Tag Archive: slavery

Slavery as a Component of Milton

In response to kathcal,

I think that your connection between Milton and slave spirituals is not tenuous at all but, rather, quite an adept recognition. In fact, I would further argue that Milton: Book the First explores another form of slavery to which Blake frequently alludes: mental enslavement. Just as Blake disapproves of the institution of slavery, as is evident in many of his works, he also disapproves of the binding moral and logic-based laws of Urizen; such disapproval led him to put forward the idea of self-annihilation as a way of creating distance from the rational, systematized part of oneself. I’m curious about your claim that self-annihilation involves the abandonment, or sacrifice as you referred to it, of autonomy. Quite contrarily, I would argue that the act of self-annihilation enables one to become autonomous, The act of self-annihilation in and of itself is destructive but it doesn’t degrade the part of oneself that is intrinsically your own. Self-annihilation is a way of freeing oneself from Urizen’s ties and, on a more conceptual level, it is not the separating of the self into two parts, it is the final freeing of the self from a counterpart to which it was unceremoniously attached–Urizenic law.

Considering Milton in the context of slavery commentary, the engraving on Pg. 126 (shown below) takes on a double entendre of sorts. Milton’s personage, a sinewy character lunging forward and attacking Urizen dually suggests a break from his previous state of self and, more generally, from a state of subjugation and powerlessness. Certainly, the image of Milton is one of a man who has toiled laboriously, with brawny and defined muscles. One may even be as bold as to say that some of the markings on the back of Milton could be interpreted as scars from lashings by a whip. Thus, Milton gains a powerful, implicit jab at the slavery movement of the time while he furthers his contention imagistically that the self must be freed from Urizenic law to truly be capable of entering the “Kingdom of Heaven.”.

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The Perpetual Fall

In locating his allegorical universe (at least temporarily) in Africa for The Song of Los, Blake’s goal is to emphasize beginnings: the beginning of humanity, the beginning of slavery, the beginning of religion, and the beginning of the empty moral systems and laws that he abhors. He not only makes Adam and Noah contemporaries but also adds Moses, Abram (Abraham), and figures of Eastern religion to the cast of characters. The first four, of course, are Biblical characters whose individual histories are told in the book of Genesis, which means “beginnings.” Adam’s story is that of the Fall, but Blake reminds us that simply because Noah lived many years after Adam does not mean that the two figures’ tales are unrelated.

For the Flood is the symbol of another quasi-Fall, in which nearly the entire world is destroyed because of its sinfulness. Given this event’s proximity to original Creation in the Bible, we should be struck by how quickly humanity incurred the wrath of God. There is salvation for the righteous Noah and his family, but the emergence of the curse of Ham quickly associates sin even with Noah and his descendants – and thus the entire human race. If we consider that, according to Genesis, we are all descended from Noah, then we can conclude that all sin stems not from Adam, but from Noah.

Certainly this line of thinking would have been exploited by supporters of slavery, who twisted Biblical accounts of Ham and Noah to justify the exploitation of Africans but conveniently neglected their faith’s declaration that all men are sinners, perhaps insisting that Noah’s other lines maintained righteousness. Blake’s point is to direct his readers to the discrepancies in this point of view and to remind us that, according to both Adams’s and Noah’s stories, every man is fallen and must rely on God for salvation.

For Blake is working on a both a micro- and a macro- level in this poem. He zooms in to Africa to demonstrate how misinterpretation of the Bible or of God has led to horrors and corruption there, but connects the events on that continent to those in other locations – in the “garden of Eden,” “the mountains of Ararat,” “in the East,” and so on (101). In other words, he argues, the Fall is universal: it has occurred and is occurring everywhere, regardless of one’s religion or race. Time is not relevant in the context of sin and its consequent exploitation, and thus time cannot be a factor for those of us, like Blake, who seek to bring about the revolution that will ultimately end those actions and systems that constitute such corruption.

Recognizing the condition of enslavement to be unbounded by physical fetters, William Blake creates characters imbued in systemic institutions, first dictated by race in “The Little Black Boy,” then by gender roles in “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” Because his characters never successfully defy social expectations, they remain trapped in their oppressive conditions, repetitive existences exemplified by the conclusion, “Thus every morning wails Oothoon, but Theotormon sits/ Upon the margind ocean conversing with shadows dire” (“Visions of the Daughters of Albion” 11/8. 11-12. 65). This stagnation, however, allows readers to become cognizant of slavery’s limitations, freeing them from the system’s indoctrination and highlighting the need for social and political reform. Although Blake would surely balk at the idea of a methodology driving his work, if one existed, this technique would epitomize it: by narrating realistic experiences of figures steeped in slavery, Blake elicits a contrary response from his readers by awakening their minds to the inherent flaws of this same dull round of oppression and inequality.