William Blake's Milton: The "Grandest Poem" Ever Written

Poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827), who experienced visions as a youth, placed himself with John Milton in a line of extraordinarily imaginative poets. Best known for his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake was also a masterful illustrator of several of Milton's works, including Paradise Lost. Yet his interpretations of Milton the man and Milton the artist do not stop there. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), he offered a heavily symbolic reading of Paradise Lost, proposed as a fable for the war between reason and desire. In an infamous passage, Blake asserted: "œThe reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it!" Although Blake qualified this aside as being true only from the devil's point of view, many of Blake's readers have taken the sentiment to be Blake's own.

Blake's veneration of Milton's poetry bordered on the mystical, and it was reported that the poet and his wife read scenes from Paradise Lost to each other in their garden "” in the nude. In Milton, a Poem in 2 Books, Blake's sublime and visually stunning "” although often obscure "” allegory, the spirit of Milton enters the poet's body through his foot (typically symbolizing the rhythmic aspect of verse). Vaunted by its author on occasion as the "œGrandest Poem" ever written, Milton stands as Blake's attempt to both interpret and correct his forebear's struggle with inspiration and tradition. The hand-colored relief etchings are by Blake himself. The New York Public Library's copy of Milton is one of four known copies.

William Blake. Milton, a Poem in 2 Books. The Author & Printer W. Blake. To Justify the Ways of God to Men. London, 1804 [i.e., 1808].
The New York Public Library, Rare Book Division.

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