Archive for October, 2013

Blake’s Mythology- Is it in you?

This post responds to the first question, “Why does Blake deviate from the Biblical account in making Adam and Noah contemporaries?” In “The Song of Los,” Blake depicts several scenes of his mythological characters delivering gospel and religion to various important religious figures. This image of Blake’s characters as the root of all common religions reminds us of “All Religions are One,” in which Blake posits that all religions come from the same source, and therefore are no different at their core.

It is also important to note that “All Religions are One” claims that religion comes from the poetic genius, which resides within man. Since he depicts his mythological characters as delivering these religious principles to each of the creators of religion, Blake is saying that each of his mythological characters actually resides within these religious leaders, and it is the work of each character that influences each religious leader’s doctrine. For example, Theotormon—the representation of desire that becomes jealousy when repressed—delivers the gospel to Jesus. The decision to have Theotorman deliver Christianity was a conscious one, as Blake is making a comment on the sexual repression perpetuated by the Christian leaders of his time.

The decision to have Urizen deliver his “Laws” to both Noah and Adam together (as contemporaries) was also a conscious one (109). As Urizen delivers the laws to both men, we can assume that both men are crippled by mankind’s reason. Blake undermines the Bible by pointing out the utter uselessness of time—to Blake, Noah and Adam may as well be the same person, as they are crippled by the same thing—man’s logical reason, represented by Urizen’s laws.


Blake’s Song of Los ends which a curious, antithetical image of the grave, cursorily glossed by Johnson and Grant as “a regenerative orgasm” which transforms it into a “fruitful womb” (107):

The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes

Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem;

Her bosom swells with wild desire:

And milk & blood & glandous wine.

In rivers rush & shout & dance

On mountain, dale and plain. (112)

What then to make of this? Life’s natural, teleological progression would, obviously, be toward that of the narrow house, the final and ever-abiding stasis of the grave. This grotesque image upsets and usurps such a formulation, however, making death not decaying but pregnant. There is a Dionysian degradation and delight. Though a degradation that here is more similar to a  “coming down to earth, the contact with the earth that swallows up and gives birth at the same time,” the vital loam; it is to take the idealized and make it fleshy, making lofty concepts corporeal. A discarnate existence in a contradiction in terms—whether here or in the here-after. Blake loathes what ignores the spiritual—e.g. “a Philosophy of the Five Senses” (110) alone—as well as what’s bloodless—e.g. Urizen’s fettering “mechanistic dictates” (107). Blake’s philosophy—however difficult such might be to pin down and delineate (but isn’t that his point?)—is an autochthonous one, one that “transfer[s] every high ceremonial gesture or ritual [here, specifically, death, the lapsing from one life to the next] to the material sphere” (Bakhtin).


Works Cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. Print.  (pg.21)

Blake, William. “The Song of los.” Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print. (pg. 107-12)

Blake creates his own system of mythology in order to communicate his revolutionary message allegorically.  The characters’ meaning and symbolism constantly change through a complex web of relationships with each other and in the context of each prophecy.  While his mythology is an important tool for creating his own system, by incorporating Biblical figures into his writing, Blake breaks from his mythology to communicate through universally understood characters.  By modernizing Biblical characters, Blake mythologizes these figures to as existing outside the limits of historical time.  As mythological entities their symbolic value is more important than their specific actions as outlined in the Bible.

Returning to our earlier reading of Blake’s All Religions Are One, Blake rejects the idea of any individual religion having total authority and instead claims that there are no true differences between religions.  By making these Biblical figures contemporary with his mythological characters, he inserts his system of mythology in the religious sphere on equal footing with the most established religion in England.  Particularly, in Africa, he gives his own characters greater power than these pillars of the Christian faith as “Adam shuddered!” and “Noah faded!” in response to Urizen’s laws.  His mythology is no longer an isolated system or tool in Blake’s writing but a component of a universal religious system.

It is also worth noting which particular Biblical figures he co-opts into his mythological system.  The three men he alludes to in Africa, Adam, Noah, and Abram, all represent fatherhood:  Adam as the father of man, Noah as the only remaining father after the flood, and Abram as the father of the nations.  By placing each of these figures in a weak, responsive position, he emphasizes the unquestioned power of Urizen he seeks to create.  Then, this power dynamic between Urizen and man easily extends through their descendants to include every modern reader.  This allows him to present a mythological system that he discovered rather than created, as though he illuminates characters and relationships that shaped these figures of the past and continue to shape individuals in the present.

This post is a response to the previous post’s fourth question,  “Does the line ‘The Tigers couch upon the prey & suck the ruddy tide’ (Europe 18/15:7; page 106) allude to a Moravian view of Christianity or, literally, to images of fearful tigers in other Blake poems (such as ‘The Tyger’ for instance)?”

Firstly, why do we have to choose between two possible interpretations? Surely the line can allude to both Blake’s other images of fearful tigers and a Moravian view of Christianity. To suggest that interpretation is a matter of either/or is especially “Urizenic” (it has just struck me that metalworkers call compasses “dividers”). Indeed, I think that its allusion to a Moravian view of Christianity makes Europe’s image of a tiger more fearful and therefore more likely to evoke the fearful description (but not depiction) of the tiger in “The Tyger.”

I have argued before that Blake used seemingly Moravian imagery in connection with animals; Europe‘s image of a tiger seems to be an extension of that (my argument is in the third comment down). We don’t have to be aware of the image’s Moravian undertones to find it fearful, but it is easy to read as Moravian. “Couch” gives the image a sexual interpretation that it would not otherwise have had. Although “couch” functions in this sentence as a verb with a similar meaning to “crouch,” it also evokes the idea of beds and lovemaking. The tiger’s sucking of blood then can allude that specific Moravian practice in The Shifting Times. The main cause of the fearfulness of the tiger in “The Tyger” is its predatory nature, the fear it inspires in humans and other animals alike. The image of the tiger in Europe takes this further by suggesting the tiger is also a sexual predator like the primates in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

So, why does Blake make images of animals fearful by having them engage in predatory/destructive sex or sexual acts? The sexual images of the tiger and the primates contrast with the visual images of couples having apparently very enjoyable sex throughout Europe and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. One possible interpretation is that Blake is commenting on ideas of prelapsarian and postlapsarian sex, given the figures in the clouds are angelic and therefore presumably not fallen. However, the excessive and hedonistic depiction of floating couples having intercourse would probably not have matched traditional understandings of prelapsarian or ideal sex1. The naked couples’ obviousness to what is going on around them suggests they aren’t entirely earthly or fallen beings. In contrast, the animals’ sexual behavior is predatory, fatal and therefore very morally compromised. However, in the case of the primates, it is very highly exaggerated and the same is somewhat true with the tiger. It is also incongruous, even ridiculous,  to have happy couples mating amid textual and visual images of destruction. Maybe Blake is lampooning the idea of an unsurpassable distinction between ideal prelapsarian sex and less ideal postlapsarian sex. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw the distinction as “Urizenic.”

1 I’m drawing on the distinction between prelapsarian and postlapsarian sex from Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which sex before the Fall is depicted as purely loving, whereas afterwards it is more lustful. Perhaps someone could enlighten me further on ideas of prelapsarian sexuality? Given Blake’s obsession with Milton, it does seem highly credible he could be playing with his distinction, but I wonder if it was a manifestation of a wider theological distinction.

Newton’s Revolution

Enitharmon sleeps for 1800 years, only to be awoken by Newton’s blowing of the trump. In order to understand Newton’s role in this scene, we must first understand Enitharmon’s slumber. Enitharmon’s slumber begins with the birth of Christ and ends 1800 years later, at the beginning of the French Revolution. Also, her slumber is highly sexually charged: it is described as a “female dream,” and it in, “Man was a Dream” (101). With this knowledge, we can assume Enitharmon’s slumber represents traditional Christian doctrine, in which female sexuality is repressed and seen as a sin.

Why then does Blake decide to have a champion of scientific thinking blow the trump that awakens Enitharmon from this repressive Christian doctrine? Blake rejects Newton’s doctrine because it does not acknowledge creativity or passion. Instead, it attempts to explain worldly phenomena through reason and experimentation. Blake’s use of Newton to awaken Enitharmon revolves around Newton’s involvement in the Scientific Revolution—Blake does not agree with Newton’s doctrine, yet he helped lead a revolution that attacked the current doctrine of thinking in Europe. Newton, therefore, is awakening Enitharmon from her slumber in order to begin a new revolution against traditional sexual repression in Christian doctrine. In this way, Blake paints Newton as someone to be emulated—someone who could think for himself and create his own system of belief—even though Blake disagrees with Newton’s scientific thought process.

Before addressing the trump that awakes Enitharmon, we must first understand the significance of the slumber.  At this point in our study of Blake we are very familiar with his opposition of repetitive action, leaving individuals to thoughtlessly follow a predetermined pattern.  Within this framework, Enitharmon’s “slumber” represents her enslavement in the dull round and corresponding creative dormancy.  Prior to the age of revolution, Blake’s vision of Europe is of a people following the motions of the dull round in the work, social, religious, and political spheres.  His hope for an enlivened revolutionary period in Europe would sweep through each of these areas to awaken individual thought and the intellectual consciousness of entire nations.

Blake vastly simplifies the intellectual and historical context before 1800 into one period of inactivity.  He then introduces Newton to usher in the revolutionary period as a new age of individual creativity and a revival of the poetic genius.  Blake’s relationship with scientific thinkers complicates his choice of Newton as the herald of the new era.  Blake often resists scientists as advocates of a limited range of thought, strictly confined by reason.  Though his subscribers may fall into this pattern, Newton himself is an innovator.   Blake, therefore, presents Newton not as a model for a system of belief but as a model for a kind of behavior and discovery.

By operating within Blake’s mythology, we can extend this metaphor to represent Spiritual Beauty (Damon 124).  Accordingly, Blake’s portrait of the new revolutionary period is then a spiritual revival of the nation.  While he is most prominently known as a scientist and mathematician, Newton also considered himself a prophet (Enlightening Science) and conducted radical theological research.  Newton’s position then provides credibility to Blake’s claim that every individual has the capacity for prophecy.  This “Trump of the last doom” then comes from the prophetic position, and signals the coming revolution as an apocalyptic second coming.

Works Cited:

“Enlightening Science.” Isaac Newton on Religion. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.

To answer the question of why Enitharmon’s eighteen hundred year-old slumber is described as a “female dream,” we must first establish exactly what her dream is. There are three important facts about her dream:

1)      It begins with the birth of Christ and lasts for eighteen hundred years until the French Revolution.

2)      It is a dream of female domination of men: it begins with Enitharmon calling on her sons so “That Woman, lovely Woman! May have dominion” (8/5:3).

3)      It entails the introduction of ideas about the immortality of female sexuality: Enitharmon tells Rintrah and Palamabron to “tell the human race that Woman’s love is Sin” (8/5:5).

As it lasts from the birth of Christ to the French Revolution, Enitharmon’s dream is pre-French Revolution Christianity. However, the depiction that follows is entirely about the consequences of a woman’s choice rather than male subjugation of women. The description of this period as a “female dream” suggests that women desire dominion over men, but chose to achieve it through underhand methods. Therefore, they merely experienced the illusion of being in charge. This is emphasised by the facts that Enitharmon has to call upon her sons to enact her wish of female dominion and that she sleeps during the apparent reign of women. Paradoxically, Enitharmon is passive when she changes the nature of all humanity.

The dream is a female one because it is about female desire. As Enitharmon is “the Eternal female” from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the Great Mother and occasionally plays the part of Eve, she problematically stands for womankind (Damon 125). She is aware that her actions will affect all women because she says that “from her childhood shall the little female/Spread nets in every secret path” (8/5:7-8). So she represents a female desire to subjugate men while also embodying Eve’s sabotage her own sex and the human race. She is depicted as the one responsible for propagating negative ideas about female sexuality. Blake is suggesting that female desire is powerful and dangerous. However, we also suspect that Enitharmon is confused about what she wants for women.

In informing the human race that women’s love is a Sin, Enitharmon denies women the ability to use overt erotic capital and limits their lives to performing underhand romantic conquests. This evokes Mary Wollstonecraft’s critique of these female manners as destructive to women’s emotional and intellectual development. Blake alludes to this both in his description of the female as “little” and her spreading nets in secret paths. However, in making Enitharmon responsible for why women must do this, Blake suggests that such artifice is inherent to female nature. Enitharmon is underhand in establishing female dominion because she tricks humanity and gets two men to do it on her behalf. In presenting this depiction of female desire undermined by female self-sabotage, Blake presents a female dream as the illusion of female power. What troubles me is that this illusion is presented as resulting from the desires of women rather than the desires of men.

Works cited

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Hanover and England: University Press of New England, 1988. Print.

We discussed in class today Blake’s controversial representation of female rape in the “Argument” to Visions of the Daughters of Albion.  Just because we read Blake retrospectively as a “genius” does not mean we should let him off the hook for his sexist representation of female rape:  Oothoon plucks “Leutha’s flower,” asserted her feminine sexual identity by raising “up from the vale,” and, in doing so, occasioned the “terrible thunders” that “tore” her hymen (“virgin mantle”).  Read in isolation from the rest of the poem and from the political and historical context of the 1790s, the “argument” seems to blame the female victim of this poem, Ooothoon, for her rape.  Clearly, this presents a problem for Blake critics who redeem Blake as a radical and proto-feminist thinker ahead of his time.  However, as responsible readers of poetry (and not just Blake’s works), we MUST read this “argument” in its socio-historical context; otherwise we miss the deep layers of meaning implicit in this transgressive act of sexual violence.

Here are the three important contexts to note:

1. Leutha symbolizes sex under the law; sin or guilt, as described in Damon’s A Blake Dictionary.  In a moment strongly reminiscent of Sin’s birth in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Leutha in Blake’s Milton springs from the breast of Satan, and has declared him her “parent power.” Leutha’s separation from Satan, then, is fallen and illusory.  For Milton, Sin sprang from Satan’s head and then becomes–to the shock of the heavenly onlookers–Satan’s adulterous, incestuous lover, copulates with him, and gives birth to Death.  (see the Blake’s engraving of Paradise Lost below, which depicts the moment when Satan, who forgot his transgressive act, encounters Death at the gates of hell and Sin intervenes).

2.  The Blake scholar Angela Esterhammer in “Blake and Language” in William Blake Studies (2006; edited by Nicholas M. Williams) notes that Blake plays with the phonetic resemblance of his invented names.  She argues that the poet creates “pictures of speech,” clusters of loose associations that point to specific socio-historical contexts through sound-patterns.  She therefore concludes that

Blake’s Leutha represents ‘Protestant speech’ — an association achieved partly through the pun on ‘Luther’, but mainly through her own verbal behaviour in Blake’s prophetic poems, where she manifests ‘Protestant’ modes of speech such as public self-scrutiny, self-exaggeration, confession, and plain-spokenness (73).

3. Leutha’s flower symbolically resonates with Mary Wollstonecraft’s elaborate conceit about the overfertilized, beautiful, yet barren flower: women who are reduced to becoming men’s sex toys thanks to religious and educational conduct books that assign them a subservient role as good domestic helpmates, i.e. “abject slaves.”  See The Vindication of the Rights of Women.

"Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell", Illustrations to Milton's "Paradise Lost", The Butts Set, 1808, Blake Archive, Huntington Library
“Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell”, Illustrations to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, The Butts Set, 1808, Blake Archive, Huntington Library

These three contexts help flesh out the allegorical structure underpinning Blake’s “argument”:  rape (tearing the mantle in twain) symbolizes a theological (“Protestant”) and patriarchal sexual violation of the holy female body (Christ as a female).  In uncovering these dense allegory, I am arguing that Blake is providing a Moravian-antinomian critique of corrupt and oppressive Protestant gender norms in England.  To clinch this argument, I treat the torn mantle as another associative “pictures of speech,” a vivid biblical allusion to Jesus’s redemptive moment during his crucifixion:

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split” (Matthew 27: 50-51).

This moment of vaginal penetration as rape ironically recalls the holy place of the tabernacle: an inner room called the holy of holies, or the most holy place according to biblical tradition.

As described in the Old Testament, this inner room of the temple was a most sacred room, because it was God’s special dwelling place in the midst of His people during the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. The Holy of Holies was a perfect cube separated by a thick curtain, known as the “veil” (in Hebrew means a screen, divider or separator that hides). What was this curtain hiding? It was shielding a holy God from sinful man. Whoever entered into the holy of holies was entering the very presence of God and anyone other than the high priest who entered the holy of holies would die. Even the high priest, God’s chosen mediator with His people, could only pass through the veil and enter this sacred dwelling once a year, on a prescribed day called the Day of Atonement. “But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (Hebrews 9:7). So the presence of God remained shielded from man behind a thick curtain during the history of Israel. However, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross made direct access to God available to all people–not just the priests. When Jesus died the curtain in the Jerusalem temple was torn in half, performing the sacrificial atonement that could finally unveil the holy of holies.

But what exact does the holy of holies look like? To answer this question, we need to know about the figure of cherubim (plural term for hybrid lion/human angels) that were embroidered onto this curtain. They were spirits who serve God, and God was thought to be present in between these two spirits. The cherubim serves as a reminder of what use to be housed in this inner room: the Ark of the Covenant. This transportable ark was said to contain the testimony of the people of Israel, or the Law of the original Ten Commandandments written on stone tablets. A special lid or “mercy seat” covered the top of the ark and was ornamented with two cherubs whose outspread wings overarched the cover and touched one another (see image below).

illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries

According to Kabbalists, Moravians, and Swedenborgians, the golden sculpture of male and female cherubs that guarded the Ark were entwined in the act of marital intercourse, thus forming an emblem of God’s joyful marriage with his female counterpart, Jerusalem. When the Temple was sacked by pagans, the erotic statuary was paraded through the streets in order to embarress the Israelites. In other words, God manifests through sexual union and guides those who work with this holy mystery.

So to return to Blake’s image of virginal penetration as rape. Oothoon, in picking the ideal feminine flower of beauty from Leutha’s vale, or sex regulated under the law, has freely chosen the joys of sexuality but also, ironically, the very patriarchal law that prohibits  women’s full enjoyment of sexuality: Protestant-Lutheran theological notions of female chastity and original sin.  For Blake, these notions are associated with the triumph of Satan.  In other words, the holy of holies–sexual union of the cherubim–is violated by a violent, satanic theological-patriarchal penetration of sacred sexuality; hence, the trope of rape.  The holy of holies cannot be made universal until humanity is free from sex under the law, especially for women, as revealed in Christ’s bodily crucifixion (for Moravians, Christ’s death wound/womb). This allegorical argument, I believe, aligns Blake’s sexual (Moravian) theology with his feminist politics, which is clearly very different from Mary Wollstonecraft’s more secular feminism.

But I’m afraid that I’ve de-emphasizing Blake’s sexist views on the female sex victim by offering this elaborate allegorical reading, yet another redemptive interpretation of Blake that reads rape metaphorically rather than literally!!!  This reading raises a central question for class discussion: as critics of English literature, what is our ethical responsibility toward the literature we interpret?

In class on Wednesday, I had difficultly reconciling the apocalyptic revolution depicted in “A Song of Liberty” with its abrupt, triumphant ending. The poem’s allusions to the Book of Revelation notwithstanding, “Empire is no more! and now the lion & the wolf shall cease” is a very simplistic resolution to the violence, conflict and chaos of the rest of the poem (verse 20). Thinking about the poem’s position in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I began to wonder if Blake were inherently more interested in the immediate chaos of revolutions than their outcomes. Might the poem be reveling in its own chaos and that of the continental revolutions? Blake certainly seems to be displaying an anarchist streak.

I’d like to quickly contrast the depiction of revolution as apocalyptic in “A Song of Liberty” with the playwright Samuel Beckett’s depiction of a post-apocalyptic situation in Endgame. Although obviously Blake never read Beckett, I’m putting the two together because perception is hugely important in both their works.  There is also to my knowledge no text that better depicts the sheer banality of a dull round of being than Beckett’s. The following clip from a production of Endgame wasn’t my ideal choice, but it does address perception and convey Hamm and Clov’s dull round.

One of the consequences of the apocalypse in Endgame is the narrowing of the characters’ perceptions. Hamm has lost his sight and can’t move, while Clov cannot see anything clearly out of the windows. In contrast, an apocalyptic revolution for Blake seems to entail the complete opposite. In “A Song of Liberty,” the son of fire falling from the sky – the appearance of revolution – increases the perceptions of the human race. The narrator extorts the citizen of London to “enlarge thy countenance,” the Jew to “leave counting gold” and the African to return to his oil and wine (verse 12). This urge to abandon ethnic stereotypes suggests that revolution will enhance human perception  to a level where we no longer be confined by restricted modes of thinking. This might explain how the prophesied peace would be achieved. The apocalyptic revolution in the poem entails the destruction of established religion, the law and empire. Blake is suggesting that human perception will be expanded once the institutions that he believes limit it are gone.

Furthermore, the narrator’s journey through Hell or chaos throughout The Marriage of Heaven and Hell strongly suggests that the narrator’s experience of chaos/Hell as well as order/Heaven increases his perception and understanding. However, as the narrator spends almost all of his time in Hell, isn’t Blake suggesting that chaos is infinitely preferable to order, despite the fact that they are supposed to be in a marriage?

There’s more to be said here, but I’ll end on the heart of the issue. Blake seems to focus on the immediate chaos of revolution because he believes that the tearing down of old and corrupt establishments gives humanity a chance to see reality more clearly. Uncharacteristically, he seems to take the outcome of revolution as given in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Perhaps modern readers and artists have become much more concerned about the outcomes of revolutions and apocalypses with experience. How would Blake respond to depictions of apocalypse like Beckett’s, which suggests that chaos and destruction only make it harder to tell illusion from reality and friend from foe?

Idea map of Blake’s Politics

Today in class students have made some progress in understanding Blake’s political views in the context of the 1790s.  We concluded that Blake does not fit the political categories of “Left” and “Right,” problematizing this contrary itself, and adopts the biblical language of apocalypse/the Second coming to articulate his utopian vision while deviating from the standard political discourses of social contracts, national sovereignty, and rights shared by Burke, Price, and Paine.  Clearly, Blake’s New Jerusalem is an odd political and theological duck for his era!

Students should revise this week’s post to better address the political issues raised in class today.  To help you with this task, focus on the concluding section to The Marriage, “A Song of Liberty” (pp. 81-82).  Your revised post is due by 4pm this Friday (10/4); the designated student will comment on these posts by 5pm that day.

Here are some pics of the Blake idea map students and I created collaboratively  in class:

274 blake 2

274 blake 1

274 blake 3