William Blake’s Epic Poems: Milton and Jerusalem

Enitharmon (spiritual beauty) plate 92, Jerusalem

(spiritual beauty)
plate 92, Jerusalem

Most people’s acquaintance with the poet William Blake is limited to a few poems like “Tyger, Tyger burning bright, in the forests of the night…” (Songs of Experience) and “Little lamb who made thee?” (Songs of Innocence). If you have lived in England you would also be familiar with the hymn “Jerusalem” (see below), but these are only tidbits of his poetry. His major epic poems, Milton and Jerusalem, are known only by a few but they are magnificent and repay diligent study. Admittedly they are very difficult to understand and we need help.   I found I could appreciate the basics of his poetry with some expert guidance.  Indispensable guides to reading Blake are: Blake’s Apocalypse by Harold Bloom, A Blake Dictionary by S. Foster Damon, Blake: Prophet Against Empire by David Erdman, and Fearful Symmetry by Northrop Frye (in that order of helpfulness). Texts below are from archive.org.  I hope this essay will at least whet your appetite for more Blake because he is an inspiring mystic of the first order.   I am probably breaching all the rules of blogging etiquette by writing 2200 words here, but at least half the words are Blake’s poetry so I ask the reader’s indulgence.

My first encounter with William Blake was singing this hymn, “Jerusalem” (found in the preface to Milton) at school morning assembly as a young teen in England:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land

There was something in that hymn that reached into the depth of my soul and stirred a mixture of pride, tears and longing. Jerusalem is the city of God come to earth, a utopian vision of peace and justice which Blake dared to hope for in a time of great upheaval and war.   It is truly a patriotic hymn in the best spiritual sense because it invokes Christ’s presence in England and the face of God smiling over the nation. But it is neither nationalistic nor militaristic. The fight is a mental one and the weapons are “arrows of desire” and “my sword … in my hand” which is his pen. If you read any of Blake’s major poems you will see that he was very much against empire building through military means and violence. The line that immediately follows, “would to God that all God’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29), shows Blake’s intent to stir the conscience of a nation against injustice and violence.

The epic poem, Milton, is about Blake’s own journey to artistic integrity and having the courage of his calling. Blake saw himself as the new Milton, whom he considered England’s greatest poet. But Milton had gone astray in elevating Reason above Imagination and Creativity, and Blake himself was charged to correct this error and allow his poetic imagination to claim the fullness of his life.  The autobiographical incident referred to within the poem was the patronage Blake received from William Hayley, who provided him a cottage by the sea at Felpham, ostensibly to provide a more conducive environment for Blake’s work. But Hayley pressured Blake to produce work that would be commercially pleasing and easy to sell. Blake was true to himself and rejected Hayley’s patronage, returning to London to follow his calling to a new form of art and poetry. Subsequently Hayley became the tempter Satan in the poem Milton. Many artists have experienced this tension between producing art for the marketplace and being true to one’s inner voice. It is a tension that we all live and work with. As a preacher I often faced a choice whether to confront issues honestly or whether to soft peddle them or avoid them all together. The theme of Milton is close to all of us as we deal with ethical questions in our line of work. Blake (and his wife Catherine) never saw any financial reward from his major poems, which were not appreciated until many years after their deaths. His struggle with his vocation is one of the most inspiring aspects of his poetry and art, challenging all of us to ask if we are following the inner voice of our calling.

Blake describes his inspiration to be the new Milton (almost Milton reincarnated) with this striking metaphor: Milton enters his foot.

But Milton entering my Foot, I saw in the nether
Regions of the Imagination ; also all men on Earth
And all in Heaven, saw in the nether regions of the Imagination,
In Ulro beneath Beulah, the vast breach of Milton’s descent.
(Plate 21:4-7)

Now Blake/Milton must complete the work left undone by the old Milton: he must accept and integrate his feminine side which is given the wonderful name, Ololon, in order to be a whole person (saved). The nightingale’s song heralds the coming of Ololon to earth to be united with Blake/Milton (Plate 31:28-40):

Thou hearest the Nightingale begin the Song of Spring:
The Lark sitting upon his earthly bed, just as the morn
Appears, listens silent, then springing from the waving Cornfield! loud
He leads the Choir of Day: trill, trill, trill, trill,
Mounting upon the wings of light into the Great Expanse,
Reechoing against the lovely blue & shining heavenly Shell.
His little throat labours with inspiration; every feather
On throat & breast & wings vibrates with the effluence Divine:
All Nature listens silent to him, & the awful Sun
Stands still upon the Mountain looking on this little Bird
With eyes of soft humility & wonder, love & awe.
…This is a Vision of the Lamentation of Beulah over Ololon.

Ololon represents Milton’s feminine side as well as the women close to Milton (his three wives and three daughters).  Milton confronts his own errors and shadow side, and is united with the Feminine Ololon. The union is described in terms of the union of love and wisdom, but then immediately becomes symbolic of the wider union of Christ with humankind (Albion) (plate 42:7-22):

Then as a Moony Ark Ololon descended to Felpham’s Vales,
In clouds of blood, in streams of gore, with dreadful thunderings.
Into the Fires of Intellect that rejoic’d in Felpham’s Vale
Around the Starry Eight: with one accord the Starry Eight became
One Man, Jesus the Saviour, wonderful! round his limbs
The Clouds of Ololon folded as a Garment dipped in blood,
Written within & without in woven letters …
And the Immortal Four in whom the Twenty- four appear Four-fold
Arose around Albion’s body: Jesus wept, & walked forth
From Felpham’s Vale clothed in Clouds of blood, to enter into
Albion’s Bosom, the bosom of death, & the Four surrounded him
In the Column of Fire in Felpham’s Vale: then to their mouths the Four
Applied their Four Trumpets, & then sounded to the Four winds.

Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (its full title)
The union of Christ with humankind is the goal of the much longer epic poem, Jerusalem (99 plates). Blake’s argument is that the human is fallen because he is divided. The four aspects of human personality are divided from one another: reason (Urizen), creativity or imagination (Urthona), emotions (Luvah), and body (Tharmas). Only when these are integrated is the human saved and this is the work of the Savior Jesus, who is the divine creativity. In Christ the human and the divine are not radically divided (dualistic). The divine is united with the human being: this is shown by God becoming human in Jesus. “God became as we are that we might become as God is” (a quote from St. Irenaeus) is a thought central to Blake’s faith. Even though many critics, especially Bloom, deny that Blake was a mystic, this line of thought alone qualifies him as a mystic, since the divinization of the human is a central idea in Christian mystical theology.

Jerusalem is an Apocalypse, being based on the Biblical books, Ezekiel and Revelation. There are similarities in structure, symbolic language, imagery and hidden meanings. In a mind-blowing way Blake weaves together Biblical stories and symbolism, Norse and Druidic mythology, current events, personal biography, and his own English cultural mythology and personal faith to create this major epic poem. The main theme is the fallen, divided state of humankind, and how that state is redeemed through Christ.   The ways of legalism and vengeance must give way to forgiveness and mercy. There is an eloquent cry against vengeance at plate 45:29-38, where Los (artistic creativity and imagination) cries passionately:

What shall I do? what could I do, if I could find these Criminals?
I could not dare to take vengeance: for all things are so constructed
And builded by the Divine hand that the sinner shall always escape,
And he who takes vengeance alone is the criminal of Providence:
If I should dare to lay my finger on a grain of sand
In way of vengeance, I punish the already punish’d; O whom
Should I pity if I pity not the sinner who is gone astray?
O Albion, if thou takest vengeance, if thou revengest thy wrongs,
Thou art for ever lost! What can I do to hinder the Sons
Of Albion from taking vengeance? or how shall I them perswade?
So spoke Los, travelling thro’ darkness & horrid solitude

Blake is indeed a “prophet against empire” (to quote the title of David Erdman’s book) since his was a minority voice against Britain’s wars with France and America. Harold Bloom writes that Ephesians 4:26 could be the motto of the whole poem: “But to record the Sin for a reproach: to let the Sun go down in a remembrance of the Sin; is a Woe & a Horror” (plate 50:26-29). Repressed anger is the cause of vengeance seeking. Strikingly Blake identifies the cause of war as perverted sexual aggression (Plate 68). Men do not fulfill their sexual desires in a loving way, so they turn to violence.

Blake was disillusioned with the Church of England since it had capitulated to the Age of Reason, being too rational and reasonable, not imaginative nor creative, too aligned with the status quo, lacking the prophetic stance against war and greed. Blake defines his Christian faith in plate 77.

Devils are False Religions.
” Saul, Saul, Why persecutest thou me? “

I stood among my valleys of the south,
And saw a flame of fire, even as a Wheel
Of fire surrounding all the heavens: it went
From west to east against the current of
Creation, and devour’d all things in its loud
Fury & thundering course round heaven & earth.
By it the Sun was roll’d into an orb:
By it the Moon faded into a globe,
travelling thro the night; for from its dire
And restless fury Man himself shrunk up
Into a little root a fathom long.
And I asked a Watcher & a Holy-One
Its Name? he answered: It is the Wheel of Religion.
I wept & said: Is this the law of Jesus,
This terrible devouring sword turning every way?
He answer’d: Jesus died because he strove
Against the current of this Wheel: its Name
Is Caiaphas, the dark Preacher of Death,
Of sin, of sorrow, & of punishment:
Opposing Nature! It is Natural Religion.

But Jesus is the bright Preacher of Life,
Creating Nature from this fiery Law,
By self-denial & forgiveness of Sin.
Go therefore, cast out devils in Christ’s name,
Heal thou the sick of spiritual disease,
Pity the evil, for thou art not sent
To smite with terror & with punishments
Those that are sick, like to the Pharisees,
Crucifying, & encompassing sea & land
For proselytes to tyranny & wrath.
But to the Publicans & Harlots go!
Teach them True Happiness, but let no curse
Go forth out of thy mouth to blight their peace.
For Hell is open’d to Heaven: thine eyes beheld
The dungeons burst & the Prisoners set free.

Towards the end of the poem (plate 91) Blake proclaims his Christian humanism where the only God is to be seen in humanity. The divine and human are truly one. Loving God and loving neighbor are the same.

Go, tell them that the Worship of God, is honouring his gifts
In other men: & loving the greatest men best, each according
To his Genius, which is the Holy Ghost in Man; there is no other
God, than that God who is the intellectual fountain of Humanity.

…He who would see the Divinity must see him in his Children,
One first, in friendship & love: then a Divine Family, & in the midst
Jesus will appear; so he who wishes to see a Vision, a perfect Whole,
Must see it in its Minute Particulars…

Does not Jesus preach a similar message in Matthew 25:40, where he says “in as much as you fed, clothed, visited the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me”?

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
This entry was posted in Art and Spirituality, Book reviews, Mysticism, Spirituality and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to William Blake’s Epic Poems: Milton and Jerusalem

  1. Pingback: “The Still Point” Annual Review | The Still Point

  2. frank mello says:

    Beautifully composed, John.
    In High School I copied some of the plates…God creating
    a mountain with the use of his right index and middle fingers
    to form a mountain peak. I was trying to impress that I had read some of Blake’s poetry.

    Peace. Hope and Joy, Frank.

  3. Blake is not a mystic. He is a visionary which is quite different

    • John Fisk says:

      Thanks for your comment. “Mystic” is one of those words easily misunderstood because it has been used in so many ways. I am using it in the context of the Christian mystical tradition as described by Bernard McGinn in his History of Western Christian Mysticism. This tradition includes people like Origen, Bernard of Clairvaux, Dionysius, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Simone Weil, Teilhard De Chardin, Thomas Merton. it is a wide-ranging tradition and includes visionaries. S. Foster Damon considered Blake stood in this tradition (see “A Blake Dictionary: Mysticism). So many of Blake’s thoughts echo this tradition. For example, the lines from Jerusalem, “O Saviour, pour upon me thy spirit of meekness and love: Annihilate the Selfhood in me: Be thou all my life” echo the central theme of this tradition, union with the divine. Catherine of Genoa and others speak of annihilation of the self as the means to this union. Many mystics have stood at the edge of their religious tradition and paid a price for being prophets, as Blake did.

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