SiStan ChapLee

Monday, December 1, 2014

How to make geniuses harmless

William Blake, Milton, edited and with a commentary by Kay Parkhurst Easson and Roger P. Easson, Boulder, CO: Shambhala, in association with Random House, New York, 1978, pages 178, cm 16 x 24. It includes a reproduction of the complete series of the original plates and a printed version of the text.

In Milton, possibly the masterpiece of his masterpieces, Blake presents the ripe fruit of his worldview by re-writing Paradise Lost, and glorifying his 17th-century colleague as no poet had ever done before, not even Dante with Virgil. Blake's insights into Milton's poetry and theology, but also into Swedenborg's thought, is here much more complex than in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, whose revolutionary ideas have unfortunately become shallow commonplace meanwhile.

One of Milton's strong points is that it describes Blake's most striking visions. We can define them the way we like best: hallucination, schizophrenia (cf. Nobel-Prize-awarded John Nash, or 'our' Tasso), but what matters is that he is reporting experiences, rather than creating fiction. At the same time -- and this is the mark of genius -- he learns from these visionary flashes, and uses them as telescopes to explore the mysteries of the universe and God.

The big flaw in this gorgeous edition of the book is the commentary, in which Blake's universe is explained as the anatomy of the human eye. That might be a cute suggestion, deserving a one-page paragraph; but, stretched as the key for the poem, it makes the impression of trying to water it down, making its religious and social message harmless. It is true, in fact, that precisely in Milton Blake calls, "Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!", but the New Age consists in destroying the false, hypocritical, violent civilization built by Bacon, Newton, Voltaire, etc., and re-establish "the Sublime of the Bible." "Suffer not the fashionable Fools!"