« PreviousContinue »
important character (a very different one, to be sure) in the prophetic books and his spirit and some of his deeds to other characters. It may be that, like Burns during these very years, Blake held the apostate angel as his "favourite hero"; and perhaps, like Landor, another kindred spirit of the time, he sometimes 'recited aloud in solitary walks the haughty appeal of Satan and the deep penitence of Eve.' 1
It was not alone Satan's rebellious spirit that attracted the rebel poet, but the power which the ruined archangel and his peers have over the imagination. Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial, Azazel, Abdiel, Michael, Raphael, and Uriel were beings after his own heart and must have influenced him not a little in the creation of the mythological personages who throng his poetic universe. For Blake's imagination, like Milton's, was cosmic. The vastness, the shadowy grandeur, of the countless cherubim and seraphim, their tremendous battles that shook heaven to its base, the coming of the Messiah, his Blakesque chariot covered with eyes and
Flashing thick flames, wheel within wheel, undrawn,
the fall from heaven, the flames and sombre glories of hell, the wondrous temple that "rose like an exhalation," Satan's daring journey through the infernal world and across chaos, his encounters with his monstrous offspring Sin and Death, their immense bridge, the shadowy throne of Chaos and ancient Night, the golden compasses and the creation of our universe, these pictures and many like them stirred Blake profoundly. Some of them he actually copied (with important modifications of his own), for they were the kind of work he wanted to do. He disliked limits of all kinds; he scorned things "smoothed up and niggled and poco-pen'd, and all the beauties paled out, blurred, and blotted"; he decried Pope and Dryden and exalted "Michael Angelo, Shakespeare, and Milton."2 Such men fed his imagination, stimulated him, peopled his world of visions, helped him to be himself and to bring out what was in him; and these were the things he sought in art.
We have seen that from the one whom he regarded as "the poet par excellence" Blake borrowed what was for him a considerable number of phrases, lines, and incidents, some stylistic features of which he made no little use, as well as the name and perhaps a few of the deeds of Satan. This is all that can be proved, although it is highly probable that in his prosody and in the general freedom
1 See p. 294 below.
2 "Public Address," Gilchrist, ii. 168.
of his verse he was influenced by the example of Paradise Lost and possibly by the choruses of Samson. Yet tangible, demonstrable matters like these are not sufficiently numerous or important to express his debt, a debt which better knowledge of the prophetic books, the paintings, and the engravings serves only to magnify.1 All students of Blake feel this indebtedness, and most will probably agree that Milton's greatest service to his disciple was through encouragement and stimulus in matters wherein the two were akin, and through the titanic figures, the tremendous deeds, the vast spaces and wondrous worlds, which he opened to the strange and preternaturally-active imagination of the artist-mystic and which appear transformed in Vala, Jerusalem, Milton, and the minor prophetic books.
I dreamed that Milton's spirit rose, and took
From life's green tree his Uranian lute;
And from his touch sweet thunder flowed, and shook
And sanguine thrones and impious altars quaked,
This fragment of Shelley's - I have quoted all of it—is of little esthetic value, but it helps us to understand the poet's attitude towards Milton. For few things lay closer to Shelley's heart than the shaking down of "sanguine thrones," "impious altars," "prisons and citadels," and other "things built in contempt of man." It was far more important to him than it would be to most poets that Milton was not only the "Sire of an immortal strain," but one who, like Shelley himself, had suffered persecution from
The priest, the slave, and the liberticide."
"Let it ever be remembered," he reminds us, that "the sacred Milton" was "a republican, and a bold inquirer into morals and religion." This republicanism, the passionate devotion Milton felt
1 Blake's quarrel with Hayley and with the soldier Scofield stirred him profoundly and left no slight marks upon his work; but, were it not for our knowledge of the facts, we should be unable to trace the influence of either event. There is no such key to the impress Milton may have left; but a remark of Blake's about his picture, the "Riposo," shows how his mind may have worked. "It represents," he explains, "the Holy Family in Egypt, guarded in their repose from those fiends the Egyptian gods. And though not directly taken from a poem of Milton's (for till I had designed it Milton's poem did not come into my thoughts), yet it is very similar to his Hymn on the Nativity, which you will find among his smaller poems, and will read with great delight" (letter to Butts, July 6, 1803). Is it not likely that the poem was in the background of his consciousness while he was making the picture? 3 Adonais, 30, 32. 4 Preface to Prometheus Unbound.
2 Milton's Spirit.
for freedom in marriage, religion, and government, may have had almost as much weight as the greatness of his poetry in gaining for him the high praise,
His clear Sprite
Yet reigns o'er earth; the third among the sons of light.1
For the same reason, it was almost inevitable that Shelley should be drawn to Milton's hero, the rebellious Satan. In the preface to Prometheus Unbound he wrote, "The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgement, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement." May not Shelley have come to think later that Satan also was "susceptible of being described" as a disinterested rebel against tyranny? At least the character attracted him, for he left two short fragments (which have been named Satan Broken Loose and Pater Omnipotens) that deal with it. The first of these is in rime, the second is so admirably Miltonic in both diction and style that it should be quoted entire:
Serene in his unconquerable might
Endued, the Almighty King, his steadfast throne
And darkness and deep solitude and awe
Shelley's only completed poem that shows appreciable influence from Paradise Lost is his earlier work, that pageant of wild natural scenery, Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude (1816). The slender thread of story that connects the descriptions tells of the wanderings of a young poet through vast forests and ruined cities of old, over the sea, and down a subterranean river until he finds a quiet death. In this there is nothing epic or grandiose, nothing to call for the sonorous dignity, the lofty aloofness, of Milton's style. And most of the poem is not Miltonic; it has too much of Shelley's vague allegory and dreamy loveliness, too little restraint and condensation, to be that. Yet when we read such phrases as "sudden she rose," "calm,
1 Adonais, 35-6.
he still pursued," "vast Aornos seen from Petra's steep," or lines like
And mighty Earth
From sea and mountain, city and wilderness,
In vesper low or joyous orison,
Lifts still its solemn voice,'
we are certainly reminded of Paradise Lost. In other passages the similarity is even more marked:
The fountains of divine philosophy
Fled not his thirsting lips, and all of great,
Or good, or lovely, which the sacred past
In truth or fable consecrates, he felt
The Poet wandering on, through Arabie
And Persia, and the wild Carmanian waste,
And o'er the aërial mountains which pour down
Indus and Oxus from their icy caves
In joy and exultation held his way.'
But the larger utterance, the restraint and grandeur, of Milton are best caught in these lines:
His wandering step
Obedient to high thoughts, has visited
The awful ruins of the days of old:
Athens, and Tyre, and Balbec, and the waste
Where stood Jerusalem, the fallen towers
Of Babylon, the eternal pyramids,
Memphis and Thebes, and whatsoe'er of strange
Sculptured on alabaster obelisk,
Or jasper tomb, or mutilated sphynx,
Dark Æthiopia in her desert hills
1 Lines 172, 539, 240, 692-5.
2 Lines 71-5, 140-44.
Lines 106-16. Shelley seems to have borrowed from Milton's "chariot of Paternal Deity" (P. L., vi. 750-66) the passage,
The restless wheels of being on their way,
Whose flashing spokes, instinct with infinite life,
(Queen Mab, ix. 152-4, repeated in the Daemon of the World, ii. 536-8). His "wings of skiey grain" (Prometheus, i. 760) recall Raphael's "feather'd mail, Sky-tinctured grain" (P. L., v. 284-5); his "quips and cranks" (Witch of Atlas, 453) is certainly from Allegro, 27; and his "mighty legions... each troop emblazoning its merits On meteor flags" (Witch, 460–62) seems to have been suggested by "the imperial ensign, which... Shone like a meteor... With ... golden lustre rich emblazed, Seraphic... trophies" (P. L., i. 536-9). "Though fallen - and fallen on evil times" and "low-thoughted care" (Letter to Maria Gisborne, 198, 294) must have been suggested by Milton (P. L., vii. 25–6, Comus, 6), particularly since the last line of the poem in which they occur is the last line of Lycidas. It is likely also that the "vultures frighted from Imaus"
It may be that the superb versification of Alastor, which probably owes not a little to Wordsworth, was also affected by Paradise Lost. We cannot be sure. Yet the total influence of Milton, even when we include his octosyllabics and sonnets, was not profound. Shelley took from all sources, but he assimilated so thoroughly that what he produced was almost always distinctly his own. Yet if he had gone on with Satan's second revolt, using the verse, style, and diction of Pater Omnipotens, he might have left us the great Miltonic monument of the nineteenth century.
The attraction Satan exerted upon Shelley he likewise exercised for the same reasons, and at about the same time, on Byron. The Lucifer that Byron introduced into his blank-verse drama, Cain, a Mystery (1821), is not, however, the Satan of Paradise Lost. Byron's fallen angel is more complex, more modern, far less admirable and impressive. He is the spirit of negation and doubt; he does not fight, he sneers. There is little of the archangel ruined about him, no excess of glory obscured, no
dauntless courage, and considerate pride Waiting revenge.
He has, however, the dignity, the pride, the love of freedom, the scorn of homage to the Almighty, which distinguish Milton's Satan.1 The resemblance is strongest in this first description of him:
If I shrink not from these, the fire-armed angels,
Beauteous, and yet not all as beautiful
As he hath been, and might be: sorrow seems
It will be remembered that Byron's poetical commandments began,
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope,
(Hellas, 50) sprang from the famous one in Paradise Lost (iii. 431-9). The passage in Prometheus, iv. 135–7,
Our spoil is won,
Our task is done,
We are free to dive, or soar, or run,
recalls Comus, 1012-13, and in each case the lines that follow contain similar ideas. One of the choruses in Hellas (197-238) seems to employ part of the stanza of the Nativity (see p. 567 below), and the address To Harriet prefixed to Queen Mab is in the measure of the translation from Horace. For Shelley's use of the meter and plan of Allegro, see pp. 474-5 below.
1 Cf. Cain, I. i. 237-9, 305-8, 383-90, 552-4, II. i. 5-12, ii. 425-46, with P. L., i. 94-124, 589-606, iv. 970-90.