William Blake’s Milton “Book the First” is introduced with images of Beulah and her daughters. This reminded me of the image of Oothoon surrounded by both her tormented lover and rapist. 

File Apr 04, 7 01 43 AM

Milton’s emanations are for Blake the earthly contradictions beheld in the “heavens of Albion,” (148). Death and annihilation are central themes for Blake, but as he wants us to envision a rape in describing Milton’s work, what does this mean for his subjective idealization and gazing upon the female body? The women are described as muses who’s experiences inspire the poetic genius. Within Blake’s system he realizes Christian morality in telling them to “record the journey of immortal Milton,” (148) in doing so attributes a normative role to the sex of the allegorical women characters; however, we also know from the Blake Dictionary that in Beulah, Blake also realizes “God’s favor” (Damon, Blake “BEULAH”, loc 1814) in terms of negotiating women’s sexual freedom, “thro’ your Realms of soft sexual delusions,/ Of varied beauty, to delight the wanderer and repose/ His burning thirst & freezing hunger!” (148). The union of the sexes that exists in the earthly, Beulah anticipates the “delight” of being raped.

Blake introduces the “Spectres of the dead” as a way of treating the problematic employment of female virtue-signaling, and thus satirizes Milton, a man who himself was arrested for political and social dissent, as a way of critiquing systems and the “false tongue” which “vegetated” the complacent minds of the French Revolution, both before and during the rise of Napoleon and Cromwell in England and Europe. Blake signifies “Paradise” and “Jerusalem” in naming the historical epoch, “Beneath your land of shadows,” (148) and also alludes to regicide, “of its sacrifices, and Its offerings,” (148), but this only comes after Blake evokes Palestine, the restored land of God’s empire, in forcing readers to confront the violent imagery of the daughters and their so-called, inspiring freedom. Why does Blake describe Milton’s self-annihilation? The alternative, which was describing Milton’s demise through political assassination, would have been perceived less effectively. The more material images of “descending” power, “nerves of my right arm,” and “portals of my brain,” are employing visceral and anatomical allusions to mock religion- as Milton’s Paradise Lost also describes Dante’s descending Satan’s upside-down limbs. Blake proceeds with a  “curse,” describing in biting tone reactions to Milton, “even till Jesus […] Became its prey […] and an atonement,” (148). Blake has a problem with how Milton is treated, but by mythologizing Christianity, “Jesus, the image of the Invisible God,” (148) he replaces modern treatment of the poet with the equal treatment Christians give to Satan casted down to earth. Religion and literature are intersecting objects of Blake’s social satire and history-myth system-building, but this cannot excuse the poet/author/engraver from subjecting the female body “Of terror & mild moony lustre,” (148) to his idealized representations of revolution, liberty, and inspiration, for male gazing, or for “the Poet’s Song,” (148). Political and religious expression is guaranteed in nations such as eighteenth-century England which so frequently overlooked the existences of individuals such as women and children, or merely saw them as contemporary subjects in the patriarchal traditions of white literature dominating continental Europe.

-Bradley Dexter Christian