The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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.


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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.