Tag Archive: contraries

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.

In class on Wednesday, I had difficultly reconciling the apocalyptic revolution depicted in “A Song of Liberty” with its abrupt, triumphant ending. The poem’s allusions to the Book of Revelation notwithstanding, “Empire is no more! and now the lion & the wolf shall cease” is a very simplistic resolution to the violence, conflict and chaos of the rest of the poem (verse 20). Thinking about the poem’s position in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I began to wonder if Blake were inherently more interested in the immediate chaos of revolutions than their outcomes. Might the poem be reveling in its own chaos and that of the continental revolutions? Blake certainly seems to be displaying an anarchist streak.

I’d like to quickly contrast the depiction of revolution as apocalyptic in “A Song of Liberty” with the playwright Samuel Beckett’s depiction of a post-apocalyptic situation in Endgame. Although obviously Blake never read Beckett, I’m putting the two together because perception is hugely important in both their works.  There is also to my knowledge no text that better depicts the sheer banality of a dull round of being than Beckett’s. The following clip from a production of Endgame wasn’t my ideal choice, but it does address perception and convey Hamm and Clov’s dull round.

One of the consequences of the apocalypse in Endgame is the narrowing of the characters’ perceptions. Hamm has lost his sight and can’t move, while Clov cannot see anything clearly out of the windows. In contrast, an apocalyptic revolution for Blake seems to entail the complete opposite. In “A Song of Liberty,” the son of fire falling from the sky – the appearance of revolution – increases the perceptions of the human race. The narrator extorts the citizen of London to “enlarge thy countenance,” the Jew to “leave counting gold” and the African to return to his oil and wine (verse 12). This urge to abandon ethnic stereotypes suggests that revolution will enhance human perception  to a level where we no longer be confined by restricted modes of thinking. This might explain how the prophesied peace would be achieved. The apocalyptic revolution in the poem entails the destruction of established religion, the law and empire. Blake is suggesting that human perception will be expanded once the institutions that he believes limit it are gone.

Furthermore, the narrator’s journey through Hell or chaos throughout The Marriage of Heaven and Hell strongly suggests that the narrator’s experience of chaos/Hell as well as order/Heaven increases his perception and understanding. However, as the narrator spends almost all of his time in Hell, isn’t Blake suggesting that chaos is infinitely preferable to order, despite the fact that they are supposed to be in a marriage?

There’s more to be said here, but I’ll end on the heart of the issue. Blake seems to focus on the immediate chaos of revolution because he believes that the tearing down of old and corrupt establishments gives humanity a chance to see reality more clearly. Uncharacteristically, he seems to take the outcome of revolution as given in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Perhaps modern readers and artists have become much more concerned about the outcomes of revolutions and apocalypses with experience. How would Blake respond to depictions of apocalypse like Beckett’s, which suggests that chaos and destruction only make it harder to tell illusion from reality and friend from foe?

The Contrary States

For next Wednesday (9/11), students will analyze a poem from The Songs of Experience that has a “contrary” or negative twin poem in The Songs of Innocence.  How do these contrary poems/designs mutually inform, interrupt, or revise each other in a manner that is not apparent when these poems are read in isolation?

Alternatively, students can analyze a poem in The Songs of Experience that lacks a “contrary” in The Songs of Innocence.  Why are these non-contrarian poems significant in the context of the larger collection of songs?  How do these poems call into question Blake’s interpretive approach to opposition, negation, and dissonance?

Please focus on a pair of poems or one poem.  Categorize this post under “Experience, Earth, and Adulthood” and don’t forget to create interesting tags.


“Love, indeed, has its priests in the poets.”

– Søren Kierkegaard

The generative power of the system of contraries developed in William Blake’s work flows from a complex philosophical lineage. While it may seem counterintuitive to conceive how contradictory forces could act together productively, this very idea inundates Western thought. Hegel understood history as a dialectical development of man’s spirit, a progression “of the consciousness of Freedom”, that propels itself through time by the transformation of theses to antitheses, antitheses to the new theses ad infinitum.1 Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche believed “that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollinian and Dionysian duality,” characterized by the opposing forces of optimism and pessimism.2 Indeed, Blake stands in good company when he uses contraries to approach the radical ideals buried in the code of contradictions concealed in his work. To better understand how Blake intends to “transcend” the paradoxical coexistence of contraries, one might turn to yet another philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, and his unique conception of the self laid out in Sickness Unto Death, to grasp the generative power of contradictions seen in such pieces as The Songs of Innocence and Experience. There, Blake creates and destroys an idyllic world of blissful ignorance through contradictory passages intended to bring the reader to a reasonable and balanced comportment to the world. A close reading of the fundamental structure of the self proposed in Sickness helps to clarify how this message comes about in the juxtaposition of the first and second half of Songs.