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.