Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Blake Criticism

IBlake's Critique of Transcendence: Love, Jealousy, and the Sublime in the Four Zoas edited by Peter Otto (Oxford University Press) is the first full-length book to examine in any detail or consistency the relation between Blake's text and the visual designs in The Four Zoas, one of the most important works in Blake's oeuvre. It uncovers a Blake deeply engaged with the cultural discourses of his time, in profound dialogue with Swedenborg, Locke, and Young. In the course of this conversation, Blake anatomizes a remarkable variety of cultural practices (including religion, science, and art) designed to achieve transcendence. He focuses in par­ticular on the fate of the body in cultures of transcen­dence, developing perhaps the first theory of sexual sublimation. Blake's radical visual and verbal strategies in this poem are part of an attempt to defer the move­ment of transcendence, long enough for the reader to see the warring elements of the fallen world as the dis­membered body of humanity.

The reading of the poem unfolded on the following pages is, of course, unable completely to escape this desire for transcendence. By narrowing the poem's conversation to that between Swedenborg, Young, and Locke--ignoring, for the most part, its engagement with the Bible, the Christian tradition (in particular Milton), Blake's earlier and later works, various iconographical and mythological traditions, the relation between its `layers', and so on--Blake's Critique of Transcendence produces its own version of an `absolute body'. One could defend this reduction by arguing that it makes room for detailed discussion of the interaction between text and design. It is important: to add, however, that reduction is (in one form or another) inevitable, One of the most obvious of the lessons `taught' by The Four Zoas is that our emotions, imaginations, and sense-making procedures are deeply implicated in the production of the fallen world.

The Four Zoas is a transitional work of Blake’s that has created a variety of interpretations. This realization conditions the prophetic procedures of Blake's later poems. In the argument that Otto develops, the sublime provides the model for a wide variety of cultural practices designed to achieve transcendence. Although the structure of the sublime remains broadly the same through the eighteenth century--and, arguably, the nineteenth and twentieth--it functions in radically different ways. This is nowhere more evident than in the changing locus of the power that gives rise to the experience of sublimity: the orator in the rhetorical sublime; God in the religious sublime; Reason in the Kantian sublime; the self or the imagination in the romantic sublime; and language in the postmodern sublime. The proximate target of Blake's critique of sublimity in The Four Zoas is the religious sublime of Night Thoughts. In order to understand Blake's critique of sublime transcendence, Otto briefly describes Edward Young's religious sublime, placing it within the context of eighteenth-- and early nineteenth-century thought on the sublime.

For more than fifty years, Blake studies have been divided into two opposing camps. On the one hand, Bronowski, Schorer, and Erdman (and now Thompson, Ferber, and Mee) write about Blake as a poet who describes real, historical events, and whose allusions are therefore precise and verifiable. On the other hand, the Blake of Frye, Bloom, and Adams (and now Ault, Hilton, and De Luca) turns from history to the imagination. Where the former picture Blake responding to a world beyond his control, the latter place him at the center of an imaginative world that rises again and again from the ruins of the first. The temper of the Erdmanites is prophetic. The critics who follow Frye often sound like secular millenarians. The debate between these schools, however, can be misleading. Blake's major poetry is simultaneously prophetic and millenarian, engaged in detailed analysis of the structures of the fallen world and celebratory of an always imminent apocalypse. As such, Blake's oeuvre is a good example of what Iain McCalman calls in An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture, 1776-1832(Oxford University Press), the `long history of convergence between millenarian religious ideas and popular forms of skepticism and materialism'. Recent work by Jon Mee, Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s ( Oxford : Clarendon Press), and  E. P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (New Press) places Blake firmly in this milieu.

The sublime teaches its audience to read the intransigent world reported by the first school as an indirect presentation of the redemptive power celebrated by the second. In contrast, The Four Zoas suggests a much closer relation between the prophetic and the millenarian. As I have argued, the poem deconstructs dominant cultural forms (religion, commerce, science, art) in order to uncover their `real' content (the suffering body of Albion ). This uncovering is a necessary precondition for any step forward into a living Eternity rather than a bodiless heaven. Seen in this light, `millenarian religious ideas and popular forms of skepticism and materialism' are complementary rather than contradictory or antagonistic impulses in Blake's oeuvre.

In [A Vision of The Last Judgment], Blake describes the Just and the Wicked as inhabiting `States of the Sleep which the Soul may fall into in its Deadly Dreams of Good & Evil when it leaves Paradise'. On the same page he writes:

Many suppose that before [Adam] <the Creation> All was Solitude & Chaos This is the most pernicious Idea that can enter the Mind as it takes away all sublimity from the Bible & Limits All Existence to Creation & to Chaos To the Time & Space fixed by the Corporeal Vegetative Eye.

That `pernicious Idea' and the Deadly Dreams and States of that Sleep are the subject‑matter of The Four Zoas, which describes a world forged in the tension between evil and good, chaos and the attempts by both transcendent powers and temporal faculties to create a `better' world. From within this `DREAM of Nine Nights', each attempt to get above or beyond its spaces ferries the reader back into them.

The poem's sleepers can wake only if they first embrace their bodies. Although this possibility is opened by Los's embrace of the Spectre and his reply to Rahab, it cannot be elaborated within The Four Zoas because to do so would wake the sleepers of the fallen world and so bring their `DREAM of Nine Nights' to an end. This radically different story Blake reserved for Milton and Jerusalem . For a detailed reading of Milton and Jerusalem in these terms, see the earlier analysis in Otto’s Constructive Vision and Visionary Deconstruction: Los, Eternity, and the Productions of Time in the Later Poetry of William Blake (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

Knight of the Living Dead: William Blake and the Problem of Ontology by Kathleen Lundeen (Susquehanna University Press) William Blake's agility as an intermedia artist is indisputable. Though his individual works have often been classified according to the dominant medium in which they have been executed, his unrestricted movements among the arts of sketching, watercolor, printmaking, and poetry demonstrate his disregard of the conventional aesthetic parameters that are thought to separate one medium from another. Though Blake is just as unapologetic in trespassing the boundaries between here and the hereafter, most who celebrate the principle of free-play in his art squirm at his professed practice of the same principle in his life. His alleged sightings of spirits have by and large embarrassed his admirers, many of whom have chosen to look the other way. Blake's liberal experiments in mediumship, nevertheless, raise an intriguing question: is there a correlation between his textual and his spiritualistic practices? This study offers an answer.

In Knight of the Living Dead, Lundeen investigates Blake's work in the context of his spiritualistic practices, and shows how he attempts to create a discourse that circumvents the binary of natural and arbitrary signs. Her examination of his word-image art demonstrates that, in Blake's view, what we recognize as word or image depends upon our epistemological orientation, just as what we term "matter" or "spirit" is determined by our state of perception. It further shows how Blake critiques textual theory in both his songs and prophecies by stabilizing the two sets of parameters that are used to define and classify signs: the general and particular, and the literal and figurative. Moreover, she argues, Blake provides an epistemological alternative to empiricism and rationalism in his poetry and art. Through verbal and visual experiments he defies the logic that is rooted in sense perception and reason, and he attempts through those experiments to return textuality to a divinely literal condition. By treating spiritualism as an aesthetic practice and art as an otherworldly communication, he undermines the institutionalized boundaries in art and life, and presents a formidable challenge to the whole matter/spirit dualism upon which Western culture is based.

An Excerpt from Knight of the Living Dead: We see just how closely affiliated the verbal and spiritual realms were to Blake in his memorable comment to Crabb Robinson: "I write . . . when commanded by the spirits and the moment I have written I see the words fly abot [sic] the room in all directions‑It is then published & the Spirits can read." It is common enough for an artist to claim that his work is aided by spiritual intervention of one sort or another, but to suggest that one's art is directed toward otherworldly beings leaves earthly readers in a predicament. How are we to respond to art for which we have been deemed by the artist ontologically unfit? Blake's lifelong problem of getting his work published might in part be due to his choice of readership. Writing for spirits may demonstrate one's artistic range, but it is somewhat imprudent from a business standpoint ....

Though I will not presume to reconstruct Blake's interpretive community, it might be closer to home than we realize. Heaven, to Blake, was a mode of perception=`tho it appears Without it is Within / In your Imagination"--and archangels, those who sympathized with his artistic endeavors .... [In a letter] he writes, "You O Dear Flaxman are a Sublime Archangel My Friend & Companion from Eternity." Such a rhetorical gesture mitigates the mysticism of his remarks about spiritual beings, but those remarks cannot be dismissed as mere hyperbole. The celestial referents in his writing are neither wholly literal nor wholly figurative. His language cannot be situated on the familiar tropological axis since his perception does not synchronize with a dualistic metaphysics. To Blake, the archangel Flaxman was as otherworldly as the archangel Gabriel was tangible since he regarded matter and spirit, not as polar realities but as different states of perception.

“Glorious Incomprehensible”: The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Language by Sheila A. Spector (Bucknell University Press) “Wonders Divine”: The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Myth by Sheila A. Spector (Bucknell University Press) Together we are offered one of the most extensive accounts of Blake’s speculative mysticism sense Kathleen Raines great and pioneering work.

Approaching language as the external manifestation of intentionality, “Glorious Incomprehensible”: traces the evolution of Hebraic etymologies and mystical grammars in the illuminated books. With numerous reproductions of the visual and references to the verbal art, Spector traces the profound shift in Blake's subjective consciousness from the earliest prose tracts through the final prophecies.

In the first chapter, "Contexts: The Languages of Eighteenth‑Century England," Spector constructs the cultural background by presenting a broad panorama of contemporary attitudes toward philosophy, linguistics, and religion, in order to demonstrate how virtually all of what might appear to be iconoclastic practices actually had some kind of rational derivation. Then, the next four chapters analyze successively the four stages of Blake's linguistic development. At first, his language was pre‑intentional, in the sense that he seemed to have been as yet unaware of the relationship between the material language system and the subjective mode of thought. From this perspective, his first illuminated books, with their mechanically derived Hebraic etymologies and parodies of mystical grammars, reflect an attempt to manipulate the physical manifestation of language, thereby exposing its specious stability.

 However, in neither the theoretical prose tracts All Religions Are One and There is No Natural Religion‑nor the poetic illustra­tions of the theory‑The Book of Thel, Tiriel, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion­ was Blake capable of providing a viable re­placement for the now‑discredited basis of conventional language. Therefore, in the second group of books, Blake confronted the fact of intentionality, proffering his theory of co‑existing contraries as an alternate mode of thought. Still, despite its enthusiastic announcement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the theory proved, in America and Europe, to be little more than a transformation of the empirical duality it had been developed to supplant.

Consequently, in the minor prophecies, Blake turned inward, reflexively analyzing the concept underlying the intentional relationship between the subjective consciousness and its external referent. For that purpose, he constructed what might be viewed as a four‑part psychomachia, depicting the process of language formation. In The Song of Los, he dramatized the state of preintentionality, with "Africa" and "Asia" as the "chaos" and "void" that existed before the fact of intentionality was imposed in The Book of Urizen. Next, in The Book of Ahania, Blake anatomized the rational faculty, exploring the concept underlying the material system, to suggest, finally, in The Book of Los, that an alternate mode of intentionality might have produced a different language system.

Blake would spend the rest of his life developing that other language system. In Vala/The Four Zoas, he effected the transition from a conventional to a mystical mode of thought; in Milton, he delineated the via mystica, to be actualized, finally, in Jerusalem. In their totality, as Spector demonstrates, all of Blake's linguistic manipulations combine to establish the existence of the "Poetic Genius," that innate visionary faculty whose existence Blake had postulated in the earliest of the prose works.

 Approaching myth as the structuring principle of intentionality, “Wonders Divine”: analyzes the evolution of William Blake's myth in the illuminated books. With numerous reproductions of the visual and references to the verbal art, Spector traces the profound shift that occurred in Blake's subjective consciousness from the earliest prose tracts through the final prophecy, Jerusalem.

The opening chapters establish the critical foundation. In the first, the cultural contexts, including the exoteric tradition, the Christian Kabbalah and English esoterica, are delineated; and in the second, the mythic bases, including Milton's recension of Calvinism in Paradise Lost, Jewish speculations about Ezekiel's Chariot and Creation, and Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont's Adumbratio Kabbake Christiance, are surveyed. Then, the last four chapters explore how the transformation of Blake's myth from what was originally a Miltonic orientation to a fully conceived Christianized version of the Kabbalistic myth, reveals his own artistic development from the pre‑mythic stage, before he was consciously aware of the fact that myth exerts control over thought, to the reflexive exploration of the conceptual basis of myth, so that, ultimately, he might develop a transformative myth through which the mind might be liberated.

Although the first illuminated books All Religions are One, There is No Natural Religion, The Book of Thel, Tiriel, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion‑are suffused with elements from a variety of mythologies, they were written before Blake had become consciously aware that myth structures thought. When he did recognize that fact, he then attempted, in the second sequence, to refocus the structural basis of the Miltonic myth, introducing in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and demonstrating in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the theory of contraries. However, its implementation in America, and then in Europe, was less than successful, for Blake's doctrine of contraries, as a foreshortened form of the kabbalistic dialectic, lacked a clearly conceived form of "Grace" through which the two extremes might be synthesized. Therefore, in the third sequence, Blake explored the conceptual basis of myth.

Refocusing his dialectic in terms of the middle two kabbalistic "souls," the rational and spiritual faculties, he created a four‑part psychomachia through which to dramatize the four modes of myth: in The Song of Los, the pre‑mythic state is replicated; in The Book of Urizen, the dualistic Urizenic myth is imposed on the cosmos; in The Book of Ahania, the concepts underlying Urizen's erroneous mode of thought are exposed; and, finally, in The Book of Los, the method of correcting that error is postulated. Then, in the major prophecies, Blake corrects that error. Through the process of composing Vala/The Four Zoas, Blake gradually incorporated the basic elements of the kabbalistic myth to transform the Miltonic Original Sin into the Fortunate Fall; in Milton, Ransom becomes self‑annihilation; and in Jerusalem, Eternal Death is seen as the passage toward Eternal Life. From this analysis of the verbal and visual art, it becomes evident that through the shift from a Miltonic to a kabbalistic structure, Blake was able to validate his own vision of the incarnate Christ.

William Blake by Robin Hamlyn, Peter Ackroyd and Marilyn Butler (Abrams) A poet, artist, and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) is recognized as one of the singular individuals of his time, a key figure in the histories of both art and literature. This lavishly illustrated volume offers an expansive survey of Blake's prolific visual output-prints, illuminated books, drawings, and paintings-and contains significant new research by Blake scholars. These spirits, and a host of other creatures that peopled his fervent imagination, would later be immortalized in the engravings and poems he printed on his own press, which have placed him in the first rank of British artists and literary figures. And so it is surprising that this fine book--impeccable in every respect, from the detailed yet easy-to-follow notes on individual prints, drawings, and paintings to the quality and thoughtful presentation of the 250 reproductions--wasn't published sooner. It serves as the catalogue for the largest Blake exhibition ever mounted, which opened in Fall 2000 at Tate Britain, London, and came to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in March 2001.

Novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd examines Blake the man, while Marilyn Butler sets Blake in the context of the political and social upheavals of his time. Other essays focus on how Blake's radical political views and innovative printmaking techniques combined in his wholly visionary art. With a full chronology and a glossary of Blake's mythology and characters, this book will be invaluable for Blake's many fans.


Headline 3

insert content here