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I dedicate Patti Smith’s song, “My Blakean Year,” to my hardworking students, who have struggled to understand Blake’s works only to discover the joy of the poetic genius:

here’s Patti Smith’s lyrics to the song:

“My Blakean Year”

In my Blakean year I was so disposed
Toward a mission yet unclear Advancing pole by pole
Fortune breathed into my ear Mouthed a simple ode
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road
In my Blakean year Such a woeful schism
The pain of our existence
Was not as I envisioned
Boots that trudged from track to track
Worn down to the sole
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road
Boots that tramped from track to track Worn down to the sole
One road was paved in gold
One road was just a road
In my Blakean year
Temptation but a hiss
Just a shallow spear
Robed in cowardice
Brace yourself for bitter flack
For a life sublime
A labyrinth of riches
Never shall unwind
The threads that bind the pilgrim’s sack
Are stitched into the Blakean back
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy shall conquer all despair In my Blakean year
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy shall conquer all despair In my Blakean year

Ololon’s False Self-Identification

In forming a contrary, two opposing ideas or being create a new, fuller meaning in their relationship to one another.  Despite Ololon’s self-identification as Milton’s contrary, she does not fulfill this purpose.  Notably, Olonon’s self-identification as Milton’s contrary comes in the form of a question; even this status depends on his validation.  The question is paradoxical:  Milton cannot confirm this idea without asserting his higher position in the power structure.  Her question therefore means that any acknowledgement of the contrary would, in fact, render it invalid.

Both in this passage, and in Book I of Milton, Ololon finds her identity in Milton; as she earlier “lamented for Milton with a great lamentation” (Plate 24, Book I) and now concludes that she must go to Eternal Death to rejoin him (Plate 49, Book II).  As such, while she appears to choose the course of annihilation for herself, it is not true self-annihilation as the decision is based exclusively on her ties to Milton.  By predicating her own choices on those of Milton, she places herself below him in power; the two figures cannot then form a functional contrary.  While Ololon gains significance and purpose from her association with Milton, Milton’s function remains unchanged by this relationship.

 

In answering the question of what precisely happens to Ololon, how such fits in, relates, to the rest of Milton: A Poem, I feel, firstly, a few prefatory remarks—a naming of parts or clarifying of terms—is required. I take “self-annihilation,” as it manifests, in the scope of Blake’s poem at face value, that is, meaning precisely what it says: “making the self into nothing” (its root word nihil being the Latin for “nothing”). The crucial distinction, I submit, is in the nuanced fact that is a process rather different and apart from destruction per se, though we tend to think it synonymous with such. In a certain line of thinking—admittedly Eastern—and with a little mental acrobatics, nothing (i.e., the absence of something, an existential lack) can be thought of as the potential for all things, as, say, blandness might be conceived of as not the lack of flavor but the potential for any. This is how self-annihilation—achieved in the dialectical struggle between Spectre (self, convention, reason) and Emanation (other, imagination, energy)—can allow one to enter into the higher synthesis, or reconciliation, of Divine Humanity. All that said, while the revelatory scene in Blake’s garden in Felpham seems to enact such a self-annihilation for Milton, it seems it only brings about a self-abnegation for Ololon. The movement feels to be one of a patriarchal possessiveness rather than total reciprocity or a complete, mutual meeting-in-the-middle. It all seems to be done for the benefit of Milton; Ololon is only peripheral or utilitarian—a means to an end—subsumed into Milton rather than unified with him. Though these last points are more impressions, things felts, than empirically verifiable points in the text.

Contraries and Negations

For next Wednesday, students will answer the following question prompt:

In book 2, plate 48-49, lns. 35-39, 1-15 (p. 202-203), does Ololon’s recognition of herself and Milton as “Contraries” result in her self-annihilation? If so, explain how her self-annihilation is similar to or different from Milton’s.

Categorize under “The Last Judgment” and don’t forget to create tags.

 

A clue to help you with this prompt:

I’ve included the plate illustration to the first page of book two of Blake’s Milton.  To recap on our class discussion, the reverse writing of the motto (“Contraries are Positives. A Negation is not a Contrary”) suggests that contraries generate more contraries (the contrary of the contrary that encourages imaginative re-vision) or, perhaps, the mirroring of contraries is a negation (the fearful symmetry that forestalls imaginative progression).  You decide this either/or!

Remember Blake’s other motto from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Without Contraries is no progression” (p.69).

blake milton

Milton and Satan, tragic heroes

In considering how Milton in William Blake’s Milton a Poem is like or unlike Satan, I first contemplate how to define the Satan figure that we are discussing. My first assumption is to compare Milton to his own Satan in Paradise Lost, but I quickly question this narrow interpretation. In my mind, there are at least three potential Satans to compare Milton to, a Christian Satan and some Blakian Satan. I will deal with this final version of Satan separately. Both Milton’s Satan and Satan in Christianity are fallen angels and thus I find the character of Milton in that he returns to Earth from Heaven. I also found Blake’s characterization of Milton similar to Milton’s characterization of Satan, detailed, confusing, and odd. Like Milton’s Satan, Blake’s Milton is complex and multidimensional. Milton is “synister” as he enters Blake through his left food, but simultaneously includes a redeemable qualities. Likewise, Milton’s Satan possesses humanizing characteristics that make him incredibly accessible to readers. I would argue that both are heroes of their respective works.  I am interested in exploring what a Blakian Satan would encompass. I find the Blakian Satan similar to the characters of Milton and Satan in that I imagine he would be equally complex. Moreover, all three have include contraries that exist simultaneously.

This post is in response to the question, “Why does Milton need to ‘go down to self-annihilation and eternal death’ (Plate 15, ln. 22; p. 162)?” In order to answer this question, I referenced the image on plate 15 in the Blake Archive. This particular image depicts Milton standing naked with what looks like his clothing torn in half in each of his hands. His head is surrounded by a halo of light, and the sun is depicted rising (or setting) behind him.

In order to decode this image in conjunction with the idea of Milton’s “self-annihilation and eternal death,” it is important to consider Blake’s views on Christ’s resurrection and the atonement. In the introduction to Milton a Poem, Blake refers to the death of Christ as “prey” to the “False Tongue… a curse, an offering, and an atonement” (lines 10-14, pg.148). Traditional Christian dogma posits that the atonement of Christ allows mankind to be forgiven of their sins and eventually have eternal life after physical death. Blake flips this idea on its head, claiming that in order to gain eternal life, mankind must first experience eternal death. This idea of contraries is a theme that runs throughout Blake’s works, and it is echoed through Milton’s need to experience eternal death before Judgment.

In addition, it is important to consider Blake’s beliefs about sin and its place in religion. In “The Bard’s Song,” Blake describes a scene in which Satan “created Seven deadly Sins drawing out his infernal scroll… To pervert the Divine voice in its entrance to the earth” (lines 21-23, pg. 156). This paints sin as a satanic creation meant to muddle the true meaning of religion, or the “Divine voice.” This falls in line with Blake’s theory of eternal death as necessary for salvation—in order to gain true “atonement,” we must cast off the concept of sin, and recognize its position as an antagonist to true religion.

This idea of casting off the idea of sin leads us back to the original image referenced in this post. In this image, it looks as if Milton has rent his clothing, exposing himself to the world. In the story of original sin in the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve realize that they are naked after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. They immediately cover themselves, feeling embarrassed. When Adam and Eve learn of sin, they feel the need to clothe themselves—on the flipside, when Milton frees himself from the concept of sin; he no longer feels the need to clothe himself and therefore tears off his clothing.

Self-Annihilation

For next Wednesday (11/6), answer ONE of the two optional question prompts:

1. Why does Milton need to “go down to self-annihilation and eternal death” (Plate 15, ln. 22; p. 162)? hint: take a peak at the accompanying illustration/text images in the Blake Archive.

 

2. How is Milton like (or unlike) Satan?

 

Please categorize under “The Last Judgment” and don’t forget to create interesting tags.

Blake’s Mythology- Is it in you?

This post responds to the first question, “Why does Blake deviate from the Biblical account in making Adam and Noah contemporaries?” In “The Song of Los,” Blake depicts several scenes of his mythological characters delivering gospel and religion to various important religious figures. This image of Blake’s characters as the root of all common religions reminds us of “All Religions are One,” in which Blake posits that all religions come from the same source, and therefore are no different at their core.

It is also important to note that “All Religions are One” claims that religion comes from the poetic genius, which resides within man. Since he depicts his mythological characters as delivering these religious principles to each of the creators of religion, Blake is saying that each of his mythological characters actually resides within these religious leaders, and it is the work of each character that influences each religious leader’s doctrine. For example, Theotormon—the representation of desire that becomes jealousy when repressed—delivers the gospel to Jesus. The decision to have Theotorman deliver Christianity was a conscious one, as Blake is making a comment on the sexual repression perpetuated by the Christian leaders of his time.

The decision to have Urizen deliver his “Laws” to both Noah and Adam together (as contemporaries) was also a conscious one (109). As Urizen delivers the laws to both men, we can assume that both men are crippled by mankind’s reason. Blake undermines the Bible by pointing out the utter uselessness of time—to Blake, Noah and Adam may as well be the same person, as they are crippled by the same thing—man’s logical reason, represented by Urizen’s laws.

Blake’s Song of Los ends which a curious, antithetical image of the grave, cursorily glossed by Johnson and Grant as “a regenerative orgasm” which transforms it into a “fruitful womb” (107):

The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes

Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem;

Her bosom swells with wild desire:

And milk & blood & glandous wine.

In rivers rush & shout & dance

On mountain, dale and plain. (112)

What then to make of this? Life’s natural, teleological progression would, obviously, be toward that of the narrow house, the final and ever-abiding stasis of the grave. This grotesque image upsets and usurps such a formulation, however, making death not decaying but pregnant. There is a Dionysian degradation and delight. Though a degradation that here is more similar to a  “coming down to earth, the contact with the earth that swallows up and gives birth at the same time,” the vital loam; it is to take the idealized and make it fleshy, making lofty concepts corporeal. A discarnate existence in a contradiction in terms—whether here or in the here-after. Blake loathes what ignores the spiritual—e.g. “a Philosophy of the Five Senses” (110) alone—as well as what’s bloodless—e.g. Urizen’s fettering “mechanistic dictates” (107). Blake’s philosophy—however difficult such might be to pin down and delineate (but isn’t that his point?)—is an autochthonous one, one that “transfer[s] every high ceremonial gesture or ritual [here, specifically, death, the lapsing from one life to the next] to the material sphere” (Bakhtin).

 

Works Cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. Print.  (pg.21)

Blake, William. “The Song of los.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print. (pg. 107-12)

Blake creates his own system of mythology in order to communicate his revolutionary message allegorically.  The characters’ meaning and symbolism constantly change through a complex web of relationships with each other and in the context of each prophecy.  While his mythology is an important tool for creating his own system, by incorporating Biblical figures into his writing, Blake breaks from his mythology to communicate through universally understood characters.  By modernizing Biblical characters, Blake mythologizes these figures to as existing outside the limits of historical time.  As mythological entities their symbolic value is more important than their specific actions as outlined in the Bible.

Returning to our earlier reading of Blake’s All Religions Are One, Blake rejects the idea of any individual religion having total authority and instead claims that there are no true differences between religions.  By making these Biblical figures contemporary with his mythological characters, he inserts his system of mythology in the religious sphere on equal footing with the most established religion in England.  Particularly, in Africa, he gives his own characters greater power than these pillars of the Christian faith as “Adam shuddered!” and “Noah faded!” in response to Urizen’s laws.  His mythology is no longer an isolated system or tool in Blake’s writing but a component of a universal religious system.

It is also worth noting which particular Biblical figures he co-opts into his mythological system.  The three men he alludes to in Africa, Adam, Noah, and Abram, all represent fatherhood:  Adam as the father of man, Noah as the only remaining father after the flood, and Abram as the father of the nations.  By placing each of these figures in a weak, responsive position, he emphasizes the unquestioned power of Urizen he seeks to create.  Then, this power dynamic between Urizen and man easily extends through their descendants to include every modern reader.  This allows him to present a mythological system that he discovered rather than created, as though he illuminates characters and relationships that shaped these figures of the past and continue to shape individuals in the present.

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