Blake was a highly symbolic poet (and painter); to understand
much of his thought requires acquaintance with a
body of symbols that go back to the dawn of
civilization, and up to the 19th century. In an age
when only the material seemed to matter Blake was (and
continues to be) highly opaque to the pure materialist. Such a
person will find most of Blake's ideas meaningless.
But at the deepest level his ideas are the veritable
stuff of life: love and hate, good and evil, life and
death, and many ideas with urgent meaning. A high
proportion of people prefer to turn aside from these
questions, but you can be sure that their unconscious
is full of them.
Blake is about matter and spirit, at the great dividing
line: do you see yourself primarily as a body or as spirit?
Begin with the conclusion, to be supported by
an overwhelming body of evidence stretching from
Heraclitus in the 6th century
BC to the present:
Our mortal life is a vale of tears to which we have
lapsed from Eternity and from which we will (may?)
eventually escape back into the Higher Realm. This
myth conforms very closely to the Gnostics, the Platonists,
and of course most of Eastern Religion. In the
Christian tradition one can find vestiges of it in many
of the mystics, notably Meister Eckhart, in Mexican
folk culture and in fact universally.
The western mind revolts from this "never-never land"
at least on the conscious level, but Freud, Jung, and
many other psychologists find strong evidence for
it in the unconscious. At this point many readers may
dismiss Blake's myth as not worth their attention.
The select few who remain may rightfully expect an
entirely new world of grace and enchantment to open
before their minds. The biblically oriented may
perceive that all Blake's poetic and artistic work fits
into a scheme of cosmic/psychic meaning; closely
following the Bible it describes the pattern of
Paradise, the Fall, a gradual redemption, and the final
Understanding Blake's myth can be expedited by the
study of Blake's women.
A most significant key to Blake's symbolism came to
light only in 1947 when
Arlington Court was bequeathed to the
British National Trust. Among the furnishings there
a large tempera by Blake, called alternatively The Sea
of Time and Space or The Cave of the Nymphs. This
treasure had been hidden from public eyes for a century.
(Most of us are unlikely to see the original, but
Blake and Antiquity by
Kathleen Raine offers several glimpses of the picture
with a detailed account of the symbols it contains.
There is no better way to begin an understanding of
Blake at the deeper level than to read carefully and
study this small and accessible book.)
The picture contains the essential symbolism of Blake's
myth; the theme goes back to
Homer, then to Plato and Porphyry. (To
understand Blake's myth one would be well advised to
study this link with care--at least the first part of
Blake and Taylor were approximately the same age and
as young men close friends. Many people think that Taylor
introduced Blake to the Platonic and Neoplatonic
traditions. It seems certain that Taylor's
On the Homeric Cave of the Nymphs deeply
influenced the painting of the Arlington Tempera. It
also introduced a great number of
the most common symbols used in Blake's myth;
they were used over and over
throughout Blake's work.
Another good introduction to Blake's myth is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It comes from an
angry young man pouring his scorn on the conventions that
cripple us; the language is pungent, the words are pointed,
provocative, and outrageous.
A conventional person will find this whole work offensive
and repulsive, but the young person at the stage of life
where he's ready to kick over the traces, is quickly
attracted-- if he has enough wit to understand irony and
not take everything at face value.
We might call it an ironic satire.
In 1789 Blake was 32, at the height of his physical
(though perhaps not mental) powers. He had experienced
the Divine Vision.
He knew it was meant for mankind, but so far limited to
Jesus and a few others. But with the advent of the
French Revolution he foresaw its spread throughout the
world. (Of course in that he was soon doomed to
disappointment-- with the appearance of Madame
Guillotine.) Nevertheless with a peak of spiritual
exuberance he proceeded to announce the coming New Age:
For this gem Blake drew upon Genesis and Plato.
- The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell. For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.... If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern. (Plate 14)
Blake knew that the Divine Vision depended upon your ability to avert your eyes and attention from the material and to focus upon the Spiritual, the Eternal, which can only dwell in the Imagination (for Blake the Imagination was everything!). The society of Blake's day uniformly failed to do that, as does ours! Blake desperately, emphatically, and continuously endeavoured to awaken us to a spiritual consciousness, to break the 'mind forg'd manacles.
Pursuant to this aim:
And look at Plate 13:
- How do you know but every bird that cuts the air Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five? (Plate 7; E35)
Back in 1788 with There is No Natural Religion he had disposed of a sense-based consciousness as any kind of arbiter of the meaning of life:
- I then asked Ezekiel. why he eat dung, & lay so long on his right & left side? he answered. the desire of raising other men into a perception of the Infinite. (E39|
Look at Section VII of NNR. Reason or the ratio are his terms for comfining one's mental activity to the senses. And he thought less and less of it as he grew older. In notes on Vision of the Last Judgment he wrote: "I assert for myself that I do not behold the Outward Creation and that to me it is hindrance and not Action it is as the Dirt upon my feet No part of Me. "What it will be Question'd When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea? O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty."
- Man's perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception. He percieves more than sense (tho' ever so acute) can discover.
On MHH (Plate 16 Blake tells us about the prolific (prophetic types, creative people who grasp the Eternal) and the devouring (those who worship the created good). Of course he counted himself among the prolific. Middleton Murry has pointed out that in this moment of the everlasting 'good-and-evil' in which we live Blake may have projected the 'evil' upon the public who had uniformly ignored him. Murry suggested that it was a necessary "moment in his life".
If that be true, we have the record of the moment when Blake "came to himself" to the point where he confessed that his Selfhood continued to dominate him. He eventually came to realize that one cannot operate in the Sea of Time and Space without the Selfhood; thus he faced the necessity to continually annihilate and regenerate it with his alternation between Heaven and this vale of tears in which we live. (As Christians understand, the selfhood is brought into subjection and becomes the servant of the Self (Christ)).
In Plate 24 he promised to the world the Bible of Hell. John Middleton Murry described it as follows:
The first book of these, The Book of Urizen , is to a large degree a parody of Genesis. The Book of Ahania corresponds precisely to Exodus. The third book is The Book of Los (1795).
MHH was prior to Blake's myth proper, like a preamble or preface. It defines ideas and terms that are to be understood as the myth evolves, a special language you have to learn to get into the major works (The Four Zoas, Milton and Jerusalem. (A detailed treatment of Jerusalem concludes Chapter Eight.)
Many people have called William Blake unique among English poets as the creator of a complete mythology. In a standard dictionary "without foundation in fact" appears as the fifth meaning of 'mythical', but this is probably what the term conveys in common parlance. Therefore we must begin our study of Blake's myth by raising our consciousness of the word. 'Logos', 'myth', 'epic'--these three words have a common root. In literary and theological language myths are statements about the non-material ultimate. Some people of course avoid the non-material, considering it to be "without foundation in fact"; it's doubtful that any such reader has endured to this point of our study.
Blake considered the non-material to be the real; his art centered around the endeavour to express the reality of the non-material. The meaning of his entire artistic enterprise we may call his myth. His object was to fit all of experience into a total framework of meaning that will inform life and "to raise other people to a perception of the Infinite". Our object is to grasp that total framework; once we do that, we have a myth of meaning.
With his story of the Prodigal Son Jesus gave us a personal paradigm of the history of the Chosen People and of the Human Race. A striking modern analogy, although not Blakean per se, is provided by the career of alcoholism: progressive deterioration until the sufferer hits bottom, followed by recovery. Blake did use as a recurring motif the story of Lazarus found in the Gospel of John. But the primary paradigm of this myth is the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. However Blake did not express this, probably did not fully realize it, until 1800.
Chapter Nine illustrates the application of this fundamental myth in Blake's major poetic works. The development of Blake's epic will be traced through the various stages of his spiritual journey. In essence it's the same journey we all take; you could call it the history of Man. Blake called it the Circle of Destiny in Night 1 of The Four Zoas.
************************************************** If you want to skip ahead go to: The Minor Prophetic Works or the Major Prophecies The Four Zoas Milton Jerusalem **************************************************
The Book of Urizen
We find the earliest organized statement of Blake's myth in a medium sized poem written in 1794. The Book of Urizen served as a prototype for 'The Four Zoas', which was to follow. It contains among other things a parody of Genesis. Blake found the orthodox doctrine of creation unsatisfying, as many people have to this day, so he set out to present an alternative. He followed 'Paradise Lost' and the Gnostics in placing the Fall before Creation.
In his myth the Fall of Man involved a fall in part of the divine nature and led to the creation of a fallen world. Such a Creation Story represents a sophistication of the elemental biblical one. P.L. is an obvious recreation of the Bible story, and B.U. is a recreation of P.L., beginning as a simple inversion.
The doctrine of contraries, which we found in MHH, appears in B.U. in the form of two Eternals, Urizen and Los. The poem develops their careers in nine chapters. Following closely some of the Gnostic texts Urizen separates from the other Eternals, writes the Book of Brass, and declares himself God, whereupon he is shut out of Eternity and Los appointed his watchman (Chapters 1-3). Los confines Urizen with the limits of time and space and in "seven ages of dismal woe" binds him down into the five shriveled senses of the human body (Chapter 4).
This frightful condition leads Los to pity, which divides his soul and results in the separation of his emanation, Enitharmon. Eternity shudders at this further breakup of Man into the sexual contraries. Even more shocking to the Eternals, Los begets his likeness on his own divided image. The Eternals shut out this fallenness from Eden, and Los becomes blind to Eternity (Chapter 6)Section 10. Los binds his son, Orc, with the Chain of Jealousy. Urizen explores his dens, discovers that no one can obey or keep his iron laws for one minute and that life lives upon death.
There in barest outline is 'The Book of Urizen'. Volumes have been written to interpret it. At this point we note that Urizen, Orc (also called Luvah in later works), and Los emerge as the three principles of the psyche. In Jungian terms we would call them Reason, Feeling, and Intuition. With the addition of Tharmas, the body or Instinct, they make up the four Zoas of the complete myth. B.U. is the earliest sketch of their relationships, which form the primary subject matter of Blake's evolving myth until the critical moment when Jesus became All and Jerusalem his Bride.
Keep in mind that here, as in later writings, Blake's poetry has many levels. We are especially interested in the cosmic and psychological levels, and the most compelling dimension of the psychological is the autobiographical. In B.U. as in all the prophecies Blake tells us a great deal about himself. He lived intensely in the spiritual realm; this means that visions, motifs, attitudes come and go with great rapidity. The poetry reveals to us the course of his life. At the same time sober reflection on his biography casts light on the dynamic evolution of the myth. The student might spend time with B.U. before tackling 4Z, for it gives in outline form much of the action of the larger poem. However Urizen is hard to understand, written before the complete vision o Blake's myth had crystallized in his mind; one might question the value to spending much time on this early work.
The Four Zoas
(For the simplest description of the four zoas together with some other elementary definitions go to the Tate Museum Blake Fact File.)
- Four Mighty Ones are in every Man; a Perfect Unity Cannot exist but from the Universal Brotherhood of Eden The Universal Man: To Whom be Glory Evermore Amen.
Blake writes about himself, about us, about the world- all of one piece.
(If you want to go straight to the mature myth, you might pass up this work also for the time being, unless, that is, you're prepared to give Blake a major intellectual effort over a period of time. The Four Zoas is a sort of notebook or rough draft of the large finished works that Blake produced in his mature years: Milton and Jerusalem. Perhaps the best excuse to spend time on 4Z must be for someone who has become well acquainted with them; such a person will likely be interested in how they came about. You may wish to proceed to the next section. )
If you ever read the Book of Isaiah, you find pages and pages of indictments, excoriations, judgments on Israel as default in every moral virtue and almost surely headed for dire punishment.
But interspersed in the midst of all this gloom you will discover a page here and there of the most ethereal beauty, warmth, love and promise. (This is most apt to appear in the midst of one of God's dire punishments, as comfort for a downtrodden and suffering people. (comfort ye, comfort ye my people for example.)
Such is The Four Zoas of William Blake, the prophet, interminably cataloging the misteps, the failures, the fallenness of Albion (the universal man) and his various separated parts, but always with the golden chain of progress.
Many a musical masterwork on its initial performance has met a cold reception. In the same way the taste for many foods grows with experience; young children often reject what their parents keenly enjoy; in due course they may develop a taste for what they at first found exotic and repulsive.
- I give you the end of a golden string, Only wind it into a ball, It will lead you in at Heaven's gate Built in Jerusalem's wall. Lest the state calld Luvah should cease, the Divine Vision Walked in robes of blood till he who slept should awake. Thus were the stars of heaven created like a golden chain.
4Z is a very exotic masterpiece and most definitely an acquired taste. The reader initially encounters an appalling mass of strange ideas and much that appears to be sheer gibberish. But with perseverance the strange ideas become familiar bit by bit, and the gibberish clarifies into some of the most exalted thought forms of the human mind. To the seasoned reader 4Z is a treasure house of imaginative delights. Or call it a mine that releases its gold to the pertinacious. The same could be said of the Bible.
Blake wrote the poem over a period of years while his mind and spirit were rapidly developing and changing. It began as the story of Vala, the incarnation of the Female Will. Later it became an account of cosmic and psychic history written in terms of the four Giant Forms--their breakup and struggle for dominion. At Blake's spiritual crisis this seed bed gave birth to Jesus and Jerusalem, his bride. Blake then made an attempt to rewrite 4Z to reflect his new spiritual orientation, but after a while he gave up. 4Z was aborted because Blake's world had fundamentally changed, and he was ready to start over. After many years of looking for the New Age he had become a New Man. The new man wrote Milton and Jerusalem using 4Z as a quarry. 4Z is fascinating in its own right, although unfinished, but most significant as a platform from which to rise to the ethereal glory of the mature poems.
Focusing on The Four Zoas Milton Percival, who wrote William Blake's Circle of Destiny, tells us that ten characters make up his myth: Two Albions (man), the Eternal One and the One who fell asleep down here in this vale of tears; Four Zoas (Urizen, Luvah, Los, and Tharmas) and their feminine parts (Ahania, Vala, Enitharman, and Enion)
The first four nights of this aborted masterpiece recount the fall of each of the four Zoas: Tharmas, the body; Luvah, the feelings; Urizen, the mind; and finally Urthona (Los), the imagination or spirit. These four steps in the fall of Man contain a wealth of rich detail, but one central event Blake described repeatedly in the words of various characters: Urizen and Luvah (Mind and Feeling) struggle for dominion over the sleeping man, Albion. Luvah seizes Urizen's steeds of light and mounts into the sky. Urizen retreats into the north, the rightful place of Urthona, the imagination. These mistakes lead to a long series of cataclysmic disasters that condemn mankind to his fallen condition. For six nights we read an almost unrelieved account of the Fall; we read about falling, about fallenness, described in voluminous detail in a hundred ways. Blake felt intensely that we have come a long, long way from the Garden, and he explored with exceeding minuteness every step of the dismal journey, down and out. (You might notice that as extensive as this negative mood is, it closely resembles the Old Testament, a great deal of which consists of flagellations of Israel by the prophets.)
To begin our orientation to the poem look closely at the central event of the Fall. Blake put it in the mouths of several characters and each one has his or her own particular slant. The reader has to decide for himself whose account to believe. This may depend upon the reader as much as it does upon Blake.
The earliest description of the central event comes in the words of Enitharmon, a notoriously untrustworthy character at this point; we may call her the queen of fallen space. In a conversation with her consort, Los, the prophetic boy, she gives her interpretation of the Fall:
Always fiercely eclectic, Blake has gathered his symbols here from a number of sources into a new creation: sleeping man equals fallen man living in darkness; this most general symbol fills the New Testament. For example, "Awake thou that sleepest, and Christ shall give thee light". We live by the light of reason (not always Christ's light!). Urizen, the Sun God, must be asleep to allow Luvah, like the Greek adolescent, Phaethon, to seize his Horses of Light and rise into the Chariot of Day. Zeus struck Phaethon down with a thunderbolt. In Night ii we find Urizen casting Luvah into the furnaces of affliction, where there is much heat but no light. What was once eternal delight has become unmitigated hell.
- Hear! I will sing a Song of Death! it is a Song of Vala! The Fallen Man takes his repose, Urizen sleeps in the porch, Luvah and Vala wake and fly up from the Human Heart Into the brain from thence; upon the pillow Vala slumber'd, And Luvah siez'd the Horses of Light and rose into the Chariot of Day. Sweet laughter siez'd me in my sleep....
Luvah and Vala personify the masculine and feminine dimensions of feeling, and separated from Luvah Vala becomes the goddess of fallen nature. Luvah's seizure of the sun and Vala's dalliance on the pillow express in different ways the same event. The Prince of Love is bound to get his wings scorched, and the sleeping Albion is rather foolish to allow this to happen; he has lost his head over a part of himself.
Blake used this double event to say many things to us at many levels. Fundamentally Blake is saying that Man has lost his heavenly wholeness (which he calls the Divine Image) and begun to worship the material, a relatively insignificant part of himself. In his dream of Vala he turns his back upon the Divine Vision. The former is Eternal Death and the latter Eternal Life. The dalliance of Albion with Vala leads to the Eternal Death (fallenness) that we read about in the first six nights. Blake described it symbolically in many ways, for example, "to converse in the wilds of Newton and Locke". We find here Blake's primary dialectic, between eternal vision and fallen materialism.
Other accounts of this decisive event occur at various places throughout the poem. The most definitive is that of Ahania. Her dream relates the central event, the primary fall, to an idolatrous worship; just so Blake evaluated organized religion (See CHAPTER SEVEN). Albion's worship of his shadow has two immediate consequences: he breaks out with the boils of Job, a biblical symbol of the Fall of Mankind, and he exiles Luvah and Vala from their rightful place in the psychic economy.
This central event of the Fall gives the key to the meaning of 'The Four Zoas'. Before we proceed with the outline of the poem, we need to look at one other central fact: the identity of Los, the fourth Zoa (in Eternity called Urthona). Whereas the central event gives the key to six thousand years of fallenness, the identity of Los gives the key to redemption. This becomes clear in the end when we read about Jesus, the Imagination, but from the beginning we should be aware that Los is the fourth who makes Man whole. Blake derived the first three Zoas in part from Daniel's three friends who were cast into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar. Los was the fourth, whom the king saw walking in the furnace "like the Son of God". Like the other Zoas Los has a chequered career, but he is always moving toward this ultimately revealed identity. Near the end of 'Jerusalem' Blake put the finishing touches on Los's Eternal identity with these words:
And on the following plate:
- Therefore the Sons of Eden praise Urthona's Spectre in songs, Because he kept the Divine Vision in time of trouble. (Jerusalem, 95.19; E255)
The clue to this identity appears at the very beginning of 4Z where the poet states his theme:
- Then Jesus appeared.... And the Divine Appearance was the likeness and similitude of Los.
Here Blake has made the antecedent of 'his' deliberately ambiguous: Albion, the Ancient Man, of course, but also Los. It is Los's career that we follow most intently. Blake deeply identified with Los, and so do we if we read the poem with imagination.
- Four Mighty Ones are in every Man; a Perfect Unity Cannot Exist but from the Universal Brotherhood of Eden, The Universal Man, to Whom be Glory Evermore. Amen. .... Los was the fourth immortal starry one, and in the Earth Of a bright Universe, Empery attended day and night, Days and nights of revolving joy. Urthona was his name In Eden.... Daughters of Beulah, Sing His fall into Division and his Resurrection to Unity: His fall into the Generation of decay and death, and his Regeneration by the Resurrection from the dead. (FZ1-3.9; E301|
But "Begin with Tharmas, Parent power dark'ning in the West". Tharmas represents the body, or in the psychic realm the instinct, and in Eternity he's a glorious shepherd. But "darkening in the West" beneath the jealous attack of his emanation, Enion, he sets in motion the Circle of Destiny (The Four Zoas [Nt 1], 5.) and sinks into the sea where he becomes an insane old man. From his "corse" arises the ravening spectre, a most gruesome embodiment of pure egocentricity. A loveless embrace of Enion leads to the birth of Los and Enitharmon, the divided earthly form of Urthona. (Note that all this happens after the 'central event', although in the poem we read about it first.)
This first earthly family displays the ubiquitous dialectic of Blake (and of universal experience): the angelic and demonic processes go on side by side. Enion's intense mother love turns her daughter, Enitharmon, into a teasing and heartless bitch and drives Enion to the abyss where she becomes a disembodied voice of pure consciousness. We hear her voice at the end of Nights i, ii, and viii sounding the purest prophetic judgment on what has transpired. In a real sense Enion is Blake. (For more on Enion see Chapter Four and Chapter Five.
When Enitharmon signs her Song of Death (quoted a few pages back), Los strkes her down and then gives his own, more prophetic account of the Fall. Enitharmon retaliates by calling down Urizen. This precipitates the first encounter between these two adversaries in one of the relationships that dominates the poem--and Blake's life as well (See CHAPTER ONE). In this initial confrontation Los weakens through his pity or remorse over Enitharmon and joins the Nuptial Feast of fallenness ( FZ1-12.44; ff E307| . In the New Testament the marriage of the Lamb inaugurates the Kingdom of Heaven; this demonic parody of it announces the Kingdom of Satan. Enion responds with her first stirring prophetic utterance, concluding the first night in the earlier draft.
At this point Blake, in a later revision of 4Z, made his first obvious attempt to Christianize his myth. The Daughters of Beulah in their "Wars of Eternal Death" give what is probably the most straightforward, impartial account of the Fall.
As Night ii begins, the Fallen Man, on the point of falling asleep, commissions Urizen as his regent. Urizen soars with pride but immediately falls into the fearful fantasies of the future which dominate all of his attempts at creation. He casts Luvah into the furnaces of affliction and proceeds to build the Mundane Shell, giving Blake a chance to expatiate at great length on how wrongly the world is made.
Tharmas and Luvah are now thoroughly fallen and estranged from their emanations, and Urizen's turn comes in Night iii. Ahania, Urizen's emanation, reacts to his fearful aggressions with her own vision of the Fall, and the infuriated Urizen casts her out and promptly falls himself like Humpty Dumpty, an eloquent comment on the fate of all the 'strong' who in fear cast out the 'weak'. With the fall of Reason Tharmas rises to power from the depths of the sea, although he is mentally incompetent in the extreme. He commissions Los to create endlessly and futilly: "Renew these ruin'd souls of Men thro' Earth, Sea, Air & Fire,/To waste in endless corruption, renew thou, I will destroy."
Los proceeds to bind Urizen with the chains of time and space in the parody of Creation which we have already studied from B.U ., but "terrified at the shapes enslav'd humanity put on, he became what he beheld". ( The second extended Christian interpolation occurs in the midst of this story.)
Los begins Night v with a sort of St. Vitus Dance to "put on the shape of enslaved humanity", a convulsion which Enitharmon shares, leading to the birth of Orc, a manifestation of Luvah, who at this point represents fallen human feeling. Immediately, "The Enormous Demons woke and howl'd around the new born King,/Crying 'Luvah, King of Love, thou art the King of rage & death'".
As in B.U. Orc is bound in the Chain of Jealousy, but his tormented cries awaken Urizen, who concludes Night v with the "Woes of Urizen". His suffering has brought him to a point of self-recognition; he has come to himself in a way reminiscent of the Prodigal Son's moment of truth: "I will arise", which Blake took directly from the story in Luke. Urizen thus shows himself to be human. Unfortunately it's only a temporary lapse, for in Night vi he explores his dens, faces all the brokenness and horror of a ruined universe and as his solution comes up with the "Net of Religion ". Since pure political tyranny won't work, he turns to a form of religious control.
We come to the climax of this epic in Night vii when Urizen has approached Orc's prison and induced him to climb the "Tree of Mystery ", turning into a serpent. This sets the stage for the Genesis account of the Fall, which Blake sees as the beginning of the Return. Enitharmon, attracted by the cries of her son, Orc, comes down to the "Tree of Mystery", where she meets the Spectre of Urthona (FZ7a-82.23; E358|). The Spectre closely corresponds to Jung's 'shadow', and like a skilled analyst Blake brings about the reconciliation of shadow and anima on the way to wholeness).
From the union of Spectre and Enitharmon two things ensue. The good news is that Los begins to get himself together with his Spectre and his Emanation. From this integration comes forth Jerusalem and from Jerusalem will proceed the Lamb. The bad news is the immediate birth of Rahab, the most sinister female of Blake's pantheon. She personifies all the evils of deceit, treachery, and hateful female pride that most appalled Blake about life. Blake's Rahab is the same character whom John of Patmos called "Mystery, the Whore of Babylon"; Blake eventually gives her these names--and several others as well.
The Spectre of Urthona, a new idea on Blake's imaginative horizon, foreshadowed the Moment of Grace which was to revolutionize his spiritual world. CHAPTER ONE dealt with these dynamics. Suffice it here to say that the appearance of the Spectre marks Man's (and Blake's) dawning awareness that the evils of the world, which he had so deplored, exist in his own psyche. It marks what Jung referred to as the withdrawal of the projections, which Jung considered vital to the survival of the world. Blake agreed about the seriousness of the process; he stated it with great poetic intensity in the reversed writing found in the illustration to 'Jerusalem', plate 41:
But in Night vii Los doesn't cast his Spectre into the lake; he embraces it, which in a manner of speaking is the same thing. Los doesn't (yet) cast his Spectre into the lake because his humanity is not yet fully awake, but only beginning to awaken. As Blake aptly put, it complete redemption "was not to be effected without Cares & Sorrows & Troubles of six thousand years of self denial and of bitter Contrition". That beautiful line points to the redemptive dimension of all the fallenness and horror we have been reading about. It was Blake's way of saying what Paul said in Romans: "All things work together for good to them that love God...." Blake and Jung and probably Paul would agree that we begin to love God (and stop trying to be God!) when we recognize and accept our own involvement in the horror around us. That's the moment when the six thousand years of change begins.
- Each man is in his Spectre's power Until the arrival of that hour When his humanity awake And cast his Spectre into the Lake.
The birth of Rahab and the integration of Los lead to an intensification of a drama that has already stretched out for seven nights of excruciating intensity. In Night viii the drama has not only intensified, but it has clarified so that we can no longer fail to understand that the forces of life and of death are in bitter conflict. It has become the old, old story, and Blake leaves no doubt about who represents light and who darkness. Urizen resumes his war for control and out of his ranks of War comes Satan. Rahab conspires to put to death the Saviour who has come down from Heaven and emerged from Jerusalem. The Christian knows that this death is foreordained for final victory, but neither Rahab nor Jerusalem has that awareness, and near the end of Night viii we read these richly evocative words:
Blake never forgot the involvement of the Christian Church in two thousand years of bloodshed, but here, under the influence of grace, he has a more understanding view of it than he has expressed elsewhere.
- Jerusalem wept over the Sepulcher two thousand years. Rahab trimphs over all; she took Jerusalem Captive, a Willing Captive, by delusive arts impell'd To worship Urizen's Dragon form, to offer her own Children Upon the bloody Altar. John saw these things Revealed....
In the last Night Blake let all of his feelings out in a magnificent vision of apocalypse that bears comparison with the one John wrote:
And on and on it goes, much too imposing to describe in this short review. But two things will be said:
- Los his vegetable hands Outstretch'd; his right hand, branching out in fibrous strength, Siez'd the Sun; His left hand, like dark roots, cover'd the Moon, And tore them down, cracking the heavens across from immense to immense. Then fell the fires of Eternity with loud and shrill Sound of Loud Trumpet....
First, Blake draws on John's Apocalypse as he already has in Night viii. The strangest book in the Bible, utterly incomprehensible to the literal mind, has much to offer to the trained imagination. To read the end of 4Z with complete attention gives one a purchase on Blake's great source; Revelation begins to come alive in an exciting new way.
Second, as great as it is, Blake simply wasn't able to 'Christianize' his apocalypse as he had done the two previous Nights. Perhaps it was already too deeply stamped with his pre-Christian mind. Forgiveness is the soul, virtually the alpha and omega of Blake's Christ, but Night ix shows little or no evidence of this new spirit. Only in 'Jerusalem', in its last plates, do we find a thoroughly Christian apocalypse. Neither Revelation nor Night ix has much of forgiveness; what they do have is vengeance and retribution. Both writers had suffered much at the hands of the ungodly, and both looked with anticipation to the Day of Vengeance. So we must say that Night ix is a modern redoing of John's Apocalypse, while the end of 'Jerusalem' is a Christian recreation of it.
Blake's epic ends with the eternal man awake, his four Zoas back in union, each carrying out his appointed function in the harmonious consummation of the Age. In the last harvest Urizen reaps, Tharmas threshes, Luvah tramples out the vineyard and Urthona bakes the bread.
Night ix contains much magnificent poetry. A few lines near the end will provide an appropriate end to this all too inadequate description of Blake's great poem:
For a more organized description of The Four Zoas go to Characters.
- The Sun has left his blackness and has found a fresher morning, And the mild moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night, And Man walks forth from the midst of the fires: the evil is all consum'd. ... He walks upon the Eternal Mountains, raising his heavenly voice, Conversing with the Animal forms of wisdom night and day, ... They raise their faces from the Earth, conversing with the Man: "How is it we have walk'd thro' fires and yet are not consum'd? "How is it that all things are chang'd, even as in ancient times?" The Sun arises from his dewey bed, and the fresh airs Play in his smiling beams giving the seeds of life to grow, And the fresh Earth beams forth ten thousand thousand springs of life.
The Mature Works
Milton is a very autobiographical work. Blake used many of the characters that his readers might be familiar with from earlier works, but in this very personal poem they often assume other (although related) identities. Particularly we understand that Blake was Los; Hayley was Satan (he had suborned Blake from his true work to hack work, from Eternity to Ulro.)
John Milton, the author of 'Paradise Lost', had been a major force in Blake's life; he had been many things to Blake through the years. In Blake's day Milton enjoyed enormous spiritual stature among the English people. Even today the general understanding of Heaven, Hell, God and Satan (among people interested in those concepts) tends to be more often miltonic than biblical. In the first half of his life Blake felt very much under the shadow of Milton, the great epic poet of the English people. All subsequent English poets lived and wrote in Milton's shadow, and the greatest ones aspired to achieve an epic comparable to 'Paradise Lost'.
Although Blake had much in common with the puritan poet, he disagreed with Milton about a number of things. For example, as a young man he despised the God of 'Paradise Lost' and admired Milton's Devil. Blake made that clear in 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' and tried to put Milton in his place by saying that he was of the Devil's party without knowing it. Ten years later the experience of grace empowered Blake to deal with Milton in a better way. He called him back to earth to straighten out his theology, and he identified with him and his spiritual power in a radical way. He recreated Milton as Milton had recreated the Bible.
As Blake's poem begins, Milton has been in Heaven for a hundred years, obedient although not very happy there. The 'Bard's Song' (which takes up the first third of the poem) recreates the war in Heaven of 'Paradise Lost'. The other Eternals find the Bard's song appalling, but Milton embraces the Bard and his song. In a thrilling imaginative triumph he announces his intention of leaving Heaven to complete the work on earth that he had left undone. Although Blake doesn't say this, any Christian should recognize that Milton thus follows in the footsteps of Christ as described in the famous Kenosis passage in Philippians 2:
Anyone familiar with the gospel story will see many allusions and biblical references here.
- He took off the robe of the promise and ungirded himself from the oath of God. And Milton said: "I go to Eternal Death! The Nations still Follow after the detestable Gods of Priam [king of Troy], in pomp of Warlike selfhood contradicting and blaspheming. When will the Resurrection come to deliver the sleeping body From corruptibility? O when, Lord Jesus, wilt thou come? Tarry no longer, for my soul lies at the gates of death. I will arise and look forth for the morning of the grave: I will go down to the sepulcher to see if morning breaks: I will go down to self annihilation and eternal death, Lest the Last Judgment come and find me unannihilate And I be seized and given into the hands of my own Selfhood. (Milton: plate 14)
Milton's journey back to earth should appeal to the spiritually oriented Science Fiction fan. Blake used it to clarify his cosmology, although the reader need not expect instant enlightenment at this point; he may need several readings and, optimally, recourse to several commentaries, especially the mechanically inclined ones.
In Blake's cottage he sees Milton's shadow, a horrible vision:
An attempt to translate this visionary poetry into "common sense" might suggest that in Milton's shadow Blake suddenly became immediately aware of all the fallen nature of the world (and his mind) that had consumed most of his poetry to that point. Now he became aware of all these things, but in the light of a person now full of light.
- Milton Plate 37, line 07: Miltons Shadow heard & condensing all his Fibres 08 Into a strength impregnable of majesty & beauty infinite 09 I saw he was the Covering Cherub & within him Satan 10 And Rahah, in an outside which is fallacious! within 11 Beyond the outline of Identity, in the Selfhood deadly 12 And he appeard the Wicker Man of Scandinavia in whom 13 Jerusalems children consume in flames among the Stars 14 Descending down into my Garden, a Human Wonder of God 15 Reaching from heaven to earth a Cloud & Human Form 16 I beheld Milton with astonishment & in him beheld 17 The Monstrous Churches of Beulah, the Gods of Ulro dark 18 Twelve monstrous dishumanizd terrors Synagogues of Satan. 19 A Double Twelve & Thrice Nine: such their divisions. 20 And these their Names & their Places within the Mundane Shell 21 In Tyre & Sidon I saw Baal & Ashtaroth. In Moab Chemosh 22 In Ammon, Molech: loud his Furnaces rage among the Wheels 23 Of Og, & pealing loud the cries of the Victims of Fire: 24 And pale his Priestesses infolded in Veils of Pestilence. border'd 25 With War: Woven in Looms of Tyre & Sidon by beautiful Ashtaroth. 26 In Palestine Dagon, Sea Monster! worshipd o'er the Sea. 27 Thammuz in Lebanon & Rimmon in Damascus curtaind 28 Osiris: Isis: Orus: in Egypt: dark their Tabernacles on Nile 29 Floating with solemn songs, & on the Lakes of Egypt nightly 30 With pomp, even till morning break & Osiris appear in the sky 31 But Belial of Sodom & Gomorrha, obscure Demon of Bribes 32 And secret Assasinations, not worshipd nor adord; but 33 With the finger on the lips & the back turnd to the light 34 And Saturn Jove & Rhea of the Isles of the Sea remote 35 These Twelve Gods, are the Twelve Spectre Sons of the Druid Albion 36 And these the Names of the Twenty-seven Heavens & their Churches 37 Adam, Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch. 38 Methuselah, Lamech: these are Giants mighty Hermaphroditic 39 Noah, Shem, Arphaxad, Cainan the second, Salah, Heber, 40 Peleg. Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah, these are the Female-Males 41 A Male within a Female hid as in an Ark & Curtains. 42 Abraham, Moses, Solomon, Paul. Constantine. Charlemaine 43 Luther, these seven are the Male-Females, the Dragon Forms 44 Religion hid in War, a Dragon red & hidden Harlot 45 All these are seen in Miltons Shadow who is the Covering Cherub 46 The Spectre of Albion
Back on earth Milton encounters many of the characters whom we met in 'The Four Zoas'. Tirzah and Rahab tempt him; his contest with Urizen has special interest as a record of the resolution of Blake's life long struggle with the things that Urizen represented to him:
A Bible dictionary, or even better, Damon's Blake Dictionary, will help to clarify the associations with biblical locations. Here we see the old Urizen still trying to freeze the poet's brain, but instead he finds himself being humanized by an emissary from Heaven. Blake is vividly depicting the battle between the forces of positivism and spirit.
- Silent they met and silent strove among the streams of Arnon Even to Mahanaim, when with cold hand Urizen stoop'd down And took up water from the river Jordan, pouring on To Milton's brain the icy fluid from his broad cold palm. But Milton took of the red clay of Succoth, moulding it with care Between his palms and filling up the furrows of many years, Beginning at the feet of Urizen, and on the bones Creating new flesh on the Demon cold and building him As with new clay, a Human form in the Valley of Beth Peor.
Milton meets other obstacles and temptations on his journey, a journey that begins to bear increasing resemblance to that of Bunyan's Pilgrim or even of Jesus himself. He unites with Los and with Blake. He finally meets Satan, confronts him and overcomes him as Jesus had done. These dramatic events give Blake ample opportunity to describe in detail the eternal and satanic dimensions of life, the conflict betwen the two and the inevitable victory of the eternal. For the first and perhaps the only time Blake is writing a traditional morality story.
This material is autobiographical and written in the honeymoon phase of his new spiritual life. Blake's full meanings yield only to intensive study, but from the beginning there are thrilling lines to delight and inspire the reader. In his esoteric language Blake describes for us what has happened to him, and nothing could be more engrossing for the reader interested in the life of the spirit and in Blake. The relationship of this story to the myth described above should be obvious. But 'Milton' is more real than the previous material because Blake has lived it and writes (and sketches) with spiritual senses enlarged and tuned by his recent experience of grace.
A digression occurs in the second half of Book One of 'Milton', a detailed description of the "World of Los"; it contains much of Blake's most delightful poetry. The reader will remember that in 4Z Los had passed through several stages of development. Beginning as the primitive prophetic boy, he became first disciple and later adversary of Urizen. He bound Urizen into fallen forms of life, then "became what he beheld". But in Night vii we recall that he embraced his Spectre, actually the Urizen within, and thereupon became the hero of the epic.
Blake's real hero is Jesus; Los prepares the way for him. Los, the imagination, organizes the forms of fallen life into a palace of art; Blake called this 'building Golgonooza'. The imagination of the artist carries man's only hope of rising above what Frye referred to as "life on its natural plane of conventional stupidity". For five plates in 'Milton' Blake extols the World of Los, the sum total of imaginative creation, the art, the culture, the decency that has raised mankind at times, if only momentarily, above the satanic level of a universe groaning in travail.
Kierkegaard placed the aesthetic phase immediately prior to the spiritual, and Blake's "World of Los" bears witness to that truth. But Blake, with the deepr insight of his own spiritual experience, knew that art is the stuff of life. Art without Christ is vanity; the presence of Christ glorifies it into life eternal. In these plates (25-29) of 'Milton', describing the "World of Los", Blake returns to the radiant lyricism of the 'Songs of Innocence', but this is an organized innocence, an innocence beyond experience. These are the rhapsodic songs of praise of one who has met the Ultimate Artist:
This brief description of 'Milton' has only touched on a few of the most essential meanings of a poem that contains a thousand facets. But one other thing needs to be said. Among all the hidden riches to be sought out there emerges the realization that 'Milton' also represents a beginning of Blake's reconciliation with the Church that had suffered his violent enmity through the years.
- Thou seest the gorgeous clothed Flies that dance and sport in summer Upon the sunny brooks and meadows: every one the dance Knows in its intricate mazes of delight artful to weave: Each one to sound his instruments of music in the dance, To touch each other and recede, to cross and change and return: These are the Children of Los; thou seest the Trees on mountains, The wind blows heavy, loud they thunder thro' the darksom sky, Uttering prophecies and speaking instructive words to the sons Of men: These are the Sons of Los: These the Visions of Eternity, But we see only as it were the hem of their garments When with our vegetable eyes we view these wondrous Visions. (Plate 26)
Blake had held the Church in low regard for two reasons: First, it had too much blood on its hands; Second, he had always understood how far the Church had failed to be what it was called to. John Milton had also refused to affiliate with worldly (in Blake's terminology 'satanic') organizations which called themselves the Church.
Still as spiritual leader of the English people Milton represented the best of the English Church. Reconciliation with him was for Blake (among other things) a symbolic first step in forgiving "God's people" for failing to be that in the truest sense. So he joined Milton in confession, in self annihilation, in the forgiveness which had become his new and only abiding concept of the meaning of God. Like Milton he remained outside the established Church, but he chose to be buried with the Anglican order of worship!
For a more thorough, detailed, and better description of this poem go to William Blake's Milton:Meaning and Madness
With 'Jerusalem', Blake's last great poem, we come to a dense forest of obscure wisdom. Its fourfold structure will be clear to the reader who has the myth well in mind. Each of the four chapters makes a dialectical presentation of one of the successive movements of the myth. Chapter One announces the Fall, interposing against it the efforts of Los to create artistic meaning out of the natural chaos of fallen life. Chapter Two sets in opposition the Law and the biblical recreation of meaning, what we might call the Bible as Art. Chapter Three concerns the Advent of Christ and the deistical reaction. Chapter Four follows Night viii of 4Z in its intensification of the satanic powers and Night ix in their consummation at the Apocalypse when Man awakens and becomes fully alive.
In this apocalypse Blake did what he had been unable to do in Night ix of 4Z. He fully Christianized his myth. Instead of judgment we meet grace; instead of vengeance, forgiveness. In the fullness of time Albion awakens, and with exquisite artistic and spiritual sensitivity Blake assigns the wrath of God to Albion's awakening impulse:
But "Then Jesus appeared" (Plate 96, line 3) and Albion confessed the turpitude of his Selfhood. And what follows is far too beautiful to attempt to describe and the purest statement of the gospel and of the true meaning of Christianity that has ever been made. So ends the mythical journey of Albion where it began--in the heart of God.
- Time was finished! The Breath Divine Breathed over Albion... .... The Breath Divine went forth over he morning hills. Albion rose In anger, the wrath of od breaking, bright flaming on all sides around His wful limbs.... Jerusalem Plates 94 and 95)
A more detailed outline of Jerusalem appears in Chapter Eight
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