Morton D. Paley, Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. x +323 pp. $72.
This book marks still another peak in Morton Paley’s studies of Blake, Coleridge, and other English poets and painters sublime and romantic. Although Paley knows enough about the subject to produce an encyclopedia or to qualify as one of James Thurber’s “get ready” men, Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry is a trim book with a compact argument. Taking apocalypse to be an uncovering of ultimate truths, with associated imagery of entrenched evil destructively removed; taking millenarian to refer specifically to the Second Coming of Christ; and considering the millennium as—for the Romantics—a less specifically defined final regenerate utopia of social or spiritual peace, Paley attests that the six major English Romantic poets all readily conceived works on apocalyptic revelation, but none found an unproblematic way to continue the narrative into utopian millennium.
An introduction surveys the pertinent biblical materials and such notable influences on the Romantics as Paradise Lost and Thomas Burnet’s Theory of the Earth. Early pages on Blake add the Swedenborgians, the notorious Richard Brothers, the lesser known Ralph Maher, and the provocation from Burke’s excoriation of Price’s tribute to the “false apocalypse” in France, with the lesser provocation of Malthus’s rebuttal to Godwin’s belief in progress. Thereafter, the book follows the main road of significant poems by the six major poets. The method is exegesis, line by line when needed, with attention to the figurative, thematic, and recurrent, such as plague, serpent, and chains, and to allusions explainable by historical context. For each work, early reviews are cited when informative.
Blake and Coleridge occupy the first half of the study, partly because they wrestled longest and hardest with the relation of Christianity to ultimate human destiny, partly begin page 25 | because they offer a full opportunity to relate prophetic and apocalyptic poetry to events in Britain and France between the fall of the Bastille and the fall of Napoleon. As if for convenience in giving Paley’s argument a narrative dimension, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell treats apocalypse and millennium as simultaneous, with only the appendage, A Song of Liberty, containing closure in a millennial dawn. Paley suggests that Blake, after this beginning in a stasis of contraries, breaks off The French Revolution with Book the First because of “the sheer recalcitrance of history”; proposes that no millennium is realized in America because slavery had not ended; and shows that in Europe Orc remains intensely ambiguous because the cyclic interferes with linear movement toward the utopian (as if the apocalyptic from America had reached Europe without the shackles of slavery, but had joined the ancient cyclic dance there). In contrast with the refusal of political events to fulfill prophecy, which brought to the poetry an increase in war, famine, plague, and fire instead of a quiet millennium, Blake broke off The Four Zoas, not so much because events had remained uncooperative, but because he was blessed with a religious conversion (identified in 1965 by Jean Hagstrum). With so much to explain, and with so many insights into particular lines and particular tropes, the chapter will close without mention of Fuseli. By concentrating on poetry, on words, Paley provides in this fine book a counterpart to The Apocalyptic Sublime of 1986 on paintings.
Blake was ready in 1804 to apply in Milton his new vision. He renewed attention to Swedenborg, perhaps through Charles Augustus Tulk (who awakened Coleridge both to Swedenborg and to Blake’s accomplishments), and gained new excitement from the electrical experiments, courage, and compassion of Thomas Birch. He could at last, to his own satisfaction, continue apocalypse into utopia. Here, Paley reminds the already anxious reader, Blake “continues to take both Milton and Wesley further than either would wish to go” (79). But the romantic project of celebrating a collective millennium has at this point been reduced to the union of Milton with the pre-pubescent Ololon, and simultaneously to domestic repose in the cottage of William and Catherine Blake. Romantic poetry provides this study with recurrent examples, as in Milton, of a thousand years indistinguishable from an infinite moment. One would not like to think it weariness from editing Jerusalem that accounts for the brevity of Paley’s appraisal, and not until the chapter on Shelley, that “Jerusalem devotes only the last four of its 100 plates of text and design to the millennium” (270-71).
In the opening pages of chapter 2 on Coleridge, he carefully analyzes the relation of the preternatural to prophetic apocalypse in “The Destiny of Nations” and other early poetry. If Coleridge does not in the poems most widely read today concentrate on the Book of Revelation or on Belshazzar or other apocalyptic topics in the Book of Daniel, he spent a lifetime concerned with such cruxes. Paley explicates the resultant early poetry. Coleridge, struggling over the relation of public fact to poetic invention, as in “Religious Musings,” like Blake casts contemporary events “in Prophetic and apocalyptic terms” (109); and like Blake, he encounters perverse resistance from events. Paley agrees with Thomas McFarland and others that the young rebel was much given to “the hysterical sublime.” He notes that Coleridge makes his heroic female figures more active than Blake’s but the poetic figure himself less active, “a Bardic celebrant, a seer of visions, a roving ambassador of Sensibility” (118). He notes that the private dell in Coleridge is sometimes millennial, even millenarian, but in other instances merely private.
The Napoleonic invasion of Switzerland curbed Coleridge’s apocalyptic excesses into the moderated strophes of “France: an Ode” and into renunciation of the curses he had “prophesied” in “Ode on the Departing Year,” but he reveled immediately in what Paley calls the “apocalyptic grotesque” of “Fire, Famine, and Slaughter,” “The Devil’s Thoughts” (with Southey), and the extravagantly hostile lampoon on Mackintosh, “The Two Round Spaces on the Tombstone.” In an example of Paley’s curbing of wit into mere truth, he observes that Coleridge in “Ode on the Departing Year,” with its rejection of monarchs such as the “insatiate begin page 26 | Hag” Catherine the Great, approaches the grotesque: “He may have intended an effect like Dante’s vision of Philip the Fair embracing the Whore of Babylon, but he sometimes achieved something closer to the caricatures of Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank” (127). Paley grants to Coleridge’s later marginalia and other prose jottings evidence of an interest in Revelation that he does not find in such later poems as “Limbo,” to which he gave attention in a wise book of 1996.
Acknowledging that the apocalyptic and millennial lend power to Wordsworth’s poems throughout his long career—and[e] can be uncovered in nearly all his adumbrations of peaceful rural life—Paley concentrates on how the two states are related in The Prelude. He renders a sensitive account of the discharged soldier episode; at his very best relates the apocalyptic parable of the stone and the shell to Burnet, destruction by deluge, and the Last Man narratives; is informed on the irresolute and ultimately disillusioned treatments of the French Revolution in Books IX-XI; is admirably subtle on the Simplon Pass, and acute on the allegory of Mt. Snowden, where apocalypse and millennium “exist in a perpetual interchange with each other” (188). Wordsworth’s internalizations of the apocalyptic in other poems are often too amorphous for Paley’s focused examination, but will be fodder for some less scrupulous critic who takes up the subject.
Byron often refers metaphorically to a giant steed from Revelation, but seldom makes it a central topic (193). The exception to such quick glances is course “Darkness,” which evokes comparison with other Last Man narratives (197-209). Paley takes seriously Lucifer’s meditations on Cuvier in Act II of Cain, and notes that Cain is more realistic than Shelley in reacting to apocalyptic knowledge; he dismisses Heaven and Earth from prolonged attention as “merely a disaster scenario” (209, 219). The chronology that assigns the last chapter to Keats creates an anti-climax. The two questions chiefly confronted are Keats’s interest in political ideas and events and the relation of the two abandoned Hyperion poems, the first a vision of progress, the second apocalyptic. To the thematic question—why no millennium?—Paley answers that a sequel to apocalypse as Keats presents it cannot be imagined. One can imagine a dedicated Keatsian finding the millennial elsewhere in Keats’s poetry unobstructed at least from interpretation, somewhat as one can imagine Victorianists becoming voluble if charged, as the Victorian poets are in the brief epilogue, with neglect of Revelation except in fictional wars of the worlds without the joy of millennium.
Before the anticlimax rises Shelley. Paley demonstrates the foreshadowing by Shelley’s apprentice works of the major poems to come. Queen Mab is “a rarity,” a “long millennial (not millenarian) poem” of slow growth toward perfection (225). A section on “Apocapolitics” studies the “rewriting” of Revelation in The Mask of Anarchy, with close attention to the title, the structure, the graphic images, the reversals of meaning, and the poet’s hesitant pointing toward a road from apocalypse to millennium. Within a series of perceptive comments, Paley proposes Mortimer’s Death on a Pale Horse as a better candidate than the possible Death on the Pale Horse of Benjamin West as pictorial source for Shelley’s Anarchy, “pale even to the lips,” on “a white horse, splashed with blood” (239). After the Masque, The Revolt of Islam serves largely to elucidate the heritage of images such as the serpent of revolution that links Blake, Coleridge, and Prometheus Unbound.
To Prometheus Unbound Paley devotes care just short of the reverential, for it “provides the most extensive treatment of the millennium to be written during the Romantic period” (253), “the most ambitious and least unsuccessful Romantic attempt to unite apocalypse and millennium” (275). He recognizes the simultaneity that allows the dawn of millennium before apocalypse has been fully realized (261), the amphisbaena’s annulling alternative to the ouroborous, and the cyclic that obstructs any assurance of sustained utopia. Although he does not go as far as some of us would in attributing to Asia the predominant power in attaining millennium, he declares Asia unlike Blake’s passive Jerusalem in initiating descent into the Cave of Demogorgon (261). He points more precisely than previous critics to the difficulties the “oratorio” of Act IV puts in the way of the more assured ending of Act III. A Shelleyan determined to explore beyond the reach of this book would give more space to Hellas.
Paley says nothing about the timeliness of his subject, but every student of Blake, Coleridge, The Prelude, Prometheus Unbound, and the Romantic period in England should avoid delay in studying this book, even if Clarendon’s price makes it easier to own in fancy than in fact.