Preface to Milton


AND did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

William Blake (1757-1827)

Written sometime between 1804 and 1808 the Preface to Milton originally appeared in William Blake's later work Milton. A lot has been written about the preface alone including many theses for doctorates and masters. Terms describing Blake range from madman and touched, to a Certified Poetic Genius and 'Blake, even more than Milton, is the poet of Righteous Fury.' At any rate he does not fit in well with other early Romantics like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge yet all their work developed in response to the French Revolution and all three writers were at first followers then later sickened by its violent excesses under the Terror and its returning to strong-man rule under Napoleon.

Some scholars have compared him to the ingenious composer Beethoven:

"In 1827 there died, undoubtedly unknown to each other, two plebeian Europeans of supreme originality: Ludwig van Beethoven and William Blake. Had they known of each other, they could still not have known how much of the future they contained and how alike they were in the quality of their personal force, their defiance of the age, and the fierce demands each had made on the human imagination. Beethoven's isolation was different. He was separated from society by his deafness, his pride, his awkward relations with women, relatives, patrons, inadequate musicians.

(Very much alike in his artistic independence and universality. Like Beethoven, Blake is)....

a pioneer Romantic of that heroic first generation which thought that the flames of the French Revolution would burn down all fetters. And like Beethoven, he asserts the creative freedom of the imagination within his work and makes a new world of thought out of it."

There is little doubt that Blake possessed a musical instinct in his youth and old age he spontaneously, when in company, sang melodies to his own lyrics. Though he had no formal musical knowledge and apparently no interest in musical thought many musicians who heard them set them down. A portion of the preface was set to music by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, in 1916 and orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar, in 1922. Today it is a familiar hymn called "Jerusalem" and often times confused with a very different Blake poem by the same name. You may be familiar with the hymn version from the movie "Chariots of Fire," or the earlier film of "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner." Most commonly known in England as an almost patriotic song sung in church or school. More about it has been written in the Jerusalem node.

Blakes ideas came from a new and strange world of thought indeed. Paradoxical in the sense that his narratives are so difficult as a direct result of simplification so great that our minds resist it because to Blake, part of Christ’s humanity was his use of a human language, shifting and figurative in its very nature. What James Joyce says so light heartedly Blake would have repeated with unmitigated audacity- he insisted nothing less of his readers than that they should devote their lives to the elucidation of his works. And so it seems from all the thoughts expounding exactly what Blake was saying here in a few deceptively simple stanzas. The meaning of the words he's woven together here is never given, and most readers might conclude that Blake is on a plane with the eccentric likes of hymnist John Newton or perhaps William Cowper. Founded on the thought that Jesus reached England in his life, the reader has only to examine that setting to conclude that one not only does not understand these words, but neither can one determine how they came from the same person as the words around them.

The preface to Milton, of which the poem is the concluding part, begins with this paragraph:

The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid, of Plato & Cicero, which all men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible; but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce, all will be set up right, & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men will hold their proper rank, & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakspeare & Milton were both curb'd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword.

Then after the preface the body of Milton begins with these lines:

    Daughters of Beulah! Muses who inspire the Poet's Song,
    Record the journey of immoral Milton thro' your Realms
    Of terror & mild moony lustre in soft sexual delusions
    Of varied beauty, to delight the wanderer and repose
    His burning thirst & freezing hunger!

You can see why some thought Blake mad of course, still his ability to write like this is quite impressive and when Blake is not writing poetry, he orates; and when he orates it is "the will trying to do the work of the imagination." Blake does not yield to Jesus but he creats Jesus in his own image. A lyrical first stanza begins the preface:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?

is so earnest a vision of a world other than the real industrial England that it has long been a hymn of millions of its working people.

A composition of prophecy, social criticism and biblical allusion, Milton is written in two books, (though he originally planned to have twelve) based on a mystical encounter with his favorite writer John Milton. The theme is the descent of Milton from heaven into Blake's body at a crucial point in Blake's life. The long narrative tells how the author of "Paradise Lost" came back from heaven and entered Blake's foot in the form of a comet. The five senses of the world tuned into a shoe, Blake tied the shoe and walked with the Spirit of Poetry to the City of Art.

Milton was first engraved by Blake in or shortly after 1808, although it bears the date 1804 on its title-page. By rejecting the contemporary methods and models of painting he created an art all his own by fusing poetry, engraving and book binding into a single expression, his method of "illuminated printing" a laborious engraving process. Blake said he received the inspiration for this technique from the spirit of his dead brother Robert, the only member of his family with whom he had common sympathies. The visions that were to bring him acclaim decades after his death dominated his day to day life and gave him a notoriety for being unreliable and tardy. He once wrote, "My abstract folly hurries me often away while I am at work, carrying me over mountains and valleys, which are not real, in a land of abstraction where spectres of the dead wander." His wife confided to a young friend, "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company, he is always in Paradise." One expert calls this "daydreaming to the point of genius." Yet his greatly treasured books and prints, were always merely vehicles for his intense, sometimes apocalyptic visions.

The mountains green are an allusion to the Garden of Eden in the Bible.... to the unfallen world of England's green and pleasant land. A poetic hope from Blake because he felt himself being slowly ground to death by his industrialized world, the brutal exploitation, the fires of the new industrial furnaces and the cries of the child laborers are always in his work. His poems and designs are meant to convey his spiritual vision beyond the factory system, the hideous new cities, the degradation of children for the sake of profit,and the petty crimes for which children could still be hanged.

He specifically alludes to this immediate fate of millions in the industrial England of the "dark satanic mills." The key characters, Countenance Divine , that populated the questions in the second stanza of his imaginative universe of course, come from the last chapters of Revelation, when John is brought up to a high place,upon our clouded hills, and shown a new heaven and new earth, and sees the City of God, the New Jerusalem, descending from heaven.

Blake was afraid that the human cost was too great for England to survive what he saw in the gray squalor of the Clydebank, the great industrial maw of Manchester and Liverpool, the slums and the broken families. His boyhood London was a filthy, dank and sooty place, a scene of political and social repression far from the green and pleasant land he dreamed about and aspired to with the his own personal doctrine that rationalism should be balanced by imagination.

The unceasing Mental Fight he speaks of in last verse included the intellectual development of science, as well as art which he so desired by reuniting England with Jerusalem on a truly revolutionary and early Christian religious basis. Positive at first that Britain would have a revolution like those in America and France, he finally came to a realization that that the only revolution that would embrace Britain as a whole was industrial, not political.

Born in 1757 on November 28th and for the most part a self-educated man (his only training was in engraving) William Blake, is perhaps the least understandable of the poets of the last four centuries. He falls into no school, neither chronologically nor categorically, of artists and undoubtedly is the reason as to why so much can be written about these four simple yet complex stanzas in a preface. Early on in his career as a printer, he supported himself as an engraver, because no one really wanted to listen to his poetry, and many people were reluctant to hire him to draw, paint, or etch, having had a considerable reputation as an oddball.

He shared no commonalities with contemporaries who later became famous -- Wordsworth, Coleridge, Robert Southey, Samuel Rogers and so on, he was equal parts eccentric, mystic, visionary, revolutionary, romantic and lunatic. Leaving no written poetry written after 1818, he remained active as an engraver and artist and among his greatest works of this later period are the illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy, the Book of Job, and Thornton's translation of Vergil, the last a set of charming woodcuts. After his death, on August 12, 1827, and that of his wife four years later, Blake's works were dispersed, some sadly may have been destroyed. Sources:


Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

Quote on Jerusalem imagery in early town planning:

Romanticism and Complexity Unlocking Language: Self-Similarity in Blake’s Jerusalem:

CST Approved

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