And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
William Blake worshipped at two literary altars. The first was the Bible; the second was the poetry of John Milton. But Blake saw the philosophical problems of them both. In his mythology, he made a strong separation between the Jehovah of the Old Testament represented by Urizen and the Jesus of the New Testament, represented by Los, Fuzon and sometimes simply appearing as Himself. Likewise, Blake saw flaws in Milton’s worldview, philosophy and theology. So he wrote this to both praise Milton and to correct him. This is a really, really fascinating work for a lot of reasons. This poem is as close to a transcription of one of Blake’s visions as we’re likely to get. For that reason, Blake himself appears as a character and large portions of the poem take place in and around Blake’s actual property in West Sussex. The gist is that Milton awakes in Paradise and has an epiphany about his own work and the errors it contained; he then sets out on a journey back to Earth, accompanied & assisted by various spiritual beings, in order to correct his own mistakes, most of which are connected to the Calvinist predestination that, in Blake’s view, taints the mastery of Milton’s Paradise poems. This is about as fantastic a concept as you’re going to get and the poem just really works; it’s more intimate and less mind-blowing than The Four Zoas, but it’s a masterpiece. The meta nature of the work is fantastic and when Blake and Milton finally meet in Blake’s own garden, it feels like a moment of genuine awe and wonder. It’s a strange, dreamlike poem and I may have oversold the narrative drive of the poem, which is always ready to be set aside at a moment’s notice should some beautiful, thoughtful tangent occur to Blake. But this one is another masterpiece; as I reach the end of this journey through Blake’s awesome poetry (I have one more work to go through after Milton), I’m absolutely sure that I’ll miss his voice to an incredible degree. It probably seemed overweening at the time, Blake daring to correct Milton, Blake setting himself up as a prophetic and poetic artist on the level of Milton. Two hundred years later, it feels absolutely right; Blake’s letters of fiery passion have endured just as Milton’s have. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Blake explores the work and person of John Milton in this intimate, but breathtaking, poem that praises Milton and corrects the errors Blake sees; deeply felt, wonderfully creative. 4 stars.