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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 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....

(The entire section is 1,917 words.)