Blake was writing in 1790, when the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger rallied the British ruling classes against the French Revolution and oppressed the English Jacobins with a vast network of spies. Soon afterward, he suspended the chartered rights of Englishmen.
Daniel Isaac Eaton was prosecuted by Pitt’s government for publishing remarks by his fellow radical John Thelwall in 1793. Convicted, he served three months. Finally brought to trial, he was acquitted. In 1812 the revolutionary poet and agitator Percy Bysshe Shelley published an essay, “A Letter to Lord Ellenborough,” taking up Eaton’s cause and demanding freedom of publication.
Malcolm X was in good company: William Blake, Shelley, William Hazlitt. They also understood that Satan’s rebellion against the tyranny of Heaven had been reenacted in the French Revolution and in their own aspirations for a better humankind.
I think the issue of Paradise Lost’s Satan must finally be resolved by considering the influence of the mind of the poet John Milton upon itself. One of my constant endeavors is to surmise the influence of Shakespeare’s mind upon itself by speculating upon the influence of Hamlet on its poet-playwright. Prince Hamlet and the poem unlimited Hamlet made possible Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Falstaff and the two Henry IV plays made Shakespeare possible by making him popular. But with John Milton I experience greater difficulty at surmising his poetic mind’s influence upon his indwelling spirit, or the deep effect of completing Paradise Lost upon its poet. Shakespeare had his audience at the Globe. Milton did find fit audience though fewer. Falstaff and Hamlet perform in the theater of mind. So do Satan and Eve. But the mind has many mansions, and only Shakespeare could dwell in all of them at once. Milton has a vast reach, yet his epic has to accept limits. Where are the limits of Sir John Falstaff or of Prince Hamlet?
How does John Milton’s pride differ from that of Paradise Lost’s Satan? Milton asserted that he had found “a better way” than Shakespeare’s freedom of nature, a way that would allow the representation of Heaven as well as Hell. No sensitive reader prefers Milton’s Heaven to Dante’s paradiso. If there is a paradise in Shakespeare, it would have to be the forest of Arden. Whatever the enchantments of The Tempest, its time scheme is merciless and Prospero nearly misses his cue.
Would not Milton have said that he knew no time when he was not as now? He felt that his puissance was his own. As a poet he believed himself to be self-begotten. The Holy Spirit embedded in him went back before the Creation and so was the earliest element in his poetic mind.
In the first, a Divine presence shows him his first sight of Eden. In the second, Eve is created from his rib and becomes his wife. I have always assumed that Keats compounded the two dreams. It is all the more poignant because his authentic love for Fanny Brawne was never consummated, so far as can be known. It is difficult for me to believe that Keats went to his death with no sexual experience: there is speculation that he was compelled to turn to prostitutes. When he said of Milton that “life to him would be death to me”, his explanation for abandoning the first Hyperion in May 1819, he seems to have meant that he wanted a less Latinate English than Milton’s in Paradise Lost. Keats had so Shakespearean a sensibility and intellect that probably much more than language was involved. He credited Wordsworth with more knowledge of the human heart than Milton manifested, but his true divinity was Shakespeare.