Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Rewriting Milton: Orality and Writing in Blake's Milton

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Rewriting Milton: Orality and Writing in Blake's Milton

Article excerpt

MILTON IS A POEM HEAVILY COMMITTED TO THE GRAPHIC NATURE OF acts of writing and to its own writtenness. The only one of Blake's works specifically called a "Poem," its subtitle--"a Poem in 2 Books"-makes clear that its poetic status is specifically attributed to its written form as a book. Moreover, its ostensible subject matter is the rewriting of the works and influences of an earlier writer and therefore presupposes a significant value in the written word, its transformations and its transformative power. Within the poem itself, Milton is depicted writing "In iron tablets" (17:10) and "in thunder smoke and fire" (7:13); the Shadowy Female wears a garment "written all over ... in Human Words" (18:12), while Ololon descends to Milton at the end of the poem in "Clouds ... folded as a Garment dipped in blood / Written within & without in woven letters" (42:12-13).(1) Yet, the moment of action for the character of Milton in the poem springs from a specifically oral event--a Bard's song.(2) The portrait of Eternity that appears at the beginning of the second book of Milton advocates the power of breath and the spoken word as the forces behind the "Wars of Eternity" (30:9), the construction of "the Universe stupendous" (30:20) and the creation of all "Mental forms" (30:20). In addition, Milton's journey is the rewriting of more than just his written record: the object of correction is Milton's body of texts as transformed by discourses both oral and written which influence and are influenced by cultural fields of religion, politics, and aesthetics (to name just a few).(3)

The competing modes of representation and communication--writing and speech, the graphic and the oral, or what Ong has termed literacy and orality(4)--do not result in a polarity of practices, however; nor do they resolve in a privileging of one over the other. Instead, the conceptual fields which characterize writing and speech interpenetrate and form an apocalyptic discourse that incorporates important dimensions of both modes of representation. The refrain from the Bard's song--" Mark well my words! they are of your eternal salvation"(5)--most forcefully manifests this interpenetration and overlap. It communicates orally the urgent message that Milton must revise his written legacy if he (and the culture he influences) is to be prepared for the Last Judgment; it also self-consciously represents the work of a graphic medium to "Mark" or represent the fleeting moments of orality for the reader. The refrain draws both Milton and the reader into a field of discourse in which the spoken is marked or inscribed by the written and the written is an agency of the inspired moment of speaking prophecy.

Robert Essick sees this interpenetration of the written and the spoken, the graphic and the oral, as a fundamental dimension of Blake's "model of verbal production."(6) By linking the written and the spoken, Blake engages in what Essick terms a form of "oral writing [which] brings a printed text something of ... [an] increased presence of the accidental productions of spoken language" (191).(7) The recovery of the kind of spontaneity which characterizes the oral complements and revitalizes the premeditated and fixed dimensions of graphic media, as Essick argues, and reincorporates the immediacy of inspiration with the studied reflection of execution. While Essick's arguments about Blake's "model of verbal production" inform the background of my essay, I am here more directly engaged in exploring the way in which the graphic and the oral, the written and the spoken, are used as conceptual fields in Milton. As a conceptual field, writing has been traditionally allied with permanence, rational reflection and the dissemination of its content widely over the material contexts of time and space. In contrast, speech has been characterized by immediacy, spontaneity and a passionate expressiveness. In facing this dichotomy, Blake resists the temptation to make his own acts of writing conform to either one of these conventional oppositions. …

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