William Blake's "Milton"

Meaning and Madness

Most people know William Blake as the author of the poem The Tyger ("Tyger Tyger burning bright / In the forests of the night....") At college (Brown '73), I had the good fortune to be introduced to Blake by the colleagues of the late S. Foster Damon. I became intrigued with Blake's later, arcane writings.

In his long narrative, "Milton", Blake describes how the author of "Paradise Lost" returned from heaven and entered Blake's foot in the form of a comet. Afterwards, the familiar world of the five senses turned into a shoe. Blake tied the shoe and walked with the Spirit of Poetry to the City of Art. A few years later, back in the ordinary world, Blake saw a twelve-year- old girl flying down to him. He mistook the girl for one of his own muses, and invited her into his cottage to visit with him and his wife, who could also see and hear "the spirits". The girl explained that she was actually looking for John Milton. The older poet emerged from Blake's foot, and in an apocalyptic scene, the ordinary world was transformed along with all of human perception.

Blake's published narrative bears parallels to his private letters, in which he described visionary experiences which had, at least sometimes, terrified and baffled him. Nevertheless, he believed these experiences were harbingers of a radical transformation that would restore the whole world to its original state of love and artistic beauty.

The theme of "Milton" is subtle. Is the purpose of art (1) to raise its audience's social conscience and awareness of natural beauty, or (2) to open the world of transcendent visionary experience, in the hopes that other people's minds will be radically transformed as Blake's was?

As a late-twentieth-century physician, I cannot answer these questions. In my undergraduate thesis, I explained that Blake's experiences are typical of schizophrenia. His wonderful works are one happy instance in which disease has given humankind something of lasting and positive value.

In fact, as a mature physician, I wonder whether any reasonable person would consider Blake "mentally ill" at all. He functioned well almost all of the time, sustained a successful marriage, and based artistic and philosophic masterpieces on mental phenomena that might have disabled a lesser mind. Blake's genius challenges conventional notions of "normalcy" and "disease". In fact, one of my reasons for sharing this essay is to provide hope for others who have these experiences, and their families.

Today's psychiatrists are even talking about schizophrenia, which is obviously a genetic illness, being the result of selection for genes for human creativity. Click here for a scholarly accoutn of Adaptive Evolution of Genes Underlying Schizophrenia.

I hope you will enjoy my little discussion, and that you'll feel free to share your comments and explore the other Blake resources on the "Web".

Click HERE for "Understanding William Blake's "Milton"

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