Prophecy and Class Consciousness
Behind Blake’s particular conception of prophecy there is another which arises from Milton’s but goes beyond it. Henry Parker had enunciated it in the Puritan revolution when he proclaimed that “vox populi was ever reverenced as Vox Dei”. This tradition was related also to a belief that “God hath chosen the weak things of this world to confound the things that are mighty” (1. Cor). When Milton interprets this text, as in his Treatise of Civil Power, it becomes a metaphor, a contrast between a laity’s conscience and the political authority of a state church.
More radical implications could, however, be found there. One tenet of the millenarian tradition which Milton ignores held that the poor would be God’s agents in the final crisis when they would actually supplant their superiors. “The voice that will come of Christ’s reigning,” Thomas Goodwin preached, “is like to begin from those that are multitude, that are so contemptible, especially in the eyes and account of Antichrist’s spirits and the prelacy.”
The idea was taken up by Leveller Richard Overton who writes “that it must be the poore, the simple and mean things of this earth that must confound the mighty and the strong”. When Overton voices these sentiments in An Appeale from the degenerate Representative Body the Commons of England … to the Body represented, the free people in general (1647), that is, to the rebellious rank and file of the New Model Army, we are dealing with ideas of prophecy, government, revolution, and indeed, “the people” which go far beyond the limits of Milton’s views.
The author of Areopagitica came to lose some of the enthusiasm of those early years when he had hoped all the Lord’s people might be prophets, but it should also be noted that he never considered all people to be the “Lord’s people”, but instead only the saintly elite of a reforming middle class – certainly never the broad audience addressed by Overton. It was inherent in the nature of Milton’s revolutionary faith that he could only become increasingly appalled at the claims made in God’s name by the untutored multitude.
Blake argues, consequently, that Milton must himself be redeemed; his perception of prophecy must be purged of its supernatural connotations and be both democratized and humanized. He dramatises the conversion in Milton where the poet “oft sat upon the Couch of Death & oft conversed/In visions & dream beatific with the Seven Angels of the Presence”.
Blake calls upon him to turn his back “upon these Heavens builded on cruelty”, that is, upon the privilege of an elite sanctioned by special access to divine wisdom. The angels explain, in a critique of such supernatural religion, that they only received their celestial or “Druid” form after Satan had “made himself a God &, destroyed the Human Form Divine”.
Blake’s true prophet must eschew Miltonic appeals to God and acknowledge an inspiration that derives from the “Human Form …combined in Freedom & holy Brotherhood”, which Blake interprets marginally as Parker’s “multitudes Vox Populi”. The metaphysical delusions that ascribe the truth to transcendent realms remove it from the reach of ordinary people. Blake brings heavenly inspiration back down to earth in order to democratise it and locate its prophetic impulse in the political clarity of the common man. For, he writes, “Every honest man is a Prophet he utters his opinion of both private & public matters Thus If you go on So the result is So”. Prophecy becomes the understanding of the ways of history by those who have no reason to distort. On this simple peg, William Blake will rest his harp.
Milton’s vision had been based upon a political idealism, which, as idealism, had been unconscious of its own class biases; Blake’s, as he expresses it in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, is class consciousness itself:
Does he who condemns poverty, and he who turns with abhorrence
From usury: feel the same passion or are they moved alike?
How can the giver of gifts experience the delights of the merchant?
How the industrious citizen the pains of the husbandman.
How different far the fat fed hireling with hollow drum;
Who buys whole corn fields into waste, and sings upon the heath:
How different their eye and ear! how different the world to them!
The world appears differently to those who would only live and labour in it, sharing its gifts, and to those merchants, users, and hirelings who view everything as commodities to be turned into profit. For the farmer, the corn field is his home, his community, his ancestors’ legacy, a cultivated and personalised bit of nature whose fruitfulness is his harvest of life.
For the hireling, it is just a piece of real estate, and its human families are only so many rents. The profiteers claim their gains in righteous complacency as the reward of the “industrious citizen” and, while turning abundance into waste and driving the poor into destitution, pass judgment on their want. Blake understood that such ideological reversals were at the heart of a culture built upon exploitation. “With what sense, “ he asks, “does the parson claim the labour of the farmer?” No sense at all, he suggests; its justification must be manufactured:
What are his nets & gins & traps. & how does he surround him
With cold floods of abstraction, and with forests of solitude
To build him castles and high spires. where kings & priests may dwell.
The English parson provides an apt symbol of the process by which exploitation is defended and mystified. He was usually the son of a local landlord who paid his son’s way through the university and then bestowed upon him a “living” provided by the tithes extracted from his tenant farmers. The parson’s right to the tenants’ earnings was guaranteed by the state into which the church was thoroughly integrated. With rare exceptions, such preachers would, in return, urge upon their parishioners belief in a divine sanction for the status quo. Thus they provided intellectual foundations for an order of privilege, building “castles & high spires. where kings & priests may dwell” (Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion).
Such a man, for example, was Blake’s enemy, Bishop Watson of Landaff, who, having become wealthy on tithes, was moved it preach his notorious sermon “On the Wisdom and Goodness of God in having made both Rich and Poor.” Blake lambasted the bishop’s Apology for the Bible, insisting that, since Christian ministers had degenerated into mere mouthpieces for the powerful, the prophetic spirit was henceforth to be found among radical unbelievers. “It appears to me Now that Tom Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop”, Blake concluded, but declined to publish his thoughts because “to defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life.”
Similar experiences with counter-revolutionary bishops had inspired the distinction which pervades Milton’s prose between the true prophet and those false prophets who had taunted Elijah and against who Christ had warned his apostles. To a great extent Blake’s ideological critique draws upon Milton’s ideas and images. From Milton he takes the attack on tithes and the denunciation of those “Dishonest Designing Knaves who in hopes of a good living adopt the State religion”.
Judging “that pride and covetousnesse are the sure markes of those false prophets which are to come,” in An Apology against a Pamphlet [Apology for Smectymnus] Milton castigates the worldliness of those bishops “Who possesse huge Benefices for lazie performances … Who ingrosse many pluralities under a non-resident and slubbring dispatch of soules” and turn the church from its task of spiritual edification to the gratification of the clergy’s own avarice and ambition. He also anticipated Blake’s attack on the collaboration of priests and tyrants in the image in Eikonoklastes of the Whore of Babylon (that “spiritual Babel” of the prelates) who fornicates with the kings of Europe, an image repeated in The Four Zoas where Blake depicts the church as “Harlot of the Kings of Earth”.
Liberty of Conscience – Political and Economic
If the language is the same, nevertheless the analysis diverges, with Blake going far beyond Milton’s antagonism toward Erastianism. For Milton, the literal enemy is “state religion,” the privileged status of the Anglican church, while Blake extends that opposition to all political perversions of intellect. Where Milton condemns the bishop’s subordination of a spiritual ministry to their pursuit of riches, Blake charges that all clamouring for profit, even within the secular spheres of merchant and banker, ultimately produces a corrupted culture.
Where Milton draws a line between true and false religion, Blake finds a line between classes. Thus Blake alleges in The Everlasting Gospel that the respectable tend to remould Christ in their own image. “Was Christ gentle,” he rebukes, “or did he/Give any marks of Gentility?” Different classes, he contends, worship what amount to different gods: “Both read the Bible day & night/But thou readst black where I read white.” “The Vision of Christ that thou dost see/Is my vision’s Greatest Enemy”.
The difference in emphasis reflects the poets’ dissimilar experiences in performing their prophetic functions. Milton had found his ability to instruct his people in liberty threatened by the spiritual hegemony of the state church with its nefarious censors who “had almost brought Religion to a kinde of trading monopoly.” Presumably, the end of ecclesiastical repression and the advent of religious toleration, a free trade in spiritual beliefs, would remove all obstacles to his vocation of enlightening his fellows.
Blake, as a man of no property bound to labour for others for his survival, found other barriers. His critique of culture must reflect at least in part the difficulties, described by David Erdman, that he had in pursuing prophetic art. Blake bemoaned his problems in the sarcasms of his Public Address and his annotations on Sir Joshua Reynolds of the Royal Academy of Art. Blake continually faced the choice of neglecting his art to support himself through engraving other people’s designs or submitting his radical vision to the curtailment of wealthy patrons.
He eschewed “Liberaility”, calling for “a Fair Price & Proportionate Value & a General demand for Art” and decrying the fact that such patrons “have left him to shift for himself, while others, more obedient to an employer’s opinions and directions, are employed”. To his dismay, the government refused his proposals for public subsidy of the arts; the general public, whom he saluted as “the true Encouragers of real Art”, lacked resources, and those affluent connoisseurs who had them, preferred innocuous landscapes and sycophantic portraits.
The indifference with which English society greeted Blake’s “Republican Art” was his equivalent to Milton’s having been “Church outed by the Prelats”. Since Blake now faced a censorship that no longer was confined to the deliberate repression of church and state, but was embedded in the functioning of a market society and particularly the requirement that those without property should sell their labour, he formulated the first economic, the first working-class critique of culture.
Revising Milton: Paradise Reloaded
Blake’s experience of working-class conditions led him beyond Milton’s analysis. The fact that by Blake’s time Puritanism had passed out of the camp of the devils into that of the ruling angels, where it became part of their artillery against the labourers, urged a thorough re-evaluation of the Miltonic vision. Blake views Milton, therefore, as a prophetic poet who, like Los, had become assimilated to Urizen. The bard of liberty, who had battled so zealously against bishops and kings, nevertheless had evolved a vision that was to serve as the covering cherub for a new set of oppressors, barring humanity’s re-entry into Eden via social revolution. Seeing the ruling-class elect “making War upon the Lambs Redeemed;/To perpetuate War & Glory, to perpetuate the Laws of Sin,” Blake exclaims that “Milton’s Religion is the cause” (Blake, Milton).
Blake’s allegation that Milton was of the devil’s party “without knowing it” can be understood in this light. Blake is not charging that Milton’s true views were repressed, but rather than his commitment to revolution was only partial. In mystifying the biases of his class, the “elect”, as universal and eternal truth, Milton succumbed to a false consciousness which led both to the contradictory allegiances of his poem and to the repressive implications of his ideology. Blake announces in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell his commitment to expunge these false doctrines which deface Milton’s prophetic creations by evaluating them from the perspective of Milton’s demonic enemies.
Blake appreciated Milton as a visionary poet and a revolutionary one, but repudiated the bias and limits of his revolution. Milton may have espoused a poetry of intellectual battle, but his polemic was double-edged, directed not only against the forces of feudalism and its Presbyterian compromisers, but also against the extreme left in which Blake found his own roots. The principles of Milton’s revolution were challenged in his own day by such lower-class radicals as the Levellers and Diggers, Blake’s real antecedents.
The principles of Miltonic liberty – free conscience and free trade – in Milton’s case had merely involved unexamined contradictions. By the nineteenth century, they had evolved into the politics of complete hypocrisy, the classical liberalism of the political economists. Although Milton’s struggle for civil liberties was still relevant, and his own rebellious spirit continued to inspire radicals, much of his liberal ideology, revolutionary in his own day, had since been assimilated by Blake’s reactionary opposition. The time had come for a new prophet.
Now the need for prophecy was particularly urgent because by the turn of the nineteenth century, the world view of the middle class was, for the first time, seriously impinging upon the consciousness of the workers themselves. In the previous century each class, existing in some considerable social isolation, had essentially retained its own distinctive life style and outlook.
The Anglican church had never really bothered to elicit the participation of the workers, who retained a basic orientation of “us” against “them”. Middle-class sobriety exerted little influence on those either above or below them. According to G. Rattray Taylor, it was during the years when Blake was writing his prophecies, from 1790 to 1810, that this situation began to undergo drastic change, and the pall of bourgeois morality spread over the entire culture. The Protestant ethic had originally evolved as the expression of a life style conforming to the interests of the bourgeoisie. Now, in its support for the Methodist campaign, the middle class was trying to impose “godly discipline” upon its employees.
Blake viewed with horror this encroachment of bourgeois attitudes upon the working class – attitudes which threatened to turn a generation of chimney sweepers into their own worst enemies. “I went to the Garden of Love,” he writes, “And saw what I never had seen:/A Chapel was built in the midst,/Where I used to play on the green.” Seeing the chapels, the factories and the “mind-forg’d manacles” of bourgeois ideology where they never had been before, Blake comprehended them as part of a common system.
The contraries of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience are already an expression of Blake’s recognition of a conflict of social perspectives, two cultures and even two Christianities whose assumptions clash in the poems. Thus we find, in ‘The Little Vagabond’, the alehouse of working-class culture with its warmth, its gaiety, its community, its fusion of body and spirit in sensuous exhilaration, set against the repressive church with its authoritarian, ascetic, and self-centred values.
Finding aspects of both cultures anticipated in the ideas of Milton, Blake sought to build his argument upon a dialectical analysis of the Puritan’s symbols. The difference was one of perspective here too. As a child of the bourgeoisie, Milton, critical thinker though he was, did not challenge its fundamental premise – class society itself. Raising all his profound questions within these constraints, he could only describe a fall which was a universal double bind requiring divine salvation. Blake, on the other hand, watching the intrusion of the bourgeois world view from the quite different perspective of a working-class culture, could see that fall as a historical development, could challenge its assumptions and prophesy its end.
Blake could watch capitalism’s growth as it drastically altered earlier modes of life. The relationship between labour and capital would not have been just a theoretical abstraction, for him; workers saw factories replace their little workshops and large estates their farms, observed their bosses moving into larger and larger establishments as a result of their toil, while they suffered in poverty. For the same reason, Marx could elaborate a whole social analysis on the growing power of capital because he saw it changing everything – environment, ideas, people themselves – and not as a fait accompli. When Milton first articulated the attitudes of the rising middle class, it was not at all clear what their dominance would imply. For Blake, watching the process from a different historical vantage point, its implications were becoming terrifyingly obvious.
Blake is often portrayed as an isolated visionary, but revolutionary prophets are never really originals. More often, they are the articulators of insights which have only circulated within a subculture for which they finally win recognition. If Blake’s tradition is hard to place, it is because he was, to a great extent, a spokesman for the inarticulate. His roots lie in a long underground tradition of radical Christianity in the leftist and working-class communities of London. Like Albion, “struggling” as he falls “to utter the voice of Man”, Blake gives his era’s most conscious expression to the horror of an anguished lower-class populace as capitalism attempted to swallow them into the vortexes of its own ideology.
Milton’s revival in Blake signified the need of a rising working class to confront and sort out the progressive and oppressive aspects of its legacy from the bourgeois revolution and its Christian traditions. That revival – of Milton in Blake and Milton through Blake – will, I believe, prove to be the enduring form of the Puritan poet’s artistic bequest long after his neo-orthodox apologists take their place on the shelves of infrequently circulating books in library basements. As for those who would have buried Milton earlier in the century, they lacked Blake’s dialectical insight into the fact, dramatised in the continual resurrections of his epic personages, that history not only buries the past, but also brings it back to life. Milton remains alive to us because we, like Blake, are still wrestling with his legacy, still battering against its obstacles and building upon its foundations.
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Such revivals have nothing in common with the faddism artificially stimulated by the market such as fashion’s periodic readjustment of the hemline, Madison Avenue’s various juiced-up versions of the “good old days”, or even academia’s fastening upon this or that kind of “relevance” through which to reinvent itself.
For the process underlying the revivals of Blake and Milton, one must look instead to the historical recrudescences such as the outbreak of the “spirit of 93” in the Paris Commune; the resurrection of Frederick Douglass and of Nat Turner since the rebellions of Selma and Harlem; the emergence of a host of once-forgotten women – from Mary Wollstonecraft to the suffragists – in the contemporary women’s movement; and the repeated return of the oft-proclaimed “outmoded nineteenth-century orthodoxies” of Karl Marx, despite recurrent and allegedly successful attempts to bury them.
There are traditions that have only a past, and there are traditions that have a future. Ironically, it was T.S. Eliot’s inability to distinguish between the two which led the notorious “traditionalist” to celebrate only the funeral of his culture in The Waste Land and to become a pioneer of modernist art, while Blake, alleged iconoclast, sang the resurrection and the life of a “wisdom of ages”.
Blake’s having consciously placed his relationship with Milton in a larger historical dialectic makes their relationship unlike any other literary alliance I can think of. Blake’s poetry cannot be comprehended outside its Miltonic context, and Milton is never better comprehended than through his follower. Milton and his characters walk again in the later poet’s works, where he continues Milton’s dialogue with the radicals in Paradise Lost, clarifying the implications of a polemic already begun and giving Milton’s leftist opposition the chance for a fuller and fairer rebuttal. Having once read Blake’s version, however, we can never read Milton’s epic in the same way again. Blake intensifies our awareness of its contradictions and redirects our sympathies. If, when we hear the words of Satan or Eve, we sometime think we are hearing Blake, it is because at that moment they are speaking for revolutionary forces that are actually reborn in Blake’s work. Because, as epic writers, Blake and Milton have articulated social forces beyond themselves, chronology at certain points becomes irrelevant, and these two amazing poets appear to speak as the great protagonists of each other’s poems.
The above article is an excerpt from War of Titans: Blake’s Critique of Milton and the Politics of Religion by Jackie DiSalvo. To read the full book please click here. Jackie DiSalvo is a professor at Baruch College, a member of the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, and a member of the Occupy Wall Street Labor Support/Outreach Working Group.