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).
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 Blake, Damon 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.
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”.
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!”).
“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:
And 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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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).
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.”
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,
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.
Transcending “the Two Limits”: Duality and Motion
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.”
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).
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).
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).
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.”
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.”
“Grounding” the Figure: Seeing Milton’s Visual Feet
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The Incarnating Metaphor
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:
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.”
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.