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?