Tag Archive: Moravianism


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?

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Sex, Religion, and Poetic Vision

For next Wednesday (9/25), students will write posts as comments to one of my former students:

https://williamblakeandenlightenmentmedia.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/blake-zinzendorf-nuns-et-al/

Help this student develop a coherent interpretation by providing a close reading of a passage from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that, in your view, has strong Moravian images, themes, and overtones.  You are also free to respond to the former comments to this student’s post.  Write your post in the comment box unless you plan to upload images or videos, in which case you should create a regular post and categorize it under “Christ and the Body.”

So the Angel said: “Thy phantasy has imposed upon me & thou oughtest to be ashamed”

In William Blake’s past there is a close relationship with the Moravian religion that seems to reveal itself, unsurprisingly, in his work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In the work, Blake chooses to depict a scene of utter grotesqueness that reveals to his companion, an angel, the truth of his own religion—that it is constructed on the bones of reason. Blake takes a satirical aim at the Moravian religion by depicting the rotting corpses—a fleshly representation of the Moravian church central to its teachings—as intolerable. He places his satire on an equal level as that of Swedenborgian teachings in his more blatant mockery of the writer’s “new truth” (“A Memorable Fancy” MoH&H. 22. 1; 79).  It seems that Blake is trying to communicate his distaste for Church teachings that have been institutionalized in his condescension of them—as evidenced by the tension between he, the angel, and the devil. Blake ultimately reveals through his satire that he wishes to not favor any particular school of thought, but instead he chooses to favor an altered perception beyond a limited scope created by systematized barriers of organized religion.

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).

As we discussed in class last Friday, I think these lines from Matthew are central to the allegorical “Argument” that prefaces “Visions of the Daughter of Albion,” particularly the last two lines “But the terrible thunders tore / My virgin mantle in twain.” In order understand the significance of this biblical allusion for Blake’s sexual politics, we need to discover how and why this moment of vaginal penetration as rape (why rape?) is ironically related to the holy place of the tabernacle: an inner room called the holy of holies, or the most holy place.

As decribed 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.

This indicates a profound relationship with Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, as displayed in the santuaries of their temples:

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 choosen the joys of sexuality but also, ironically, the very patriarchal law that probits womem’s full enjoyment of sexuality: Bromion’s “terrible thunders” of reason, acting on behalf of Urizen (“your reason”). In other words, the holy of holies–sexual union of the cherubim–is violated by reason’s violent penetration (rape). Hence, 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 crucifixtion (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.

I’m offerring a provisional reading here…any other thoughts?

Moravianism vs. the Church

A broad glance at William Blake’s work seems not to yield the notion that Blake was overly concerned with depicting the physical body or appearance of Christ. But the influence of the Moravian beliefs of his parents and of his childhood is nevertheless present in Blake’s productions.

Lamentation Over the Body of Christ by John Valentine Haidt

Blake is focused on humanizing divinity and on emphasizing the easy access humans have to God. This is why Christ is such a prevalent figure in Blake’s art: apart from his perceiving Christ as the ultimate artist, one of Blake’s main beliefs was in the access to God Christ provided to man. Thus “God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.” Christ’s assumption of the physical human body is what rendered his crucifixion meaningful: only the death of a perfect human could bring about salvation. Christ’s wounds thus encapsulate the message of Christianity: the body of Christ, to Blake, is one of his faith’s most important symbols, for in his death Christ provided access for all humanity to a direct relationship with God.

Communication with the divine lies at the heart of Blake’s work. In this most basic belief Blake is more of a Protestant Christian rather than a Catholic, for he chooses to focus on the ramifications of Christ’s death instead of that death’s eternal reality. Blake’s art becomes the method by which he takes advantage of  the open channel of communication between mankind and God: he contends that creative expression allows for an infinite variety of ways to seek and find the divine. Of course, this was an explicit rejection of the contemporary Catholic doctrine that man could only reach God through certain sacraments or through a mediator. Blake’s rejection of the Church was thus rooted in and closely aligned to Moravian spiritual belief. Despite that sect’s (and Blake’s) reputation for radicalism, such notions about the body of Christ have endured and seem to be far more in line with modern, common beliefs about Christianity than the traditional Catholic doctrine that Blake abhorred.

Blake and The Moravians

Is it me or does the title of this post sound like a sitcom? 

Blake seems to express his opinion of the Moravian church (and seemingly the whole of Christianity) in the scene where he reveals to the angel ‘his lot.’ Blake takes the angel into the pit that appears in the bible and reveals very Moravian imagery–such that he is particularly familiar with due to his Moravian upbringing from his mother. He depicts the grotesque and erotic imagery of bodies being devoured, engulfed, kissed, gross stuff. However, Blake and the angel are soon overwhelmed by the smell of the corpses and must leave: “the stench terribly annoyd us both.” 

Here I feel Blake expresses his disinterest with the Moravian church–highly associated with Christ’s body and his blood. The sacramental imagery displayed ties heavily into Moravian teachings, however the rotting corpse of the church becomes too overwhelming. It seems that Blake believes that Christ’s body–that which the Moravians wish to dwell in–is rotting (as are other Christian teachings exemplified by their presence in the mill and Blake’s comparison of them to Analytics). The angel is shocked at the imagery that Blake reveals to him and feels that he is uttering blasphemies as Blake demonstrates through the image of the skeleton that his religion is built upon Reason–seemingly blending with the teachings of the Devil: “Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.” Blake replies to the Angels statements that “We impose on one another” revealing that they are, in a sense, contraries. 

Blake feels that it is a waste to converse with an angel as they only follow “analytics”–but who’s side is Blake actually on? Blake sees the angel consumed in flames and emerges in the form of a devil–as the angel has seen the truth and embraces the contrary–that virtue is energy. Blake seems to side with both actually (seriously?). Although he sees the church of the Moravians as a rotting corpse (gross stuff), he seems to revel in the Energy of it, the virtue and desire. He does not fully side with the devil either, but merely listens to his teachings and takes from them what he will. He does not wish to be over imposed on by either followers.

It is demonstrated in one of the final scenes of the Marriage that he and the Angel “who is now become a Devil, is [his] particular friend: [they] often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense” but they also have “The Bible of Hell”–its contrary. Blake seems to be an ‘extreme average’ (that’s like a baby contrary–rather the offspring of two contraries)–he is the product of two extreme teachings: those of Heaven and those of Hell–continually oscillating between the two, gleaning from both sides the fruits which he deems ‘fruitful.’