Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. Angel of Apocalypse: Blake’s Idea of Milton. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1975. xxii + 322 pp. $15.00.
Wittreich has written a wonderfully old-fashioned book, although students who have gone to school with Bloom and Bush may think they are reading a book more revolutionary than it is. Blake’s idea of Milton, according to Wittreich, is that the great poet was an apocalyptic visionary whose deepest insight was depicted in the spiritual illumination of the Jesus of Paradise Regained. This transcendental experience of redemption allowed Milton to burst through the patterns of tradition, art, and constricting personal moralities to achieve the divine vision of revolutionary and transforming prophecy—and thus become, in a figure less metaphorical than one might suppose, an angel of apocalypse. Blake’s original perception of this initiatory and liberating experience revealed Milton’s revolutionary attitudes toward “all” artistic and intellectual traditions, and as an inspired, lifting purity of imagination, Blake’s perception of Milton “freed Blake from tyrannies of art and of history” (p. 231) and made Milton far otherwise than the Great Inhibitor. With that thesis, Wittreich’s book, somewhat unexpectedly, explores Blake’s achievement within the context of tradition, seeking to show not “how a recalcitrant poet withdrew from his cultural heritage but how a revolutionary artist [Blake] learned to use his heritage both creatively and subversively” (p. 69).
The most provocative chapter in the book, to my mind, is on “Milton as a Revolutionary,” following two chapters of exemplary analysis and criticism of “Blake’s Portrait and Portrayals of Milton” and “Blake’s Milton Illustrations.” Blake’s idea of Milton merits our attention, Wittreich says, because the comprehension of an entire age is summarized therein and because Blake embodies “truths about Milton repressed during the eighteenth century and still lost in the orthodoxies of modern criticism” (p. 148). Most generally, the proponents of these orthodoxies appear to be Eliot and Leavis, though closer to home, Wittreich cites the Victorian villainy of one of Robert West’s essays in which Milton is proclaimed “a superbly gifted confirmer of what his audience already believed and user of ways of thinking already established.” Opposed to that is a sentence by Marcuse arguing that an “artist’s invocation of orthodoxies” may well allow a poet to assume subversive attitudes toward them, followed by a telling point that on “virtually every occasion when he speaks of tradition and custom, [Milton] associates both with tyranny and error” (p. 149). Thus, the battle is joined, and what follows is a carefully argued and thoroughly researched discussion of how the “forms of poetry . . . may be used against the very systems that have disfigured them” (p. 155).
Wittreich’s apparent intellectual and emotional identification with Blake’s perception of Milton is a remarkable feat of imaginative criticism, stimulated by the admirable care of a serious scholar. But I, for one, would have preferred to read Plato on the Forms of things instead of Marcuse, who learned his metaphysics from Plato too. There is something trendy, not quite gratuitous, in such citations of our contemporary philosophers, but one finds support where one can, and Wittreich knows too much—much of it displayed—to be chastized for lack of classical reading. Marcuse, however, leads Wittreich into an oddity of thought that ought to be remarked: theology keeps turning into ideology (pp. 85, 190, 213, 241), a metamorphosis slippery at best, misleading at worst, and in any case a suspicious bit of rhetoric, leading Wittreich to say that Spenser, Milton’s celebrated teacher, “was locked into the orthodoxies from which Milton wished to liberate poetry” (p. 157); that the audience to whom the epic was addressed shifted from a social to a spiritual elite; and that Blake/Milton’s preference for the daughters of inspiration over the daughters of memory shifted epic theory from a theory of imitation to a theory of inspiration; and finally, that “in terms of ideology, Paradise Lost expresses the poet’s radicalism . . . in its rejection of epic structure” (p. 170). Now, all of this is effectively argued, often persuasive, but the old boys who still like their Plato (especially the Timaeus, Ion, and Symposium), the orphic theories of Chapman and Reynolds, the mystical theology of William Alabaster, and even Dryden have not yet been done to death. That Wittreich/Blake has made an important difference in the way one must think about Milton from now on is, however, certain.
Milton is of the devil’s party because he is “both a political radical and a religious dissenter” (p. 214) and because the Marriage embraces the double perspective of the prophetic poem, which means that what the Devil says “may be true from the perspective of history, but . . . not true from the perspective of eternity that the poet enjoys” (p. 215). This artistic strategy engages an ironic play between speakers and shifting perspectives, whereby “the Devil is to Blake what Milton’s Beelzebub is to Satan and what Satan sometimes is to Milton—a spokesman who never exhibits the same largeness of mind as the figure with whom he is identified” (p. 215). Milton, in short, knew what he was doing when he invested his Satan with those qualities of sublimity, majesty, and energy which Blake and Milton could admire in a moral character, like the Jesus of Paradise Regained but not the Satan of Paradise Lost. If Wittreich/Blake’s reading of Milton is true to Milton’s poems, then Blake is indeed Milton’s first “fit” reader, unlike Dryden and those others who have thought the Devil was Milton’s hero instead of Adam.
Wittreich’s book, as I have tried to indicate, is closely argued, making a lot of sense out of begin page 89 | the foam and rolling weed of Blake’s sea of words, as well as casting light on the pictorial language and meaning of Blake’s illustrations, forty-five of them reproduced in black and white on glossy paper. There is much in the book that I have not mentioned, the final chapter being richly suggestive, of Blake’s Milton as an attempt to mythologize “the decisive turning point of Milton’s life, which . . . comes with the writing of Paradise Regained” and to related “that moment of redemption to the renewal of the entire human race” (p. 243), and more, that “prophecy is a sublime allegory, . . . its reference points [being] . . . not history but the inner life of man” (p. 245). In fact, the final chapter is not so much epilogue as prologue to yet another book, that one being a promised full-scale commentary on Milton; and one may look forward to it as work that will be characterized, like Angel of Apocalypse, by rigor, strong points of view, dense documentation, and significance.