Sunday, August 23, 2020

Get through Blake (rapidly), and study Milton

Like many young English majors, I once "championed" William Blake. With the help of some perceptive mentors, however, I grew out of the enthusiasm.  Nevertheless, when tackling Milton, knowledge of Blake provides some traction: looking at Blake provides a bit of rudimentary knowledge combined with a pleasant experience of how to learn about poets. But readers should not take Blake too seriously, and the idea is to get through and over Blake as soon as possible.

Ergo, Blake first: A Blake Dictionary by S. Foster Damon is a useful resource. It is easy to read, not bogged down in theoretical language, and so on.

(Incidentally, Richard Kostelantez, who appears regularly in Emanations, was a student of Damon's.)

Next Milton:

Readers need to look at Milton in terms of the question "What can I read that will help me to understand Milton and Paradise Lost?" or "What do I need to know in order to understand Milton and Paradise Lost?"

The Bible
Tasso (especially Il Mondo Creato, and International Authors has a translation.)
World History
History of the Reformation
History of the Good Old Cause: English Civil Wars, Cromwell, the Commonwealth period, the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution
Theology: St. Augustine, Calvin, Arminius, Socinus, Antinomianism, Gnosticism (but be careful with Gnosticism, it is a heresy that Milton did not subscribe to).
Philosophy: Plato, Aristotle, Locke (and might as well take a glance at Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson)

And look at Milton himself. In the drama Comus, there is a fascinating debate between Comus and the character called Lady, which anticipates Satan's seduction of Eve in Paradise Lost. But in Comus Lady is not deceived by the deceiver. Mmm, interesting stuff... Read The Morning of Christ's Nativity and ask yourself, "There is a lot of pagan stuff in Milton's poetry! Is this Milton guy really a Christian, or is he perhaps practicing white magic?" Hmm...

It is very easy for us Americans to get into the spirit and the world view of Milton, you simply read what we call the "Great American Novel" (and we have three of them): The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. International authors offers an edition of The Scarlet Letter with my Afterword, which brings out all the history and theology I could otherwise set forth in detail here, and Milton gets some significant mentions.

There are a number of related posts in my blog. Some are a bit "condensed" but they hit on key issues. Google the blog title Highbrow, my name, and the words "Milton" or "Paradise Lost", and many of these posts will turn up.

As for scholarship and criticism:

Have a look at Damon's book on Blake, this will give you rapid entree into the theological issues and Biblical allusions in Blake that overlap with Milton. Also, Blake was very interested in Milton and was a perceptive reader, though he was sometimes painfully wrong. Blake wrote epics--of various length and various levels of completion--and his best (in my opinion) is titled Milton and is worth reading. Look at Damon's articles in A Blake Dictionary on Milton and Blake's epic Milton.

Christopher Hill, a trendy Marxist historian of the 1970s, has a fairly good book on Milton and Paradise Lost but it has some weaknesses and I'd skip it. Nevertheless, Hill is a very readable and instructive historian, and you can easily read his short history of 17th Century England: The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714.

You can spend a lot of time plowing through the Milton scholarship. OR, once you have a sense of Milton and the academic field of Milton studies, go to William Poole's Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost. Poole has read all the scholarship and he gives the significant bits proper mentions, meanwhile presenting a very clear picture of Milton and how Milton's preparation, experiences and scholarship contribute to the poem. In other words, you get not so much biography as a picture of the intelligence that put the poem together, and this knowledge yields all sorts of insights into what a reader is really looking at when he or she reads the poem.

And of course you must read  Paradise Lost, over and over again. 

Milton by William Blake

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Was disappointed by Blake's Milton poem .... seemed he wanted to flog Milton. I had been expecting a poet-to-poet grand confrontation, instead Blake gives Milton enough breath to murmur and annihilation :-(