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

  • Susan P. Reilly

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  • Susan P. Reilly
    University of New Hampshire

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" shared by the Romantics, which was a tenet of German idealist aesthetics. The belief that "every eye sees differently" 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. 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. 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. 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). 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. 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. 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 …