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John Milton and William Blake
John Milton wrote work of poetry during the late 17th century. William Blake wourld write at the end of the 18th century and at the beginning of the following century. One lived during the tail end of the Restoration period and the other lived in the time of the Romantic poets. At a first glance, it would seem that the two poets John Milton and William Blake would have very little in common outside of the fact that they were both writers, both men, and that they were both British. Milton lived more than a century before William Blake and yet their work can be read together and analyzed as a pair of like-minded individuals. Though they wrote in different centuries and within different historic moments, they shared interests in expressing their thoughts on similar themes. Both men questioned the accepted conditions of their days and the social norms of the society they lived in. That is to say, both Milton and Blake explored the idea of religion and religiosity through the written word. The other question that goes hand in hand with religion is the idea of morality and what constitutes the difference between what is perceived as right and wrong and what is truly right and wrong. Milton was a hero to Blake, even to the point where Blake invocated Milton in his poetry as the ancients called upon the muses. Each man used his poetry to discuss the question of religion and how the belief in something bigger than themselves could fit into a society, where those who are supposed to speak for God can be the most godless of all citizenry.
Critic Gavin Alexander argues that one of the reasons for John Milton's continued presence in literary cannon is that he is simply too important a contributor to the subject of literature and to the English language as a whole to be forgotten. He says that Milton "was always able to take a long view both forward and back, and this is one reason why his works have stood the test of time -- Milton never tried to be fashionable" (1). What this means is that, rather than give in to the stylistic techniques of the time that were perhaps more popular during the 17th century than they are today, Milton tried to tell a story in a simplistic manner that was at the same time effective. His poems, whether they be the blazons to fair women or the tirades against mankind, all contain the skills of a master of a writer who could create a well-crafted narrative.
An example of Alexander's point is in Milton's most famous work. John Milton's Paradise Lost is the story of the fall of Satan from Heaven and man's consequential fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Historically, the fall of Satan is supposed to be a tale of good triumphing over evil and the story of Adam and Eve's fall is supposed to be a morality tale about the dangers of defying the word of God. This is not the case in Paradise Lost. In this work, more sympathy is given to Lucifer who knows what he has lost in his fall than to Adam and Eve who were more foolish than naive when it came to defying God. Milton began writing Paradise Lost at the age of fifty in the year 1658. The epic poem was not published until 1667, during which time London had already seen the city ravaged by the Great Fire and the Black Plague take many human lives. Living during an era of turmoil infused the story with a present emotion of despair and sadness. What makes Paradise Lost so memorable, besides the didactic and fully-developed characters, is the palpability of the feeling of longing and regret that permeates the pages. First Satan in the kingdom of Hell and Adam and Eve after the expulsion feel true remorse and sadness from the knowledge that no matter how well they can turn their bad situation, the better existence is forever lost to them and they have no one to blame for the situation than themselves. What makes the story of Milton's writing so much more amazing is the fact that he created Paradise Lost after he had become totally blind. He would recite the passages to a scribe during the day. These visions, so he said, would come to him the night before. It would seem that Milton had a somewhat religious experience while writing this criticism of religion.
In most depictions of Satan's fall, Lucifer witnesses the creation of Adam first-hand. However, in Milton's version of the story, Satan is already cognizant of Adam. It is not his rise that the reader witnesses but rather the elevation of Christ (Anderson 13). Milton is less concerned with the creation of the first man than with his downfall. Just as the reader does not see Satan created, there is no birth of Adam. Yet, the narrator does relate the creation and rise of Jesus Christ. It would seem from this that Adam and Satan are very much on the same plane and that Jesus is above both of these creations. Milton is creating his own mythology of religion in Paradise Lost. For example, Satan's reaction to all God's machinations is found nowhere in the Bible. John Milton had to create a vindictive Satan, more bent on petty revenge than on anything else. With this subtle addition, Milton is questioning the very Bible, which until then was considered the very word of God. He dares to add to the word of God through a unique depiction of a central character, a depiction that is not entirely unsympathetic to the protagonist Lucifer.
It is interesting that John Milton would undertake a potentially heretical view of religion in his later years when his initial ambition was to study for the church. This changed however when he discovered that "tyranny had invaded the Church" (Parry). As a young man, Milton became so disillusioned by the men who were supposedly speaking the word of God that he could no longer see past their malfeasance to become ordained in the Church of England. It is a sad comment that watching the duplicity of others eventually overcame Milton's own desire to become part of the clergy, but it also forced him into rethinking the so-called "Word of God" and led to his creation of a new set of biblical tales. According to 19th century historian Rufus Griswold:
He left Cambridge because his theological opinions, and his views of ecclesiastical independence, not permitting him to enter the church, a longer stay there was not required. He believed that he who would accept orders, 'must subscribe himself slave, and take an oath withal, which unless he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either straight perjure himself, or split his faith;' and he deemed it 'better to prefer a blameless silence, before the learned office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing' (1).
In a way, his writing Paradise Lost was a sort of manifesto wherein Milton declared that these versions could be as close to the truth as what the Church tells us happened long ago. Although there is no way of knowing exactly what Milton's beliefs were, there is evidence to suggest that he held many controversial ideas. One was the idea that the soul dies with the body and will only be resurrected on the Day of Judgement (Parry). He also supported personal freedom vs. repression by religion or by the state, including the right to divorce. By 1642, Milton was in a war with one Bishop Hall of the Church of England. The Bishop published a document entitled A Modest Confutation of a Slanderous and Scurrilous Libel, wherein Milton was called all manner of insults and accused of every form of blasphemy. Bishop Hall called upon all Christian men to "stone [Milton] to death, lest they should smart from his impunity" (Griswold 2). By the age of thirty-four, Milton had already made himself a thorn in the side of the hypocritical clergy.
William Blake was an accomplished painter in addition to his poetry writing. Much of his artwork showcased the same religious ideology as in his poems. Blake was a starch opponent of what he viewed as outdated sexual morays. Specifically, he became one of the forerunners of the late 19th century free love moment. He supported the abolition of laws prohibiting homosexuality, prostitution, and adultery, proclaiming marriage as a form of slavery. Having said that, William Blake was also heavily devoted to his wife Catherine, and would not have divorced her although there were rumors that he wanted a concubine to enter their bed to conceive a child and carry it for them when Catherin proved incapable of getting pregnant (William 1). It seems that William Blake's predominant concerns in life were about each human's ability to have…[continue]
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