Blake left Felpham in 1803 and returned to London. In April of that year he wrote to Butts that he was overjoyed to return to the city: “That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & Prophecy & Speak Parables unobserv’d & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals.” In the same letter Blake refers to his epic poem Milton, composed while at Felpham: “But none can know the Spiritual Acts of my three years’ Slumber on the banks of the Ocean, unless he has seen them in the Spirit, or unless he should read My long Poem descriptive of those Acts.”
In a later letter to Butts, Blake declares his resolution to have Milton printed:
This Poem shall, by Divine Assistance be progressively Printed & Ornamented with Prints & given to the Public. But of this work I take care to say little to Mr H., since he is as much averse to my poetry as he is to a Chapter in the Bible. He knows that I have writ it, for I have shewn it to him, & he has read Part by his own desire & has looked with sufficient contempt to inhance my opinion of it. But I do not wish to irritate by seeming too obstinate in Poetic pursuits. But if all the World should set their faces against This, I have Orders to set my face like flint (Ezekiel iiiC, 9v) against their faces, & my forehead against their foreheads.
Blake’s letter reveals much of his attitude toward his patron and toward his readers. Blake believed that his poetry could be read and understood by the general public, but he was determined not to sacrifice his vision in order to become popular. Men of letters such as Hayley would not be allowed to dictate his art. Blake compares himself to the prophet Ezekiel, whom the Lord made strong to warn the Israelites of their wickedness. Blake’s images of a stern prophet locked head to head with his adversary is a fitting picture of part of Blake’s relation with his reader. Blake knew that his poetry would be derided by some readers. In Milton Blake tells us that “the idiot reasoner laughs at the Man of Imagination,” and in the face of that laughter Blake remained resolute.
In his “slumber on the banks of the Ocean,” Blake, surrounded by financial worries and hounded by a patron who could not appreciate his art, reflected on the value of visionary poetry. Milton, which Blake started to engrave in 1804 (probably finishing in 1808), is a poem that constantly draws attention to itself as a work of literature. Its ostensible subject is the poet John Milton, but the author, William Blake, also creates a character for himself in his own poem. Blake examines the entire range of mental activity involved in the art of poetry from the initial inspiration of the poet to the reception of his vision by the reader of the poem. Milton examines as part of its subject the very nature of poetry: what it means to be a poet, what a poem is, and what it means to be a reader of poetry.
In the preface to the poem, Blake issues a battle cry to his readers to reject what is merely fashionable in art:
Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever in Jesus our Lord.
In attacking the “ignorant Hirelings” in the “Camp, the Court & the University,” Blake repeats a familiar dissenting cry against established figures in English society. Blake’s insistence on being “just & true to our own Imaginations” places a special burden on the reader of his poem. For as he makes clear, Blake demands the exercise of the creative imagination from his own readers.
In the well-known lyric that follows, Blake asks for a continuation of Christ’s vision in modern-day England:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
The poet-prophet must lead the reader away from man’s fallen state and toward a revitalized state where man can perceive eternity.
“Book the First” contains a poem-within-a-poem, a “Bard’s Prophetic Song.” The Bard’s Song describes man’s fall from a state of vision. We see man’s fall in the ruined form of Albion as a representative of all men and in the fall of Palamabron from his proper position as prophet to a nation. Interwoven into this narrative are the Bard’s addresses to the reader, challenges to the reader’s senses, descriptions of contemporary events and locations in England, and references to the life of William Blake. Blake is at pains to show us that his mythology is not something far removed from us but is part of our day to day life. Blake describes the reader’s own fall from vision and the possibility of regaining those faculties necessary for vision.
The climax of the Bard’s Song is the Bard’s sudden vision of the “Holy Lamb of God”: “Glory! Glory! to the Holy lamb of God: / I touch the heavens as an instrument to glorify the Lord.” The vision of the “Lamb of God” is traditional in apocalyptic literature. In this case the Bard’s final burst of vision is important not only for its content, but also for its placement in the poem. The Bard’s sudden vision of the Lamb of God testifies that man need not remain “in chains of the mind Lock’d up.” The Bard begins by describing the fall from vision, but he ends with a vision of his own that indicates that man still possesses the powers of vision.
At the end of the Bard’s Song, the Bard’s power of vision is questioned much as Blake’s prophecies were criticized. The Bard’s spirit is incorporated into that of the poet Milton. Blake portrays Milton as a great but flawed poet who must unify the separated elements of his own identity before he can reclaim his powers of vision and become a true poet. Upon hearing the Bard’s Song, Milton is moved to descend to earth and begin the process of becoming an inspired poet. It is a journey of intense self-discovery and self-examination that requires Milton to cast off “all that is not inspiration.”
As Milton is presented as a man in the process of becoming a poet, Blake presents himself as a character in the poem undergoing the transformation necessary to become a poet. As Milton is inspired by the “Bard’s Song,” Blake is inspired by the spirit of Milton:
Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift:
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus, enter’d there
But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe.
This sudden moment of inspiration extends to the very end of book one. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, the character Blake is not fully aware of the importance of this moment of illumination. Like Milton, Blake is in the process of becoming a poet.
In a moment of sudden inspiration, Blake overcomes his “earthly lineaments” and binds “this Vegetable World” as a sandal under his foot so that he can “walk forward thro’ Eternity.” Blake’s act of creativity enables him to merge with Los:
And I became One Man with him arising in my strength
‘Twas too late now to recede. Los had enter’d into my soul:
His terrors now possess’d me whole! I arose in fury & strength!
Blake’s act of faith in the world of the imagination enables him to increase his powers of perception and sets a pattern for the reader to follow. Blake’s union with Los marks the end of one stage of the unification process that began at the completion of the Bard’s Song. In each case faith in the power of the imagination precedes union.
Only Milton believes in the vision of the Bard’s Song, and the Bard takes “refuge in Milton’s bosom.” As Blake realizes the insignificance of this “Vegetable World,” Los merges with Blake, and he arises in “fury and strength.” This ongoing belief in the hidden powers of the mind heals divisions and increases powers of perception. The Bard, Milton, Los, and Blake begin to merge into a powerful bardic union. Yet it is but one stage in a greater drive toward the unification of all men in a “Universal Brotherhood.”
In the second book of Milton Blake initiates the reader into the order of poets and prophets. Blake continues the process begun in book one of taking the reader through different stages in the growth of a poet. Ololon, Milton’s female form, descends to earth to unite with Milton. Her descent gives the reader a radically new view of this world. Ololon’s unique perspective turns the reader’s world of time and space upside down to make him see the decayed and limited nature of this world. If he can learn to see his familiar world from a new perspective, then the reader can develop his own powers of perception. Indeed “learning to see” is the first requirement of the poet.
The turning of the outside world upside down is a preliminary stage in an extensive examination of man’s internal world. A searching inquiry into the self is a necessary stage in the development of the poet. Milton is told he must first look within: “Judge then of thy Own Self: thy Eternal Lineaments explore, / What is Eternal & what Changeable, & what Annihilable.” Milton descends within himself and judges the separate parts of his own identity; he must distinguish between what is permanent and what transitory. Central to the process of judging the self is a confrontation with that destructive part of man’s identity Blake calls the Selfhood. The Selfhood continually hinders man’s spiritual development. Only by annihilating the Selfhood, Blake believes, can one hope to participate in the visionary experience of the poem. Unless the Selfhood is annihilated, one cannot become a true poet, for the Selfhood continually blocks “the human center of creativity.”
The Selfhood places two powerful forces to block our path: the socially accepted values of “love” and “reason.” In its purest state love is given freely with no restrictions and no thought of return. In its fallen state love is reduced to a form of trade: “Thy love depends on him thou lovest, & on his dear loves / Depend thy pleasures, which thou hast cut off by jealousy.” “Female love” is given only in exchange for love received. It is bartering in human emotions and is not love at all. When Milton denounces his own Selfhood, he gives up “Female love” and loves freely and openly.
As Blake attacks accepted notions of love, he also forces the reader to question the value society places on reason. The Seven Angels of the Presence warn that the “memory is a state Always, & the Reason is a State / Created to be Annihilated & a new Ratio Created.” Both Memory and Reason exercise the lesser powers of the mind. Nothing new can be created by the mental processes involved in memory and reason. In his struggle with Urizen, who represents man’s limited power of reason, Milton seeks to cast off the deadening effect of the reasoning power and free the mind for the power of the imagination. Milton gains control of Urizen, and it is clear that in Milton’s mind it is now the imagination that directs reason.
Destroying the Selfhood allows Milton to unite with others. He descends upon Blake’s path and continues the process of uniting with Blake that had begun in book one. This union is also a reflection of Blake’s encounter with Los that is described in book one and illustrated in book two. As was the case with seeing Los, Blake is startled by Milton’s arrival. Los appears as a “terrible flaming Sun,” and Milton’s arrival turns Blake’s path into a “solid fire, as bright as the Clear Sun.” Both events describe the process of union and the assumption of the powers of the imagination necessary to become a true poet. All of this comes about through the individual annihilation of the Selfhood. To become a poet and prophet, the man of imagination must first look within and destroy the Selfhood.
Milton’s final speech in praise of the virtue of self-annihilation is followed by Ololon’s own annihilation of the Selfhood. She rejects her virgin Selfhood and joins with Milton: