Blake’s Left Foot: William Blake and how to enter new States, by Jennifer Keith

“And did those Feet?” Radical incarnation and the Spirituality of Physiology in Blake’s Milton 

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Introduction: The Mental Traveller

In a work with the spiritual aspirations of Blake’s Milton, the pedestrian topic of feet may seem less than deserving of critical attention, but because Blake himself repeatedly focuses on the foot in his brief epic, surely the reader should attend to this lowest part of human anatomy.

As an anatomical feature, the foot automatically assumes importance given Blake’s declaration in Milton that “more extensive / Than any other earthly things, are Mans earthly lineaments.” In verses noted for their narrative convolutions and complex imagery, Blake’s poetic feet figure among Milton‘s most memorable fancies: “covered with Human gore,” Zelophehad’s Daughters’ feet treadle the loom (29.58); a “Vegetable World” appears on Blake’s left foot (21.12); and Albion’s enormous feet cover a good portion of southern England (39.36-40).

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Where stars and feet collide: “feet in motion, with the sole (perhaps a pun on soul) exposed”. All our meaning, and our metaphors, come through our body. As artist Christopher Bucklow notes, “there are deep metaphorical strata, issuing from our experience of embodiedness in the world, which underpin both the waking and the sleeping mind” (‘The Water Margin: An Interpretative Index of Metaphors’, in Nantucket Sleighride, 2017, p. 4). See also Lakoff and Johnson’s seminal, to use another metaphor, work, Metaphors We Live By).

Carefully delineated feet – particularly feet in motion with the sole (perhaps a pun on soul) exposed – pervade Milton‘s designs as well. David V. Erdman and W. J. T. Mitchell have examined some of the implications of the feet that wander Milton’s designs, but little attention has been given to the central thematic importance of feet to all of Milton.

S. Foster Damon briefly discussed the symbolic relevance of feet in Blake’s work. In A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William BlakeDamon observes the foot’s importance as the “lowest part of the body” and thus it represents its “physical aspects”. The foot’s more elaborate symbolic associations were suggested to him, Damon adds, by Dr. Merrill Patterson:

The hands and feet might fall into the fourfold system, the right hand being North; the left hand, East; the left foot, South; and the right foot, West. This theory explains the descent of Milton into Blake’s left foot, which is under Urizen … Blake was influenced more by Milton’s ideas than even his subject matter, his epical sweep, and his poetic style. Milton was written to correct that poet’s ideas. Thus it is that Milton enters Blake through the foot ascribed to Urizen; and it should be noted that Milton’s chief antagonist in Blake’s poem is Urizen. Therefore Blake’s emphasis on his left foot is a statement that Milton became part of Blake primarily through his ideas.

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Our body compass: “The hands and feet might fall into the fourfold system, the right hand being North; the left hand, East; the left foot, South; and the right foot, West. This theory explains the descent of Milton into Blake’s left foot, which is under Urizen”.

Elsewhere, their thematic importance in Blake’s poetry appears in a footnote (no pun intended!) to Nancy Goslee’s article on the Jerusalem stanzas (‘”In Englands green & pleasant Land”: The Building of Vision in Blake’s Stanzas from Milton,’ Studies in Romanticism 13). Goslee notes John E. Grant’s observation that in Milton “Blake focuses sharply on the feet that repeatedly indicate encounters of one realm of existence with another.”

Such ontological encounters are no small issue for Blake’s poetry. Milton’s stepping feet embody the epistemological solution to the ontological crisis of spirituality in a human body, or, as Alicia Ostriker puts it, “Milton records the experience of vision itself” (Vision and Verse in William Blake, p. 186). The work’s organizing epistemological principle – figurative cognition – is repeated in these feet that figure imaginative progress, that which Grant calls “encounters of one realm of existence with another”.

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“Encounters of one realm of existence with another”. In Milton, Blake provides a ‘reverse’ image of the star of Milton falling, and captions it ‘Robert’ (the name of his beloved younger brother who had died in 1787). That is to say, the spirit of Robert (or Milton) is entering this world from the other world – like entering a door (see also the frontispiece to Jerusalem, also on the threshold, one ‘foot’ in this world, one entering the Other). Feet, in other words, allow us to move States.

Stepping feet mark the place where the poet-prophet highlights the contraries of fallen existence with the divine – for with feet the human contacts the material world and with feet the human may stand upright, physically and spiritually, to cross the threshold from one vision to another: “He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly / He shall dwell on high” (Isaiah 33:15-16).

Perhaps critics have disregarded Milton‘s feet as too obvious and hence unwritable a symbol of lowly corporeal nature; however, feet ground and extend some chief thematic issues in the poem. Feet figure the dissemination of prophetic perception, like those feet heralded in the book of Isaiah (52:7): “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings” (see also Romans 10:15: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!”).

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“More extensive / Than any other earthly things, are Mans earthly lineaments.” The whole field of the universe is contained and embodied within the body-field of the human form. As Eckhart Tolle has recently noted, “do not turn your attention elsewhere in your search for the Truth, for it is nowhere else to be found but within your body” (‘Sermon on the Body’, The Power of Now). Most religious traditions have gone terribly wrong in seeking to dissociate ourselves from our body, mistaking the left hemispheric representation or “idea” of the body, for the living eternal form or morphogenetic field which continually generates and regenerates – continually resurrects – the body. The human form contains within itself portals into eternity, as Blake understood. Indeed, the human body is itself a portal into eternity. If you look through and not with the body.

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“And did those feet in ancient time”: Reading Milton‘s Verbal Feet

Blake’s verbal feet inevitably pun on the sense of metrical feet. The septenarii in Milton are perhaps the best choice of English feet for disseminating the message of spiritual salvation in their duplication of the demotic and spiritual rhythms of biblical verse, popular ballads, and their conjunction of the three- and four-beat lines of eighteenth-century hymns. Blake’s virtuoso stanzas in Milton‘s Preface use another metrical basis, however. Moving in “ancient [English] time” – that is, the Old English four-foot line – they describe the steps of divine feet in an England of the golden age:

Screenshot 2022-06-23 at 16.54.32And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon Englands mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On Englands pleasant pastures seen! (1.1-4)

The speaker here expresses wonder at a divine presence situated in the earthly, human realm. Goslee explains that the feet in this first stanza situate Christ in a “temporal landscape” and signify that “the singer, lower in the landscape, can glimpse only the feet, or the figure itself is vast enough to use mountains as stepping stones.”‘

Such is the vision of feet in Zechariah (14:4): “And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.”

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“the singer, lower in the landscape, can glimpse only the feet, or the figure itself is vast enough to use mountains as stepping stones.”‘ Image: Angel of the Revelation, by William Blake (c. 1803–05)

The stanzas’ literally narrow view of divine footsteps underscores at the very beginning of Milton the severe limitations of the natural eye and yet its ability to emerge with an awareness of spirituality within such limits: “These the Visions of Eternity / But we see only as it were the hem of their garments / When with our vegetable eyes we view these wondrous Visions” (26.10-12).

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Very ‘moving’ – as indeed feet themselves are. Meter and metrical ‘feet’ are part of the body of the poem, part of its breathing, embodied, transcendental form. They convey movement, as feet do. This verse about feet is itself written in iambic tetrameter, using a trochaic rhythm – terms which are also rooted in the body: ‘iamb’ means ‘to put forth’ (as Blake’s stepping figure is doing); ‘trochee’ literally means “a running (foot),” from trekhein “to run” (a trochee is a foot consisting of one long or stressed syllable followed by one short or unstressed syllable), and “tetra” means four (as in fingers on a hand or toes on a foot). Note the ‘heart-beat’ nature and ‘feel’ of this meter, and what to does to your heartbeat and ‘feel’. And also how Blake cleverly double-steps this meter at the start of the second line (“walk-up-on”), to suggest the line itself tripping and moving. This is not only a poem about feet, and incarnation, but about what feet have to walk on – it reveals the radical (that is, metaphorical) nature of place, of location – of state, and of the possibility of changing that state, shifting from literal back to metaphorical.

Thematically, this view of divine perambulation asserts the poet’s conviction in the possibility of human existence on earth in a state of spiritual purity. Moreover, the militant speaker of the third and fourth stanzas believes this purity is recoverable, presumably for the audience of Milton:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land. (1.13-16)

As the first stanza wonders at the juxtaposition of spiritual and fallen realms (the divine figure and the earth), throughout Milton, Blake yokes them to build an imaginative (hence spiritual) perception in his readers to restore the Jerusalem he envisions in stanza four.

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Blake’s “Mental Travellers” are often depicted embarking on journeys or pilgrimages, or in the midpoint of them: from the Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress, to Milton and The Divine Comedy, taking “the first step” is often both symbolically and literally necessary (“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, counsels Laozi). Journeys are often hazardous (as the middle image, above, suggests – we therefore need to put our best foot forward, and always remain grounded.

Aside from acts of singing and speech-making, all major narrative actions in Milton directly involve the feet, incorporating the long-standing literary motif of a journey or pilgrimage, populated by Blakean “wanderers” and “travellers.” Insisting on palpable walking in the midst of a concept innately inconceivable, Blake describes infinity in terms of traveling:

The nature of infinity is this: That everything has its

Own Vortex, and when once a traveller thro’ Eternity

Has pass’d that Vortex, he perceives it roll back behind

His path, into a globe itself infolding like a sun,

Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty,

While he keeps onwards in his wondrous journey on the earth. (15.21-26)

Human figures are frequently described as walking. When entering his shadow, Milton walks in Eden accompanied by the Seven Angels. The entire vision of the poem takes place while Blake is “Walking in [his] Cottage Garden”. And Los, speaking through Blake, announces: “I in Six Thousand Years walk up and down”. Stepping so frequently and at such significant junctures, feet propel the characters’ spiritual progress towards self-annihilation.

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Blake walking (left foot forward) in his cottage at Felpham, where Ololon, Milton’s emanation, is descending (also left foot forward) to meet him. They all need to “touch ground”, which is why we’re here. It’s the place where domains and “realms of existence” encounter and interpenetrate each other (Image: Milton a Poem, plate 36).

Milton’s most unusual descriptions of feet involve their descent from the cosmos to the ground. One of the most striking descents occurs when Milton, who has “walkd about in Eternity / One hundred years, pondring the intricate mazes of Providence”, lands on earth within Blake’s foot:

But Milton entering my Foot; I saw in the nether

Regions of the Imagination; also all men on Earth,

And all in Heaven, saw in the nether regions of the Imagination

In Ulro beneath Beulah, the vast breach of Milton’s descent. (21.4-7)

In this pedestrian contact, Milton and Blake work through their poetic-prophetic development, following the paradigm of spirituality in the divine stepping feet of the Preface.

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Grounded: Blake’s experience of the spirit of Milton suddenly entering this dimension through his left foot while he was in Felpham was simultaneously spiritual, geographical, physiological, and neurological. It entered through all of the four Zoa domains. As psychiatrist and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist notes, Blake clearly recorded the event when he felt the inspiring force of Milton entering his body through the left tarsus, “thereby gaining literally access to the right hemisphere” (The Master and his Emissary, p. 379; each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body, and networks of the right brain, specifically to do with inspiration, imagination, and receptivity to others, are neurologically connected to the instep of the left foot). This suggests an instance of actual neuropsychological experience, McGilchrist suggests, where the left side of the body is directly correlated to specific areas in the right hemisphere. Indeed, “so thunder-struck was he by the experience,” McGilchrist adds, “that fortunately he illustrated the event” (ibid., p. 379).

Significantly, this contact opens for Blake’s visionary eye “the nether regions of the Imagination,” just as earlier, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the poet used his feet to launch his first “Memorable Fancy” to renovate false religious belief – “walking among the fires of hell.”

In Plate 15 of Milton, Blake describes the descent of his own foot to the ground as Milton enters into it; thus even Blake’s mundane motion of walking serves as a microcosm of Milton’s supernatural achievement. When Milton enters the character Blake’s foot, Blake underscores the imaginative significance of this contact, by pointing out his own simultaneous artistic contact with the ground: Milton reaches “Albions land: / Which is this earth of Vegetation on which now I write” (14.40-41).

Not all of the characters are as adept in using their feet as are Blake and Milton. Grotesque and inept “walking” characterizes the actions and spirituality of certain figures. “How red the sons & daughters of Luvah!” exclaims the poet, “here they tread the grapes. Laughing & shouting drunk with odours many fall o’erwearied” (27.3-4). Feminine Jealousy frantically runs, not walks, “along the mountains” (10.14). “TIhe Book of God is trodden under Foot” with the lapse of spiritual faith (22.60). In Book 2 of Milton, Los does not yet walk correctly; too far from earthly matters, he walks “round beneath the Moon” (39.52). Worst at walking, however, is Urizen, who “faints in terror striving among the Brooks of Arnon” (39.53).

Feet at their weakest appear in Blake’s description of Albion. The giant Albion’s imposing feet rest heavily atop English soil in an image that shows feet as the nadir of fallen human existence, yet adumbrating their role in achieving redemption. The groaning Albion’s

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Detail from ‘The Sun at His Eastern Gate’, from Blake’s Illustrations to Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso (1816-20)

 left foot near London
Covers the shades of Tyburn: his instep from Windsor
To Primrose Hill stretching to Highgate & Holloway.
London is between his knees: its basements fourfold:

His right foot stretches to the sea on Dover cliffs, his heel
On Canterbury’s ruins … (39.36-41)

This nadir of immobility results from Albion’s self-pity, which impedes him from nobly walking into the deep and achieving Milton’s self-annihilation:

He views Jerusalem & Babylon, his tears flow down

He movd his right foot to Cornwall, his left to the Rocks of Bognor

He strove to rise to walk into the Deep, but strength failing

Forbad & down with dreadful groans he sunk upon his Couch

In moony Beulah. (39.48-52)

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“Fuseli’s failed artist before the foot of classical rule”. Image: The Artist’s Despair Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins by Fuseli (1778–1780). It depicts an artist’s response to ruins, namely those of the Colossus of Constantine at the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The artist’s despair may be caused by “the impossibility of emulating the greatness of the past”, by the knowledge that all things must decay, or by a sense of unfulfilled longing and dislocation.

Appearing near the end of Milton, Albion’s feet show a nation beginning to feel its material strength but more concerned with its limitations than its godlike power. Albion has more than enough body to walk with, but he cannot perceive its use. In fact, the massiveness of Albion’s external size and external view of the English map appears to eclipse his understanding of internal power, despairing in his single vision of matter like Fuseli’s failed artist before the foot of classical rule (see The Artist’s Despair Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins, opposite).

Albionic feet seem weighted by the effects of merely Urizenic possibilities, shown to be especially stagnating when Urizen tries to stop Milton’s heroic steps: “freezing dark rocks between / The footsteps. and infixing deep the feet in marble beds: / That Milton labourd with his journey, & his feet bled sore” (19.1-3).

Even Los, in response to Enitharmon’s terror at Milton’s return to earth, tries to impede Milton’s journey: “In fibrous strength / His limbs shot forth like roots of trees against the forward path / Of Milton’s journey” (17.34-36).

Los’s ill-directed but powerful creative energy produces deformed versions of feet that debase the human divine into nonhuman nature and echo the deformation of Urizen’s foot in The Book of Ahania: “Soon shot the pained root / Of Mystery, under his heel: / It grew a thick tree”. This spiritual stasis of Urizen’s feet in Ahania serves as the site of unredeeming Druidical crucifixion: “On the topmost stem of this Tree / Urizen nail’d Fuzons corse” (4.7-8).

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Above: “In fibrous strength / His limbs shot forth like roots of trees against the forward path / Of Milton’s journey” (Milton, 17.34-36). Below: Jerusalem lies supine and asleep, her body almost vegetating in its sleep of materialism. As McGilchrist acutely observes, “materialists … are not people who overvalue, but who undervalue, matter.” In Blake’s terms, they mistake a metaphor for a literal truth, and as they do so their eyes vegetate and fossilise, until they can only see bodies, and roots themselves, as external “Objects”, as dead, illusory forms. They have lost touch – to use a suitable tactile metaphor – with the inner body, with the imaginative body – and with the body itself as imaginative form. The power or agency responsible for this drastic undervaluing of matter and form is shown hovering above Jerusalem’s body: it is the rationalising Spectre.

Milton’s verbal feet, however, particularly in the elaborated personification of England, force the reader to consider figurative solutions to geographical impossibilities. Such images help refine in the reader the transcending power of imaginative perception.

The stirring, yet constrained, Albion gigantically bodies forth the reader’s stirring poetic and spiritual strength that one day may develop the perceptual courage to accept the imaginative vision of recoverable divinity: “to rise to walk into the Deep.” When Milton attempts to purge Urizen’s perception, the Puritan bard begins with Urizen’s feet, vigorously forcing mud into the holes of inadequate Newtonian forms:

But Milton took the red clay of Succoth, moulding it with care 

Between his palms: and filling up the furrows of many years 

Beginning at the feet of Urizen, and on the bones 

Creating new flesh on the Demon cold, and building him,

As with new clay a Human form in the Valley of Beth Peor. (19 10-14)

Using the terms of its fallen condition, Milton forces the fallen perception to acknowledge its fallenness and begin redemption in a muddy baptism, not by destroying the body but by revivifying it: “Creating new flesh on the Demon cold.”

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Urizen’s foot: his Achilles heel. Urizen is so preoccupied with his head, with identification with rationalising and abstracting processes, he almost forgets he has a body – or rather that he is a body. Note the roots growing out of his ‘Bible’ – his book of abstract laws and naturalising, vegetating wisdom. His Species of Origin. His entire body has contracted and shrunken until it is almost not a body anymore, but a pair of utilitarian and functionalist hands and digits, the only aspects of reality it is interested in.

Most poignant of the character Blake’s actions in Milton is his redemption through self-annihilation in the penultimate plate. Blake so fully acknowledges his corporeal limits and the value of confronting them that he in effect makes of his whole body a falling, fallen foot baptizing himself in the dirt. After Jesus descends into Felpham’s vale to save Albion,

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“I fell outstretched upon the path/A moment”

Terror struck in the Vale I stood at that immortal sound

My bones trembled. I fell outstretched upon the path

A moment, & my Soul return into its mortal state

To Resurrection & Judgment in the Vegetable Body. (42.24-27)

Like a foot, Blake’s body strikes the ground to completely engage in the world of matter and to spring up into resurrection. Striking against the corporeal pole, he locates the spiritual one.

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Milton a Poem, Plate 50A. We can only Rise if we have metaphorically fallen. The very word resurrection derives from the location (that is, in dream terms, the “state”) of the body. Resurrection comes from the Latin noun resurrectio (“to rise”, “get up”, “stand up”). “This deep metaphor structure that spoken language is founded upon casts states of mind in the role of locations … Buildings as Psyche: Houses: the metaphors ‘Buildings are Psyches’, ‘Buildings are People’, suggest that the body/psyche is a state or stage on the road, a way station, or portal, en route to another place” (Bucklow, Nantucket Sleighride, p. 4, p. 36). Note that in Bucklow’s evocative metaphor, the body itself is a stage on the road.  Image: final plate of Milton, showing the form of Ololon in a gesture that suggests that she is disrobing to reveal her true (imaginative or inner, spiritual) body. On either side are figures that resemble corn, under a line of text that references “Harvest”.  Blake is here correcting the erroneous (Urizenic) version of events in which our spiritual ideas derive from “natural” processes, such as the supposed “resurrection” of the corn every solar year (the myths of Ceres, Persephone, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, and so on). As usual with the Spectre (which was historically now in ascendancy within the human brain), everything is back to front: “natural” or representational processes are actually the “likenesses” of deeper, inner (spiritual or metaphorical) processes, in whose image they are made or generated (for “every Natural Effect has a Spiritual Cause”). Early on his life Blake set out to correct the basic “Error” of “all Bibles or sacred codes”, by asserting that, contrary to what they taught: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.” Attempts to separate or dissociate the Body and the Soul, either in Gnosticism or contemporary A.I., are pathological mechanisms that serve only Urizen.

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Transcending “the Two Limits”: Duality and Motion

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Milton a Poem: “in 2 Books” Blake declares on its frontispiece. Twos, dualities, polarities, and contraries are central or essential to its State. Even the word “Milton” Blake makes into two here (Mil-Ton), suggesting pathways and transitions between states – Milton’s right “hand” (left hemisphere) holding the place where they divide (or, alternatively, and contrariwise, meet).

Working through the energy of dualities, Milton achieves its structural integrity, according to Mary Lynn Johnson. “The major principle of unity in Milton, and a major element in the neo-Christian provision Blake worked out for man’s salvation,” Johnson observes, “is the conversion of sets of twos (apparent opposites) into threes (genuine contraries separated from an unreal negation).”

Remarking that many others have perceived Milton‘s two books to possess a “polar correspondence,” Susan Fox describes the duality informing Milton on a large structural scale, “a framework of parallels at once general and exact” that organize and express the poem’s “dialectic of essential contraries.”

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The second of the two books, in which reverse images and indeed reverse texts, play such a structural role: “the duality informing Milton on a large structural scale”. In reverse writing on the first page of the second book (if one reads from right to left) are written the words “Contraries are Positives/ A Negative is not a Contrary”. As McGilchrist has shown, the right hemisphere of the brain is a place where Contraries are equally true.

Erdman sees thematic significance in Blake’s drastic condensation of Milton from twelve to two books. Describing what I would call a synecdochic focus on an episodic narrative, Erdman observes that Blake’s reduction of the epic “made possible the conflation of many lines of action to a single ‘moment’ of descent and (incomplete) ascent.”

This “descent and (incomplete) ascent,” Erdman continues, is “rehearsed and repeated in Milton’s descent and uniting with Blake, Blake’s uniting with Los, Ololon’s descent and sixfold separation uniting as One Woman to embrace Milton, and Albion’s sleep and imperfect rising (the complete story saved for Jerusalem).

Thematically the moment reveals the separation and union of the contraries of wrath and pity; visually it shows male and female, brother and brother, wives and daughters, with choreography which represents a right relation by a dance position of tarsus to tarsus (reminding us of the conversion of the avenging Saul into the apostle Paul), or by two persons receiving one star or binding on one sandal” (Erdman, The Illuminated Blake).

Epistemological transformations rather than objective, unified narrative plots constitute the subject of Milton. Yvonne M. Carothers identifies the thematic dominance in this work of “operative principles – forms and their interrelationships – [which] are laid bare even as their total meaning remains elusive” (‘Space and Time in Milton: The ‘Bard’s Song,’ in Blake in His Time, ed. Robert N. Essick and Donald Pearce, pp. 126-27).

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“a dance position of tarsus to tarsus”: toe to toe, tip to tip, wing to wing, hemisphere to hemisphere. Lateralisation and “conscious-isation” recur on every level of a mutually interpenetrating and interdependent reality.

A hermeneutical microcosm of the whole work, the figuring foot serves the reader in a way that echoes Blake’s own aesthetic principles – the pursuit of particulars. The stepping foot has a dual role as figure – on one level, it synecdochically expresses human spiritual progress; on another level, this synecdoche has a metaphorical value: the stepping foot figures metaphoric cognition itself, a cognition, it will be seen, that relies on images of juxtaposition and polarity.

The resemblance between Blake’s image and theoretical expressions of metaphor has deep thematic reverberations for Milton, whose heaven Northrop Frye has defined as nothing less than “the world of total and realized metaphor” (‘Notes for a Commentary on Milton,’ The Divine Vision: Studies in the Poetry and Art of William Blake, p. 112).

Working in the same way as does metaphoric cognition, Blake’s feet that compress dualities against one another (the human and earth striking with every step) embody metaphoric cognition described by Ricœur: metaphor produces “new kinds of assimilation … not above the differences, as in the concept, but in spite of and through the differences” (‘The Metaphoric Process as Cognition, Imagination and Feeling,’ On Metaphor). Ricœur’s metaphor for metaphor moves like a Blakean traveler through the vortex of infinite semantics. In his discussion of Blake’s use of metaphor and metonymy, Stuart Peterfreund likens metaphor’s “cognitive and linguistic process to one of spatiotemporal displacement or deferral in which one moves out of one term of the likening into the other, and does so endlessly” (‘Blake and the Ideology of the Natural,’ ECL 18).

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“The human and earth striking with every step”: in a world in which perspective and relativity play such a vital and pivotal role, where left controls right and right controls left, where consciousness and unconsciousness constantly interweave, who is to say what exactly is “above”. Is Jacob’s Ladder ascending or descending? The rational mind needs an either/or; the imaginative mind understands both/and. This is the world of “spatiotemporal displacement” which Blake mapped, a far greater shift than Galileo’s. From one perspective the earth goes round the sun, from one perspective the sun goes round the earth; relativity is fundamental to the fabric of both space and time (that is to say, of movement), that is, to the nature and position of the observer in relation to what they are observing, and their interest in the answer. In a universe in which the “Big Bang” happened (and is happening) everywhere simultaneously, each part of that universe is technically its “centre”. Thus, “an observer in any given galaxy will seem to lie at the centre of a pattern of expansion” (Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma, p. 28). Including where you’re standing right now.

Many theories of metaphor explain it as some cognitive mediation of dualities, including I. A. Richards’ longstanding duality of tenor and vehicle. Ricœur also relies heavily on duality to explain metaphor: it is “a pair of contrasting traits,” a “pair of opposite features,” involving language’s “polarity of sense and reference.” Stephen Owen and Walter L. Reed identify “the most common metaphorical form” to be the “bipolar paradigm,” which “simultaneously enforces the otherness of the vehicle and engenders a project to assimilate it into the inner langue of the poem” (‘A Motive for Metaphor,’ Criticism 21). 

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“Milton’s feet striking the ground progress like the contraries that are ‘necessary to Human existence’ (MHH)”. The universe is a bit like this: it generates itself through its own contraries, like Escher’s “Drawing Hands”. Or perhaps Blake’s feet, which walk themselves into eternity. Left, right. Left, right.

Milton‘s feet striking the ground progress like the contraries that are “necessary to Human existence” (MHH). This duality in the motion of stepping feet conquers the inadequacies of mortal understanding: “the Two Limits: first of Opacity, then of Contraction” (13.20). Stepping rather than stagnating, these feet, like metaphors, stomp through prior semes. The properly used foot, like the “Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find,” “renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed” (35.42, 45).

For Ricœur, the implicit significance of such duality in metaphor is its ability to generate action (as do Milton‘s footsteps), specifically the action of mimetic creation. Metaphor’s “nascent or emerging character” corresponds to poetry’s “creative imitation of reality,” that creative energy that is the human divine according to Blake. “Why should we invent novel meanings, meanings which exist only in the instance of discourse,” asks Ricœur, “if it were not for the sake of the poiesis in the mimesis?” Owen and Reed explicitly address metaphor’s generative essence, its “kinetic aspect”: “the project to join the two elements in a new language and reestablish system.”

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Contraries constitute reality. Blake’s thought is generated through contraries, as his interest in “Contrary States of the Human Soul” testifies: Innocence and Experience, Heaven and Hell, Reason and Energy. The Contrariness of the States is important – but so too is the passing between them. We need to walk, to move, in order to be able to “enter in”. Life and death themselves are like this, as are the unconscious and the conscious. “I cannot consider death as anything but a removing from one room to another”, Blake once observed.

Their description of metaphor closely resembles the energy of progression involving Blake’s contraries: “Metaphor is in its very form an actualization of desire and need, the mark of an absence.” Like the inter-energizing contraries, metaphor dwells “in the movement from one system to another.”

Milton’s description of the sculptor’s feet embodies the movement that operates in metaphoric cognition when one tries to conceive of the new image:

Silent Milton stood before

The darkend Urizen; as the sculptor silent stands before

His forming image; he walks round it patient labouring.

Thus Milton stood forming bright Urizen. (20.7-10)

Milton’s divine act makes Urizen into Milton’s image: “in the image of God created he him” (Genesis 2:27). Milton and Milton are moving – specifically, walking – from one system, “the darkend Urizen,” that signifies a spiritually stagnating view of the material world, to a new system, “bright Urizen,” that signifies a spiritually illuminating view of the material world. Milton forms the brightness in a “stance” that moves, cultivating spiritual development by familiarizing the artist/imaginer with the external: “he walks round it patient labouring.”

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“Grounding” the Figure: Seeing Milton’s Visual Feet

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“Seeing Milton’s Visual Feet”. The narrative of Milton is one of movement, of descent, of journey. All such spiritual journeys are forms of pilgrimages, quests, paths, progressions (from Latin progressus ‘an advance’, from the verb progredi, from pro- ‘forward’ + gradi ‘to walk’) – it’s also why so many spiritual disciplines are called “the Way”. They all start with the Foot. The left foot. The right hemisphere. Intuition as action. ‘Following’ one’s hunches. So get going. 🙂

Erdman describes the poem’s overarching visual organization by referring to duality, movement, a physical grounding of the setting, and … feet: Milton is a “two-part dance opera, with all the world as its stage and the vale of Felpham as stage center.”

In Mitchell’s analysis of details peculiar to the designs in Milton, he notes that, as opposed to any Lambeth book, Blake frequently depicts human figures against a delineated groundline rather than against a void or an abyss: “Milton’s return from the heavens of Albion … is presented in the illustrations as a journey on foot. The blazing sun which carries Los … does not roll through empty space but descends to touch the earth, and Los steps out of it to plant his left foot firmly in this world.”

Mitchell notes that in Milton “almost every full-page design [is] ‘grounded’ in such a literal sense, with a horizon line indicating the junction of earth and sky.” In the Lambeth Book of Los, however, the artist-figure Los’s feet articulate continual frustration as they lack material grounding: “dash’d wide apart / His feet stamp the eternal fierce-raging / Rivers of wide flame”; unable to progress against “the nether abyss,” Los’s feet “Stamp’d in fury and hot indignation”.

Milton thus values a physical context against which feet can move: Satan’s bosom is itself “a vast unfathomable abyss”. The ecstatic energy from such grounding appears in Plate 32A, the intersection of Books 1 and 2 (the figure of Blake’s left foot aligning with the descent of Milton’s spirit). Even Blake’s most abstract design in Milton, his cosmic diagram on Plate 36A, includes a labeled groundline for the unseen Milton’s descent: “Miltons Track.”

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Hit the Road, Jack. “In Milton almost every full-page design [is] ‘grounded’ in such a literal sense, with a horizon line indicating the junction of earth and sky.” Images of horizon lines: Plates 16A, 47A, and 32A.

That Blake should consistently depict a ground for feet to walk on in a work that represents metaphoric cognition through stepping feet is not surprising. And as ground may be a pun on the earth and the surface that the engraver works, Blake simultaneously conflates basic physical matter with the basis of his visual art, as art requires matter to communicate the prophecy of salvation.

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“Even Blake’s most abstract design in Milton, his cosmic diagram on Plate 36A, includes a labeled groundline for the unseen Milton’s descent: ‘Miltons Track’.” Blake even includes a sign for “North” in this most esoteric image, just in case we get lost on our way home.

Remembering the physical as a spiritual corrective of spectrous abstractions, Blake’s use of a “bounding” line carries over to his visual rendering of stepping feet: “The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art … Leave out this line and you leave out life itself” (Blake, A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures).

Stephen Leo Carr explains a Blakean pun on bounding: “Lines and outlines set boundaries and establish limits; but they also bound or leap”. The energy and particularity of this visual style, remarks Carr, prompted Blake to assert the energy of this kind of visual representation over the conventional engraving methods, such as cross-hatching strokes. Thomas R. Frosch distinguishes between conventional, confining lines and creative, Blakean lines, whose specificity gratifies rather than restrains desire (The Awakening of Albion: The Renovation of the Body in the Poetry of William Blake).

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The Bounding Line: “At the moment of Ololon’s descent, the character Blake walks on the outline of his front garden in Plate 40A.” In one sense, the image is full of bounding lines: the lines of the path, with its marked boundaries, along which Blake – the traveller – is moving; the boundaries and lines of his house (“Buildings are Psyches”), in which Blake stands in front of and seems in one way to cross-signify (body as house, as form, as state or location), and into which the “spirit of Olonon” descends. The entire image itself is bounded with a line. Even the layout of the text is presented in lines, suggesting walkways for the words to travel along. The poem itself as a bounded garden, into which Ololon descends, or ascends.

Blake’s bounding line bears a striking resemblance to Owen and Reed’s analysis of the form of metaphor as constituting the “actualization of desire and need” – an “absence” in the parole that metaphor seeks to gratify. At the moment of Ololon’s descent, the character Blake walks on the outline of his front garden in Plate 40A. The bounding line supports the binding on of linear sandals in Plate 47A: “The sandal,” notes Erdman, “has straps like bandages round [Blake’s] tarsus, as though to bind in the energy that has entered there, or at least to make the symbolic connection for us” (Erdman, ‘The Steps (of Dance and Stone) that Order Blake’s Milton,’ in Blake Studies 6.1; Blake binds the “bright sandal” that comprises the best of earthly materials – precious stones & gold”).

Grounded as they are, Milton‘s visual feet express their bounding motions by revealing the soles, and souls, of the travelers. The first sole, shown in the full-page design on Plate 1A, is Milton’s own, which exposes his forward motion against a ground on which is written: “To justify the Ways of God to Men.”

Nearly all of the human figures in the larger designs and many in the marginal designs either expose the sole of a foot or show the foot on tiptoe, indicating a lifting motion. The power of lowering and raising the feet is seen especially in Plate 18A, where Milton literally annihilates “self-hood” by dividing the word in two with his step.

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“The power of lowering and raising the feet is seen especially in Plate 18A, where Milton literally annihilates ‘self-hood’ by dividing the word in two with his step.” Astonishingly, the figure of Milton almost seems to enter into the image itself, stepping into it from “our world”, in order to reach into the imaginative subconscious where these false, moralising constructs of ego and judgment are generated. To do this he has to be grounded. To have his feet on the ground. And to be able to move from one frame into another.

In the poem’s final plate (50A – see above, the “resurrection” image of Ololon as corn, and directly below), Blake portrays an allegorical relationship between the stepping foot and the world of matter. The central figure, whose arms radiate to suggest the development of spiritual light, energetically engages with the material world. She (if it is a she) mounts the vegetable world on tiptoe – in a kind of perpetual act of walking. Yet the figure’s legs seem to engage with a tree trunk behind them. The figure’s arms participate visually with the leaf-end of the tree’s branches in a gesture of crucifixion that also recalls Ovidian vegetable metamorphoses. This painful effort (the hands appear to have nails driven through them), however, raises them above the undefined hands of the passive observers flanking the central figure. These two vegetable bookends are entrenched in the material world like the still unredeemed Albion, with their heavy feet flat on the ground. Comparing this plate with Plate 18A, where Blake shows another annihilation of selfhood, we see the same arrangement of forms, but in Plate 50A the central figure’s hands are freed from the heavy blocks of law, replaced by the self-restraining humans and their opaque perception.

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Raised Soul: Ololon’s tiptoe, contrasted with the flat feet of the two figures on either side – who seem to be still “stuck”, passively motionless.

In a poem that verbally establishes the kinetic and spiritual power of physical limits, Milton‘s Plate 22A shows a dancer who “wields a great whip of a line that forms a path for the sculptor’s foot.” In Plate 23A, “walking a leafing line,” Blake makes his way through eternity. Unique, and yet paradigmatically aligned, Milton‘s stepping feet produce an elaborated metaphor of spiritual movement through eternal life.

Although fundamental and universal, no line is more individual than that created visually and verbally by Blakean footsteps, forming bounding lines as particular as the individual will directing the individual body. Every footstep creates a momentary line to incorporate the human against the unimaginative vegetative surfaces. Blake’s metaphoric paradigm asserts the bounds of the body to serve and formalize an aesthetic and spiritual notion of incarnation in his audience.

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The Incarnating Metaphor

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The Incarnating Metaphor: grounding the human body

In grounding the human body, Blake offers his audience the only means of salvation knowable for spirits that are always of the body. He insists on expanding this body to a world large and holy: in Milton, Blake asserts, “every Generated Body in its inward form, / Is a garden of delight & a building of magnificence” (26.31-32).

Not only does the body incarnate immensity, but, within the body, “every Space smaller than a Globule of Mans blood opens / Into Eternity of which this vegetable Earth is but a shadow” (29.21-22). For Blake, incarnation has the radical role of delineating the divine, as he announced in There Is No Natural Religion:

God becomes as we are,

that we may be as he


Milton‘s recurrent epistemological mode of yoking the spiritual with the physical works to reunite the Los and the Urizen fallen apart, as in Blake’s earlier Book of Urizen:

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“He insists on expanding this body to a world large and holy”

Los wept howling around the dark Demon:

And cursing his lot; for in anguish,

Urizen was rent from his side;

And a fathomless void for his feet;

And intense fires for his dwelling.

But Urizen laid in a stony sleep

Unorganiz’d, rent from Eternity 

The Eternals said: What is this? Death

Urizen is a clod of clay.”  (6.2-10)

Milton shows Milton/Los finding the ground to walk on when he accepts incarnation in Blake the character. Ricœur’s discussion of “poetic feeling” as a force in metaphor underlines metaphor’s relation to incarnation. “To feel, in the emotional sense of the word,” writes Ricœur, “is to make ours what has been put at a distance by thought in its objectifying phase. Feelings … are not merely inner states but interiorized thoughts” (The Metaphoric Process).  

In Milton, the epistemological emphasis on the immanence of body and soul inevitably invokes the cognitive dynamics of remaking through figurative yoking, language’s tribute to its own literal limits. Alternatively, metaphoric epistemology invokes the duality of incarnation, theology’s tribute to the contraries of body and soul. The foot descending into ascension figures the paradox of incarnation: Jesus, “being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. / Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him” (Philippians 2:8-9). Peterfreund describes the figurative dimension of Blake’s approach to Incarnation: “To be as God is, is to become the other. God’s ontological status, as well as the ontological status of the individual who completes him/her, in other words, is that of an endless, immanent, metaphorical transference.”

Metaphor … is for Blake the enactment, through the medium of language, of the sacramental – in bearing, or carrying divinity across from God to humanity, it bears, or carries a cross, in virtue of the redemptive potential symbolized in the act of becoming.

Blake’s stepping feet, metaphors of metaphoric cognition, exercise the consciousness of the spirit falling and rebounding. As the figure of prophetic understanding, these feet emerge as the imaginative foundation of Blake’s goal in Milton to make “all the Lords people … Prophets.”

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Point of View: perhaps a larger image of the foot might suggest to the sleeping mind the importance of seemingly unimportant things. The Left Brain always has portraits of heads (and often just the heads – as if, appropriately, dissociated and decapitated form their living body); perhaps portraits of feet would be more appropriate – how living humans actually walk (through life).

This is an edited version of The Feet of Salvation in Blake’s Milton, by Jennifer Keith. To read the full article please click here

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