Blake seeks to provide the Golden String which can lead us through the labyrinth of our experience or his own poetry.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Blake & Milton

In 2011 Larry taught a short enrichment course in Blake at the Senior Learning Institute of the College of Central Florida. He concluded the course with this precis of Blake's Milton.
Wikimedia Commons
British Museum
Milton
Copy A, Plate 1

 

The Mature Works



Milton, Blake's first overtly Christian work, is his testimony of faith. It's also his way of rehabilitating his childhood hero, John Milton. Finally it's a difficult poem; it contains unfathomable depths. This review can do no more than introduce the reader to the poem and call attention to some of the new elements in the mature development of Blake's myth.

Milton is a very autobiographical work. Blake used many of the characters that his readers might be familiar with from earlier works, but in this very personal poem they often assume other (although related) identities. Particularly we understand that Blake was Los, and Hayley was Satan (he had suborned Blake from his true work to hack work: from Eternity to Ulro.)

John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, had been a major force in Blake's life; he had been many things to Blake since his childhood. In Blake's day Milton enjoyed enormous spiritual stature among the English people. Even today the general understanding of Heaven, Hell, God and Satan (among people interested in those concepts) tends to be more often Miltonic than Biblical. All subsequent English poets lived and wrote in Milton's shadow, and the greatest ones aspired to achieve an epic comparable to Paradise Lost. In the first half of his life Blake was very much under the shadow of Milton who was respected as the great epic poet of the English people.

Although Blake had much in common with the puritan poet, he disagreed with Milton about a number of things. For example, as a young man he despised the God of Paradise Lost and admired Milton's Devil. Blake made that clear in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and tried to put Milton in his place by saying that he was of the Devil's party without knowing it. Ten years later the experience of grace empowered Blake to deal with Milton in a better way. He called him back to earth to straighten out his theology, and he identified with him and his spiritual power in a radical way. He recreated Milton as Milton had recreated the Bible.

As Blake's poem begins, Milton has been in Heaven for a hundred years, obedient although not very happy there. The 'Bard's Song' (which takes up the first third of the poem) recreates the war in Heaven of Paradise Lost. The other Eternals find the Bard's song appalling, but Milton embraces the Bard and his song. In a thrilling imaginative triumph he announces his intention of leaving Heaven to complete the work on earth that he had left undone. Although Blake doesn't say this, any Christian should recognize that Milton thus follows in the footsteps of Christ as described in the famous Kenosis passage in Philippians 2: 

Philippians 2
[5] Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
[6] Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
[7] But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
[8] And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
[9] Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name

Milton, Plate 14 [15], (E 108)
"He took off the robe of the promise and ungirded himself from the oath of God.
And Milton said: "I go to Eternal Death The Nations still
Follow after the detestable Gods of Priam [king of Troy], in pomp of Warlike Selfhood."


Milton: plate 14 reads
"----contradicting and blaspheming.
When will the Resurrection come to deliver the sleeping body From corruptibility?
O when, Lord Jesus, wilt thou come?
Tarry no longer, for my soul lies at the gates of death.
I will arise and look forth for the morning of the grave:
I will go down to the sepulcher to see if morning breaks:
I will go down to self annihilation and eternal death, Lest the Last Judgment come and find me unannihilate
And I be seized and given into the hands of my own Selfhood"

Anyone familiar with the gospel story will see biblical allusions and references here.

In Blake's cottage he sees Milton's shadow, a horrible vision:

Milton Plate 37:
"Miltons Shadow heard & condensing all his Fibres
Into a strength impregnable of majesty & beauty infinite
I saw he was the Covering Cherub & within him Satan
And Rahab, ... in the Selfhood deadly
And he appeard the Wicker Man of Scandinavia in whom
Jerusalems children consume in flames among the Stars
Descending down into my Garden, a Human Wonder of God
Reaching from heaven to earth a Cloud & Human Form
I beheld Milton with astonishment & in him beheld
The Monstrous Churches of Beulah, the Gods of Ulro dark
Twelve monstrous dishumanizd terrors Synagogues of Satan.
...
All these are seen in Miltons Shadow who is the Covering Cherub
The Spectre of Albion"

An attempt to translate this visionary poetry into "common sense" might suggest that in Milton's shadow Blake suddenly became immediately aware of all the fallen nature of the world (and his own mind) that had consumed most of his poetry to that point. Now he became aware of all these things, but in the light of a person now full of light.

Back on earth Milton encounters many of the characters whom we met in The Four Zoas. Tirzah and Rahab tempt him; his contest with Urizen has special interest as a record of the resolution of Blake's life long struggle with the things that Urizen represented to him:

"Silent they met and silent strove among the streams of Arnon 
Even to Mahanaim, when with cold hand Urizen stoop'd down
And took up water from the river Jordan, pouring on
To Milton's brain the icy fluid from his broad cold palm.
But Milton took of the red clay of Succoth, moulding it with care
Between his palms and filling up the furrows of many years,
Beginning at the feet of Urizen, and on the bones
Creating new flesh on the Demon cold and building him
As with new clay, a Human form in the Valley of Beth Peor." 
[Milton, Plate 19 [21], (E 112)]

A Bible dictionary, or even better, Damon's Blake Dictionary, will help to clarify the associations with biblical locations. Here we see the old Urizen still trying to freeze the poet's brain, but instead he finds himself being humanized by an emissary from Heaven. Blake is vividly depicting the battle between the forces of positivism and spirit.

Milton meets other obstacles and temptations on his journey, a journey that begins to bear increasing resemblance to that of Bunyan's Pilgrim or even of Jesus himself. He unites with Los and with Blake. He finally meets Satan, confronts him and overcomes him as Jesus had done. These dramatic events give Blake ample opportunity to describe in detail the eternal and satanic dimensions of life, the conflict between the two and the inevitable victory of the eternal. For the first and perhaps the only time Blake is writing a traditional morality story.

This material is autobiographical and written in the honeymoon phase of his new spiritual life. Blake's full meanings yield only to intensive study, but from the beginning there are thrilling lines to delight and inspire the reader. In his esoteric language Blake describes for us what has happened to him, and nothing could be more engrossing for the reader interested in the life of the spirit and in Blake. The relationship of this story to the myth described above should be obvious. But Milton is more real than the previous material because Blake has lived it and writes (and sketches) with spiritual senses enlarged and tuned by his recent experience of grace.
 
A digression occurs in the second half of Book One of Milton, a detailed description of the "World of Los"; it contains much of Blake's most delightful poetry. The reader will remember that in 4Z Los had passed through several stages of development. Beginning as the primitive prophetic boy, he became first disciple and later adversary of Urizen. He bound Urizen into fallen forms of life, then 'became what he beheld'. But in Night VII of the Four Zoas we recall that he embraced his Spectre, actually the Urizen within, and thereupon Los became the hero of the epic.

Letters, To Flaxman, (E 707) 
"Now my lot in the Heavens is this; Milton lovd me in childhood & shewd me his face Ezra came with Isaiah the Prophet, but Shakespeare in riper years gave me his hand Paracelsus & Behmen appeard to me. terrors appeard in the Heavens above And in Hell beneath & a mighty & awful change threatend the Earth The American War began All its dark horrors passed before my face" 

 Milton, Plate 28, [30], (E 126) 
"But others of the Sons of Los build Moments & Minutes & Hours
And Days & Months & Years & Ages & Periods; wondrous buildings   
And every Moment has a Couch of gold for soft repose,
(A Moment equals a pulsation of the artery)    ,
And between every two Moments stands a Daughter of Beulah
To feed the Sleepers on their Couches with maternal care.
And every Minute has an azure Tent with silken Veils.         
And every Hour has a bright golden Gate carved with skill.
And every Day & Night, has Walls of brass & Gates of adamant,
Shining like precious stones & ornamented with appropriate signs:
And every Month, a silver paved Terrace builded high:
And every Year, invulnerable Barriers with high Towers.    
And every Age is Moated deep with Bridges of silver & gold.
And every Seven Ages is Incircled with a Flaming Fire.
Now Seven Ages is amounting to Two Hundred Years
Each has its Guard. each Moment Minute Hour Day Month & Year.
All are the work of Fairy hands of the Four Elements             
The Guard are Angels of Providence on duty evermore
Every Time less than a pulsation of the artery
Is equal in its period & value to Six Thousand Years.

PLATE 29 [31]
For in this Period the Poets Work is Done: and all the Great
Events of Time start forth & are concievd in such a Period
Within a Moment: a Pulsation of the Artery."

No comments:

Post a Comment