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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 16, novembre 1999

Romanticism and its Others

Sous la direction de Neville Newman

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005875ar

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Article

Blake's Poetics of Sound in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Susan P. Reilly

University of New Hampshire


1

Critics of Blake's oeuvre have pointed to his privileging of ear over eye—a stance which gave rise to a poetics of voice over mute image—an "ekphrastic fear" [1] shared by the Romantics, which was a tenet of German idealist aesthetics. The belief that "every eye sees differently" [2] is a well-known staple of Blakean thought, and together with other of the poet's aphorisms, ought to remind us how deeply Blake mistrusted the visual realm as a source of knowledge or inspiration. Attesting to Blake's suspicion, not only towards visual forms but of written word as well, and the anathema, articulated in Milton and Jerusalem, of unredeemed and corrupted speech, is his engraving of the Laocoön, executed not long before his death. This jumble of word and image is a picture of writing, rather than the picture in writing offered in the ut pictura poesis and picturesque poetry of, for example, Cowper and Thomson. Throughout his life the corruption of the word, as it was handed down from oral sources, was as problematic for Blake as the deceiving visual, and the Laocoön clearly stresses the close relation of picture and word, and their potential to both enlighten and mislead. [3]

2

A related impulse in Blake is what Mitchell calls "an anti-pictorialist position" (Mitchell 114) which rendered visual perception problematic and prompted poets to find new analogies in music rather than painting. The Chorus and the Song of Liberty at the end of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell testify to Blake's preoccupation, spanning his works, with "pseudo-musical" genres. [4] It might be argued, in fact, that the heterodox and syncretistic Marriage of Heaven and Hell itself is in part an epithalamion—a song which celebrates the union of the celestial and infernal regions. It may even be viewed as a song of songs which incorporates the Song and its chorus at its end.

3

Blake's misgivings concerning the visual and his new emphasis on a poetics of sound find full expression in his deployment of an army of all things spoken and heard in a war against the written and the seen. In the first Memorable Fancy of The Marriage Blake writes that Proverb shows the nature of Infernal wisdom "better than any description of buildings or garments" (E35; emphases mine). [5] Blake's distrust of the visual, his skepticism about the efficacy of description, extends even to the spectacle of miracle, and he prefers the directness of what is heard to that which is seen. [6] This distrust is evident in the disjunctive nature, again noted by Mitchell in Blake's Composite Art, of Blake's illustrations, many of which fail to illustrate text. [7]

4

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which might be seen as including, especially in its "Argument", Blake's prophetic or satiric epithalamion, the poet chose to leave largely unillustrated. More than half the plates have virtually no illustrations or only small interlinear or marginal designs. However, many of the designs Blake did include, especially the title page, depict childbirth or the sorts of embraces reserved in polite eighteenth century discourse for the marriage bed. The Argument itself depicts a pair of figures, the female member of which is being helped up the Tree of Knowledge by a man already aloft in its branches. [8] Yet Blake refuses from the start of this early illuminated work to pander to the conventions of marriage itself; his figures in the frontispiece are stripped of the wedding garments which confer the civil blessings of church ceremony.

5

If Blake meant his "Argument" to parody the epithalamic litany of love's praises, sung outside the bridal chamber, then such a plan might explain the fact that the only appropriate lays for Blake's cosmic wedding are the primal utterances of the natural world, and the only creature he makes croon is the honey bee. While it is clear that Blake went to Spenser for inspiration and vocabulary in poems as early as those contained in Poetical Sketches; his spousal chants, sung in the wild, are just as primitivized as his marriage ceremony itself. Rintrah's roaring "song" and the human cry of rage, offered in the unrhymed verse which deviates from the prose forms Blake utilized in most of The Marriage, stand in marked, and possibly deliberate contrast to the older poet's celebrated example of the genre, with its Oprhic song, caroling Larks, and the minstrelsy of Nymph and Muse. While it may not wholly account for his interest in orality, the unembellished character of these simple hymns of Nature is evidence of Blake's interest in the work of antiquarian mythographers like Stukeley and Bryant, and in Rousseaunean primitivism. [9] The fact that Blake's primitive songs are sung in the wild and not outside the bridal chamber is entirely in keeping with Blakean thought: the proper marriage vehicle is, after all, the hearse ("London" 15) and Blake's scorn for the institution permeates his writings.

6

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell may even have originally been conceived and executed, as scholars have argued, in 24 plates, corresponding to the twenty-four hours and 24 stanzas (including the envoy) of Spenser's epithalamic poem. [10] Spenser's "girlands" of lilies and roses have their foil in the Blakean thorns of the barren heath (MHH 6, 6, 16), and even the acerbic end of Blake's multi-generic prophecy, with its overthrow of the hoarse chorus of the Raven Priests, parodies Spenser's blessings of the gods in the final lines of the Epithalamion, and calls for a cessation of religious sanctimony and a return to a sexual freedom in which love is bound neither to religion nor to the hypocritical niceties of cultural decorum. Blake's "Song of Liberty," with its prophetic vision of triumph and annihilation of Empire and Romish religious tyranny, calls not just for revolutionary renewal, but for liberation from the sexual restrictions celebrated in the high poetic tradition exemplified by Spenser. The reborn, fiery Orc heralds an end to repression in all its myriad forms. Spenser's expectant virgins shall wait no more in the name of "religious letchery" (Erdman 45); Blake's choral envoy exhorts them to act, not wish, and to join the holy community of the living.

7

Yet how can we reconcile, then, what seems to be Blake's privileging of printed text over visual design in MHH, when we know that Blake distrusted written codes as well as image as the source of error or suspicion? ("all Bibles or sacred codes are the causes of...error" [E 34]). The answer may lie in the kinds or writing Blake privileged, and in what he believed to be their ultimate source. Jerome McGann and others have recently shown that Blake, following Alexander Geddes and his counterparts in Germany, believed that received biblical texts were corrupt and did not reflect pure inspiration. McGann goes so far as to argue that without the historical scholarship of men like Griesbach, Eichhorn, and Geddes, Blake's poems would not have been possible, and that their new scholarly models served as tools for revealing things which cannot be seen. [11]

8

To be sure, language is not to be taken lightly in Blake—Frye's comment that Blake is a poet who "makes a commonplace understanding of him impossible" (Frye 11) stands behind most critical readings offered in the last half century. In Fearful Symmetry, Frye describes Blake's prophecies as "monologue"—"confused and chaotic," (Frye 5) and while there has been much debate about the genre of MHH, [12] one thing is certain: it is a written catalogue and monologue of unmediated sounds of all descriptions. Several critics have pointed to the oral overtones of the work by designating it a "testament" or "prophecy." [13] Like other "Songs" in Blake's works (and in fact, in nearly all his writings) The Marriage professes to be inspired by or a record of sound, spoken word, or words dictated. [14]

9

What I want to argue is that Blake's epithalamic prophecy is a monologic bricolage which contains poetic subgenera integral to his privileging of oral media—parable, prophecy, and proverb—all spoken forms, and that Blake's emphasis on oral and musical forms has a source in the work of the radical Roman Catholic priest and scholar Alexander Geddes, who in 1786 had begun preparations for a new translation of the Bible. Geddes argued for the "fragment hypothesis" of Scripture, and stressed not only that "received biblical texts were corrupt because they all derived from unreliable base texts" but that the Bible comprised a heteroglot and "heterogeneous collection of materials gathered together at different times by different redactors" (McGann 159, 169). But if, as McGann argues, Blake's Urizen, in which "disorder...seems almost the rule" is "the first English poem whose structure was developed in conscious response to the new developments in textual studies which we associate with eighteenth-century German scholarship" (McGann 152), much of it conducted during Blake's lifetime, then MHH precedes it in taking from Geddes as one of its centrally-informing concepts not disorder, but the notion of speech and song as less corrupted forms of communication. This is not to discount the importance for Blake of the biblical Song of Songs, which was a model for his Beulah and Tirzah; but it may help explain why Song of Songs was important for him, and might begin to account for the importance he assigns to utterance and voice. [15]

10

Although Protestant exegesis and Scripture itself had long stressed the distinction between the letter and the spirit, [16] it was not until the advent of the Higher Criticism that the idea was put forward that man himself, in his attempt to commit Testament to writing, had corrupted the Word of God and was operating at a severe remove from the ultimate truths thought to be embodied within it. Theologians like Johann Salomo Semler (1725-91), Professor of Theology at Halle, had already insisted on the distinction between the Word of God and what was written in the Bible by human hand. Geddes went even further, however, and argued that the source of Scripture was oral testimony, "transmitted from generation to generation, in simple narrative, or rustic songs." [17] Blake's pervasive theme of the "heard" runs throughout the prophecies, and MHH is a work which is filled with utterances. "Every honest man" to Blake "is a Prophet; he utters his opinion both of private and public matters." [18] Stuart Peterfreund has written eloquently on the social uses of Blakean rhetoric by tracing the growth of language in Milton and Jerusalem from inhuman and animalistic sound to its redemption in authentic human speech. [19] But what I want to concentrate on here is a different reading of "utterances"—one in which Blake privileges the heard over the read, the aural and the oral over the visual and the written.

11

Only at the highest or penultimate levels in Blake is "word" transmitted directly to the understanding—from God to the prophets (see plate 12, A Memorable Fancy). For mortals, the senses are still the conduits to reason—but word and song, which proceed from an inner source, are purer and less mediated than any written form. Oral forms, too, however, can be corrupted, as they are handed down from bard or prophet; but Blake aims to short-circuit any potential misprision by claiming that his works are heard directly and at first hand from their oral source. [20] Scattered throughout Blake's works and his private jottings are his many claims to write from perceived voices or from dictation, [21] one of which is spelled out in MHH:

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.

E39, emphasis mine

Blake also hears Isaiah and Ezekiel in Plate 12 of MHH, "A Memorable Fancy", and "The voice of the Devil" supersedes written law even as it heads up Blake's list of errors caused by "all Bibles and sacred codes" (E34). As he does in exhortations to "hear the voice of the bard" (intro. to SoE) and to "sound the flute" in "Spring," Blake entreats his readers to listen: to "hear a plain fact...Now hear another...And now hear the reason" (MHH 22:2-5; emphases mine).

12

Furthermore, a number of Blake's engravings depict figures in the act of making utterance—weeping (title page to Jerusalem) prayer, ("The Little Black Boy") howling, (plate 8, Book of Urizen) or producing musical sound like the piper. The title page of MHH contains a figure (top right) which has been construed as weeping, [22] and ever more subtle images of oral acts can be identified in the title page. Even the joining at the lips of the androgynous figures (Princeton, vol. 3; copy F, plate 1) can be taken as a representation of a state of idealized intercourse which proceeds from direct communication and reception of utterance, as well as a portent of sexual coupling—Mark Bracher argues that the figures are being pulled apart by a force at their feet (Bracher 171), but fails to notice that the ascending pairs, initially joined only at the lips, eventually achieve full union and are uniting genitally as they rise, not fall, in the flames of Hell, unscathed by the clouds of fire.

13

Within Bracher's Lacanian reading, Blake's language is seen as subverting, repressing, and reorienting desire. The radical re-orienting tendency of Blake's language has been noted by Hazard Adams, and Mitchell puts forth a similar argument concerning Blake's design and dramatic structure. [23] Blake's free-ranging use of linearity and space keeps the reader working at creating meaning; Mitchell points out that the disjunctive picture-text relationship in many of Blake's illustrated works undermines both language and image as reliable epistemological sources. Yet Blake counteracts the unreliability of written language by offering within it his uttered forms of communication.

14

Beginning with its source in prophecy, much of MHH subverts literary convention and digresses into oral forms. The "Argument" (another occasionally oral form) which begins MHH is not, in the literary sense, an argument at all—as it is, for example, in Paradise Lost— but "an oblique statement of Blake's concept of contraries" (Bloom's commentary [E896]) which parallels the narrator's debate with the angel of the last Memorable Fancy. The Argument has its source in the prophetic Book of Isaiah, but is an apparently disjointed series of events and a catalogue of sounds. The Memorable Fancies themselves, while parodies of Swedenborgian Memorable Relations, might be seen as didactic and prophetic parables, yet at the same time "fancies"—and so addressed to imagination, which is always equated for Blake with Jesus, the speaker of parables. Blake's definition of poetry as "allegory addressed to the intellectual powers," [24] is strikingly like Jesus's rationale in Matthew 13 for speaking in parable:

Therefore speak I to them in parables; because they seeing see not; and hearing

they hear not, neither do they understand

MT 13:13

in the hopes that "the people should understand with their heart;" for "he also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word" (Matthew 13:15; 13:22). Speaking in parable then, is the way to reach the understanding—but the Messianic message directed to the heart is addressed by Blake to the Imagination. Spoken genres are united in the Memorable fancies— parable with proverb, for example, in the Fancy which incorporates the Proverbs of Hell; and parable with prophecy in the Fancy which foretells the futures of Angel and narrator. In combining many genres within the overarching epithalamic title, and in choosing genres which originate in sound or speech—epithalamion, proverb, parable, and prophecy—Blake marries the Higher Criticism with his emphasis on oral culture, and combines both Geddes's insistence on Scripture's heteroglossic nature with his own emphasis on orality and song as its source.


 

Notes

[1]

W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) pp. 154-5; hereinafter cited as Mitchell.

[2]

Annotations to Reynolds, p. 34, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David Erdman, newly revised edition (New York: Anchor, 1988) p. 645; hereinafter cited as Erdman. The classic expression of ekphrastic fear occurs in Lessing's Laocoön, a work with which Blake was familiar. The famous statue of the Laocoön Blake reproduced as an engraving. For Blake's privileging of ear over eye see, e.g., Northrop Frye, "The Drunken Boat," in Romanticism Reconsidered: Selected Papers From the English Institute New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1963; hereinafter cited as Frye) p. 23; Michael Ferber, The Social Vision of William Blake (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 178-182; W. T. Mitchell, Blake's Composite Art : A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) chapter one and passim; and Mitchell, pp. 114 ff.

[3]

See footnote 16, and p. 5.

[4]

My copy text of copy F is the Princeton edition (The Early Illuminated Books, eds. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, Joseph Viscomi. Princeton, NJ: William Blake Trust/Princeton University Press, 1993; hereinafter cited as EIB), and I refer to it throughout unless otherwise noted. Quotation is from p. 114.

[5]

Page reference follows the text of David Erdman, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, the newly-revised edition (New York and London: Doubleday, 1988).

[6]

Harold Bloom, for example, following Foster Damon, sees a reference in ll. 8-13 to the Mosaic miracle of Exodus (Moses smote the rock in Horeb at God's command and water flowed out of it) which he claims that Blake sees as merely preparing for the usurpation of the just man by the villain. See Bloom's textual comments, Erdman, p. 897.

[7]

See W.J.T. Mitchell, Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp. 23 ff.

[8]

There are more pairs depicted in MHH, most notably plate 3, where a man and a prostrate female in the act of giving birth are depicted beneath an androgynous angel of fire ; and plate 4 which shows a child with two androgynous figures, one shackled to the flames.

[9]

Jon Mee, in Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790's (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992) has pointed out, along with scholars like Hazard Adams ("Synecdoche and Method", pp. 21-51, in Antithetical Essays in Literary Criticism and Liberal Education. Tallahassee, Florida State University Press, 1990) ; and Edward Buell Hungerford (Shores of Darkness, Cleveland and New York: World, 1941) the influence on Blake of the mythographers. As Mee and others point out, their antiquarianism and "syncretic approach" prompted Blake to use multiform sources, and MHH with the many genres I argue it contains, might be seen as a notable example. Yet Blake's interest in orality, as McGann has pointed out, stems from the scholars of the Higher Criticism and their predecessors. Mee notes that "For Blake both the Biblical account and the antiquities of other cultures were equally original visions of Eternity" that contained privileged "poetic tales" which he viewed as distorted when gathered and included into Scripture (see p. 133). But Mee does not credit the mythographers themselves with engendering this idea in Blake.

[10]

See EIB, introduction, passim.

[11]

Jerome J, McGann, "The Idea of an Indeterminate Text" in Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Works (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1988) p. 172; hereinafter cited as McGann. McGann and Molly Rothenberg have documented Blake's connection to Geddes and his familiarity with Geddes's' writings (see Rothenberg, Rethinking Blake's Textuality (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1993) pp. 3, 19, and 38-42; McGann, p. 159 and passim. I am grateful to William Richey for bringing Geddes and McGann's and Rothenberg's work on the subject to my attention. For more on Geddes's connection to Blake, see the chapter on "Blake, the Bible, and its Critics" in Jon Mee, Dangerous Enthusiasm (Oxford, 1992) and Robert Essick, "William Blake, Thomas Paine, and the Biblical Revolution," Studies in Romanticism 30 (Summer 1991): 189-212.

[12]

See pp. 117-118 of EIB for a comprehensive discussion of genre.

[13]

See Wittreich, Angel of Apocalypse (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975) p. 189, and Behrendt, Reading William Blake (New York: St. Martin's; Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1992) p. 93, where they both term MHH a prophecy. For discussions of the work as a testament, see Howard, Infernal Poetics: Poetic Structure in Blake's Lambeth Prophecies. (Rutherford, NJ, and London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984) pp. 61-63, and Lipking, The Life of the Poet: Beginning and Ending Poetic Careers. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) p. 39.

[14]

The designation of Blake's poems as "songs, " occurs in Songs of Experience, Songs of Innocence, The Song of Los, "Song of Liberty", The songs of the shepherds, "Nurse's Song," and "The Song of the Aged Mother which shook the heavens with wrath."

[15]

It was Geddes who dated the then-present text of the Pentateuch to the reign of Solomon See McGann p. 169.

[16]

See, for example, Romans 6:4; Galatians 5:18; Deuteronomy 28 and 29; and Corinthians 3:6 for statements on the letter, the spirit, and the Word.

[17]

Alexander Geddes, Prospectus of a New Translation of the Holy Bible, (London and Glasgow, 1786) p. iii; cited in McGann, p. 169. McGann notes that Geddes was the chief purveyor in England between 1788 and 1791 of ideas from the new German school in matters of biblical criticism, and that Blake and Geddes moved in the same circles in the 1790's. McGann notes the influence of Geddes in MHH (see pp. 164 and passim) but does not remark on the implications of Geddes's emphasis on the oral sources of Scripture. The most widely-accepted and often-cited parameters regarding the dating of MHH are 1790-1793 (see Princeton EIB 113-115 on dates).

[18]

Annotations on Watson's Apology for the Bible (E617).

[19]

Stuart Peterfreund, "The Din of the City in Blake's Prophetic Books," English Literary History 64 (1997): 99-130.

[20]

The influence of the Ossian poems and their claims to derive from oral forms gave impetus, too, to this trend in Blake to privilege song and voice.

[21]

I refer to Blake's well-known claims to be inspired to writing by spirits, and that fact all of Jerusalem, e.g., is presented as dictation.

[22]

Mark Bracher, "Rouzing the Faculties: Lacanian Psychoanalysis and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell in the Reader," in Critical Paths: Blake and the Argument of Method, ed. Dan Miller, Mark Bracher, and Donald Ault (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1987) p. 171; hereinafter cited as Bracher.

[23]

Hazard Adams, "Synecdoche and Method", pp. 21-51, in Antithetical Essays in Literary Criticism and Liberal Education. (Tallahassee,, 1990) ; Mitchell, Blake's Composite Art (Princeton, 1978) and "Blake's Radical Comedy: Dramatic Structure and Meaning in Milton" in Stuart Curran and Joseph Wittreich, eds., Blake's Sublime Allegory: Essays on The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, pp. 281-307.

[24]

Letter to Butts, July 6, 1803 (E730).

Auteur : Susan P. Reilly
Titre : Blake's Poetics of Sound in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 16, novembre 1999
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005875ar
DOI : 10.7202/005875ar

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