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The Sublime of the Bible

  • David M. Baulch

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  • David M. Baulch
    University of Washington

The reason why Blake removed the preface to Milton, which includes his most famous lyric, commonly known as "Jerusalem," is unclear.  [1] But beyond whatever reservations Blake may have had about the "Preface" after he'd finished and sold the first two copes of Milton, it offers a useful insight into the Blakean sublime. Milton is the work where Blake presents the experience of the infinite within the finite through its embedded concentric narratives which reveal the apparently linear proceedings—as one's experience of a poem must proceed, page-by-page in time—as a single visionary instant for Blake as narrator of the poem in his Felpham garden. For Blake this experience is the instantaneous apprehension of the Divine Vision as a presence generated by the imagination by means of a textual model of aesthetic experience. With the Divine Vision as the realization of this aesthetic experience, Blake's reading of the Bible becomes a critical component in identifying his construction of sublimity. My specific concern here is to determine what Blake means by the phrase "the Sublime of the Bible" in Milton .

The polemical preface begins by making the claim that "The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid: of Plato & Cicero. which all Men ought to contemn: are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible".  [2] As a writer in the early nineteenth century Blake's view the Bible as an exemplar of the sublime is hardly unusual. However, as Vincent De Luca observes, it is unusual that Blake's idea of a literary tradition of sublimity excludes the "mighty poetic names both classical and modern, including Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton".  [3] Blake scholars have tried to account for this unusual view of the sublime in terms of potential sources from which he might have drawn to formulate his idea. The most persuasive argument about potential influences on Blake's concept of sublimity is advanced by Morton Paley and further developed by De Luca concerning Robert Lowth's Lectures on The Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews.  [4] Lowth's Lectures were published by Blake's sometimes friend and employer Joseph Johnson in 1787; thus, it is possible that Blake was aware of Lowth's work. Lowth argues that Hebrew poetry produces the sublime feeling by means of its use of parallel syntax and a highly formal organization in the structuring of its lines. While there are numerous instances of this kind of arrangement in Blake's major prophecies, there is no concrete evidence that he actually read or took any significant interest in Lowth's work.

A second possible source for Blake's idea of biblical sublimity is offered by Joseph Wittreich, Jr. He suggests that the Renaissance tradition of reading the Book of Revelations as a "picture prophecy" may have influenced Blake's reading of the Bible.  [5] Wittreich's suggestion is plausible in view of the great love Blake had for Renaissance prints, but again there is no concrete connection to indicate that this tradition of biblical interpretation did influence Blake. Finally, De Luca speculates that Blake may have been influenced in his thinking about biblical sublimity by Cabbalistic doctrines of "the creative power inherent in the Hebrew letters of...the unutterable Tetragrammaton".  [6] As is the case in Jerusalem plate 25, Blake does employ visual imagery that could be construed as depicting Cabbalistic concepts.  [7] While all of these sources do provide possible avenues for understanding Blake's idea of biblical sublimity, there is no evidence of any one of these sources having a significant or direct influence on Blake. What Blake means by the Sublime of the Bible is sufficiently outlined within his own work.

Blake's sense of the Sublime of the Bible is generated by his way of reading the Bible itself. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell shows Blake defining the tenets of this reading practice. Significantly, this work is also the first time that Blake uses the word "sublime" to describe a condition that is associated with intellectual activity, "The head Sublime"(MHH 10:1, E 37), and as a term that designates an ethical position, "The most sublime act is to set another before you".  [8] He playfully depicts his study of the Bible in The Marriage ; writing that, accompanied by a particular Angel who has become a Devil, "we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense".  [9] What Blake calls an "infernal or diabolical sense" of the Bible identifies a rhetorical position arising from the ethical stance that his visionary aesthetic takes in opposition to the social constructions of institutional religion and moral law. In The Marriage Blake's text becomes the site upon which a reader is to become converted, experiencing a change of perspective from that of the reading of the Bible advocated by Blake's Angels to the diabolical reading of the Bible sponsored by Blake as narrator and his Devils. But The Marriage does not offer a ready-made template through which to read the multiple perspectives present in the major prophecies; rather, it presents both Blake's aesthetics and ethics in terms of oppositions, which on plate 11 entitled "The voice of the Devil," he calls, "Contraries."

In Milton both Blake's aesthetics and ethics are more considerably complicated. Here, the oppositional contraries of The Marriage have given way to a more complex structure which dramatizes multiple perspectives of a single action. These multiple perspectives allow Blake to present the poetic realization of the sublime experience. In The Marriage, Blake finds that "All Bibles or sacred codes. have been the causes of the following Errors".  [10] In Milton, Blake takes on the task of detailing the process by revising the errors he found inherent in Milton's Christian vision. Milton shifts the ground of biblical history to reconstruct it as a model of aesthetic experience wherein the Last Judgment becomes an instance of the aesthetic judgment of the sublime. In Blake's description of his painting of The Last Judgment, he defines his sense of the Last Judgment as a recognition of aesthetic experience. In Blake's view, "The Last Judgment is an Overwhelming of Bad Art & Science".  [11] It is this understanding of aesthetic experience which reveals the limits of empirical science and brings into question the view of art espoused by Reynolds in his Discourses . Blake's Last Judgment is not the biblical apocalypse marking the end of time; it is an individual experience that occurs "whenever any Individual Rejects Error & Embraces Truth a Last Judgment passes upon that Individual".  [12] The apocalypse of the fallen world is the individual realization of the unbounded infinite of the sublime within the finite human condition. Rather than identifying the Bible as the source of error as in The Marriage, Milton shows the necessity for an individual's re-envisioning of the Bible as a site of aesthetic experience rather than as a Christian history and guide to Moral Law. The binary of Angels and Devils in The Marriage is supplanted by a threefold division within fallen humanity between the Reprobate, the Redeemed, and the Elect in Milton :

The Elect is one Class:...
...they cannot Believe in Eternal Life
Except by Miracle & a New Birth. The other two Classes;
The Reprobate who never cease to Believe, and the Redeemed,
Who live in doubts & fears perpetually tormented by the Elect  [13]

The Elect embody the contradiction Blake sees in Miltonic Christianity between its belief in a mysterious, invisible God of might, yet its insistence on a seeing-is-believing policy of empirical verification in all other matters. The Elect are the corporeal reality of TheMarriage 's Angels. The Reprobate "never cease to Believe" in their own imaginative powers, but, as is made clear through Blake's character Milton, this does not mean that they are free of error; instead, they have the visionary talents through which error is made manifest so that it can be identified and thereby cast off. Thus, the vision of the Reprobate is always provisional and subject to revision. The Reprobate are analogous to The Marriage 's Devils. The third category, the Redeemed, are the ground of the conflict The Marriage virtually ignores. In Milton, Blake humanizes his revised concept of contraries in terms of these three classes of men, "They are the Two Contraries & the Reasoning Negative".  [14] This focus on the threefold significantly influences Milton 's aesthetic concerns as a work of visual art as well.

In terms of its visual presentation, Milton 's threefold structure of contrariety is embodied in its designs. Chief among these figures is Blake's motif of the trilithon. Frye observes that "the Druidic trilithon represents a geometrical or abstract form of the perversion of the relation of the three classes".  [15] These trilithons appear on plates 3(a), and 4 of copy C, in close proximity to the discussions of the three classes.  [16] But the trilithons are more than simply abstract manifestations of form. The trilithons are structural representations specific to Blake's view of the arts and the fate of biblical prophecy in the fallen world:

But in Eternity the Four Arts: Poetry, Painting, Music,
and Architecture which is Science: are the Four Faces of Man.
Not so in Time & Space: there Three are shut out, and only
Science remains thro Mercy: & by means of Science, the Three
Become apparent in Time & Space  [17]

The trilithon is for Blake the perfect embodiment of the fallen arts. Trilithons themselves serve a threefold purpose, since they are works of architecture that are in the service of science (providing a celestial schema measuring time by means of reference to bodies in space), and they are also a shorthand visual reference to the religious practices of Druidism which Blake associates with human sacrifice.

From another perspective, the trilithons are the three arts which are shut out of the fallen world, given visual representation as unmoving stones; these arts are present, but entombed in the unmoving material forms of the fallen world without being mimetically represented. To the Corporeal Understanding, these stones are merely material, hewn rock, which compose the apparatus of the scientific perspective and Druidic rites. Yet for the Intellectual powers, the trilithon is the appearance in time and space of all four arts within one figure. Only by means of the imaginative powers of apprehension present in the reader, acting as a participant in constructing Blake's textual matrices, can the arts of Eternity be revived. As a synecdoche, the trilithon is the textual site for a reader's intellectual recognition by means of visionary construction of multiplicity within identity: the four arts, three of which are turned to stone in the service of the fallen perspective, as one figure that is, in itself, threefold.

As a comment on the arts, the trilithons are also a visual recapitulation of what Blake sees as the division of aesthetic qualities in the fallen world in terms of Albion's body. Frye suggests that these trilithons are a physicalization of the Blake's view of fallen aesthetics as expressed in a passage on a proof of the frontispiece piece of Jerusalem :

His Sublime & Pathos become Two Rocks fixd in the Earth
His Reason his Spectrous Power, covers them above
Jerusalem his Emanation is a Stone laying beneath
O [Albion behold Pitying ] behold the Vision of Albion  [18]

Frye suggests that "the 'Sublime & Pathos' are the uprights and the fallen reason covering them".  [19] For Blake, the fallen condition is one of aesthetic division where the sublime and the beautiful can be imagined as "Two Rocks fixd in the Earth," where Albion's "Reason his Spectrous Power, covers them above".  [20] As an image of a divided aesthetic, the trilithon resonates with Blake's description of a now lost painting of his called The Ancient Britons where he indicates the visible presence of a threefold division among post-lapsarian humanity as the aesthetic qualities of the beautiful man of pathos, the strong man of the sublime, and the ugly man of human reason. Both the frontispiece of Jerusalem and the description of The Ancient Britons describe a missing fourth. "Jerusalem his Emanation is a Stone laying beneath," is the missing fourth which appears in Jerusalem.  [21] In the description of The Ancient Britons, "the form of the fourth was like the Son of God".  [22] Blake also points out that these four individual figures "were originally one man, who was fourfold" from the perspective of the prelapsarian state, but that this figure, like Albion in Jerusalem "was self divided".  [23]

Finally, when Blake refers to the Four Arts in Eternity, he is alluding to the lost role of prophetic vision in his age and his own attempt to revive it in The Four Zoas. In terms of the aesthetics of Blake's Zoas myth, fourfold vision is a radically humanized state of identity between the four Zoas as the psychic and aesthetic constituents of the giant Albion. Blake's notion of the task of both the biblical prophets and the task of his own prophetic works situates the text as a program of challenges which serve to uproot ontological certainty and alter perspective to provide gateways to different states of existence.

It follows then that when Blake writes about "the Sublime of the Bible," it is not the Bible itself that functions as a sublime object; instead, the Bible becomes the site of the sublime experience for a Redeemed or Reprobate reader. The reader's experience of the sublime is his or her ability to imaginatively apprehend the visionary perspective implicit in the text; one which "is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding".  [24] The "Corporeal Understanding" depends upon what Kant calls the pure concepts to which the faculty of the understanding refers or that which Burke in his Enquiry , associates with material existence in the natural world. By employing the Intellectual powers, Blake asks his reader to consider the ground of experience in terms of the sublime boundlessness of one's ability to create imaginative mental images. In this way, the text provides images that can potentially dislocate a reader's perspective of the natural world and thus manifest the unlimited constructive powers of the imagination. By situating "the Sublime of the Bible" as an exchange between a text's potential to stimulate a reader to realize its and his or her own infinite visionary potential, it becomes possible to place Blake's notion of the sublime in the context of discussions about the sublime and the Bible.

In the tradition of commentary on the sublime, the Bible has been acknowledged as a paradigm of sublimity from the beginning. Longinus finds an important component of sublimity in the Biblical creation myth in Genesis 1:3. "'God said,'—what? 'Let there be light, and there was light; let there be land, and there was land'".  [25] But Blake probably would have disagreed with Longinus's reason for citing this passage. Longinus saw the passage from Genesis as an example of "the might of the Godhead" as the foundation of Mosaic law.  [26] Longinus's view merely reinscribes the errors Blake saw in the Miltonic conception of God.

Blake rejects the traditional view of the source of biblical sublimity as generated by the depiction of the overwhelming force of God as an ontological absolute, external, and final vis a vis the human condition. This construction of a God of sublime might manifests itself in the natural world through the powers of life, death, and physical destruction. These Urizenic displays of power are precisely what Burke also identifies as the source of the Bible's sublimity: "In the scripture, whenever God is represented as appearing or speaking, everything terrible in nature is called up to heighten the awe and solemnity of the divine presence. The psalms and prophetical books, are crowded with instances of this kind".  [27] The sublimity of God as constructed by Milton, Longinus, and Burke is outside the range of the human condition and beyond the abilities of the human powers of imagination to represent.

However, what would have appealed to Blake about this construction of biblical sublimity is the simultaneity of word and act they depict. In Longinus's example, God's language is a constitutive one. The act of God is utterance identical with the coming into being of the thing itself. The same is true for Burke; God's threats are acts of terrific might. But Blake radically changes the notion of the creative powers of the Divine Presence. Specifically, Blake objects to the understanding of the Genesis creation myth which is typified by the Longinian reading wherein God's act of creation supplants a universal condition that was "without form and void".  [28] This reading of Genesis, also present in Milton's Paradise Lost, gives priority to a linear history beginning with God's creation of the Earth in time and space. In A Vision of The Last Judgement Blake states, "Many suppose that before [Adam] [the Creation] All was solitude and 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...".  [29] Here, Blake indicates that his notion of the sublimity of the Bible is grounded in a non-empirical perspective which is not dependent on, nor is it limited to the comprehension of the "Corporeal Vegetative Eye" in the same way that he claims his Sublime Allegory is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding. Rather the sublimity Blake finds in the Bible is in those images created by the Intellectual powers in their ability to apprehend the infinite as the realization of the image of the Divine Vision within the human form. The apprehension of the infinite within the instant of the experience of the sublime shifts the focus of Biblical typology from the life of Jesus to that of an individual's aesthetic experience of the unbounded possibilities of his or her own imagination. In this way Blake finds in the simultaneity of word and act of the traditional views of God's creative powers a model for aesthetic response.

Milton shows Blake's identification of the experience of the Sublime of the Bible with the humanizing power of the fourfold vision. This experience is the realization of the Divine presence in the creative vision of the individual. The experience of the Blakean sublime is marked by the perspectival shift of the imaginative powers to a position that is, in his terms "circumferential" of both time and space:

For in this Period the Poets work is Done: and all the Great
Events of Time start forth & are concievd in such a Period
Within a Moment: a Pulsation of the Artery  [30]

For every Space larger than a red Globule of mans blood.
Is visionary and created by the Hammer of Los
And every Space smaller than a Globule of Mans blood. opens
Into Eternity of which this vegetable Earth is but a shadow  [31]

In both of these passages, Blake describes the regions surrounding Golgonooza. These descriptions identify a synechdochic relationship between the visionary apprehension of the instantaneous and infinitesimal units of time and space in terms of human form as that which is conceptually circumferential of the largest possible dimensions of time and space. These synecdochic relationships, critical to Blake's Golgonooza, may be derived, in part, from the sublime biblical visions of the New Jerusalem from Revelations and the City of the South in Ezekiel.

The source of Blake's idea of a text as the site of the experience of the sublime is a direct result of his secular appropriation of the function of biblical prophecy. Blake defines his notion of biblical prophecy on plate 12 of The Marriage. Blake's interest in the biblical prophets is not in the obscurity of their narratives nor their abstruse verbal structures, although he adopts both to some extent in the three major prophecies. For Blake, the chief value of the prophets rests in their ability to stimulate the mind's powers of imaginative vision. Rather than an attempt to describe a thing that is seen with the corporeal eye, prophecy brings into play the Intellectual powers to which Blake's Sublime Allegory is addressed. In The Marriage , Blake's Isaiah claims that his visions are inspired the instant when "my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing", and Blake's Ezekiel states that prophecy arises from "the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite".  [32] This sense of Prophecy as aesthetic experience is the sublime of the Bible for Blake in its ability to provide a site for the realization of the infinite within the finite human condition.

To recognize the significance of Milton as a revision of what Blake saw as the errors of Miltonic christianity is to see the radical nature of Blake's aesthetics. When Blake claims that he will restore the Sublime of the Bible, he is not merely employing the term sublime as an honorific. For a reader, understanding Blake's notion of the experience of the sublime is a necessary component in developing a reading of Milton. Here, this experience is dramatized in terms of several conflicts in the form of concentric narratives embedded in the text, which include that of a nameless Bard facing a stern audience in the Heavens of Albion, Blake in his efforts to write The Four Zoas under the influence of Hayley as a well-meaning, yet stifling patron, and Blake's Milton in his struggle with the ethical implications of his own biblical epics.  [33] The central image for the site of this struggle in Milton is a much more elaborate version of Golgonooza from nights VIIa and VIII of The Four Zoas. Golgonooza in Milton is the focus of the most important elements of Blake's work. In Golgonooza, the Reprobate and the Redeemed, the physical world and the imaginative world, and time and space all meet in the sublime fourfold experience of the visionary instant.

Parties annexes