Dante chose as his guide through Hell and Purgatory his great predecessor Virgil, the greatest of the Latin epic poets. But when he came to the gates of Heaven, Virgil could not enter, and the pure Beatrice became his guide into Heaven and into the presence of God.
Blake chose Milton as his guide through the Hell that he found Britain to be, seeking to bring Heaven back to Albion. Milton, his great predecessor, the greatest of the English poets working in the epic mode, appears as Blake’s avatar in the search for that earlier unity, which for Blake precedes the Europe he describes in these words from Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion:
I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe, And there behold the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire Wash’d by the Water-wheels of Newton : black the cloth In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation : cruel Works Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic Moving by compulsion each other : not as those in Eden, which Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.[i]
The contrast limned here between the Europe contemporary with Milton, and the England Blake regards as the original of Eden, is a main theme of Jerusalem., and, as we have seen, most of Blake’s poetry. Blake had been working on his system all his life, making in his longest poem, The Four Zoas[ii], the earliest unfolding of his entire mythology. He had been working and reworking it both in the longer prophetic poems Milton and Jerusalem which follow The Four Zoas in time of composition, and even before that geat work, particularly in America : a prophecy and Europe : a Prophecy — short poems by the standard of Blake’s canon. Here, from Jerusalem, is a sample of that working out of elements:
Los stood at his Anvil : he heard the contentions of Vala, He heav’d his thund’ring Bellows upon the valleys of Middlesex, He open’d his Furnaces before Vala ; then Albion frown’d in anger On his Rock, ere yet the Starry Heavens were fled away From his awful Members ; and thus Los cried aloud To the Sons of Albion & to Hand the eldest Son of Albion.
I hear the screech of Childbirth loud pealing, & the groans Of Death, in Albion’s clouds dreadful utter’d over all the Earth. What may Man be ? who can tell ! but what may Woman be, To have power over Man from Cradle to corruptible Grave ? There is a Throne in every Man, it is the Throne of God, This Woman has claim’d as her own & Man is no more ! Albion is the Tabernacle of Vala & her Temple, And not the Tabernacle & Temple of the Most High.
O Albion why wilt thou Create a Female Will ? To hide the most evident God in a hidden covert, even In the shadows of a Woman, & a secluded Holy Place, That we may pry after him as after a stolen treasure, Hidden among the Dead & mured up from the paths of life. Hand ! art thou not Reuben enrooting thyself into Bashan, Till thou remainest a vaporous Shadow in a Void ? O Merlin ! Unknown among the Dead where never before Existence came, Is this the Female Will O ye lovely Daughters of Albion, To Converse concerning Weight & Distance in the Wilds of Newton & Locke?
So Los spoke standing on Mam-Tor, looking over Europe & Asia : The Graves thunder beneath his feet from Ireland to Japan.[iii]
For Blake, the male and female elements of creation had been separated in the fall into forms familiar to us, an event he portrays in one of the illustrations in Milton in an early version of a Venn diagram[iv]; and in this section of Jerusalem it is clear that he is wrestling with the pain of that separation. A succint summary of Milton, available from the Blake archive, says it better than I can:
One of Blake’s two final epics, Milton follows the titular hero in a journey of self-discovery and renewal. In the poem’s first “Book,” John Milton returns from heaven to the mortal world and unites with the imagination through the person of William Blake. Together, they set out to reconfigure the relationship between a living poet and a great predecessor. In the second and final book, Milton unites with his feminine aspect, Ololon, in progress towards the apocalyptic overcoming of divisions between the sexes, between the living and the dead, and between human consciousness and its alienated projections into the external world.[v]
It is one of his great themes, and one with which we still wrestle. We especially as Mormons wrestle with it over and over again. It shows clearly in that Venn diagram, which you are best served by seeing in its context:[vi]
Now, if a Mormon poet wrestling with the great themes of literature in some form of epic wanted to choose a guide from among the great poets in English, he could do worse than to choose Blake. Scott Card has already acknowledged that in The seventh son (and his subsequent books about Alvin Maker[vii]). In these books, but especially in the first, Bill Blake appears as Taleswapper, an itinerant sharer of tales in an American frontier different from that of Joseph Smith, but hardly less magical. But Blake would be an even more enticing guide for a Mormon poet than for Card, because in searching for a way out of the “wheels without wheels” that he saw, he worked with the elements of verse.
And that is even more important when we consider the poetry of Joseph Smith (the prototype for Alvin Maker) — evident in his long rolling phrases, as we shall see.[viii] There is first to consider an entire cohort of British and American poets not yet ready to follow their fellow, Blake, turning back to the Greeks — but, when Whitman arrives, blindly groping his way towards his own long line, as Blake’s successor, if not his disciple, he is treading where Joseph Smith trod.
So, what kind of verse fantasies a lá Blake could Mormon poets write on Mormon themes? Well, we could work with more extensive tales of the Three Nephites, as some have already done in prose.[ix] Having seen the use Card makes of American folklore, this would be a great opportunity to have the Three Nephites appear to Blake at his death as guides into the Paradise for which he so strongly yearned, acting as our guides to it and the spirit Prison, expanding on the obstacles one might face in life as a spirit still under the veil and yet to receive the whole Gospel.
Or Blake, having learned from such a tour, could then appear to a Mormon poet as Moroni did to Joseph Smith, a messenger to show him the true nature of the War in Heaven, and the great division that came about between God’s children into sheep and goats. This could unfold into a tour of pre-existence, mortality and post-existence (as you might expect, on the model of Dante’s Commedia).
Or Blake could serve as a guide of a Mormon poet’s tour of the three degrees of glory and one not of glory, unpicking the fabric of the Seventy-sixth Section of Doctrine and Covenants, serving as such because he was open to the spirit, and conjured the journeying of Milton in seeking renewal and wholeness.
But hold on, I hear you say: Is that all you can come up with?
[i] Jerusalem / William Blake ; foreword by Geoffrey Keynes. – London : Trianon, n.d, p. 16. As Keynes notes, this is a transcription of one of the four copies of Jerusalem printed in black that are known. The transcription, which reproduces Blake’s original faithfully, including his spaced-out punctuation, is followed by a facsimile “in heliogravure” of one of those copies, produced by a process that parallels the laborious engraving process by which Blake printed his books.
[ii] First entitled Vala, or The Death and Judgement of an ancient man : a Dream of Nine Nights, and in consequence sometimes known as Vala, or, The Four Zoas, as the title appears in the table of contents to Complete writings, with variant readings / Blake ; edited by Geoffrey Keynes. – New York : Oxford University Press, 1969. The confusion of titles derives from the fact that Blake left the manuscript unpublished at his death, leaving both titles in the manuscript; in Keynes’s edition it runs to 119 pages, whereas Milton occupies but 55, and Jerusalem, 67.
[iii] Op. cit., pp. 34-35.
[iv] Plate 32 of copy B of Milton, reproduced in Milton / William Blake. – edited and with a commentary by Kay Parkhurst Easson and Roger R. Easson. – (The sacred art of the world). – Boulder : Shambala ; New York : Random House, 1978, p. 42 (which page reproduces plate 32).
[v] From http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/work.xq?workid=milton&java=yes, accessed 28 November 2013.
[vi] From http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=milton.b.illbk.32&java=no, accessed 28 November 2013.
[vii] Seventh son / Orson Scott Card. – New York : Tor, 1987. Six of the seven volumes planned have been published, including Red prophet, Prentice Alvin, Alvin Journeyman, Heartfire and The crystal city. Yet to be published is the seventh, Master Alvin.
[viii] Though not in this posting.
[ix] E.g., David G. Pace in his story “American Trinity” in Dialogue 44.2 (Summer 2011): 161–76.