Description

The artist and poet William Blake (1757–1827) was moved, provoked and inspired by the poetry of John Milton, especially Paradise Lost (1667). In Milton, Blake conveys his intensely personal and sometimes bizarre responses to the writer and his work. He blends visionary language and vivid, muscular etchings to create an illuminated ‘Poem in 2 Books’. This was part of a group of Blake’s works known as the ‘Prophetic Books’, and evolved out of an earlier manuscript poem known as The Four Zoas.

In the poem, Milton embarks on an ‘immortal journey’ of self-discovery and renewal. His aim is to rescue Albion – an ancient name for Britain – using the power of the imagination (p. 3). Blake’s own body seems to become infused with Milton’s spirit, which enters through his left foot. Together, they then ‘walk forward thro’ Eternity’ (p. 19). Blake also interweaves aspects of his own life into the plot, including the time he spent in the village of Felpham in Sussex (1800–04), where he worked for the writer William Hayley and started to prepare this poem.

What is special about this copy of Milton?

This hand-coloured copy is one of only four in the world. The etched plates have been brushed over with vibrant watercolour paint, deep black ink and grey wash. The book was probably started in 1804 and the etching completed in 1811, although the images are watermarked 1808.

Blake and the hymn ‘Jerusalem’

The preface to Blake’s Milton includes a lyric poem beginning ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ (p. 1). This was set to music by Charles Hubert Parry in 1916, and became known as ‘Jerusalem’ – now one of the best-loved English hymns. Blake seems to have been inspired by the legend that the young Jesus visited England with his great-uncle Joseph of Arimathea. Blake asks if we can imagine building a new ‘Jerusalem’ – a kind of second Heaven – in England’s industrial landscape of ‘dark Satanic Mills’.

Which images are shown here?

  • Title page showing a naked man, perhaps a blend of Blake and Milton. The words at the bottom read ‘To Justify the Ways of God to Men’ (Plate 1), reminding us of Paradise Lost (1. l. 26). 
  • The Preface, with ‘Jerusalem’ (p. 2).
  • Milton sets out on his ‘immortal journey’ (p. 3).
  • The hero stands, nude and haloed, after casting off his robe (p. 13).
  • A falling star hits the left foot of William [Blake] (p. 29).
  • Blake’s younger brother Robert, who had died in 1787 (p. 33).
  • The final page: a tree-like nude female figure, with male figures on either side (p. 45).

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