Bette Charlene Werner. Blake’s Vision of the Poetry of Milton. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1986. 320 pp., illus. $45.
Since 1980, Blake’s designs for the poetry of Milton have been the subject of books by Stephen Behrendt, Pamela Dunbar, and now Bette Charlene Werner. The most beautifully produced book is Behrendt’s, and Dunbar’s contains much useful information, but because of its ease of reference, and brief, sensitive interpretations, I find Werner’s book quietly impressive.
The structure which informs Werner’s study is based on the generally accepted idea that Blake saw his role vis à vis Milton as clarifying and purifying the visionary element in the poetry: to redeem the sixfold emanation, in this case the six poems by Milton that Blake chose to illustrate. Werner discusses the six poems in the order of Blake’s first treatment of them from 1801 to 1825: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle (Blake’s Comus designs); Paradise Lost; On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity; L’Allegro; Il Penseroso; and Paradise Regained. In cases where Blake produced more than one series of illustrations, such as Comus, Paradise Lost, and the Nativity Ode, Werner usually discusses the designs in tandem. She asserts that Blake’s ideas about Milton were re-thought over the years and it is important to view the distinctions between each complete series. Her overview states that Blake’s interpretations tend to become more affirmative in successive treatments of the same poem and also in subsequent series of illustrations. She sees Blake’s method as “contending with and discarding any obscuring layer of error and then highlighting the area where he finds the work’s essential validity.” Werner approaches each series with this consistent point of view.
Although her general interpretations of the Milton designs are not unusual and her style is unfailingly moderate, Werner’s consistent approach to each design gives such a close “reading” of visual detail that she often makes perceptive observations. For instance, she contrasts the Paradise Lost illustration Satan as a Toad at the Ear of Eve with Milton 38, noting similarities in the male pose and observing that “taken together, the two illustrations convey visually Blake’s understanding of sexuality’s dual nature, both its proximity to spirituality and its potential for precipitating a further fall into de-based carnality” (74).begin page 26 |
She has interesting things to say also about Blake’s depiction of Raphael in Raphael’s Entry into Paradise, noting that the cloud forms around the archangel seem to refute Milton’s estimation of the scene, Blake being out of sympathy with the Father’s objectives in book 5 of Paradise Lost. Werner also usefully corrects (in a footnote, 109) many critics’ ideas of whether the moon is waxing or waning in PL designs.
It is hard to get excited about Blake’s Milton designs in this book, because Werner’s observations in the wider scheme of things are always cautiously correct. However, one of her best sections is her discussion of The Spirit of Plato (L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, design 9), where perceptive detail bears out her statement that the design shows “the rich ambivalence” of Blake’s attitude toward Milton.
I wonder if this ambivalence isn’t also present in the illustrations to the Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. Werner suggests as much in comparing the Nativity Ode with Europe, and calling Blake’s poem a sardonic parody of Milton’s. What Werner does not say is that Blake’s illustrations to the Nativity Ode are surely among the most cluttered and least attractive of all Blake’s designs, and I wonder why we avoid commenting on aesthetic effect while we are attempting to be combination literary-and-art critics. It is easy to get lost in Minute Particulars.
Minute particulars are important in Werner’s book, and so I am going to be particularly minute and note here some bothersome inconsistencies. In discussing the upraised hands of the Lady in Comus 2H, Werner says the Lady is registering her “indecision.” However, the same gesture on the Attendant Spirit in Comus 1H is supposed to be “an attitude of gentle piety.” Now it cannot be both. Again, Werner refers to the Lady’s gesture in Comus 1B as an attitude of “openness” when it is clearly a gesture of protest (cf. Christ making the same gesture at the Banquet Temptation in Paradise Regained). And Mary in PR 12 is not really “raising her arms in freedom” but expressing astonishment. And it is a worm, not a snake around Adam in Elohim Creating Adam. Details!
Werner has adopted a rather unusual system for referring to illustrations in the text of the book: for example, the Comus illustrations are numbered one through sixteen, rather than 1-8 H (for Huntington set) and 1-8 B (for Boston set). This means that if one is looking for Comus with his Revellers (Boston) it is called illustration 9, The Lady’s Return to her Parents (Huntington) being illustration 8. Paradise Regained 12 (Fitzwilliam) is illustration 79. One must refer to the back of the book to find the illustration itself and its usual appellation. Once I got used to the system, I realized that the list of illustrations at the beginning of the book was in reality the finding list for the designs. In a book in which one is constantly having to flip back and forth to compare design and text, I think a system of putting similar subject designs on facing pages would have made the book easier to use. The notes, however, are conveniently placed at the end of each chapter, and there is a bibliography useful for both Blake and Milton studies. A good deal of careful scholarship lies behind this work. One can certainly recommend this book to anyone beginning a study of Blake’s Milton designs.