Saturday, October 06, 2012


In his manuscript notes accompanying his watercolors Blake singles out these verses from Milton for his sixth illustration to Il Penseroso

Descriptions of Illustrations to Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso (E 684)
"And may at last my weary Age 
Find out the peaceful Hermitage   
The hairy Gown the mossy Cell 
Where I may sit & rightly spell
Of every Star that heavn doth shew
And every Herb that sips the dew 
Till old Experience do attain 
To somewhat like Prophetic strain"

Blake wrote: 
"Milton in his Old Age sitting in his Mossy Cell Contemplating the Constellations. surrounded by the Spirits of the Herbs & Flowers. bursts forth into a rapturous Prophetic Strain"
This illustration is divided practically in half, between the cave in which Milton sits and the outside in which the signs of the Zodiac are personified in the night sky. Since there is a lot that can be said about this image, only the upper part will be treated here.

Blake has pictured four constellations of the Zodiac in the sky. Cancer - the crab, Gemini - the twins, Taurus - the bull, and Aries - the ram. These are the first four signs of the Zodiac and appear in the winter sky. An astrology website describes them thus:

"One is the force or impulse of life itself (Aries) and can represent both collective (God) or singular (drop or ray of God) oneness. Two is base matter (Taurus), duality, or the feminine-receptive principle that uses or absorbs spirit to give it life and mind. Some would say that matter is condensed or slowed-down spirit and therefore represents the dying or degenerative principle. Three is mental activity or consciousness (Gemini) or the result of raw spirit or force (Aries) interacting with pure matter (Taurus). Aries is the father, Taurus is the mother, and Gemini is the child. Four is primal soul or memory (Cancer) or the result of spirit's infusion into matter."

Blake may have seen Urthona in Aries, Tharmas in Taurus, Luvah in Gemini, and Urizen in Cancer. The presence of the four Zoas in the heavens above Milton may be a symbol of maturity achieved by Milton in his old age.

Blake also pictures
the constellation Orion directly above Milton's head. The myth of Orion tells of a great hunter who was blinded by a vengeful king and had his sight restored by Helios the sun. Orion was assisted in seeking healing by Hephaestus, the smith and metalworker who resemble Blake's hero Los.  Milton who lost his natural sight when he was in his forties, had received the light of inspiration from God which allowed him to write his greatest poetry while sightless.

The women among the trees in the upper half of the picture are lamenting the fall from the Eternal realm which resulted in the creation of the stars. The stars for Blake were only the remnants of the light which had been lost when Albion turned away from his source. However, the stars and all creation although dimmed and obscured compared to Eternal realities are Sons of Los capable of '
Uttering prophecies & speaking instructive words to the sons Of men.'     
Jerusalem, Plate 59, (E 208)
"For the Veil of Vala which Albion cast into the Atlantic Deep
To catch the Souls of the Dead: began to Vegetate & Petrify
Around the Earth of Albion. among the Roots of his Tree
This Los formed into the Gates & mighty Wall, between the Oak    
Of Weeping & the Palm of Suffering beneath Albions Tomb,
Thus in process of time it became the beautiful Mundane Shell,
The Habitation of the Spectres of the Dead & the Place
Of Redemption & of awaking again into Eternity

For Four Universes round the Mundane Egg remain Chaotic          
One to the North; Urthona: One to the South; Urizen:
One to the East: Luvah: One to the West, Tharmas;
They are the Four Zoas that stood around the Throne Divine
Verulam: London: York & Edinburgh: their English names" 
Milton, Plate 25 [27] (E 123)  
"While Los calld his Sons around him to the Harvest & the Vintage.

Thou seest the Constellations in the deep & wondrous Night
They rise in order and continue their immortal courses
Upon the mountains & in vales with harp & heavenly song
With flute & clarion; with cups & measures filld with foaming wine.
Glittring the streams reflect the Vision of beatitude,           
And the calm Ocean joys beneath & smooths his awful waves!
Plate 26 [28]
These are the Sons of Los, & these the Labourers of the Vintage
Thou seest the gorgeous clothed Flies that dance & sport in summer
Upon the sunny brooks & meadows: every one the dance
Knows in its intricate mazes of delight artful to weave:
Each one to sound his instruments of music in the dance,      
To touch each other & recede; to cross & change & return
These are the Children of Los; thou seest the Trees on mountains
The wind blows heavy, loud they thunder thro' the darksom sky
Uttering prophecies & speaking instructive words to the sons
Of men: These are the Sons of Los! These the Visions of Eternity 

But we see only as it were the hem of their garments
When with our vegetable eyes we view these wond'rous Visions"

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