Though writing more than one-hundred years apart, the poetic works of John Milton and William Blake interacted with one another to such an extent that they have become increasingly entwined within the critical imagination of scholars over the past two centuries. Despite the recognition of the influence of Milton upon Blake, and subsequent examinations of Blake’s opinions of Milton as an artist, a thorough review of Blake’s view of Milton as the narrator of Paradise Lost has heretofore remained unattempted. Blake’s narrator and Milton also share a collective intent, that of “calling the lapsed soul.” The similarities between these two narrators go deeper than mere purpose, however, and even encompass physical characteristics. Milton made a point of emphasizing his physical blindness within Paradise Lost. Blake’s narrator also suggests that he is suffering from a physical blindness which he is seeking to compensate with divine inspiration. The narrator’s desire for the earth to renew its “fallen light,” his demands that “Earth return,” and his question of “Why wilt thou turn away” all suggest blindness and a loss of earthly perception. By presenting us with a narrator who desires to gain divine knowledge both to compensate for physical blindness and to teach others about heavenly things, Blake offers readers with a clear symbol of Milton.
The inevitability of a loss of innocence hangs like a shadow over both Blake’s poetry and the world of Paradise Lost. Long before the reader is introduced to Adam and Eve, Milton’s God informs us of their ultimate fate: So without least impulse or shadow of fate Or aught by me immutably foreseen They trespass, authors to themselves in all Both what they judge and what they choose, for so I formed them free and free they must remain Till they enthrall themselves. (3:120-125)The interplay between these two authors and their poetry provides a cutting insight into the nature of innocence, as well as the nature of poetry itself, particularly when a poet attempts to explain subjects incomprehensible to the minds of mere mortals.
The resultant works, as Blake makes clear, will never achieve total fidelity in representing innocence. Milton’s work, though it contains certain inaccuracies, provides an ideal ground from which to examine issues of narration, theodicy, and purity, even if it does not accurately depict innocence itself. (WC: 386)