Monday, December 19, 2011


John Milton's poem Ode On the Morning of Christ's Nativity was illustrated twice by Blake: once in 1809 for Rev Thomas and once in 1815 for Thomas Butts. The third plate in the series, the old dragon, shows marked variation between the two series. Two of the passages in Milton's poem which are illustrated by Blake's pictures are from Book XVII and XVIII:

"With such a horrid clang
As on mount Sinai rang
While the red fire, and smouldring clouds out brake:
The aged Earth agast [ 160 ]
With terrour of that blast,
Shall from the surface to the center shake,
When at the worlds last session,
The dreadfull Judge in middle Air shall spread his throne."

"And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
But now begins; for from this happy day
Th' old Dragon under ground,
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And wrath to see his Kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly Horrour of his foulded tail."

In the picture for Butts, Blake seems to have used motifs from his own mythology to illustrate the underground dragon of Milton. The seven headed man holding the scepter and the sword is more clearly the seven Eyes of God through which humanity passes in the progression through history. Satan is portrayed in a transitional form between man and serpent. Going clockwise in the underground group (excluding Satan), upper left appears Enion/Tharmas, Urizen/Ahania follows, then Luvah/Vala, lower left would be Urthona/Los/Enitharmon. The transition from the underground serpent to the stars overhead is apparent.

The dominant theme of the picture is the contrast between the scene of peace and promise portrayed in the nativity scene above and the disorder and struggle represented by the characters underground.

As Milton says: "And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
But now begins"

The Thomas picture is also available in Wikimedia. For the most detail of both pictures visit the Blake Archive

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