This article argues that there is a direct connection between Blake’s rejection of conventional Enlightenment aesthetics—namely, of tropes pertaining to light and darkness and void and chaos—and a space of liberty that is opened for the reader. This space, which I term the “exemptive sublime,” is free from interpretive mandates and even orthodox assumptions. To illustrate the affiliation between Blake’s radical aesthetics and the radical space of liberty that is created for the reader, I first briefly consider how even in some of his earliest works, such as “The Little Black Boy” and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake is already complicating notions of light, darkness, and void. I then turn my analysis to the verbal and visual designs of the opening plates in The [First] Book ofUrizen to demonstrate how Blake boldly reorganizes Enlightenment epistemological and ontological discourse so that places of void and darkness become places of productive insight. In its characteristic emphasis on the importance of inspired Vision over empirical sight, Blake’s composite art opens not just a space of liberty in which to question hegemonic doctrine, but also a space for ethical reflection.
William Blake’s rejection of Enlightenment aesthetics has been the subject of lively and productive scholarship in the field of Romantic studies. However, this article considers Blake’s radical aesthetics not as an endpoint, but rather as a way to investigate and highlight the similarities between Blake’s unconventional figurations of tropes, such as light and dark and void and chaos, and the unorthodox interpretive field that is opened for the reader as a direct result of Blake’s reorganization of dominant Enlightenment discourse. This article provides a reading of Blake that makes a connection between Blake’s radical aesthetics and the radical space of liberty that is created for the reader.
Blake’s designs offer what I describe as an “exemptive sublime”: sublime because the faculties of reason and imagination are engaged in processing a relational reality between reader and exterior objects (including the text), and exemptive because, unlike other contemporary notions of the sublime, such as the prevailing theories set forth by Kant and Burke, there is no requirement for distance from or limitation to the object of the sublime; the experience of the reader is not circumscribed or cast as reactionary. Rather, the experience of the reader is characterized by the freedom of what Blake understands to be nontyrranical Vision (Carr 226). I argue that the Blakean exemptive sublime provides a space for ethical reflection, in which readers are encouraged to challenge hegemonic, doctrinal commandments about modes of knowing and being and about what constitutes blindness and insight.
Of course, the privileging of light in the discourse of knowledge long precedes the prominent role it played in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. Ancient Greek philosophers revered the sense of sight as the highest sense (Jonas 312). Socrates likened the soul to an eye (Park 12), and Plato’s allegory of the cave attributed the ability to know reality with the ability to see, an attribution that positioned the sun in the exalted position as the vehicle through which one could make meaning and come as close to Truth and Good as this limited world would allow (Park 13). However, perhaps nothing is stronger evidence of the centuries-long trust bestowed in seeing and light as conduits for perceiving reality and truth as the appellation given to the period of the Enlightenment, in which reason and experience as perceived by the five senses formed the basis for knowledge, progress, and even subject formation itself.
In Downcast Eyes, Martin Jay explains that the “ocularcentric bias” was so strong during the Enlightenment that Lockean and Cartesian thought characterized the mind as a camera obscura, and considered inexorable the tie between rationality and lucidity (85). Indeed, in the wildly popular periodical TheSpectator, Joseph Addison proclaimed “Our sight is the most perfect and most delightful of all our senses” (368), and in An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid flatly stated that “Of all the faculties called the five senses, sight is without doubt the noblest” (quoted in Jay 85). Further, the nobility of sight bore a direct correlation to noble conduct, for in addition to the notion that vision via the biological organ of the eye engendered a clarity of knowledge, Enlightenment epistemological discourse also included the notion that lucid vision could unfold ethical clarity. Since progress during the Enlightenment was understood as “the process of bringing what had once been shrouded in darkness into the light” (Bronner 19), reason and a growing recognition of difference prompted ethical debates about individual freedoms and responsibilities and dictates for more compassionate conduct in social intercourse (Bronner 20).
While notions of light and clarity continued to prevail as the dominant paradigms of Enlightenment epistemological discourse, some subversive articulations of knowledge and progress began to surface as the eighteenth century drew to a close. Jay notes that Wordsworth wrote of the “despotic” bodily eye (108), Coleridge chastised the domination of the eye in mechanical philosophy (108n89), and there was an emerging Gothic and Romantic valorization of darkness, such as Burke’s popular theory of the sublime, which privileged darkness and obscurity as potent aesthetic images (107). It is within this background of the burgeoning interest in the psychological, epistemological, and aesthetic values inherent in “inspired,” rather than biological, vision that William Blake radically challenges the Enlightenment model that light provides knowledge, goodness, and progress, and darkness unfolds ignorance, evil, and stasis.
Even in some of his earliest works, Blake is already complicating notions of light, darkness, and void and emphasizing the importance of inspired Vision over empirical sight as a way to gain understanding. For example, in “The Little Black Boy,” the word “black” carries both negative and positive connotations. While initially seeming to conform to European ideas about black bodies being savage bodies and white souls being good souls (“My mother bore me in the southern wild, / And I am black, but O! my soul is white” (Erdman 1988, 9; 1-2)), such conformity is called into question by the third line when we realize that it is the black child who is afforded more ontological potency and epistemological prowess: it is the black boy who is animated through his speaking voice, and it is he who will instruct the white boy about how to receive divine love. Perhaps even more significantly, it is the black boy who instructs the reader about the vital difference between vision and Vision.
In “The Formal Challenges of Antislavery Poetry,” Jennifer Keith explains that Blake employs simile to “ask us to reexamine the stereotypes of skin color and spiritual worth” (112). Keith notes that Blake’s use of simile in the lines “White as an angel is the English child: / But I am black as if bereaved of light” (Erdman 1988, 9; 3-4) demonstrates how he is “emphasizing the constructed values of race” (112). Further, Keith suggests that “Blake replaces European evaluations of black as demonic and white as angelic with [a] view of spirituality in relation to the sun” (112) in which, through Vision, we see that black bodies are darkened from God’s (the sun’s) excessive love. Significantly, the black boy states that his “sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove” (Erdman 1988, 9; 15-16). Once again, understanding and seeing in “The Little Black Boy” is “an act of divine imagination rather than empirical observation” (113), as the boy’s face is presented as ethereal as a cloud, and is also transformed through simile into a locus amoenus, a pastoral locale for creative inspiration and refuge.
The ability to see the void as productive, indeed, even as a locus amoenus, if approached with Vision and Imagination is dramatically enacted in another one of Blake’s early works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In the Memorable Fancy that begins on plate 17, an Enlightenment angel of reason approaches the speaker to warn the latter, “O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such career” (Erdman 1988, 41; pl. 17). When the Angel takes the speaker to view the speaker’s “eternal lot,” they come to “a void boundless as a nether sky” (Erdman 1988, 41; pl. 17). Notably, the Angel clings to the roots of trees, confined and terrified because he beholds only the vegetative earth with his vegetative eye, while the speaker suggests that the space of void may actually house “providence” as a space of freedom. Chastised by the Angel, the speaker remains bounded to the tree until “By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, firey as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us at an immense distance was the sun, black but shining” (Erdman 1988, 41; pl. 18). The images of blackness, fire, and darkness continue repeatedly and furiously, as the speaker also describes appearances such as black and white spiders, a scaly, monstrous serpent, and the head of Leviathan with bloodied gills.
Once the Angel leaves, however, the scene of the abyss is drastically changed. The speaker finds himself “sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moon light hearing a harper who sung to the harp. & his theme was, The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind” (Erdman 1988, 42; pl. 19). Explaining to the Angel “All that we saw was owing to your metaphysics” (Erdman 1988, 42; pl. 19), the speaker acutely understands how to engage his “fourfold Vision” and not be confined to the single vision of empiricist reason. Indeed, while traditional pastoral scenes take place in the light of day, the speaker’s pastoral is moon lit, indicating his unbounded freedom from the restraints of the sulphur sun of reason. S. Foster Damon explains that for Blake, the sun is the symbol of the imagination; however, it is only the spiritual sun, not the “sulphur sun,” that represents imagination (390). In contrast, the “sulphur sun,” which was rent from Mars during the spiritual warfare of the Eternals, is the sun of the material world, and is a symbol for reason (390). Thus, the unified sun is imagination, while the rent, divided sun is the heat of the material world; and the heat of the material world emanates from flames of fire that give heat but, significantly, not insight (139). This emphasis on the impotence of the sulphur sun of reason and the exaltation of the spiritual sun of imagination is an extreme rewriting of Enlightenment epistemological discourse, in which light and lucid reason are considered generative. In the Memorable Fancy scene, the Angel sees the void and then the abyss as spaces of terror, while the speaker sees them as spaces of possibility for creation and imagination.
That there are multiple experiences of productive illumination, many of which occur in darkness and chaos, is poignantly demonstrated in The [First] Book ofUrizen, and most strikingly in the work’s opening plates, in which the larger creative theory of the work is unfolded. In Urizen, Blake boldly reorganizes Enlightenment epistemological and ontological discourse so that meaning is often produced not in spaces of movement and light, but rather in spaces of void and darkness. These radical aesthetics are amplified when we recall that the design is itself a recasting of the orthodox creation myth set forth in the Book of Genesis. However, unlike the biblical Genesis, Urizen presents a space where the ability to create ontological and creative presence does not reside solely vis-à-vis the Word animated by and as a radiant God, but rather resides beyond the limitations of a logocentric system. One of the primary ways in which Blake accomplishes this reorganization of the system of language in Urizen is to employ metaphors subverting traditional epistemological discourses of light, progression, and knowledge, thus requiring his readers to break open their “mind-forg’d manacles” and assumptions to experience the freedom of nontyrranical Vision. Notably, “Vision” for Blake is an activity in which all senses are engaged, and cannot be attained by relying only on the organ of the eye. Indeed, if one sees with and not through the physical eye, one has “Single vision” and is merely acting in the world with deadened senses.
The visual design that opens The [First] Book of Urizen, the title page (plate 1), immediately interrogates whether one has single or manifold vision, and may be seen as casting aspersions on both language and humanity. That the elderly, Moses-like figure is writing on seemingly stone tablets with both hands and with eyes closed suggests that he is furiously inscribing laws in a blind manner, in an unenlightened way: the embodiment of “Newton’s sleep.” Similarly, that this figure sits upon a large, imposing, and open book indicates that he is quite literally rooted in and tangled by the interpretive laws that he inscribes, an indication made more apparent by the actual roots growing from the book downwards into the ground. Dark colors surround the man and the upright tablets, which also resemble tomb stones, while light colors and an open space high above the figure imply that the man is a prisoner of his own creation made in the darkness of incomprehension.
However, other interpretations for this visual design prompt the reader to question whether it is darkness or light that is analogous to enlightenment. For example, the gray, stone-like tablets also carry positive connotations. These objects seem to emanate from the figure himself and form the pattern of wings, granting an angelic or divine quality to the figure. These objects may also be understood as doorways, twin entries that intimate that the figure has some kind of choice in his destination and destiny. Returning to the divine nature of the figure, the fact that his eyes are closed and his hands are outstretched to write may indicate that he is a vessel acting on behalf of a higher state of being, or that he is tapping into an inspiration using not only the single sense of vision but multiple senses, which, of course, is a practice lauded by Blake.
The reader’s initial disorientation is exacerbated by the Preludium in the next plate, which appears to embody a clash between pictorial design and written text. The visual text boasts bright colors of pink and light green and depicts an angelic figure floating through the air contentedly and gently leading a small child above a flame-like pattern. In Blake’s Composite Art, Mitchell explains the figure as a “guardian angel” who is a “humanized, moderated version of the more violent energy forms beneath her,” and associates the child as one of Blake’s cherub figures (144). Emphasizing the connectedness and harmony between life forms, the Preludium contains the only pictorial design in Urizen in which humans make positive contact (111).
Contrary to the visual design, however, the verbal design explicitly speaks of a place that is isolated and suggests that a “dark vision of torment” will be revealed:
Erdman 1988, 70; pl. 2; 1-7
Of the primeval Priests assum’d power,
When Eternals spurn’d back his religion;
And gave him a place in the north,
Obscure, shadowy, void, solitary.
Eternals I hear your call gladly,
Dictate swift winged words, & fear not
To unfold your dark visions of torment.
Despite ominous introductory promises, a close reading of the Preludium demonstrates that the reader may in fact locate within the written text of this plate something other than desolation and desperation. This seeming incongruity epitomizes what Blake will say within the text of Urizen about a human’s ability not just to see, but to exercise Vision. Indeed, the disorientation that results from challenging traditional modes of perception and understanding may be initially confusing, but certainly need not end with the reader having been led astray and lost; rather, it is the state of disorientation that eventually leads the reader to a place of possibility.
The second line of the Preludium states that the Eternals “spurn’d back his religion.” While the “his” of this clause is not identified through the use of a proper noun, the reader assumes that the “his” refers to Urizen. While “spurn’d” has a negative connotation, Blake counters this with the idea of the creation of an open space, albeit one that is “Obscure, shadowy, void, and solitary.” Traditionally, “obscure” connotes unformed, “shadowy” connotes immateriality of being, “void” connotes barrenness, and “solitary” connotes isolation; however, although Blake employs the conventional vocabulary of the Burkean sublime, these connotations are not necessarily negative ones in Blake’s conception of seeking and finding truth. Indeed, the “I” of the Preludium hears the call of the Eternals “gladly,” and beckons them to deliver “swift winged words, & fear not / To unfold your dark visions of torment.” Just as Blake recasts an immaterial, mental conception—religion—as a noun possessing actual materiality capable of being pushed back and moved, words are similarly given physicality and become “winged.” The materiality of language embodied as winged beings is further underscored by Erdman’s notation in Illuminated Blake that a winged fly and a butterfly with spotted wings reside around some of the letters making up the word “Urizen” (184). This inversion of material and mental constructs mirrors the way in which Blake deconstructs traditional conclusions about whether there can be ontological or epistemological progress in a space of void and darkness, a deconstruction which disorients his readers.
This disorientation continues when the reader considers how shadows can exist in a space of void and darkness. Because shadow cannot exist without light, Urizen’s “place in the north” cannot be “void” and “solitary” as these words are literally denoted, as the sun necessarily provides light and, thus, life, or at the very least the possibility for life. As Christine Gallant notes in Blake and the Assimilation of Chaos, the state of void is inexorably tied not to nonbeing, but rather to existence. Gallant explains that it is in the state of void from which the cosmos, and thus all life, is to be formed. The Preludium’s urging to the Eternals that they “fear not / To unfold your dark visions of torment” is curious in that the unidentified speaker seems to understand that there is something redeeming or at least cathartic about releasing the “dark visions,” that there is an existing lifeforce, shadowy though it may be, in the darkness. In fact, as Gallant observes, “Blake does not mean to suggest that the ‘void’ is in itself fearsome and destructive, but only that it seems so to those who would change it” (18). Gallant further explains that the destructive flaw for Urizen’s characters is that they attempt to transcend or escape chaos, and that this, Blake makes clear, is their fatal error (15). Paul Mann makes a similar point when he notes that “[i]t was Urizen’s very desire to ‘transcend’ Eternity that generated the fallen world. In Blake’s text in general, most attempts at transcendental projects are doomed to failure” (64). Indeed, far before Urizen inscribes laws and attempts to forge “a solid without fluctuation” (Erdman 1988, 71; pl. 11; 4), it is the Eternals who are repelled by spaces of void and darkness, and who attempt to separate themselves from what they view as the chaotic nature of the void.
When Urizen is first named, in plate 3, it is intimated that he is responsible for the “abominable void” that is so threatening to the Eternals:
Erdman 1988, 70; pl. 3; 1-7
Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific!
Self-closd, all-repelling: what Demon
Hath form’d this abominable void
This soul-shudd’ring vacuum?—Some said
“It is Urizen”, But unknown, abstracted
Brooding secret, the dark power hid.
Urizen is initially identified as a shadow that has penetrated the realm of Eternity and is folded in on itself. What seems to be so “abominable” and “soul-shudd’ring” to the Eternals is the independence and singularity of the shadow. However, the Urizenic shadow is also conflated with a space of “void” and a “vacuum”: did the Urizenic shadow form the “abominable void” and “soul-shudd’ring vacuum,” or are these spaces actually Urizen? Either reading suggests that Urizen is, in fact, not “unprolific,” for whether he occupies the space of a shadow or a void, both spaces are productive and vital. The Blakean shadow is in fact quite animated. As Damon explains, for Blake the figure of the Shadow is “the residue of one’s suppressed desires” (368). Indeed, plate 3 depicts a body outstretched, running yet oddly static, engulfed in the heat of flames. Notably, the body’s face is turned in a gesture of hiding, which may indicate the figure’s state of shame.
Certainly, scholars have read connotations of the Urizenic shadow and of places of void as negative throughout Urizen. For example, Tristanne J. Connolly states that while creation is supposed to connote coming into being, in Urizen creation is a step closer to nonexistence (80). This observation does not acknowledge that in Urizen, a state of void may be terrifying to the Eternals, but it is actually a place of gestation and not dissipation. Further, this reading suggests that Blake is operating within what the poet himself calls the “rough basement” and “stubborn structure” of a traditional English language system, which, I argue, is a system that Blake challenges in Urizen. Indeed, Erdman comments on the reproductive quality of the Urizenic abyss when he describes this space as “a womb for Urizen to grow in” (1974, 190). While the “shadow of horror” may evoke revulsion on the part of the Eternals, in Urizen this figure does not signify absence, but rather a space of opportunity, albeit squandered, for the contraries of reason (Urizen) and imagination (Los). Writing about spaces of void in Urizen, in Knight of the Living Dead: William Blake and the Problem of Ontology, Kathleen Lundeen describes the void as “lifeless” and “a kind of unproductive womb” (70). As an example for this argument, Lundeen notes that in the Preludium Urizen is exiled to a void. However, this place of exile is in the North and is a place in which no religion is imposed. In Blake’s language, the North represents the imagination (Damon 301); imagination, in turn, is represented by Blake as “the central faculty of both God and Man,” as the “‘Divine-Humanity,’” as existence, and as eternity (195). Further, in this place religion has been “spurn’d back,” providing an open place of possibility for imagination to flourish without being subject to and bound by the imposition of “One King, one God, one Law” (Erdman 1988, 72; pl. 4; 40).
Although much scholarship has been devoted to the consequences of Urizen’s break from the realm of the Eternals, the question pertaining to why, in the first instance, Urizen is divided remains cloudy. This biographical uncertainty further contributes to the reader’s space of interpretive liberty. While there is not a definitive answer within the timeline of the textual story itself, one possibility emerges not from Urizen’s actions once he is fallen, but from the reactions of the Eternals to their shadow self. Although it is Urizen who is continually described as self-closed and unknown, it is the Eternals who desperately wish to remain self-closed and unknowing. In plate 3, Urizen is described as
Erdman 1988, 71; pl. 3; 18-22
Dark revolving in silent activity:
Unseen in tormenting passions;
An activity unknown and horrible;
A self-contemplating shadow,
In enormous labours occupied.
As noted above, “shadow” in the Blakean system represents delusion, but it also represents the residue of suppressed desires (Damon 368). That Urizen was given a place in the North suggests that the Urizenic energy or desire, the “tormenting passions,” became too great to remain within the realm of the Eternals. Indeed, what is so threatening to the Eternals is not merely that the shadow of repressed desire has returned, but that it is “self-contemplating.” The ability to know oneself is lacking in the Eternals, who react with trepidation and powerlessness when called upon to integrate their shadow selves, i.e., their desires. Later in the poem, the Eternals actually flee from the more humanized, evolved vision of the first separated female form and order the female form and Los to be hidden. The Eternals command: “‘Spread a Tent, with strong curtains around them / ‘Let cords & stakes bind in the Void / That Eternals may no more behold them’” (Erdman 1988, 78; pl. 19; 2-4). The Eternals’ refusal to understand their desire by covering their sight is strikingly enacted in the visual design of plate 17, in which a male form literally shields his view and is unable to see the female form before him. That the forms have taken on an identifiably human appearance may indicate that the inability of the Eternals to practice Vision has been, tragically, reenacted by the humans, who will suffer the same fracture that led to Urizen’s separation from the Eternals.
In Urizen, inspired Vision becomes not just favored, but necessary for existence. Darkness and void become so deadly in Urizen because of the inability of the Urizenic forces to awaken to the “peculiar Light” of the Divine Vision; these forces remain unknown, unknowing, and petrified within the shadow of the possibility of coming into themselves. For Blake, the ability to comprehend a unified, though not bounded, whole is available to all, but afforded only to those who engage all of their senses and disengage from the tyranny of single vision. The way Blake imagines the relationship between part and whole parallels the way in which Blake’s reader is exempted from orthodox interpretive mandates. Blake’s visual designs make it strikingly clear that “division” does not mean “separation” if one is looking at an object—including a text—with Vision. We can better understand Blake’s conception of division by likening this term to his notion of the state that is created by contraries; this state is progressive and does not enact a nullification. Contraries do not cancel each other out; rather, contraries create a space of mutability and an energy of possibility.
Blake’s visual designs emphasize the positive and energetic aspects of the division—of the contraries—of part and whole. In “Visionary Syntax: Nontyrranical Coherence in Blake’s Visual Art,” Carr explains how in his pictorial representation of human and human-like forms, Blake employs a linear style to achieve the unification of part and whole without the former being subsumed by the latter and without forcing a “tyrannical organization” in his plates:
Lines and outlines set boundaries and establish limits; but they also bound or leap, moving over the page in exuberant bursts of energy. Blake’s “bounding line” defines a unified whole while it accommodates the “peculiar Light” of individual parts. It binds minute details into a coherent form without grinding down their unique features as more mechanically regular styles do.227
In Jerusalem, Blake states, “so he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole / Must see it in its Minute Particulars” (Erdman 1988, 251; pl. 91; 20-21), and that, “In Great Eternity, every particular Form gives forth or Emanates / Its own peculiar Light, & the Form is the Divine Vision / And the Light is his Garment” (Erdman 1988, 203; pl. 54; 1-3). It is through this “peculiar Light” that we can articulate the ethics of Blakean Vision, and how this Vision enacts an exemptive sublime for the Blakean reader.
Commenting on how gaps in Blake’s verbal and visual designs can be productive rather than merely halting, Saree Makdisi has suggested a mode of reading Blake in which the reader locates himself or herself “in the gaps between words and images,” gaps which do not “open and close on a plate-by-plate basis” (112). By approaching Blake’s entire body of composite art as a progressively unstable whole, as “open” or “virtual,” and as one that contains traces of a dynamic relation of words and images, one can—and indeed must—throw out an agenda of reading as a mode to uncover hidden meaning or truths, as this is merely a mode of repression promulgated by what Blake calls “State Religion” and “State Tricksters” (Makdisi 110). Similarly, writing about The Book of Thel, Mitchell has suggested that the multiple and contradictory interpretations of the poem indicate that “[t]he effect of [Blake’s] strategy is to undercut any attempt by the reader to pass judgment on Thel from some fixed perspective” (80), and that “Blake is trying to subvert this sort of univocal judgment, and to confront us with a human dilemma that eludes any fixed moral stance” (81). I posit that this unstable, open, dynamic relation of words and images parallels the progressive energy created by contraries as conceived by Blake and creates an exemptive sublime, in which—and in direct opposition to Enlightenment epistemological and ontological discourse—darkness elucidates and voids overflow.
An experience of reading in which meaning is neither tyrannical nor teleological creates a space of liberty that is outside of orthodox interpretation or even assumption. Unlike De Luca’s assertion in Words of Eternity that it is the reader’s act of self-annihilation that must be accomplished for Blakean sublimity to occur (43), I argue that the Blakean exemptive sublime demands no prescriptive act just as it compels no interpretive mandate. This freedom is Blake’s Vision, which is at liberty from conventional figurations of darkness and light, and with which meaning can be constructed even in an abysmal void. The Blakean exemptive sublime does not enact the paradigmatic transport inherent in the multiple notions of the sublime that begin with Longinus. The exemptive sublime does not convey the reader somewhere else; rather, in Blake’s ontological aesthetics, the exemptive sublime actuates the process of becoming. It is no surprise that such an aesthetics gestures toward a practice of reading that provides for ethical reflection about the validity of hegemonic demands and is a practice of reading-as-process, reading-as-becoming.
Aria F. Chernik is a candidate for a Ph.D. in English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is working on her dissertation on William Blake and the literary and cultural production of communal subjectivity in the early Romantic period. Her article “Identity, Ideology, and Inscription: Narrative Acts as the Site of Resistance in The Woman in White” is forthcoming in Gender and Victorian Reform (Ed. Anita R. Rose).
A number of studies about the Blakean sublime have provided a helpful foundation for my own critical analysis of the exemptive sublime. See especially De Luca’s Words of Eternity: Blake and the Poetics of the Sublime; Otto’s “A Sublime Allegory: Blake, Blake Studies, and the Sublime”; and Vine’s “Blake’s Material Sublime” and “Framing Los(s): Blake, Kant, Derrida.” See also Weiskel’s chapter “Darkening Man: Blake’s Critique of Transcendence” in The Romantic Sublime.
In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke notes: “The soul begins to have Ideas when it begins to perceive. To ask at what time a man has first any ideas is to ask when he begins to perceive; having ideas and perception being the same thing” (93).
Jay further comments on the connection between lucid sight and lucid thinking by quoting Enlightenment commentator Jean Starobinski’s observation in The Invention of Liberty, 1700-1789, that the Enlightenment may be characterized as the century “‘which looked at things in the sharp clear light of the reasoning mind whose processes appear to have been closely akin to those of the seeing eye’” (85).
See especially Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful 54-59 and 130-135.
See Goldberg, “Byron, Blake, and Heaven,” in which Goldberg asserts that Blake conceives of a state of heaven in which distinctions between labor and leisure and between physical and mental work are erased. Applied to “The Little Black Boy,” this conception lifts Blake’s poem from the accusations of racism which some critics have assigned to it, for although work will continue in heaven for the little black boy, it will be the mental work of spiritually educating the uninitiated arrivals, such as the little white boy. For more on Blake’s activist poetics, see Tim Fulford, “A Romantic Technologist and Britain’s Little Black Boys.” Fulford’s article contrasts the efforts made by scientist Count Rumford and Blake to effect social reform, specifically as that reform related to the English “little black boys” who were employed as climbing boys (chimney sweeps) and the African boys who were owned as slaves. Fulford argues that Rumford was merely a “Sunday School abolitionist,” i.e., someone who offered pity and charity to the poor and to the Africans, but only as a means to maintain the dominant social order and status quo. Blake, on the other hand, wrote socially progressive poetry which exposed the “psychology of sanctimony and its connections with Church and State” (42).
I thank Jennifer Keith for suggesting this reading of the shady grove to me.
For a discussion of the role angels of reason play in the history of Enlightenment thinking, see Stempel’s “Angels of Reason: Science and Myth in the Enlightenment,” and especially 72-74 for a treatment of the angel of the fourth Memorable Fancy.
In A Blake Dictionary, Damon explains that for Blake the corporeal, vegetative eye provides only limited and single vision (134).
See The Illuminated Blake, where Erdman poses whether this plate represents “the angel Reason, looking out upon nothing, contrasted to the red diabolic ‘young man’ who sees with imagination and senses” (114). Erdman also notes that in Copy I of this plate there is a pool beside the tree, which Erdman suggests may be an oasis. The presence of an oasis is particularly noteworthy within the context of my discussion of the void as a locus amoenus.
The speaker’s ability to use Vision in a productive way is reminiscent of Leibniz’s statement in On the Ultimate Origination of Things that “‘there always remain in the abyss of things slumbering parts which have yet to be awakened, to grow in size and worth, and in a word, to advance to a more perfect state. And hence no end of progress is ever reached’” (quoted in Bronner 21). See also Matthew J. A. Green’s fascinating comments on the possibility for progress in the Derridian aporia in Visionary Materialism in the Early Works of William Blake (50).
That Blake was skeptical about formal systems in general and the system of language in particular raises fascinating and complex issues about the way in which Blake was forced to work within—and able to break free from—an ordered system of semiotics. Blake analogized the English language to a “rough basement” (Erdman 1988, 183; Jerusalem pl. 36; 58), and declared the system of language to be a “stubborn structure” (Erdman 1988, 183; Jerusalem pl. 36; 59). However, while Blake found the system of language inadequate and limiting, he of course did not abandon the system wholly, as he believed that words could serve as a medium to spiritual transformation. Indeed, Blake assigned materiality to words themselves, characterizing them as vessels with actual physical substance, just as he viewed himself as a vessel to transcribe what the spirits directed of him. Thus, rather than attempting to transcend or escape from language, Blake rebuilds it and celebrates the possibilities that flow from its reconstituted structure. Just as Los does in Jerusalem, Blake journeys deeper into language and “Striv[es] with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems” (Erdman 1988, 154; pl. 11; 5)
Blake writes of this undesirable state in a letter: “Now I a fourfold vision see, / And a fourfold vision is given to me / Tis fourfold in my supreme delight / And three fold in soft Beulahs night / And twofold Always. May God us keep / From Single vision & Newton’s sleep” (Erdman 1988, 722). Blake directly attacks the Enlightenment’s extreme focus on rational and lucid empiricism by likening an undue reliance on the sense of sight, on “Single vision,” to the detestable state of “Newton’s sleep.” For an interesting treatment of how Blake uses satire in Urizen to critique the extreme emphasis on empirical science during the Enlightenment and to disavow the practices of contemporary scientific theorists, see Gilpin, “William Blake and the World’s Body of Science.”
Gilpin has offered similar descriptions of this scene, commenting that Urizen is “blindly scribbling out laws,” and, in his “self-absorbed theorizing,” Urizen is so obsessed “with his own creations, he uses both hands to write” (40). Gilpin also likens the stone tablets to tombstones, and notes that the tablets are reminiscent of the commandments God gave to Moses (40).
In Illuminated Blake, Erdman suggests that the patches of blue sky in the design invite the reader to question and test the absurdity of mechanically written laws and the existence of such tyrannical power (183). The consequences that arise from the disorientation of the reader has been the subject of recent and fascinating commentary, and is a topic that I address later in this article while discussing Blake’s exemptive sublime.
Mitchell offers interesting and various readings of this plate, such as seeing the running figure as a warning that we have been left to our own devices to navigate through the “‘flames of desire,’” or seeing the figure as an image of inspiration. Mitchell also notes that the figure may represent one of the Eternals (145).
De Luca reads the Blakean North more ambiguously, stating that Blake’s representation of the North varies throughout his career, “sometimes appearing as the focal scene of whatever is barren and unregenerate, and sometimes as the preserve of original powers of culture and creativity” (192). Applying this insight to The Book of Urizen, De Luca characterizes Urizen’s northern locale as a place of “dismal catastrophe” (194).
Vine comments that Blake’s sublime “enacts an aesthetics of incompletion, process and becoming” (2002, 256).
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- Bronner, Stephen Eric. Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.
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- Mann, Paul. “The Book of Urizen and the Horizon of the Book.” Unnam’d Forms: Blake and Textuality. Ed. Nelson Hilton and Thomas A. Vogler. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 49-68.
- Mitchell, W. J. T. Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
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- Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins U P, 1986.