Tag Archive: William Blake

La Petite Mort: Why the Orgasmic Grave?

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 & Paine

For Edmund Burke, the French Revolution represented an inversion and usurpation of natural order (at the very least a dismantling of the benign illusions thereof), a loss of the restraints and checks on mankind’s more bestial drives. However, for Blake, it was genuinely apocalyptic—in the sense it offered revelation, the casting off of fetters and a new way of seeing, not that it necessarily heralded doomsday and the end-times. It was return to something originary, deposing the hierarchies that have separated humanity from the natural—scales falling from eyes finally. He is allied with Thomas Paine in seeing the emancipatory potential in revolution, in realizing that it is outmoded ideologies that perpetuate tyranny. Shackles in the mind always being more effective than those about the ankles or wrists.

The LambHoly ThursdayThe Divine Image

The three images above all deal with some dimension of the likeness between God and mankind. I have arranged them in this order, moving from “The Lamb” to “Holy Thursday” and finishing with “The Divine Image” because I saw a natural sequential development of the course of the three plates. Beginning in “The Lamb,” Blake explores the likeness  between three triangulated figures, Jesus, a lamb, and a child. As part of “Songs of Innocence,” this poem explores the innocence of all three creatures. The innocence of children is what I found to be the most important theme or motif running throughout the plates in “Songs of Innocence.”  The similarities between children and lambs continues into the second plate “Holy Thursday.” Through the change in perspective from a child in “The Lamb” to a speaker that seems decidedly separate from the innocence of children and almost nostalgic for that lost innocence, the development that occurs over the course of these plates begins. The speaker is an observer of their innocence and is so moved by their presence and purity that he elevates these children, too often shunned by society, to angels. With “The Divine Image,” a final expansion of the original likeness explored in “The Lamb” occurs in “The Divine Image.” Here Blake departs from the innocence of children and explores the divine attributes of mankind in general. “Songs of Experience” deals with the capability adulthood has of destroying the innocence found in childhood. Blake offers some hope for a connection with the divine past childhood by reminding readers that all men have the qualities of Mercy, Pity, and Peace inside him.

This might be a pretty late post on this topic.

I remembered that in class we talked about Blake’s reception and I raised the example that even English teacher in a good high school is reading the famous picture of Urizen in The Ancient of Days as God the Almighty. And Urizen’s act of systemizing and confining the human race is read as the creation of human.

It really strikes me when I again see this image with a  incorrect annotation during summer. I received a book from my teacher in China and was asked to change them into some SAT writing materials. The name of the Book is the Art of Being Human. In the chapter of Religion in Themes in the Humanities, the author uses Urizen as the preface to the chapter.

“An artist visualizes God the Almighty as described in the Hebrew bible.”
William Blake, The Ancient of Days 1794.

It brought me back to the beginning of the lesson when we saw how Urizen appears in the entrance of GE building.

People thought that’s God.

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.


“Love, indeed, has its priests in the poets.”

– Søren Kierkegaard

The generative power of the system of contraries developed in William Blake’s work flows from a complex philosophical lineage. While it may seem counterintuitive to conceive how contradictory forces could act together productively, this very idea inundates Western thought. Hegel understood history as a dialectical development of man’s spirit, a progression “of the consciousness of Freedom”, that propels itself through time by the transformation of theses to antitheses, antitheses to the new theses ad infinitum.1 Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche believed “that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollinian and Dionysian duality,” characterized by the opposing forces of optimism and pessimism.2 Indeed, Blake stands in good company when he uses contraries to approach the radical ideals buried in the code of contradictions concealed in his work. To better understand how Blake intends to “transcend” the paradoxical coexistence of contraries, one might turn to yet another philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, and his unique conception of the self laid out in Sickness Unto Death, to grasp the generative power of contradictions seen in such pieces as The Songs of Innocence and Experience. There, Blake creates and destroys an idyllic world of blissful ignorance through contradictory passages intended to bring the reader to a reasonable and balanced comportment to the world. A close reading of the fundamental structure of the self proposed in Sickness helps to clarify how this message comes about in the juxtaposition of the first and second half of Songs.

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.’ 


And the EARTH said, “No”

The Introduction

The Ancient Bard’s call to Earth to “Turn away no more” is an attempt to reverse all of the wrongs occurring while the Earth continues to orbit. This prophetic call from the Ancient Bard (presumably Blake) lays the groundwork for a greater foundation for the fact that Blake may actually be grasping at straws to attempt to correct the wrongs of the world–and he realizes this.

The Bard makes the request to the Earth in what would appear to be a question, but the punctuation terminating the statement renders it a command–“Why wilt thou turn away/ The starry floor/ The watry shore/ Is given thee till the break of day.” The Earth then interprets this as a call from a “Father of ancient men/ Selfish father of men”–the commanding father of the Ten Commandments. Blake’s Bard makes a request to basically stop nature, to do something unnatural in order to halt what appears to be a paradoxical nature (“In a rich and fruitful land,/Babes reduced to misery”). Blake recognizes these unnatural instances and wishes to put an end to them–to erase the class boundaries and the frames that “does freeze…bones around/Selfish! vain!”

However this is where Blake begins to waiver, and I believe that he himself recognizes his inability as a man and a poet to reverse the natural order. Blake’s request–originally framed as a question–is left ambiguously due to what appears to be faulty punctuation. He, as a poet, is unable to produce the request that would stop the Earth, stop nature, and ultimately cure all of the problems (we think…Blake thinks). The last stanza of the Introduction is the most powerful, but Blake cannot muster up the poetic power to produce it fully and ultimately fails in his mission as the Ancient Bard.

It seems that only divine intervention will be able to reverse the natural order–to stop the Earth from turning. In one sense, I feel that Blake recognizes this and attempts to channel some form of power through the Poetic Genius, which comes from the Divine. But he ultimately fails because it is channeled through a mortal man. Blake sees this in his placement of the period as the closing punctuation mark to his statement: he recognizes his limits as a mortal being and sees that he is bound to the natural order; that being a creation of nature, he cannot rebel against what created him.

Blake takes great offense from Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, as both men have radically different theories on art, however, some of their arguments, with their contradictions, overlap. Because Blake was not truly trained as a painter, but rather an engraver, he was never considered a fellow of the Royal Academy and thusly faced a bias from intellectual society towards his engravings. As Reynolds argues that the “Ideal Beauty” that artists portray is learned from experience–Blake, being an outsider of the Royal Academy asserts that “Reynolds Thinks that Man Learns all that he Knows I say on the Contrary That Man Brings All that he has or Can have Into the World with him.”

Blake’s Philosophy of Art emphasizes a certain–dare I say, mechanical–precision. He centers his ideal on the fact that “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” Reynolds would argue that this method of creating art is the work of a “mechanik…[a] capricious changeling.” In essence, he is right regarding the mechanical part–however Blake does not paint with “Minute Neatness” to merely imitate, but to capture the image of the sublime. He goes to great depths to render his work as a product of vision: “Determinate & Perfect”–a snapshot of the artistic imagination. He demonstrates the “mechanical dexterity” of the artist that Reynolds praises of the “the Young Painter.”

So then it becomes a question of authority–Reynolds sees Blake as a mechanistic copier, deceiver while Blake looks at Reynolds with contempt as a man of contradiction–one who writes “Simulations of the Hypocrite who Smiles articulately where he means to Betray.” So who is right? Well, both of them, kind of: Blake sums it up nicely by stating that “Every Eye Sees differently As the Eye–Such the Object.” It is actually an answer of perception: what does the artist see? That is what the artist portrays, as according to Blake “All Forms are Perfect in the Poets Mind.”