard’s song to motivate Milton to redeem his sixfold emanation.

The first part of the Bard’s song summarizes Blake’s myth of the Fall, a myth that is more fully developed in Blake’s The Book of Urizen (1794). This Fall is presented as a fragmentation of the original unified man (Albion) into various entities (Zoas), who are further fragmented into emanations and specters. With each division comes a corresponding contraction of the senses, and the Zoas are plunged into torment and perceptual confusion. In the midst of the chaos that is the material world, Los (the Zoa who represents the imagination) begins to build Golgonooza, the city of art.

After giving this brief account of the Fall, the Bard tells a story which appears to be patterned after Blake’s quarrel with one of his patrons, William Hayley. This traumatic episode in Blake’s life is represented in Milton by the conflict between two sons of Los, Palamabron (Blake) and Satan (Hayley), who exchange jobs: Palamabron takes over Satan’s mills, and Satan takes over Palamabron’s “Harrow of the Almighty.” This arrangement leads to disaster—Palamabron’s horses go wild, and Satan’s mills are put in a state of confusion. Satan’s effort to make Palamabron do a job for which Palamabron is not suited resembles, in Blake’s mind, Hayley’s practice of giving Blake the wrong artistic tasks. Satan, like Hayley, appears polite and mild but finally shows his true nature and departs in rage, setting himself up as God over Earth.

After hearing the Bard’s song, Milton decides to return to the natural world, a level of existence which he refers to as eternal death. He descends to hasten the final redemption of humankind, which has not learned from his writings that heroic martyrdom is superior to the warfare described in Homer’s epics, and also to ensure that he himself will be prepared for the Last Judgment. According to Milton, he in his selfhood (or without his emanations) is the Satan described in the Bard’s song, and in order to save himself and humanity he will have to come to terms with his emanations and his poetic legacy on Earth.

Milton then falls, as his own Satan does in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), and confronts the God he created in that same poem, called Urizen by Blake. He struggles with Urizen in order to correct his own past religious errors, trying to humanize Urizen with red clay while Urizen attempts to baptize Milton with icy water. At the same time, in another manifestation, Milton enters Blake through Blake’s left foot, inspiring his poetic successor to help in the work of poetic redemption.

The second book of Milton describes the descent of Milton’s sixfold emanation, Ololon, to join Milton on Earth. She comes to Blake’s cottage in Felpham and asks the poet about Milton, who, she says, fell from eternity for her sake. In Blake’s view, Milton did not understand women: His first marriage led to a volume on divorce, his daughters were said to have been irritated by his demands on them, and in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the influence of Eve leads to the Fall. Thus, in order to prepare fully for the Last Judgment, Milton must come to terms with Ololon, or his female counterpart; when he and she are reunited, Milton’s transformation is complete. The poem ends with Blake’s vision of the twenty-four cities of Albion and the final preparations for the redemption of the world.

Forms and Devices

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The first copies of Milton were printed and illustrated by Blake himself, and these copies still can be consulted by scholars of the poem. Although the poem itself is of primary importance, it seems likely that Blake wanted the readers of Milton to consider the illustrations along with the verse. The title page of Blake’s illuminated edition shows the figure of Milton, well-muscled and with his back to the viewer. He is striding forward with his right arm thrust in front of him, dividing the flames facing him and separating the syllables of his own name, which is printed “MIL/TON.” Without the benefit of this illustration, the reader of the poem would miss Blake’s visualization of his protagonist as a strong, naked man moving forward aggressively to accomplish his quest.

In a later plate of Blake’s edition, Milton is again shown, striding across the river Jordan to grapple with Urizen. Urizen, who represents the lawgiver God of Paradise Lost, holds the stone tablets of the law in both his hands, but Milton’s struggle with him seems to be breaking Urizen’s grip on them. Milton also divides the word “Selfhood” in half with his right foot, just as he separated his own name in the title page with his right arm—the idea that Milton must annihilate his selfhood is thus emphasized in both illustrations. Other illustrations include a picture of Milton entering Blake (falling backward, with a foot thrust forward) in the form of a star and a sketch of Blake meeting Ololon in front of his cottage in Felpham. Although many students of Milton encounter the poem as a poetic text, the illuminated version enables readers to see the work in the way Blake intended it to be seen: as a series of plates in which the texts and the illustrations complement and clarify one another.

Although Milton has been called a brief epic, it differs from earlier epics in its abandonment of linear progression. In Milton, everything essentially happens in the same instant: Milton simultaneously struggles with Urizen, enters Blake’s left foot, lies down in a coma, and walks in Heaven. This is partially attributable to Blake’s radical reconfiguration of the concept of time: From the perspective of Eternity, “Every time less than a pulsation of the artery/ Is equal in its period & value to Six Thousand Years.” It is only man’s fallen conception of time that regards it as a linear progression—in Eternity, chronological time is abolished, and everything exists in the eternal present. Yet there is another reason for the confusing simultaneity of the poem: Milton’s movements are not through time and space but through different perspectives, from the fourfold vision of Eden to the single vision of Ulro. Because Milton has so many layers, it sometimes seems sequential when it is really describing a single instant seen from a variety of viewpoints. This simultaneity is shown in the “movements” of the characters: Milton descends in the first book, and Ololon does not leave Beulah until the second book, yet Ololon seems to get to Felpham before Milton does. According to the rules of chronological time, that would make no sense, but the poem does not reflect a linear progression. Milton and Ololon leave Eternity and are reunited in Felpham in the same instant.

Further complicating Milton is Blake’s extensive use of symbolism. Like his other prophetic poems, Milton contains many allusions to Blake’s mythic figures and perceptual states. Moreover, Blake employs natural symbols in Milton, such as the lark and wild thyme. Both the lark and wild thyme are extremely important in Milton because they are Los’s messengers and, as such, herald the coming apocalypse. Blake also compares the lark to an angel (a messenger of God) and uses this bird to represent the new idea that corrects the religious errors of the past. When Blake recovers from his vision at the end of Milton, the lark and the purple-flowered wild thyme are the first things he sees—they symbolize both an actual moment in Blake’s garden in Felpham and the Last Judgment that is about to come, thus bringing together the natural and visionary realms presented in the poem.

Places Discussed

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Golgonooza

Golgonooza (gol-goh-NEWS-ah). William Blake’s holy City of Art, a spiritual form of London encompassing all Britain, like the biblical New Jerusalem. There at his seven furnaces Urthona’s manifestation Los melts all of nature into gold for the City of God and gives form to uncreated things. His labor is the imaginative creation of all that can be redeemed. The architecture of the city therefore unites it with the four levels of human existence: Ulro, hellish nature untamed by humans; Generation, love’s struggle to rise above savagery; Beulah, the subconscious realm of recovered innocence, a sleepy place of respite from the fury of creative inspiration; and Eden, a paradise where reason has been dominated by imagination.

Brooks of Arnon

Brooks of Arnon. Tributaries of the Arnon River in Jordan, where Milton struggles with the satanic spirit of reason, Urizen. These are biblical places where Jacob wrestled with God to gain a blessing for Israel, where the Jews escaped from bondage in Egypt, and where Moses was buried. Thus, symbolically, Blake connects his myth with the religious journey of God’s chosen people into liberty, nationhood, and deliverance from the tyranny of law. Urizen baptizes Milton with the icy river water (religious dogma). Milton uses the living red clay to make a human form for Urizen. Thus their struggle ends in a victory of imagination over reason.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241

Bloom, Harold. Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963. A comprehensive, virtually line-by-line exposition of Blake’s prophetic poems. Sensitively explains the intricate subtleties of Blake’s myth and traces its connections to biblical and other literary traditions.

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1965. This handy glossary collects and interprets clues to Blake’s terminology, which is scattered through all of his works. There are entries for each character, work, symbol, and geographical or historical reference. Omits most of Blake’s contemporaries in the arts. Includes maps, illustrations, and diagrams of difficult concepts such as Golgonooza.

Fox, Susan. Poetic Form in Blake’s “Milton.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. Patiently establishes the structural principle of parallelism beneath the seeming chaos of the poem. Explores the echoes, paired passages, cyclical patterns, and thematic symmetries.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947. A brilliant analysis of Blake’s poetry and thought, the most important and influential work of Blake criticism. Chapter 10 examines Milton in depth.

Howard, John. Blake’s Milton: A Study in the Selfhood. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1976. A psychological analysis that credits Blake for anticipating twentieth century psychological theories. Focuses on Milton’s descent as a journey within the psyche and analyzes Blake’s Spectres as models of self-paralyzing inhibition.

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