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Hirelings and Laborers: Biblical Parable in Blake’s Milton

Mercenaires et travailleurs : la parabole biblique dans Milton de Blake
Leslie Tannenbaum
p. 122-132


Le poème épique de William Blake, Milton, commence par une diatribe contre les mercenaires, ce qui, dans le contexte miltonien, fait immédiatement penser aux Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings out of the Church. Ces deux textes font référence aux discours bibliques sur le travail, plus particulièrement aux notions chrétiennes de vocation et de travail et à la distinction qu’établit Jésus entre le bon berger et le mercenaire dans la parabole du berger (Jean 10.1-21). Pour Milton et Blake, ce discours sur le travail eut une influence directe sur leur conception de ce qu’est l’artiste, le public et de leurs responsabilités et rôles mutuels. Dans son poème, Blake prend comme point de départ la distinction biblique de Milton entre le vrai travailleur et le mercenaire, et fait de cette distinction le fondement de l’énigmatique Chant du Barde qui déclenche l’action du poème. Le Chant du Barde est, entre autres, une parabole concernant le travail qui rejoint la plupart des préoccupations exprimées dans la Bible ou développées par Milton. En fait, la forme et le contenu paraboliques du Chant du Barde deviennent des moyens essentiels pour, à la fois, accomplir et décrire le genre de travail que Blake considérait comme la mission du vrai travailleur et du vrai poète-prophète.

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1The Preface to William Blake’s epic poem, Milton, contains the well-known hymn “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” which is popularly known as “Jerusalem.” In those famous lines, Blake calls for mental—as opposed to corporeal—war, arming himself with his “Bow of burning gold,” his “Arrows of desire,” and his spear, sword and “Chariot of fire” in order to build “Jerusalem/In England’s green and pleasant Land” (Plate 1). What is less well known about this hymn is that it is preceded by a prose diatribe delineating the targets of Blake’s imaginative artillery. Blake declaims,

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University. [B]elieve Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. (Plate 1)

2The young men that Blake addresses are the young artists of his own time, and the hirelings are those who advocate the following of ancient Greek and Roman models of art, which promote empire and corporeal war. This railing against hirelings in a poem named after Milton immediately invokes some important Miltonic contexts, namely Milton’s own prose diatribe, Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings out of the Church and his sonnet, “To the Lord General Cromwell,” which exhorts Cromwell to help the English people preserve freedom of Conscience from “hireling wolves” (l. 14). The hirelings in this case are the clergy, who want to live by means of a government-enforced system of tithes. Blake’s reference to Milton’s railing against hirelings is hardly accidental, as Blake is presenting an epic poem in which the great Milton takes meaningful action to help Blake rid the country of hirelings and build Jerusalem in “England’s green and pleasant land.” More significantly, Blake’s citation of Milton focuses on the issue of labor and frames that issue within a biblical context that both Blake and Milton share.

3In their use of the term “hireling,” both Milton and Blake are referring to a body of biblical discourse on labor, particularly the biblical notion of the Christian calling and the possible corruption of that calling. This biblical discourse is articulated in the distinction between the true laborer and the hireling. The most relevant biblical passage in this regard contains the distinction that Jesus makes between the good shepherd and the hireling in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of St. John:

I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is a hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth; and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is a hireling, and careth not for the sheep. (10.11-10.13)

  • 1  John Milton, Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings Out of the Church in (...)

4Milton, whose pamphlet against hirelings and whose sonnet to Cromwell were written in response to the great public debate in the 1650s over the issue of government-enforced tithing, directly invokes this biblical distinction between the hireling and the shepherd as a means of defining the proper work of the Christian minister; but ultimately Milton is concerned with the labor of all believing Christians. His sonnet also improvises upon the original biblical passage by conflating the hirelings with the wolves, making them “hireling wolves” whose only gospel is the feeding of their faces. These hirelings, in Milton’s definition, are Christian ministers who receive excessive payment for their work or who receive their payment through corrupt means, such as government enforcement1. In building his case against these practices, Milton’s pamphlet incorporates the biblical discourse from St. John’s Gospel with other biblical sources concerning the labor and payment of those who claim to be carrying on God’s work. And in the course of his argument, Milton calls into question the necessity for classical learning on the part of the clergy, as he emphasizes the importance of simplicity, divine grace, and charity in the process of teaching and learning Christian religion. In fact, Milton seems to be at great pains to lessen the gap between teacher and learner, so that by the time he reaches the end of his argument, teacher and learner are joint participants in the same project of edification, the building up of Christ’s body or the true church, as seen in Milton’s quotation of a passage from Ephesians: “He gave som apostles,’ &c. For the perfeting of the saints, for the work of the ministerie, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we are all come to the unitie of the faith.” (316; Ephesians 4:11-12). Milton intensifies this point at the very end of his pamphlet by coming to the radical conclusion that the best way to eliminate hirelings is for all Christians to be potential—if not actual—ministers of Christ by realizing “thir spiritual priesthood” (320). Thus, from Milton’s point of view, the professionalization of the clergy signals an abrogation of responsibility on the part of Christians, a desire to become passive in their own religious education and practice. And in the abrogation of that responsibility, Milton sees the abrogation of Christian liberty.

5Milton’s vision of a universal priesthood, which is both the means and the end of removing hirelings, is echoed in Blake’s quotation of the words of Moses at the end of his Preface to Blake’s Milton: “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets. Numbers XI. ch 29 v.” (Plate 1). Here Blake takes Milton’s argument one step further, in his desire that all people be prophets—rather than priests—and co-workers in the edification or building of Christ’s Body, the true church, or—in Blake’s phrase—“Jerusalem/ in England’s green and pleasant Land.” For Blake, though, this labor is not a matter of pedagogy, or at least not directly so, since his focus is on the work of the Christian artist or the artist-as-prophet. This is clearly indicated in the Preface to Milton through Blake’s setting up the hirelings as proponents of the Greek and Roman classics, an echo of Milton’s association of classical learning with hirelings, and Blake’s identification of the true laborers as the followers of Jesus, the Apostles and all the “more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men” who wrote the Bible (Plate 1). For the hirelings in Blake’s Preface seek their power not from the Church or the government but from the market economy; they threaten to depress the powers of young artists “by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works” (Plate 1). In so doing, Blake’s hirelings are at war with “the Sublime of the Bible” and ultimately at war with Jesus, whom Blake identifies with the Imagination.

6In this articulation of an opposition between hirelings as slavish followers of the classics and true laborers as followers of Imagination, Blake employs some other terms borrowed from Milton. Blake identifies hirelings as the followers of the “Daughters of Memory” and identifies the truly inspired artists as the followers of the “Daughters of Inspiration,” a distinction that Milton himself makes in another pamphlet, The Reason of Church Government, where he argues for the aesthetic superiority of Scripture over the pagan classics. There Milton pledges to write an inspired poetic work that is not to be

  • 2  John Milton, The Reason of Church-government Urged against Prelatry in Don M. Wolfe et al. (eds.), (...)

obtain’d by the invocation of Dame Memory and her Siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternall Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim with hallow’d fire of his Altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases”2.

7The last image is an allusion to a vision of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-6:7) and links the true labor of the Christian poet-prophet with Milton’s image of the true Christian minister, as both share a strong sense of divine calling and divine obligation. Despite these intentions, though, which Blake’s allusion to Milton’s pamphlet recognizes, Blake goes on to say that Milton did succumb to the siren song of the Daughters of Memory, as Blake claims that both Milton and Shakespeare “were both curbd by the general malady and infection of the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the sword” (Plate 1).

8In order to rectify this state of affairs and align Milton with the true laborers, Blake returns to the biblical sources that both he and Milton are building upon in order to elaborate upon the distinction between hirelings and laborers in aesthetic terms. And Blake does this by employing biblical form as well as biblical content, in keeping with his notion of the “Sublime of the Bible.” For the enigmatic Bard’s song that initiates the action of Blake’s epic employs the content and methodology of biblical parable. Parabolic form and expression permeate the entire New Testament, and are strongly present in the chapter in the Gospel of John that articulates the distinction between the hireling and the true laborer. While not as elaborate as the parables in the synoptic gospels, this one follows the usual biblical practice of using the everyday to make a spiritual/eschatological point. The whole chapter is framed in terms of the work of the shepherd, with Jesus first separating the true shepherd from a thief in terms of who comes in by the door of the sheepfold, then identifying himself as that door but also as the shepherd, then distinguishing the shepherd from the hireling, as I have already pointed out.

9As the Scripture tells us, “This parable spake Jesus unto them; but they understood not what things which he spake unto them” (10.6). Jesus then goes on to explicate some of his parable, but not all of it. And even then, he does not explain how he could be the door and also the shepherd that goes through the door. It is all a mystery and deliberately so, but the labor images employed by this parable link a vital aspect of everyday living to important spiritual truths. In this case, the most important aspects of the spiritual labor that are being described in parabolic terms are the issues of knowledge, unity and self-sacrifice. The true shepherd, as opposed to the thief and the hireling, knows and is known by the sheep (10.15). Also, in giving his life for the sheep, Jesus emphasizes the complete surrender of himself to the work he is doing and to the objects of his work. Most importantly, this surrender is done voluntarily; and his self-sacrifice is the actual condition of his freedom and power: “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (10.17-18). This connection between the conditions of labor and spiritual concerns finds ample development in other biblical parables as well, such as the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, where the logic of equitable wages is destroyed by the keeper of the vineyard paying an equal amount of money to all the laborers, no matter how long they have worked (Matt. 20:1-16). Similarly, the need for workers to spread the Word is articulated by the famous phrase repeated in Matthew and Luke: “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few” (Matt. 9:37; Luke 10:12). And the parable of the two sons working in the vineyard in Matthew (Matt. 21:28-31) again uses questions of labor and labor attitudes to articulate important spiritual truths.

  • 3  James Rieger, “'The Hem of Their Garments': The Bard's Song in Milton” in Stuart Curran and Joseph (...)

10That Blake’s poem is heavily engaged with these biblical tropes is most strongly indicated by the last line of Milton, where everyone is preparing “To go forth to the Great Harvest & Vintage of the Nations” (43.1). But the poem is set up in these terms from the very beginning, since the Bard’s Song, which initiates the poem’s action, is articulated in terms derived from this parabolic discourse. The Bard’s Song, which is sung for an audience of Eternals that includes the now-deceased Milton, is—among other things—a parable concerning labor that engages with many of the concerns expressed in the Bible and articulated in Milton’s writings. However strange the setting and the characters, the narrative in the Bard’s Song is about a labor dispute in Eternity among the sons of Los, who represents the Imagination. His three sons are Satan, who manages the mills of Eternity, Palamabron, whose job is to plow, and Rintrah, who works the harrow. To summarize the action in the Bard’s Song very briefly, Satan wants to take control of the Plow of Palamabron. His motive clearly is envy. For whatever reason, Satan thinks that Palamabron’s work is more desirable. Palamabron, for his part, agrees to this exchange and takes over Satan’s mills for a day, out of fear of displeasing his father by seeming to be ungrateful. When Satan and Palamabron thus exchange labors, each one bungles the job terribly and causes a great deal of chaos and confusion in Eternity. This leads to Satan’s blaming his failure on Palamabron and also his accusing Palamabron of deliberately sabotaging the work of his helpers in the mills. The whole dispute ends up in a mind-boggling court case that results in an equally mind-boggling outcome, as the judgment falls on neither of the contestants but on Rintrah, who is being scapegoated in this situation. While critics and scholars continue to debate the meaning of the whole tale, a few things come across very clearly. As James Rieger has pointed out, the whole parable is designed to expose the flaws in legalistic thinking, since no matter where the judgment falls in the case, Satan—who represents the principle of selfhood and self-righteous judgment in the poem—always wins3. In this way, Blake is employing the kind of parabolic logic that one finds in the Gospels: common sense notions of equity and justice simply do not apply. Blake’s depiction of a judgment falling on an innocent third party is as puzzling as the idea that the first laborer in the vineyard shall be last and the last shall be first (Matt. 20:16). In the world of parable, the situation looks familiar, but there is a sudden shift, or a series of shifts that de-familiarizes it all and plunges the reader or hearer into a different realm—a realm where human reason cannot operate. And this is precisely the object in both cases, since Satan is identified with the kind of either/or thinking that Reason promotes and that leads to self-righteousness, self-interest and self-aggrandizement. In short, the rational world view—which the parabolic world view opposes—makes one a hireling, according to Blake.

11Blake’s implicit understanding of parabolic discourse and how it works is in keeping with the ideas of some of the biblical commentators who were being read during Blake’s time. These preachers and scholars understood parables to be subversive of reason, human wisdom, and the rational will; and they noted the paradoxical nature of parabolic language and intention in using familiar or everyday situations and then deliberately de-familiarizing them. The widely-read Matthew Henry, in his commentaries on Mark 4 and Matthew 13, two gospel chapters that explicitly theorize about parables, noted that parables were both an act of divine condescension and mystification. In his notes on Matthew 13:4, Henry writes, “Our Saviour used it [parabolic speech] much, and in it condescended to the capacities of people, and lisped to them in their own language.” He further elaborates in his commentary on Matthew 13:11:

Christ’s parables are borrowed from common, ordinary things, not from any philosophical notions or speculations, or the unusual phenomena of nature, though applicable enough to the matter in hand, but from the most obvious things, that are of every day’s observation, and come within the reach of the meanest capacity.

  • 4  BenjaminKeach, Exposition of the Parables in the Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, [1701] 197 (...)
  • 5  Ibid., 4.
  • 6  Idem.

12Yet Henry later states in his notes on the same verse, “A parable is a shell that keeps good fruit for the diligent, but keeps it from the slothful” and also that the meaning of parables is available to those who have, through God’s grace, been given “a hearing ear and a seeing eye.” According to Henry, then, Jesus employed familiar images to get the attention or stimulate the curiosity of the common people but made the parables difficult for the people to understand without labor and/or spiritual understanding. Similarly, Benjamin Keach, author of the frequently-reprinted and cited Exposition of the Parables, explains that parables use everyday and natural images “to open the mind of God the better to our weak capacities”4 but then goes on to say that parables are obscure, like a gold mine in which readers must “dig and search with all pains and digilence”5 to discover the meaning of this discourse. Again, divine accommodation and divine obfuscation, the familiar and the strange, are the paradoxical qualities that one finds in parable, which Keach understands to be reflective of the economy of divine grace, in opposition to the old dispensation of living under the Law. Parables, according to Keach, are intended to confound “the greatest human learning, or the clearest natural or acquired parts”6 so as to open the way to divine wisdom. Thus, in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), which is never explained by Jesus, human notions of justice, equity and economy are contradicted and subverted by a system of divine grace, which does not provide equal pay for equal labor. For both Keach and Henry, then, parable is a conscious attempt to undermine worldly wisdom and open the mind to divine mysteries.

  • 7  FrancisBragge, Practical Discourses Upon the Parables of Our Blessed Saviour, London: S. Manship, (...)
  • 8 Idem.

13Francis Bragge propounded a more radical theory of parable, seeing parables as operating beyond conscious understanding. He asserts that parables use images from everyday experience but make them unfamiliar in order to break down the hearers’ resistance to the divine truths that the parables contain. Anticipating Blake’s ideas about how his poetry affects the imagination, Bragge writes that parables first impress themselves upon the fancy or imagination of the hearer well before the act of interpretation takes place, thus allowing the parables to have “their due effect upon their understandings, wills and affections”7. Thus the divine truths contained in parables “insensibly Insinuate themselves, and work upon the Mind even before a Man is aware of it, or can set himself to make Resistance”8. Such a theory of parables privileges those who consciously understand them as an “elect” audience, the condition of whose election is the imaginative capacity to overlook or go beyond the limiting objections of reason and common sense.

14Blake’s Milton is just such an audience, as he is the only member of the Bard’s immediate group of hearers to understand the Bard’s parabolic song. By hearing the Bard’s narrative of the labor conflict and its resolution, he realizes that the only way to escape the no-win situation that Satan has set up, is through voluntary self-sacrifice, which is exactly the point that Jesus makes in his distinction between hirelings and the true shepherd. The true shepherd willingly gives his life for his sheep. At that point Milton realizes that he has to leave Eternity and enter the temporal world again, to undergo self-annihilation:

I will go down to self annihilation and eternal death,
Lest the Last Judgment come & find me unannihilate
And I be siez’d & giv’n into the hands of my own Selfhood.
What do I here before the Judgment?
With the daughters of memory, & not the daughters of inspiration [?]
I in my Selfhood am that Satan: I am that Evil One! (14:2-23, 28-30)

15For Blake, then, Jesus’ idea of self-sacrifice does not necessarily imply physical martyrdom; rather, self-sacrifice is the sacrifice of the Selfhood, the rational ego that feeds on the sacrifice of others, to principles of abstract justice and principles of self-interest. Milton’s exemplary deed, the main action of the poem, is to go to self-annihilation, to leave Eternity so that he can root out the Selfhood and cast it off—an action that is inspired by the parabolic tale that only he understands.

16Through this parable, then, and the response that it inspires, Blake is extending the notion of hirelings to include people who work out of corrupt motives, whose work feeds rather than denies the principle of Selfhood. In this regard, he is close to the spirit of Jesus’ parable but gives it all a more subtle turn. Besides the example of Milton’s act of self-sacrifice, Blake gives a contemporary instance in the figures of John Wesley and George Whitefield, the founders of Methodism, “who devote/ Their life’s whole comfort to intire scorn & injury & death” (23.1-2). Like Milton, Wesley and Whitefield are true laborers because they are on the side of inspiration, against the Selfhood. This notion of true Christian labor receives its most eloquent expression at the end of the poem, in Milton’s great confession of his renewed sense of vocation:

To bathe in the Waters of Life; to wash off the Not Human
I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration
To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour
To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration.
To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Inspiration. (41.1-6)

17Thus, in the Bard’s Song and in his representation of Milton’s reaction to it, Blake is both expressing and enacting a theory of labor that he and Milton share with their biblical source. Besides recognizing the main point, that all of the characters in the Bard’s Song have been behaving like hirelings rather than laborers, Milton himself models the role of true laborer by beginning as true reader or hearer of the Word and then as a minister whose job is to act upon that hearing.

  • 9  See James MRobinson, “Jesus’ Parables as God Happening” in A New Quest of the Historical Jesus and (...)

18In all this, Blake sees parable in dynamic eschatological terms. He looks forward to current understandings of the nature of parable by setting up the Bard’s Song as a speech-event that enacts the divine presence, that confronts the hearer with a new view of his present situation, and that calls the hearer to a decision9. More than this, Blake is enacting the kind of ideal of Christian liberty that Milton himself had envisioned in his Hirelings pamphlet. Characters are confronted with a divine message, and both sender and receiver share in a divine event that transforms the hearer. Besides imparting a message, the sender also sets up the conditions of agency, transforming the known world into a new world of possibilities that leads to meaningful action.

19Blake’s epic thus uses the biblical distinction between laborers and hirelings to advance a theory of narrative, authorship, and readership that centers around the biblical form of the parable, using parable as a means of defining the legitimate roles of writer and reader. His ideal, like that of Milton and Jesus before him, is to create a situation in which both writer and reader, speaker and hearer, are joint laborers in the harvest and the vintage. And such a joint enterprise among equals would be, in Milton’s words, the likeliest means of removing hirelings.

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BLAKE William, Milton. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, David V. Erdman (ed.), New York: Doubleday, 1988, 95-144.

BRAGGE Francis, Practical Discourses Upon the Parables of Our Blessed Saviour, London: S. Manship, 1694.

HENRY Matthew, An Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, 706-1721,

KEACH Benjamin, Exposition of the Parables in the Bible, 1701, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 1974.

LINNEMANN Eta, Jesus of the Parables: Introduction and Exposition, Trans. John Sturdy, New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

MILTON John, Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings Out of the Church in Don M. Wolfe et al. (eds.), Complete Prose Works of John Milton, Vol. 7, New Haven: Yale UP, 1980, 274-321.
----, The Reason of Church-government Urged against Prelatry in Don M. Wolfe et al. (eds.), Complete Prose Works of John Milton, Vol. 1, New Haven: Yale UP, 1953, 736-861.
----, “To the Lord General Cromwell” in John Carey (eds.), Complete Shorter Poems, London and New York: Longman, 1997, 328-29.

RIEGER James, “‘The Hem of Their Garments’: The Bard’s Song in Milton”, in CURRAN Stuart and Joseph Anthony WITTREICH, Jr (eds.), Blake’s Sublime Allegory: Essays on “The Four Zoas,” “Milton,” “Jerusalem, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, 259-80.

ROBINSON James M, “Jesus’ Parables as God Happening” in A New Quest of the Historical Jesus and Other Essays, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983, 196-210.

VIA Dan O., Jr, The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension, London: Fortress Press, 1967.

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1  John Milton, Considerations Touching the Likeliest Means to Remove Hirelings Out of the Church in Don M. Wolfe et al. (eds.), Complete Prose Works of John Milton, Vol. 7, New Haven: Yale UP, 1980, 278-281

2  John Milton, The Reason of Church-government Urged against Prelatry in Don M. Wolfe et al. (eds.), Complete Prose Works of John Milton, Vol. 1, New Haven: Yale UP, 1953, 820-821

3  James Rieger, “'The Hem of Their Garments': The Bard's Song in Milton” in Stuart Curran and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr (eds.), Blake's Sublime Allegory: Essays on “The Four Zoas”, “Milton”, “Jerusalem”, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, 270

4  BenjaminKeach, Exposition of the Parables in the Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, [1701] 1974, 2.

5  Ibid., 4.

6  Idem.

7  FrancisBragge, Practical Discourses Upon the Parables of Our Blessed Saviour, London: S. Manship, 1694, n. p.

8 Idem.

9  See James MRobinson, “Jesus’ Parables as God Happening” in A New Quest of the Historical Jesus and Other Essays, Philadelphia: Fortress P, 1983, 196-203; EtaLinnemann, Jesus of the Parables: Introduction and Exposition, Trans. John Sturdy, New York: Harper & Row, 1966, 30-3; Dan O.Via, Jr, The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension, London: Fortress Press, 1967, 52-69.

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Leslie Tannenbaum, « Hirelings and Laborers: Biblical Parable in Blake’s Milton »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. V - n°4 | 2007, 122-132.

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Leslie Tannenbaum

(Ohio State University, U. S. A.)
Leslie Tannenbaum is an Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University, and his specialty is British Romantic literature. He is the author of Biblical Tradition in William Blake’s Early Prophecies: The Great Code of Art, and articles on Blake, Byron and Mary Shelley. He has also written on the fantastic in popular culture and children’s literature, including an essay on Eddie Murphy’s film, Vampire in Brooklyn, and another on Judaism and gender in Maurice Sendak’s Really Rosie.

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