The answer to this seems to me fairly simple, and has to do with reception history. Though I know less of Blake than the other two authors, it does seem clear that Blake’s Milton is much different from the Milton of the modern imagination. For Blake, I think, Milton was all about freedom and a very romantic looking freedom at that; he was the champion of censored books and the “one just man” who stood out from the oppressive crowd. I am not sure how seriously to take his claim that “Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it” – I would have to do more research about what Blake thought of Milton’s God – but even that claim associates Milton with a romantic appropriation of Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost.
Fast forward to the twenty first century. Milton is now a misogynist who made his daughters slavishly read him poetry. He’s kind of full of himself in a way that particularly irks the postmodern imagination. And other people we hate, such as C. S. Lewis, championed him, which means he must be old fashioned and outdated. I think probably many students now who first encounter Milton are put off by what strikes them as all the worst excesses of modernity – a seemingly brash confidence in reason and the human will, and an insistence on natural order and knowledge. Such students in some ways agree with Blake – the devil is the heroic figure – but they treat this as an accident and lump Milton in with his God, both of whom they hate. Oh, yeah, and just so we don’t forget Harold Bloom, we must remember that most of the Western canon is grounded in the subversion of the ominous Miltonic father figure.
But people still like Blake. And it would be a shame to associate someone as brilliantly rebellious as Blake with a crusty old blind Milton. So, if we are to pair him with another poet, it will have to be someone we consider subtle and subversive. Donne is the prime candidate. Where Lewis defended Milton and was not particularly fond of Donne, Donne had as his champion none other than T. S. Eliot. A poetry that can influence the author of “The Wasteland” must be more attuned to the subversion and lament of postmodernity, and therefore onboard with Blake, who was (we know) of the postmodern party without knowing it. And to be fair, there is a difference between the styles of Donne and Milton. Milton writes epic poetry, and if we think of his precedents, we will see that though they involved great things, they were external – not angsty and inward turning in the way we would like. There is a difference between the rage of Achilles and the Ethan Hawke Hamlet. Contra the Psychomachic tradition, battles nowadays are not the way to talk about psychological subtlety. Donne on the other hand is metaphysical, something of a Christian Neoplatonist reaching upward toward the Forms. If Milton is interested in the stuff of hard history in the tradition of Homer and Vergil, Donne, perhaps in the tradition of the Plato who turfed Homeric poetry out of the Republic, is in fact interested in the minute details and sophisticated nuances that will be trampled in a battlefield scene. Donne is our man. And so we must pair him with Blake.
But what, you might wonder, is this post doing on a Christian blog? What it is doing is suggesting that, if we are indeed to learn as modern Christians to have a Christian imagination, we will have to learn to pay attention to these debates, as well as the sources of these debates, amidst the Lewises and the Donnes and the Miltons and the Eliots. I was a while back reading a book on the Christian imagination that made a very sad statement. The statement was about the experience of Christians attending university, and as an example, it suggested that a Catholic student might gravitate to Christian literature such as Paradise Lost. Now I know what this person meant, and I am not in the least saying that Catholics shouldn’t and don’t enjoy Milton – I happen to know a number who do, and I personally still appreciate Milton even though I am increasingly attracted to medieval Catholicism, particularly the Ecclesiology that Milton lacks. But what made me sad about the statement is that it missed the details. Anyone who knows even the smallest bit about either Milton or the Catholic church knows that both are complicated and fierce and noble – we can expect metaphysical fireworks if we put them in the same room, some pleasant and some not so pleasant – I expect there might be concordance on free will, and frustration regarding things like the Miltonic hermits blown about between heaven and the moon, or the Catholic propensity to have fun while doing theology (e. g. Chesterton and St. Francis). All this we would get and more – but suddenly we have decided that terms like Catholic and Milton and Paradise Lost can all be tossed in the same basket – and we are liable to throw Thomas Kinkade in there for good measure. I guess what I am getting at is that, if we want a Christian imagination, we will not get it by campaigning churches to do more for artists or try to be more open to imagination etc. No, it will be when the art we talk about is not blandly and generically Christian, but something else – something flourishing and growing and being transformed in sometimes pleasant and sometimes painful ways. This will only happen when artists care more about their subject and their craft than the production of Christian art, and when this care comes directly out of the charity that is the heart of Christian life. We will know the Christian imagination is flourishing when we stop talking about Christian art in abstractio, and begin to go to aesthetic bat, so to speak, for things we love rather than things we think will make us aesthetically relevant.