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William Blake: Image and Imagination in Milton

Andrew Welch

John Milton enters William Blake's foot in the form of a shooting star
Milton A 29, Blake Archive, British Museum
William Blake wrote poetry. He designed its presentation. And he built books that could realize his compositions of text and image, books that do not simply contain his vision but expand and fulfill it. In illustration, in production, in language, William Blake’s work is unique, and it produces certain attendant difficulties. We know, more or less, what to do with a codex of poetry. But how should we set about interpreting Blake’s multimedial, multidimensional art? This question becomes particularly urgent in Milton: A Poem, a work that challenges the way we think about narrative sequence, spatial proximity, thematic relationships, and causality. But this series of difficulties addresses only the lexical text of Milton; its material form presents an equivalent set of challenges. This exhibit will provide an introductory account of various aspects of Milton as it works towards a methodologically holistic approach to interpretation.

Milton exists in four copies, each written, designed, etched, printed, and colored by Blake himself, with probable assistance from his wife Catherine, between 1803 and 1821.  These copies vary substantially in numerous ways; some of this variation is intentional, and some results from the printmaking technique Blake developed. He called this method of production "Illuminated Printing," a post-Gutenberg take on the tradition of the illuminated manuscript. For further discussion of illuminated printing and variation between copies, proceed to the next page of the exhibit. To view high-resolution facsimiles of all four copies of Milton online, go to The William Blake Archive.

Biography & Mythology

William Hayley, portrait by Henry Howard
Image: Wikipedia Commons
This section provides two intertwined introductory frameworks for understanding Milton. First, it will place the work in the context of biographical developments that resonate throughout the poem. Second, it will outline the plot of Milton with regard to its mythological structure, which spans across Blake's late works and culminates in Jerusalem.
Milton battles Urizen, a recurring figure in Blake's mythology associated with Satan
Milton D 18, 1818, Blake Archive, Library of Congress
In 1803, Blake left London for Felpham, the home of his patron William Hayley. Though largely forgotten since, Hayley was a major figure of the era, well known for his poetry, essays, and biographies of Milton and William Cowper. In Felpham, Blake set to work engraving the illustrations for Hayley's Life of Cowper, and both men were optimistic about their partnership. At some point, Blake seems to have shown Hayley his manuscript of The Four Zoas and didn't appreciate the reaction he received - Hayley apparently encouraged Blake to stick to more accessible, more conventional work. We can get a sense of what kind of art Hayley had in mind for Blake from the example at right, which is representative of Blake's engravings for Hayley's poetry.

Though they remained on good terms, Blake grew suspicious of Hayley's influence on his art and resentful of his financial dependence on his patron. Milton arises out of Blake's experiences in Felpham, and though Milton transcends its biographical backdrop in scope, subject, and import, the stay at Felpham does provide a useful point of departure into one of Blake's most difficult and inspired prophecies.
Blake's etched engraving for the "The Horse," in William Hayley's Ballads Relating to Animals
1805, Blake Archive, Huntington Library
The Sons of Los: Satan, Palambron, and Rintrah
Milton D 10, 1818, Blake Archive, Library of Congress
Milton reprises the mythology that Blake first developed in The Book of Urizen and The Four Zoas, a mythology centrally concerned with the actualization of human imagination. The world of Blake's late work received its first systematic interpretation in the work of Northrop Frye, followed by that of Harold Bloom (see Fearful Symmetry and Blake's Apocalypse).

This mythological world divides humanity into three classes: the Elect - worldly, civilized, imaginatively arid creatures of convention; the Reprobate - inspired prophets, "revolutionaries, iconoclasts, and blasphemers of Nobodaddy@"; and the Redeemed - those who live in constant negotiation between the everyday world of quotidian rationality and the eternal world of visionary imagination. In Milton, Satan acts for both Hayley and the Elect, Palambron represents Blake and the Redeemed, and Rintrah stands in for the Reprobate, modeled on Blake's deceased brother, Robert. Blake's wife Catherine appears as Elynittria, assailing Hayley/Satan with her arrows of inspired fury. Each of these figures descends from Los, Blake's figuring of the Imagination, a concept operating at the center of Blake's work, thought, and life (discussed in detail in a later section of the exhibit).

The Bard's Song, featuring a conflict between Palambron and Satan, preoccupies the first book of Milton. In this world, Rintrah plows the fields, Palambron follows with his harrow, and Satan grinds the soil to dust in the mills. These tasks represent differing modes of artistic creation, from the visionary to the derivative. The drama ensues when Satan convinces Los to grant him Palambron's harrow, which in the biographical schema might amount to Hayley's attempts to produce inspired, prophetic art. Satan unsurprisingly proves inadequate to the harrow; Satan and Palambron then feud, and both are put on trial. Palambron is spiritually vindicated when the mild and meek Satan eventually gives in to Rintrah and explodes in wrath, exposing his true nature.
The Bard's Song is eternal and cyclical. It terrifies most hearers with its frightening indictments of pity and kindness, but John Milton understands its truth, and in the second book, he descends from eternity in the form of a shooting star and enters Blake's foot. Meanwhile, Ololon, representing Milton's wives and daughters, journeys to reunite with him, and together the multiform unity of Los, Blake, Milton, and Ololon triumphs.

Both the biographical and mythological strata of Milton help us to organize and decode its numerous complexities. But in my view, neither of these interpretive frameworks captures the thrust of the work, which produces meaning through aesthetic, spiritual and imaginative experience (these terms are nearly synonymous for Blake) rather than through narrative sense.
Ololon, in search of Milton, descends to meet Blake
Detail, Milton C 36, 1811, Blake Archive, New York Public Library
Milton and Ololon, reunited
Milton D 42, 1818, Blake Archive, Library of Congress
Accordingly, neither Blake's biography nor the archetypal approach developed by Frye and Bloom will figure prominently in this exhibit, which focuses largely on materiality, visuality, and the reading experience of Milton. However, for many readers and critics, the elements outlined here remain central to both the poem's history and its interpretation. See the bibliography below for further reading in this direction.

This exhibit is fundamentally organized around the question of how to read Milton. As such, I will repeatedly address the purpose, meaning, and multidimensional, multisensory nature of Blake's work, particularly in the later sections. Our interpretation of Milton will depend upon our conceptualization of the book - what it is, how it functions, and what it tries to accomplish. These questions must be grounded in an understanding of illuminated printing, and this is the focus of the next section.

Further Reading

Bentley, G.E. Jr. The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2001.

Bloom, Harold. Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1963.

---. “Commentary.” The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1982. 894-970.

Bracher, Mark. Being Form'd: Thinking Through Blake's Milton. New York, NY: Clinamen Studies, Station Hill Press, 1985.

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Ed. Morris Eaves. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1988.

Erdman, David. Blake: Prophet Against Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1954.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. 1947. Ed. Nicholas Halmi. The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 14. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

---. “Notes for a Commentary on Milton.” 1955. Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake. Ed. Angela EsterHammer. The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 16. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. 239-265.

McGann, Jerome J. “The Aim of Blake's Prophecies and the Uses of Blake Criticism.” Blake's Sublime Allegory: Essays on The Four Zoas, Milton, Jerusalem. Eds. Stuart Curran and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973. 3-22.

Williams, Nicholas M. “Introduction: Understanding Blake.” Palgrave Advances in William Blake Studies. Ed. Nicholas M. Williams. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.