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"Rest before Labour": The Pre-Text/s of Blake's The Four Zoas

  • Mark Lussier

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  • Mark Lussier
    Arizona State University

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"Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night."[1]

At the opening to The Four Zoas, before wrestling with "principalities" or even invoking them epigrammatically via Ephesians, William Blake offers a rather abrupt, somewhat enigmatic aphorism to inaugurate textual engagement between work and reader: "Rest before Labour" (Erdman 300; 2). Blake's editorial arrangement places significant emphasis on this portal proverb, allowing it to appear in isolation as page two of the manuscript, yet extended critical consideration of it has been surprisingly sparse. The statement, seemingly straightforward and commonsensical, is fraught with irony. The "Rest" implied (the slumber of Albion, read historically and psychologically) occurs in the rest of the poem yet functions as the boundary condition for the work itself—the first pre-text for this problematic work one might say. The "Labour" implied (the nightmare of alienation and fragmentation that ensues within Albion's sleep) occurs in the space-time of dreams across nine nights yet functions as the state of mind-matter relations in the waking world—the second pre-text for the work. Of course, the labor implicated in this dream narrative (visionary transformation of the public sphere) can be achieved only upon completion of the poem, again rendering all labors within the poem as pre-text for historical action.

Once the work concludes its inner and outer operations (its labors, so to speak), reception dynamics shift the discursive arena to its readers, enacting a psycholinguistic transference until, ideally, Albion's awakening becomes our own (a briefly positive aspect of becoming what one beholds). At that point, discrete historical acts cultivate continuous intellectual awakening, which for Blake functions as the endless labor of consciousness in the cosmos: in the words of the awakened narrator at the work's end, "The Eternals rose to labour at the Vintage" (Erdman 402; 133.31). As Jerome McGann stated long ago, in a slightly different context, "The poem fulfills its prophecy and vision only in man the reader" (5). Thus, the proverb "Rest before Labour" functions like the admonition placed over the gate to hell by Dante (a scene later illustrated by Blake near his death), a warning to unwary readers of hard labor ahead.

The desire of the text, anticipating "paths of future experience" (Jauss 173), seeks satisfaction in such a transference. The textual "I" becomes the perceptual "eye" that attempts to actualize historically and experientially (i.e., existentially) those insights encoded within and emerging from the dream-work structure and form of the work itself. For the moment, a discussion of these ironies and operations will be deferred since the phrase of immediate concern, "Rest before Labour," has other implications that function as pre-text for any given reading of The Four Zoas. After all, layers of literal and symbolic labor connect the particular conditions of past production and current consumption and act as a recognition that the work is "a social text created in specific circumstances" (Aers 245), that the work desires "an effect on [all] social behavior" (Jauss 179), and that any reading act "take[s] place within [. . .] ideological horizons" (Aers 246). And so, a brief consideration Blake's own labor to construct the work and that of his critics in reconstructing his primal epic help establish a few other labor-intensive dimensions enfolded within the work that function as pre-text.

In light of the amount of labor exerted on this highly original and thoroughly resistant work, this short diversion seems justified since "labor" is a condition that gives rise to the text itself and has a significant symbolic presence within it. The emergent poem coalesces literary and artistic energies emerging from Blake's most productive decade and represents the poet/prophet's attempt to express a grand work of unification designed to synthesize psychological and historical analyses articulated in the Lambeth prophecies. The immediate pre-text for the work, an edition of Edward Young's Night Thoughts, required enormous energies that preoccupied Blake until 1797. Sadly, as G. E. Bentley, Jr. notes, when the labor-intensive work was published, "One of the most ambitious and sensational illustrated books of that or any other time in England was ignored as if it had never been published" (172).

Left with considerable materials from this project, Blake began to transfer lines for Vala (the first title to the massive poem begun during the Young project) to unused proof sheets to create a "clean" draft. Interestingly, in the process of transferring lines, Blake created literal layers of historically specific labor within the very material conditions of the manuscript. Blake heavily revised the poem "from about 1796 to about 1807" (Bentley 198) in intermittent bursts of inspiration, creating provocative, explicit pencil designs for potential illumination. Eventually, the punctuating periods of poetic neglect led finally to Blake's abandoning the poem, which thereafter functioned as a textual unconscious for Milton and Jerusalem. In this sense, the work serves as the primal chora or semiotic space of initial articulation for the illuminated epic/prophecies that, for the most part, conclude Blake's poetic career. Very late in life (1824), Blake gave the manuscript to John Linell as a gift, leaving its textual emergence to other hands and its consumption to "future generations"--considerable labor indeed for a work never to be published in Blake's lifetime.

The necessary intellectual energy required to bring the poem from manuscript to published work involved some of the heaviest editorial labor and best poetic minds of the nineteenth century, including William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and William Butler Yeats. The manuscript, following a long residence in the Linell household, emerged with troubling erasures apparently intended to censor the graphic designs and their explicit depiction of sexual politics. Once a definitive "text" itself emerged, a task involving some of the best editorial minds of the twentieth century, then additional interpretive labor was required to map the work's complex geography—which literally extends from the outer reaches of the cosmos to the inner depths of divided consciousness.[2] Many have commented on this process, and all acknowledge the hard labor involved in preparing the manuscript's contorted body of words and images for publication and subsequent interpretation. Yet whether one reads or teaches The Four Zoas, the event horizon for all textual encounters is relentless labor, an apt outcome likely envisioned in the highlighted phrase "Rest before Labour." "When Blake finally stopped working on the manuscript," Peter Otto argues, "he believed that the form taken by the work was the only one that the subject matter could assume" (144). Blake knew the state of the manuscript; he knew the idiosyncrasies of his closed, mythic universe; he knew the difficulties of both form and style, and he certainly could foresee "the personal demands" such textual boundary conditions would elicit from potential readers (Johnson and Wilkie 205).

One last aspect of labor, seemingly unrelated to the opening aphorism "Rest before Labour," can re-turn critical analysis to textual dynamics. Flowing through the critical heritage of The Four Zoas (a heritage, as seen above, certainly defined by hard labor) is an acknowledgement of the inherent pedagogical difficulties created by the poem. In their formative analysis of the work, Johnson and Wilkie relate an experience recently replicated in my own classroom:

Many of us who have taught The Four Zoas to seasoned readers who are Blake novices can testify that they frequently are shaken or frightened or exhilarated by the poem while claiming not to understand very much of it.


Pedagogical instruments (handouts, notes, lectures, conferences, and textual resources) selected to convey critical clarity collapse under the poem's density, often generating further confusion rather than promoting illumination. The only vehicle capable of rescuing students from frights of fancy is another pre-text of the work: "introspection is the first step in comprehension" (Johnson and Wilkie 205). Students read the work in light of self-analysis, with insights illuminating textual operations and providing a means for final liberation from textual tyrannies.

"Constitutively dialogic," the textual operations of The Four Zoas eloquently testify to Blake's intuitive understanding of the Freudian revolution as a radicalized reading process, "a new way of reading" rather than a "revelation of a new meaning" (Felman 23). One of the more radical aspects of this somewhat paradigmatic Blakean text remains the symbolic unification of subsequent textual processes (composition, construction, reconstruction, consumption, and interpretation) as a pre-text for the work itself. Such an achievement, laying bare the operations of "genotext" and "phenotext" (Kristeva RPL 86), resonates at the core (or chora) of Blake's revolution in poetic language. As well, this continuity of the Blakean revolution can be tracked in the broad verbal and visual citations of Blake's works in the force field of contemporary culture. The pre-text/s of the work ex-press a series of semiotic "givens" that shape the substrata for subsequent hermeneutic acts. Yet the significance of such pre-texts requires a more theorized consideration of the prevailing ironies of a phrase such as 'Rest before Labour' positioned as the portal to such a work.

In spite of the initial focus maintained above (the type of labor that precedes and/or predetermines the state of the text and its operations), the phrase "Rest before Labour" prioritizes the first term, affirming "rest" rather than "labour" as its immediate concern. Returning readers to a point suggested above, the work's opening irony requires re-cognition that everything included within the poem proper—the entire nine-night plunge through fragmentation and reassimilation—be placed, paradoxically, within the term "rest." Phrased differently, the rest of the poem takes the form of dream-work, thereby establishing the entire text as pre-text for visionary "labour" within history.

Blake's use of dream narrative and exploitation of the work found therein articulates, in a sense, what Lacan later theorizes: "Everything revealed as nameable is always on the level of the dream-work. This work is a symbolisation [sic], with all its laws, which are those of signification" (Lacan Seminar 211). Blake's diagnosis of the maladies of Albion shares much with that offered in post-structuralist psychoanalysis: the primary danger of subject formation in pre-inscribed linguistic space-time (Lacan's Symbolic Order and Blake's Sea of Time and Space) remains individual madness, specifically "schizophrenia" (Youngquist 101). Blake's analytic model assumes that "identity consists in the polyvalent interplay of discrete mentalities," and the poem's representation of the unrepresentable nature of unconscious content operates as a "therapy for the sort of suffering it depicts" (Youngquist 109, 112).

The unconscious labors as the body rests, and this psychic labor unveils the waking world as nightmare, a construct created from projected ideological restraints originating "in the human breast" (Erdman 38). Blake builds the dreamscape by "mak[ing] use of any symbolizations which are already present," in this case the prior prophetic works themselves, "because they fit better with the requirements of dream-construction on account of their representability and also because as a rule they escape censorship" (Freud 385). Of course, what numerous critics observe (Erdman and Magno, Freeman, Johnson and Wilkie, Otto, Younquist) must be acknowledged: Blake deleted the phrase "A Dream of Nine Nights" during the transition from Vala to The Four Zoas. However, most criticism agrees that the altered poetic narrative still "has some affinity with dream narrative" (Johnson and Wilkie 204), but the dream-work, now "place[d] in full view" (Youngquist 103) functions to heal "consciousness" from its fragmented and alienated relationship to "the phenomenal world" (Freeman 36). The intentional con-fusion (or inversion) of dreaming and waking states forms the founding layer of irony to which subsequent interpretive ventures are anchored, a singular case of irony somewhat incompatible with Anne Mellor's astute anatomy of the trope within Romanticism.[3]

Precisely counter to Lockean psychological expectations, "Consciousness [. . .] creates and experiences the fallen and redeemed states," with the thrust of the poem dramatizing "the dynamic of psychic dissociation, in today's terminology, schizophrenia" (Freeman 36; Younquist 107). Kristeva's words may here be applied to Blake, for "by adopting a dream logic" as narrative principle Blake exploits a formal style that "transgresses rules of linguistic code and social morality as well" (DL 70). Epic action re-presents the alienation and fragmentation of consciousness, a deep narrative retained in "the theater of private man [. . .] the unconscious as a stage (Deleuze and Guattari 305). The necessary work for individual mental evolution and historical material revolution begin at the same location—the re-forging of lost symmetry in the unconscious as pre-text for both individual mental health and collective historical action.

The bleak Blakean diagnosis that all subject formation operates through alienation and fragmentation of an originary unity residing within incipient consciousness clearly intersects similar concerns expressed within post-structuralist psychoanalytic discourse. The unity that exists in the unconscious assumes a distinctly "pre-Oedipal" configuration, a choric presence placed under erasure by phallic psychosocial dynamics in the cultural sphere of mind-matter interaction. Indeed, for Blake, Lacan, and Kristeva, the shared arena of analysis is "constituted by the effects of speech on the subject" and "consequently," in the space where heterology, rather than monology, reigns, "the unconscious is structured like a language" (Lacan FF 149). And like many post-structural psychoanalytic critics, Blake figures forth this dream-space of the unconscious in feminine terms, with the poem opening with "The Song of the Aged Mother."

Adapting Julia Kristeva's conception of the Platonic chora, a term connoting "receptacle" and associated with a primal pre-Oedipal energy gathered in a "maternal" space that precedes specific subject-formation in the field of culture, can help contextualize the actual space from which the songs of the zoas emanate:

The Song of the Aged Mother which shook the heavens with wrath

Hearing the march of long resounding strong heroic Verse

Marshalld in order for the day of Intellectual Battle

Erdman 300; 1.1-3

Although not directly named at the beginning of the poem, the "Aged Mother" has been identified by scholars as Eno ("The Aged Mother is Eno, whose lament opened The Book of Los" [Bloom "Commentary" 948]). In her previous appearance in the Blake canon, Eno articulates the loss of "Love & Joy" (Erdman 90; 3.8), and within the opening movements of The Four Zoas, this "daughter of Beulah" (Erdman 304; 9.9) represents, in Blake's sublime allegory, "the ability of seeing the eternity in all things" (Damon 125). Indeed, she performs such a function almost immediately in the horizon of the poem when we read that she took "a Moment of Time/And drew it out to Seven thousand years" and "took an atom of space & opend its center/Into [the] Infinite" (Erdman 304-5; 9.9-10, 12-13).

This ability, the elasticity of Blakean relativity to expand or contract the senses at will, precisely defines the perceptual dynamic placed under erasure by phallic notions of singular identity yet points to the method through which "sweet science" can again reign in consciousness and cosmos. Song becomes a vehicle for insight, and the harmonic motif against which subsequent cacophonies operate establishes symmetry as the boundary condition of emergent consciousness: "Four Mighty Ones are in every Man." Read in psychoanalytic terms associated with dream-narrative, this song ex-presses the primal unity of raw consciousness, prior to the formation of identity as self-consciousness, which exists within a choric enclosure defined by heterological discourse, a place of flowing, pre-Oedipal semiosis that pre-exists, in Kristeva's view, the secondary symbolic that rules post-Oedipal self-consciousness.

Blake clearly evokes a semiotic space in the song sung by the aged mother to open The Four Zoas, and her status as daughter of Beulah confirms such a reading. From the perspective of Beulah, as Mellor suggests, "the created human form is not a limitation of the divine vision," and Eno expresses "that innocent vision that enables mortal man to perceive the holiness both within and beyond himself" (HFD 204). Eno's song supplies the memory of unification prior to alienation and fragmentation, further confirming that this pre-text emerges from the primal chora, yet once the dreams ensue, the work becomes rather troubling. As Brenda Webster has argued, "Blake's indulgence in sadistic fantasy with self-righteous implication that sadism is necessary to ensure eventual peace" (248) creates a clear divide between the pre-textual semiotic and the "orgy of cruelty" (Webster 248) that defines the symbolic space of the nine nights. The configuration of the "fall" into self-consciousness is decidedly phallic, a realm discursively ruled by masculine zoas engaging in conflicts over imagined power and dominated by Urizen. In a sense, once primordial unity is shattered, then psychic reintegration via self-annihilation requires a complete break with the dictates of the social order and its symbolic tyrannies, a type of madness dictated by life lived in a social space allied with the phallus. Thus, while the work does fantasize a return to the heterological jouissance of choric co-presence identified by Eno as "Intellectual Battle" (which, ideally, could replace corporeal war), in fact the text cannot deliver such a re-turn, even in its closing "Last Judgment."

Eno's song evokes a semiotic space of primordial plenitude ruled by heterology, while the symbolic "his-stories" of the zoas predictably express a preference for the monological control best seen through Urizen. Preceding the dream narrative of discrete perspectives offered by various zoas, Eno's song functions as a "genotext" to the "phenotext[s]" that follow (again drawing upon Kristeva's analysis of "textual function[s]" [Revolution 86]).[4] As the etymological unconscious of the term "genotext" suggests, this maternal space "gives woman access to a different strata of language" (Rose, "Introduction II" 55), yet this can only be recalled or remembered from within the symbolic order. Since phallic cultural drives place the feminine itself under erasure as "subject" only to resurrect it as "object," the subject shaped in the cultural field privileges the play of the masculine, a situation reflected in Blake's rather male-driven dream fantasies that occupy the remainder of the poem.

Indeed, once the poem itself begins, the plight of the feminine deepens in disturbing ways: the primacy of the zoas overrides the needs of their emanations, which accounts for the majority of emanative discourse in the poem being expressed as continuous lamentation. An obvious example from Night the First is the "Lamentation of Enion" (E 310; 18.8), which voices the loss felt under Urizenic control:

Why does the Raven cry aloud and no eye pities her?

Why fall the Sparrow & the Robin in the foodless winter?

[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]

Why howl the Lion & the Wolf? Why do they roam abroad?

Deluded by summers heat they sport in enormous love

And cast their young out to the hungry wilds & sandy desarts

Why is the Sheep given to the Knife?

E 310; 17.2-18.1

These queries, not surprisingly, position the by-product of Urizenic control—"the image of Eternal Death" (E 310; 18.9)—in the realm of nature, a move in keeping with Blake's association of the female and maternal with matter and his view that enlightenment epistemology worships Vala or Nature to the spiritual detriment of mankind:

The Ashes of Mystery began to animate they calld it Deism

And Natural Religion as of old so now anew began

Babylon again in Infancy Calld Natural Religion

E 386; 115.22-4

The labor that divides the lamentation of Enion and the narrator's much later attack on natural philosophies, phrased directly, is division, usurpation, and reification. Division splits integrated mentality, with each component of mind usurping the functions of other components, and as this process exits the mind to take up material bodies in the form of social systems, phallic dominion becomes reified.

The ideal outcome of Blakean dream-work, then, requires unveiling phallic dominion in subject-formation, since for Blake and Lacan such psychological processes equally unveil "the madness that deafens the world with its sound and fury" (Lacan E 7). Of course, one of the work's overarching ironies remains the quandary that reified individual existence, a process through which all subjects pass in the formation of identity in the cultural sphere of the symbolic, actually cloaks the contours of true mental health. As Andrew Cooper argues:

Only by recognizing the ways in which subjectivity has become implicated in the systems of knowledge, power, and ideology that supply its consciousness and reinforce its "subject" can Blake develop an ethics of resistance—namely, "self-annihilation" both as an article of religious belief and a means of aesthetic production—and so approach an at least provisionally authentic self.


Such aspirations require Blake to reverse the dread effects of what Lacan terms the "mirror stage" by casting one's spectre back into the lake of emergent consciousness. For this reason, as the work moves toward reunification, the effects of this renovation are felt in the "inmost brain," where "the works of Dark Urthona" achieve an initial unveiling of psychological tyrannies that are subsequently applied to the world (E 406; 138.13, 16).

The work does envision a renovation of the world, and Blake's language images this work as physical labor in the last night. While "Tharmas sifted the corn/Urthona made the Bread of Age & he placd it/In golden & in silver baskets" (E 406; 138.16-17). Once the mental chains are melted in the furies of the dream-work, arisen "Man" begins to practice what Eno earlier theorizes:

The Expanding Eyes of Man behold the depths of wondrous worlds

One earth one sea beneath nor Erring Globes wander but Stars

Of fire rise up nightly from the Ocean & one Sun

Each morning like a New born Man issues with songs & joy

Calling the Plowman to his Labour & the Shepherd to his rest.

E 406; 138.22-29

Line twenty-nine now conflates "Labour" and "rest," echoing the opening language of pre-texts with which this analysis began. With the dream-work completed, the perceptual dynamics initially offered by Eno emerge as the activity of awakened consciousness; both "Spectre" and "Phantom" are reabsorbed, which allows consciousness to prepare for the true labor of ages, the "Intellectual War" voiced by Eno as a pre-text for the historical work necessary to allow "sweet Science" to reign again in mind and matter.