Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

Milton is sprinkled with allusions to Milton’s works, although Blake does not hesitate to rework Miltonic symbols and concepts to suit his own vision. For example, Blake describes Milton in Eternity as “pondring the intricate mazes of Providence,” a phrase that recalls the mazy reasoning of the fallen angels in Paradise Lost (Book II, lines 555561). Moreover, when Milton leaves Eternity, his cometlike descent to earth recalls the description in Paradise Lost of Satan’s fall. The comparisons between Milton and his devils are not, of course, accidental: Part of what Milton does in the poem is repudiate his former Puritanism. In terms of the three classes of men described in the poem, the Elect, the Redeemed, and the Reprobate, Milton begins the poem as the Elect and becomes a Reprobate.

Traditionally, the Elect are considered saints, the Redeemed are repentant sinners who are saved, and the Reprobate are sinners who are ultimately damned. Blake employs but reworks these classes: The Satan of Milton is a member of the Elect, and Blake presents him as a hypocritical pharisee; Blake’s Redeemed live in doubts and fears and are tortured by the Elect; his Reprobates (or Transgressors) are the geniuses who act from inspiration, and they include Jesus and the prophets. According to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), the biblical Jesus has more in common with Milton’s Satan than with Milton’s Messiah, and the figure Milton presents as God in Paradise Lost is, from Blake’s perspective, a tyrannical lawgiver who favors reason over the imagination. This God becomes Satan in Milton, and Milton must struggle against him and eliminate the Satan (Miltonic God) within himself in order to be purified. Once this purification takes place and Milton joins Jesus in the ranks of the Reprobates, he can become one with his sixfold emanation, Ololon, and annihilate his selfhood.

Nevertheless, Milton is clearly not only concerned with correcting Milton’s errors but also appears to have been inspired by a crisis in Blake’s own life; one of Milton’s roles in the poem is to enter Blake and inspire Blake to follow his poetic vocation. When he wrote the poem, Blake was living in Felpham near his patron, William Hayley, a minor poet and biographer who sought to make Blake into a painter of miniatures and illustrator. Although grateful for Hayley’s help, Blake was frustrated because his work for Hayley prevented him from writing his epics, and Hayley evidently had no interest in Blake’s poetic efforts. In this situation, Blake must have thought often about Milton, who had postponed his own great epic in order to help in the Puritan cause. Blake and Hayley inevitably quarreled, and Blake began to realize that Hayley, although generous in a material sense, was a destructive influence on his art. As Blake writes in Milton, “Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies.”

After hearing the story of conflict between Palamabron and Satan, Milton decides to come down to Earth—the immediate cause of his descent is, in a sense, Blake’s crisis and his lack of confidence in his poetic vocation. Yet when Milton enters Blake’s foot, and Los, the imaginative Zoa, enters Blake’s soul, Blake regains his powers as a poet-prophet. Milton’s struggle against Urizen, who turns into Satan, parallels Blake’s own struggle against Satan/Hayley, and in both cases the forces which would suppress or pervert the poetic imagination are defeated. Milton corrects the errors of his works, Blake writes Milton, and the universe draws nearer to final redemption, or “the Great Harvest & Vintage of the Nations.”

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