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The prophetic books of William Blake, Milton





The Prophetic Books of W. Blake


Edited by E.R.D. Maclagan and
A. G. B. Russell

6s. net



Edited by E. R. D. MACLAGAN and A. G. B. RUSSELL







WHEN, in a letter to his friend George Cumberland, written just a year before his departure to Felpham, Blake lightly mentions that he had passed "nearly twenty years in ups and downs" since his first embarkation upon "the ocean of business," he is simply referring to the anxiety with which he had been continually harassed in regard to the means of life. He gives no hint of the terrible mental conflict with which his life was at that time darkened. It was more actually then a question of the existence of his body than of the state of his soul. It is not until several years later that he permits us to realize the full significance of this sombre period in the process of his spiritual development. The new burst of intellectual vision, accompanying his visit to the Truchsessian Picture Gallery in 1804, when all the joy and enthusiasm which had inspired the creations of his youth once more returned to him, gave him courage for the first time to face the past and to reflect upon the course of his deadly struggle with "that spectrous fiend" who had formerly waged war upon his imagination. "Suddenly," he wrote to Hayley on the 23rd October, "I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and by window-shutters…. He is become my servant who domineered over me, he is even as a brother who was my enemy." The nature of his enemy is made sufficiently clear by the continuation of this remarkable letter, where under some easily discernible symbols the whole matter is briefly and dramatically set forth. His inmost convictions as to the origin and essence of his inspiration had been unceasingly assailed by a host of those secret doubts and fears (the most insidious of all spiritual perils) with which the spectre or reasoning faculty, that "abstract objecting power" which "negatives everything" is for ever seeking to restrain and subdue man's creative energies. This spectre was the spirit of his own time. Religion and art had become empty formalities. Imagination was on the verge of extinction. The age was engrossed upon the reconstruction of society on a materialistic basis. Many of Blake's earlier "prophecies" are intimately concerned with the religious and political upheaval of his day. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, America, as well as the lost poem entitled The French Revolution, are almost exclusively devoted to this subject. He was never tired of inveighing against the disastrous tyranny of those laws and moralities which had been framed by abstract philosophy and false religion for the suppression of the "interior vision," and urging the people to shake off, before it is too late, "the heavy iron chain" which is "descending link by link" to enslave them. The dominion of this malignant spectre was daily increasing, and even Blake himself, who was in so little the child of his own age, was not able to escape entirely from its pernicious influence. For every man is born with the instincts of his time, which are ineradicable from his natural state, and if these instincts are altogether corrupt and worldly, it is only in the power of a supreme imaginative intelligence to eliminate their tendency. It was a time when the emanative portion of the universal manhood had fallen into a deep sleep, and before it could be awakened and resume its place in the fourfold harmony of human existence, it was necessary that the "selfish" spectre should be compelled to resign the power which it had usurped. This earth-born antagonist, hitherto victorious in the strength of the prevailing rationalism and materialism from which it had issued, if it was to be overcome, must, Antaeus-like, be uprooted from all terrestial contact and grappled with in the pure region of imagination. It was many years before Blake learnt this sovereign secret and many "times" of almost overwhelming despair "passed over him" before the conflict was at an end. In the same letter, which has been already quoted, he likens his state during these anxious years to that which transformed King Nebuchadnezzar into a beast of the field: using the wild insanity of the outcast monarch as a symbol of the bestial existence of man under the domination of Reason. "I was a slave," he writes, "bound in a mill among beasts and devils. These beasts and these devils are now, together with myself, become children of light and liberty, and my feet and my wife's feet are free from fetters." He had begun by attempting to face the world on its own ground. He believed that by entering the servitude of the mill he would be able to transfigure its empty routine with the joy and exuberance of his own intellectual freedom. But the process of the mill is the annihilation of the spirit. It is the logic which abhors and contemns everything it cannot explain. It is, in art, the method pursued by those who believe that genius can be acquired by taking pains, who "turn that which is soul and life into a mill or machine."

When, in the autumn of the year 1800, Blake withdrew from London into the country, he seemed to see the dawn of another life, in which he was to emerge at last from the confusion and unrest of his past existence into a state of freedom and spiritual felicity. He believed that the generosity of his new patron would for ever redeem him from that servile necessity of soul-destroying drudgery which had hitherto been imposed upon him by the fear of starvation, and that he would be able to pursue the arts of imagination, unfettered and uninterrupted. The atmosphere of Felpham appeared to his liberated perceptions to be a "more spiritual" one than that of London. "Heaven," he wrote, on arriving, to Flaxman, "opens here on all sides her golden gates; … voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen." He dreamed of becoming the prophet of a new era of visionary creation when men should again "converse in heaven and walk with angels," upon earth. But he was quickly to be disillusioned. It was soon clear that his patron was not at all disposed to bestow, with his benevolence, a free hand. Besides this, he was wholly out of sympathy with the visionary character of Blake's inventions, both in poetry and painting, and irritated him beyond measure by the "genteel ignorance and polite disapprobation," with which he was content to receive them. "He is as much averse," Blake bitterly complained in a letter to Butts, "to my poetry as he is to a chapter in the Bible," and "approves of my designs as little as he does of my poems." Miniature painting, engraving of a despicable sort and the decoration of Hayley's library with a frieze of poets' heads were by no means the most grievous of the tasks set; and the worst of them was far more tolerable than the habit of reading Klopstock aloud with which his patron sought to improve the brief hours of recreation. No wonder at the expressions of unconcealed disappointment which we find in some of Blake's letters. He discovered immediately and to his cost that in the country there is no peace at all and that it is only in the midst of a great city that the artist can be truly alone with his own soul. "I do assure you," he wrote afterwards to Butts, "that, if I could have returned to London a month after my arrival here, I should have done so"; and in another letter, "I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoyed, and converse with my friends in eternity, see visions, dream dreams, and prophesy and speak parables unobserved, and at liberty from the doubts of other mortals."

But in spite of the truly "Herculean labours" which, he tells us, were imposed upon him at Felpham, Blake was at the same time fully conscious of a considerable debt of gratitude. He also speaks of his "three years slumber on the banks of Ocean." "O lovely Felpham," he affectionately exclaims, writing to Hayley, "parent of immortal friendship, to thee I am eternally indebted for my three years' rest from perturbation and the strength I now enjoy." The mere fact of the entire change of environment and the respite which he obtained from all the cares and worries which his life in London had accumulated, gave him a sense of rest and freedom, and he found in "the sweet air and the voices of winds, trees and birds, and the odours of the happy ground" an influence soothing and refreshing to the brain. The three years at Felpham were in this way years of retreat, during which he was enabled to devote hinself to bringing to an end the period of mental war; and the conflict was there fiercest because it had passed into the ultimate world of vision. It became possible for him to effect the clarification of his ideas both upon religion and art. "One thing of real consequence," he himself observes, in one of his letters, "I have accomplished by coming into the country, which is to me consolation enough: namely, I have recollected all my scattered thoughts on art… which in the confusion of London I had very much obliterated from my mind." It was a time of personal introspection and analysis, and of the final purging away from his imagination of all that was not pure vision; and, with the passing of this period of trial and probation, came the return of all his youthful enthusiasm. "I am drunk," he wrote to Hayley from London, "with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or graver into my hand, even as I used to be in my youth, and as I have not been for twenty dark, but very profitable years. I thank God that I courageously pursued my course through darkness"; and again, six weeks later, "I have indeed fought through a hill of terrors and horrors (which none could know but myself) in a divided existence; now, no longer divided nor at war with myself, I shall travel on in the strength of the Lord God, as poor Pilgrim says."

The events of this final struggle at Felpham, together with its triumphant issue, are recorded by Blake in the book of Milton. The poet had from his earliest days made a strong appeal to his imagination. In the lines (enclosed with a letter to Flaxman dated 12th September, 1800) where he gives a brief summary of the various influences which had entered into his life, he places Milton first in the list of his spiritual instructors: "Now my lot in the heavens is this, Milton lov'd me in childhood and shew'd me his face." In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake criticizes, it is true, Paradise Lost, because in it the restrainer of reason, (Urizen-Jehovah) who is by Milton called Messiah, is made to cast out desire or energy (Satan), which "is the only life"; for, as he contemptuously observes, "those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained," and, as he further explains, in A Vision of the Last Judgment, "Men are admitted into heaven, not because they have curbed and governed their passions, or have no passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The treasures of heaven are not negations of passion, but realities of intellect, from which all the passions emanate, uncurbed in their eternal glory…. Those who are cast out are all those who, having no passions of their own, because no intellect, have spent their lives in curbing and governing other people's by … cruelty of all kinds." But at the same time he points out that Milton was none the less "a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it"; for, in spite of himself, Satan became the hero of his poem and he found himself writing "in fetters when he wrote of Angels and of God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell."

The substance of the poem is almost entirely autobiographical. Blake himself tells us, in one of his letters, that it is descriptive of "the spiritual acts" of his "three years' slumber on the banks of ocean." Both the characters and the action have their counterparts in the drama which had been enacted at Felpham. The disguise is often a close one: but we are told that it is a "sublime allegory," and "allegory addressed to the intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the corporeal understanding," is Blake's "definition of the most sublime poetry." The writing was "from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without premeditation, and even against" his "will." "Thus," he writes, "the time it has taken in writing was rendered non-existent, and an immense poem exists … all produced without labour or study." The purpose of the book is clearly stated on p. 36, II. 21-25:

.. When Los join'd with me he took me in his fiery whirlwind:
My vegetated portion was hurried from Lambeth's shades:
He set me down in Felpham's vale and prepar'd a beautiful
Cottage for me, that in three years I might write all these visions,
To display Nature's cruel holiness: the deceits of natural religion.

Blake had already issued, some years earlier, two little tracts containing aphorisms on the subject of natural religion. They had doubtless been called forth by Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, written 1751 but not published until 1779, three years after the author's death. In The Song of Los again he speaks of the laws and religions which had bound men more and more to earth, "Till a philosophy of five senses was complete," which Urizen, weeping, had given "into the hands of Newton and Locke." In Milton the subject is more comprehensively dealt with. The author's intention "to justify the ways of God to man" is stated on the title-page. The Muses whom he invokes in the Preface are not the classical "Daughters of Memory"; they are the daughters of "Imagination" or "Inspiration"; for his appeal is for the restoration of purely imaginative art, based upon biblical and not upon classical models. The Bible he held to be directly and consciously derived from the source of all inspiration, while the art of the Greeks and Romans he believed to be a mere perverted copy, derived from ancient originals. He has another charge against Milton here, that he also was corrupted by the general infection and submitted to learn of the classics, when he should have resorted to the Bible alone. Blake wished to restore the authority of imagination, and to substitute an intellectual war for that which arises from the corporeal understanding. He adjures us, instead of disputing over science and religion and morality, to fight for an eternal kingdom and to engage ourselves in the rebuilding of Jerusalem in our own land, where now she lies in ruins. He would have us beware also of "the False Tongue," which is the origin of all the error and ignorance by which our eternal portion is fettered. It is elsewhere connected with "the Western Gate" and we learn that it denotes the sense of touch; that is to say, it is the sense by which we become conscious of the phenomenal world and are deceived by its apparent solidity into endowing it with a material existence. It is the cause of natural religion, empirical philosophy, evolutionary ethics and the hundred other follies by which our vision is obscured. The earlier pages of the book are occupied with the story of the interference and oppression to which Blake (Palamabron) had to submit from Hayley (Satan). The news of his sufferings had reached the dwellers in eternity, with the result that the poet Milton received a heavenly command to return to earth to deliver him from the tyranny of his oppressors. This was the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy "in Eden recorded that Milton of the land of Albion should up ascend, forwards from Ulro, from the Vale of Felpham, and set free Orc from his chain of jealousy." The person of Orc is used by Blake to represent "the fires of youth," which were by nature free and untamed, until they were riveted to a rock by Los and Enitharmon, acting under the influence of the "jealous" God. It must be remembered that throughout his writings Blake adopts the Gnostic view of Jehovah; as Irenaeus says of Marcion, "blasphemans eum, qui a lege et Prophetis annunciatus est deus: malorum factorem, et bellorum concupiscentem, et inconstantem quoque sententia, et contrarium sibi ipsum dicens." He is Blake's Urizen, who had separated himself from the fourfold "Divine Family" and exalting his own self-hood, and usurping sovereignty, had endeavoured to impose upon man his iron laws which "no flesh nor spirit could keep one moment." Before Milton could enter upon his work of emancipation, it was necessary for him to wrestle with this "darkened" Urizen in his own person. He is described by Blake standing before him "as the sculptor silent stands before his forming image," giving life to him who would give death and preparing him for his reunion with the Divine Body. Thus the return of Milton was not only to effect the deliverance of Blake but the redemption of his own imagination from the state of bondage into which it had fallen during his lifetime owing to the detestable nature of his religion. He was to put off the "hypocritic holiness" and to embrace the forgiveness of sins; for "every religion that preaches vengeance for sin is the religion of the enemy or avenger." The doctrine of the forgiveness of sins and of "the mutual annihilation of each for another's good" is one of the principal themes of the poem. Evil must only be imputed to the various states into which the individual may enter. Those states were especially created by Divine mercy for "the deliverance of individuals." We are told that Milton descended to redeem his emanation, as it is only through our emanative or imaginative portion that it is possible for us to learn both to refrain from judging other people and ourselves to steer a right course among the states which environ us. Imagination and love are the two central facts of Blake's teaching. "The Imagination" he tells us, "is not a state: it is the human existence itself…. Love becomes a state when divided from imagination."

It is certain that the year 1804, which appears upon the title-page of Milton cannot be taken to mark the date of publication, as it is clear from a passage in the Public Address that the poem was still unissued in August 1808. It seems to have been Blake's habit, as soon as the composition of a book was completed, to begin the work of engraving it with the title page: and, as his method was an extremely laborious one and he was at this time much occupied with other business, it is not surprising that a period of several years should have elasped between the designing of his title-page and the end of his task. In the case of Jerusalem the interval was a far longer one. We gather from his own words that he was engaged upon the manuscript throughout the period of his sojourn at Felpham: but internal evidence, arising from the substance of the allegory, compels us to assign the greater part of it to the closing days of that episode. The earliest reference to the poem occurs in a letter to Thomas Butts, written at Felpham and dated 25th April 1803, where he gives a brief description of its nature. "None," he says, "can know the spiritual acts of my three years' slumber on the banks of ocean, unless he has seen them in the spirit, or unless he should read my long poem descriptive of those acts; for I have in these years composed an immense number of verses on one grand theme, similar to Homer's Iliad or Milton's Paradise Lost; the persons and machinery entirely new to the inhabitants of earth (some of these persons excepted)…. I mention this to show you what I think the grand reason of my being brought down here." There can be very little doubt that it is Milton and not Jerusalem which is intended here: for, although the latter does indeed contain copious allusions to the events at Felpham, the pages of Milton are, as we have seen, almost exclusively concerned with these matters. It is true the length of the poem cannot be said to correspond in the least with the author's promise; and this discrepancy may not be explained upon the old supposition (derived from a misreading of the title page), that it was his original intention to publish twelve books in all, and that the two which were given to the world were only a fragment of an unfinished piece; for as a reviewer in The Academy of 9th March last has pointed out, the correct reading of the title is Milton, a Poem in 2 (not 12) Books: "the 2," he adds, "is in the middle of a round dark space, enclosed by wreaths of white cloud," while the 1, which some writers had hitherto imagined to precede it, is in reality only "a stroke among the enclosing lines of decoration." But it seems likely, at least, that the pressure of work which, together with the Scholfield affair, was the cause of the delay in the engraving, also prevented Blake from dealing immediately with the whole mass of visionary material, with which the three years at Felpham had furnished him, and working it up into the great epic of which his letter speaks, and that he therefore decided to modify his project and to print, for the moment, only the nucleus of strictly autobiographical incident. It is this summary compression of his theme which has in a large measure shifted to the shoulders of the reader the burden of time and patience more justly devolving upon the the writer. Besides this, the author's tendency, in the composition of the prophetic books, to finish sections, or more often whole pages, separately at a time, whenever the inspiration came upon him, is extremely apt to produce an inconsequence and discontinuity of thought (in many cases only imperfectly remedied in the process of construction), which is an additional source of obscurity. The defect of this system is conspicuously emphasized by the number of instances in Vala, Milton and Jerusalem where passages, often of some length, are found reduplicated. In Milton (p. 5*) we even find a section of some twenty or thirty lines which had already been engraved almost word for word as early as 1794 in the book of Urizen (chap. iv). It is remarkable also that both in the case of Milton and Jerusalem a different order is observed in the printing of the pages in one of the very few known copies of each. A considerable portion of the remainder of the material for the projected epic was, we may suppose, subsequently embodied in Jerusalem, which was also dated 1804 but was not published, in all probability, before about 1818.

A second reference to the undertaking, of which Milton was the outcome, occurs in a letter written rather more than two months later than that which has just been quoted. It is again to his friend Butts, and is dated 6th July, 1803, showing that the manuscript was already practically complete. "I hope," he characteristically remarks, "that all our three years' trouble ends in good luck at last, and shall be forgot by my affections, and only remembered by my understanding; to be a memento in time to come, and to speak to future generations by a sublime allegory, which is now perfectly completed into a grand poem…. This poem shall, by Divine assistance, be progressively printed and ornamented with prints, and given to the public." Although he speaks here of the poem being "now perfectly completed," the mention (on p. 17, l. 59) of Scholfield, with whom he did not come into conflict before the following month, and of South Molton Street (on p. 3*, l. 21), where he resided after his return to London, are alone sufficient to show that he was still prepared to make additions to it. The first of these names is also, it will be remembered, to be found repeatedly in Jerusalem and the second appears twice in the text, as well as upon the title page, of the same poem. The last and only other occasion on which Milton is alluded to in Blake's writings is that spoken of above, in the Public Address (Gilchrist, 1880, vol. ii, p. 175), where he says in regard to the attack made upon him in The Examiner of 7th August, 1808:—The manner in which I have rooted out the nest of villains will be seen in a poem concerning my three years' Herculean labours at Felpham, which I shall soon publish." It is not easy to point to any passage either in Milton or Jerusalem where this business is definitely dealt with: but there are a good many significant lines, especially in the latter, which may be taken to derive their intention from it. However this may be, we can be sure from these words that the whole labour of producing the earlier volume was not over at any rate before the autumn of 1808. It is likely indeed to have been published not very long after, either at the end of that year or at the beginning of the following one, since in each of the known examples the paper is watermarked with the year 1808, a coincidence which may reasonably be taken to fix the approximate date of its appearance.

Three examples of the original edition of Milton are all that appear to be forthcoming at the present time. One of these, in the Print Room of the British Museum, consists of 45 engraved pages coloured with watercolour, viz:—title page, 35 pages of text and 9 full page illustrations. This example (except for the extra pages) has been followed in the present text. A second was exhibited at the Grolier Club, New York, in 1905. The pages, which correspond to those in the British Museum example, are numbered continuously in ink. It is printed in black and painted with water-colours, chiefly pink, yellow and blue, the effect being heightened with gold. The third, the Beckford copy from the Hamilton Palace Library (sold in 1882), is now in the New York Public Library (the "Lenox" Library). It differs from the two preceding both in the the arrangement and number of its pages. There are 49 plates, in all; the Preface is wanting, but there are five extra pages (absent from the other two) which are printed, (from Mr. Ellis's text, by kind permission,) at the end of this edition. A perfect copy of Milton should, according to Blake's own authority,[1] consist of 50 plates; that is to say, it should contain both the Preface and the five extra pages. The Butts copy of Milton is described in the sale catalogue (26 March, 1852) as "a poem in two books, with forty-five coloured designs," and may possibly be identical with one of the first two mentioned. It was bought by Mr. Toovey for £9. Lowndes (Bibliographer's Manual) quotes an apparently perfect copy of Milton containing 50 engraved pages, for sale in Mr. Bohn's catalogue at £10 10s. If the number of plates is accurately given, this cannot be identified with any of the above examples. Brunet, in the Manuel du Libraire, gives Milton, a poem in 12 books, 100 pp.; but it is improbable that this entry can be relied upon.

  1. See the letter to Dawson Turner printed on p. 207 of The Letters of William Blake, edited by A. G. B. Russell, Methuen, 1906.