Saturday, January 29, 2011


In 1816 Thomas Butts is thought to have requested of Blake a series of illustrations for two poems by Milton: L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, which contrast the personality types or attitudes of one who is lively and gay with one who is meditative and pensive. So here was another opportunity for Blake to apply his imagination to subjects which he found endlessly fascinating - the life and work of his mentor Milton, and exploration and resolution of contrary positions.

Constellations - Cancer (The Crab), Gemini (The Twins), Orion, Taurus (The Bull), Aries (The Ram)

The final illustration of the series shows Milton in His Old Age since Blake inserted Milton into his own poem as a character. Blake made inscriptions to accompany each section of the poem that he was illustrating. You may read these in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake edited by David V. Erdman beginning on page 682. To locate this click on Blake's content on the sidebar of this blog, page down to close to bottom, click on 'Inscriptions and Notes On or For Pictures', page down to E682 in the margin, read 'Blake's manuscript notes accompanying his watercolors.'

The poem IL Penseroso ends with these lines:
167 "And may at last my weary age
168 Find out the peaceful hermitage,
169 The hairy gown and mossy cell,
170 Where I may sit and rightly spell
171 Of every star that Heav'n doth shew,
172 And every herb that sips the dew;
173 Till old experience do attain
174 To something like prophetic strain.
175 These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
176 And I with thee will choose to live."

Bette Charlène Werner in Blake's vision of the poetry of Milton: illustrations to six poems, wrote a chapter on Blake's Illustrations to these two poems. Here is some of what she says:
"The L'Allegro and Il Penseroso illustrations show the earthly life of Milton, a life Blake envisioned as leaving the poet unhappy though in heaven, his emanation (or his poetry) still unredeemed. Milton's life in Blake's eyes is a 'bright pilgrimage,' but an uncompleted journey. Its destination unachieved, the pilgrimage will not be taken up again until the future time when Blake himself, united in prophetic brotherhood with Milton and inspired by the fiery spirit of imagination, Los, straps on his golden sandal to walk froward through eternity. The Milton of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso illustrations has not yet progressed beyond the moony rest of the threefold Beulah into Eden. Blake emphasizes Milton's sleeping humanity in the series, while calling upon him to become 'the Awakener.' (page 146)
"In Blake's imagery he is a figure of humanity enclosed in the life of the five senses; his optic nerve, a hardened bone or black pebble on the beach, still opens within like a diamond that holds in it's hallowed center the heavens of bright eternity.
Blake closes his story of Milton's earthly life with a night scene instead of a dawn. The stars in Blake's imagery, as forms of fallen light, are frequently associated with constriction and confinement as they follow the strict order of mathematically defined pathways through the skies. Still, Blake like Milton, also thought of them as forming a golden chain "To bind the Body of Man to heaven from falling into the Abyss."
"Even as the stars in general are ambivalent images for Blake, the ones pictured here are particularly so. The constellation of Cancer, Gemini, Taurus, and Aries can be seen together in the sky of either winter or spring. There are suggestions of both in the picture, in which the winter mood of old age and night is brightened by the flower forms of spring. There is an auspicious note in the part of Orion's myth that tells of the cure of his blindness when he waded far into the sea until he finally reached the land where the sun rises." (page 164)

Four Zoas, Page 34, (E 321)
"For the Divine Lamb Even Jesus who is the Divine Vision
Permitted all lest Man should fall into Eternal Death
For when Luvah sunk down himself put on the robes of blood
Lest the state calld Luvah should cease. & the Divine Vision
Walked in robes of blood till he who slept should awake
Thus were the stars of heaven created like a golden chain
To bind the Body of Man to heaven from falling into the Abyss"

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