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“A sick man’s dream”: Jephthah, Judges, and Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion

  • Lisa Crafton

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  • Lisa Crafton
    University of West Georgia

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“The story [is one] where seemingly impetuous and cruel men [punish one] daughter to accomplish a vow made to [a god] who appears to be as cruel as [they are].”

“[The females in the story] are judged according to a masculine-determined concept of what are acceptable and non-acceptable roles for women, and female sexuality is a significant construct.”

“In this story collective virginity is at stake… and this conception of virginity is described within the context of war and violence.”

These quotations sound as if they could have come from feminist scholarship on William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion, yet the comments originate, instead, from criticism on the story of Jephthah and his daughter, from the book of Judges, one of the bloodiest books of the Bible, one replete with virgins, and one by which Blake was clearly fascinated.[1] When Blake asks the rhetorical question, “Is not every Vice possible to Man described in the Bible openly,” he may well have had this book in mind. While a cursory reading of the eleventh chapter of Judges suggests some obvious parallels between the Jephthah story and Blake’s Visions, Blake’s six illustrations of Judges (including two of Jephthah and his daughter) irrefutably document his appropriation of the story. My argument is that Blake’s contrary reading of the book of Judges should inform our critical reading of Visions. In a broader sense, this intertextual reading emphasizes the poem’s representation of the female body as a site of sacrifice and how both the illustrations and the poem position readers for this spectacle of virginity and violence.

In 2001, well-known Blake scholar Alicia Ostriker wrote an experimental poem for performance entitled Jephthah’s Daughters, which takes place largely on a mountain where the nameless daughter of Jephthah and her companions spend two months bewailing the waste of her virginity. This recent reincarnation of the story of Jephthah’s rash vow reminds us just how arresting has been this biblical narrative. Some three hundred literary works were devoted to the Jephthah story between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries (many of them plays for public performance), which explains Sypherd’s assertion that this is the most reproduced biblical narrative, despite its marginal importance in the history of the Old Testament. Allusions to Jephthah in Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton indicate the range of the story’s influence.[2] The narrative in Judges 11 has most often been characterized as a tragic story about the fatal results of a rash vow. Jephthah, on the threshold of military combat with the Ammonites, vows to sacrifice to Yahweh as a “burnt offering” (Judg. 11.31) the first thing that comes forth out of his house upon his return. What greets him at the door is his virgin, nameless daughter, who comes out, “with timbrels and with dances” (Judg. 11.34), only to find she is now the sacrifice. In an interesting response, Jephthah says, “Alas, my daughter, you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble for me; for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow” (Judg. 11.35). His daughter then asks for a period of two months in the mountains with her female companions for a very specific purpose: “. . . that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions” (Judg. 11.37). Finally, the elliptical narrator informs us, “he did with her according to his vow which he had made” (Judg. 11.39). The narrative proper ends here with these two additional notes: 1) a bald statement stressing the daughter’s virginity: “She had never known a man” (Judg. 11.39); and 2) an equally objective assertion about the cultural effects of this act: “And it became a custom that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judg. 11.40).[3]

That the Bible is part of Blake’s “structure of consciousness,” to use Waxler’s term, is, of course, part of Blakean critics’ own structures of consciousness. The most influential biblical readings (The Book of Urizen as revision of Genesis, The Book of Ahania and Exodus, for example) have become part of the skeletal understanding of Blake’s mythos, and Leslie Tannenbaum’s Biblical Tradition in Blake’s Early Prophecies persuasively argues the necessity for reading Blake in the context of exegetical premises accrued from the past and actively tested in his lifetime (ix). Reminding us of Blake’s general intention to create a “bible of hell, so to speak” (3), Tannenbaum uses the Lambeth books and the later prophecies (Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem) to argue that Blake tries both to emulate the biblical canon through disparate books and to fuse biblical prophecy and epic mode. Tannenbaum’s work also offers a synthetic review of how Blake’s use of biblical tradition has been treated from Yeats and Swinburne through Frye, Davies, Raines, Roston and Morris.[4] Only one full-scale study has examined Visions through a critically-informed biblical lens; Helen Ellis’ argument that the Song of Solomon provides Blake “a vocabulary for depicting both ideal sexuality and its perversions” (24).[5]

No critic, however, has connected the Jephthah story of virgin sacrifice to Oothoon’s fate, nor have Blake’s illustrations of the Judges narrative received much attention. From 1800-1805 Blake made more than eighty watercolor illustrations of the Bible for his patron Thomas Butts. Blake devoted four pictures in this series to Judges, two on Jephthah and two on Samson, yet it is clear that the book of Judges was clearly on Blake’s mind much earlier, certainly before the writing of Visions (in 1780, he illustrated the scene of Manoah’s sacrifice from the thirteenth chapter of Judges). In her broad study of the watercolors commissioned by Butts, Mary Lynn Johnson summarily asserts that Blake’s illustrations of the history books of the Bible, including Judges, contain “no divine image whatsoever” and suggest “what has been suppressed or lost through the rigidity of the law” (Johnson, “Human Consciousness” 30). And in the only specific study of Blake’s four Judges illustrations, Johnson argues that they allegorically portray man’s rupture with the feminine.[6]

These provocative illustrations challenge us to question how and why Blake manipulates this arresting biblical narrative. Once we ask those questions, an important connection emerges between the Jephthah story and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, a poem Bruder aptly describes as revealing Blake’s “acute sensitivity to issues of sexual power” (34).[7] Acknowledging the Jephthah story as a key intertext makes two different contributions to critical readings of this complicated text. Reading Blake’s illustrations of the Jephthah narrative—visual revelations of issues of sexual power—amplifies the poem’s cultural power, its iconic representation of a patriarchal obsession with virginity, demonstrable in late eighteenth-century British culture but with ties to biblical, Hebraic representations of virginity and violence. The key term “virginity” is crucial to this argument since the biblical Jephthah’s daughter and Blake’s heroine Oothoon use it in two different, albeit related, senses. In her Hebraic culture, Jephthah’s daughter does not, to use her words, “bewail her virginity” in the sense of physical chastity. She mourns that she will never be a wife and mother and, therefore, reach the desired end for women.[8] On the other hand, Blake’s culturally-targeted revision of this character (like his revision of the Abraham/Isaac narrative in the illustrations, as we will see) is defiant in the face of eighteenth-century British cultural strictures about female purity and marital customs; in other words, Blake transforms, reverses, the virgin’s lament at not being able to marry into Oothoon’s depiction of marriage as a “servile slavery” and her redefinition of sexual purity. In a sense, my reading of this historical intertext follows Rajan’s astute premise about Blake’s Lambeth prophecies, that they “construct history as a shifting discursive surface” (394) and that, especially in Europe, “the entire narrative is based on a figure, or rather a montage, in which the myth of Enitharmon is overlaid on the masque of European history” (400). Blake similarly “overlays” Oothoon on a masque of biblical history. A second contribution of this reading is that it refutes the widespread critical opinion among Blakean critics that in the ending of the poem, the heroine Oothoon offers free love that is, in Anne Mellor’s words, a “male fantasy,” serving the interests of the “male libertine,” often conflated with Blake himself. This line of feminist criticism, I will argue, casts Blake too negatively, aligning him with only one of the “four Blakes” which Ostriker has outlined. In her seminal article, “Desire Gratified and Ungratified: William Blake and Sexuality,” Ostriker exposes “four sets of Blakean attitudes toward sexual experience and gender relations, each of them coherent and persuasive, if not ultimately ‘systematic’” (80).[9] She credits Mellor and Fox, among others, as having most clearly outlined the “fourth Blake,” the Blake to whom “the female principle [is] subordinate to the male” (90). Keeping in mind these four critically-constructed Blakes is absolutely essential in my negotiation of the poem’s argument about virginity and violence.

Blake’s paired illustrations of Jephthah present the duality of Jephthah’s character (a duality we can recognize in the representation of the male characters of Visions—he is both a Bromion and Theotormon figure). In both scenes, the canvas clearly centralizes the gender dichotomy with the male figures on one side and the female on the other. In “Jephthah Met by his Daughter,” (figure 1), Jephthah is illustrated in warrior dress and stature, in front of a shield and spears, where he pushes his fists together at the sight of the nubile young woman dancing to meet him. The contrast between Jephthah in armor and the daughter’s elongated figure echoes the bilateral asymmetry of another picture Blake painted at about the same time, that of David facing Goliath. In comparison, Jephthah is iconically linked to Goliath, where David is androgynously linked to the daugher’s position. Bruder has suggested that Blake generally feminizes his male heroes: “The slender and soft bodies of David, Joseph and his brethren and most importantly Christ all lack marks of virility and male prowess” (71). Certainly, the picture casts Jephthah as warrior, yet undermining this sense of strength is his posture. While he is not wringing his hands, literally, he pushes his fists together and looks upward, as if helplessly accepting that his daughter will have to be sacrificed. In the second “Jephthah Sacrificing His Daughter,” (figure 2), male and female figures are again on opposing halves of the canvas where a massive stone altar takes up much of the visual scene. His daughter, naked and diminutive, sits on the altar on her knees with her hands folded in a prayer position. She kneels between a tambourine and a lyre, visual remnants of her energetic dancing and suggestions that her vital energies are somehow the cause of this punishment. We, as viewer, are behind Jephthah, and our field of vision is roughly coterminous with Jephthah’s, disturbingly sharing his gaze as our own.[10] Jephthah, seen from the back, naked from the waist up, kneeling, stretches out his arms in cruciform gestures, in parody of Christ’s self-sacrifice, as Johnson has suggested. Yet, he also stares directly at an exaggerated shading of a triangle at his daughter’s pelvis, making her the object of a pornographic gaze even as she is abstracted and diminished as a character in contrast to the first picture. With Bruder’s influential work on eighteenth-century pornography in mind, we may argue that, given the pose, he is much less committing a regrettable act determined by a rash vow than taking pleasure in his daughter’s naked vulnerability, taking in the beauty of the virgin sacrifice which he mistakenly assumes glorifies him. The change from the first to the second illustration not only suggests a misdirected obsession with female virginity but also strips Jephthah of his martial Otherness, instead emphasizing his ordinary maleness. In this way, Mulvey’s description of the “controlling male gaze” is paradigmatic (440).[11] To sum up, the illustrations dramatize the fact that Blake read the Jephthah narrative as a tragic example of perverted power/gender relations stemming from culturally-endorsed and misappropriated masculine pride and violence against females.

Before we consider Vision’s similar representation of virginity, culturally-endorsed violence, and female sacrifice, it is helpful to contrast this sacrifice scene from Judges to Blake’s representation of the Abraham/Isaac story. Lillian Klein’s book-length study of the book of Judges points out that this narrative (like that of the nineteenth chapter) re-enacts an episode from the story of Abraham with devastating results (95). Where Genesis offers a deus ex machina for the salvation of Isaac, the Judges narrative does not, and this difference suggests Jephthah’s manipulation of God rather than God’s test of him, as he would have us believe. In a fascinating way, Blake’s illustrations in 1780 (around the same time that he is illustrating the thirteenth chapter of Judges) of the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice contrast sharply with his rendering of the Jephthah story and serve as a visual revision of that story. The first representation of Abraham and Issac (around 1780, figure 3) shows a smaller stone altar than the one for Jephthah’s daughter, and both Abraham and Isaac are shown in anguish, Abraham with a knife in hand but clearly looking intensely in the distance for some intervention. In another rendering of this scene, dated 1799-1800, thus closer to the date of the Jephthah paintings, Abraham dominates the canvas, with one hand on the ram and the other, with a knife, on the altar (figure 4). Yet Blake directs attention to Isaac’s action in this moment, rewriting the story by having Isaac himself seize the ram for alternative sacrifice, thus stressing Isaac's energy and creativity as his source of salvation, denying the human sacrificial posture reliant on an external deity. This visual inversion or denial of the sacrificial position works exactly in the same way, textually, as Visions revises the Jephthah narrative. Just as the Jephthah illustrations function to condemn the erotically-charged paternalism that is linked with culturally-sanctioned violence, the poem rewrites the biblical narrative from the daughter’s point of view, allowing Oothoon, like Isaac in Blake’s illustrations, the imaginative insight to deny the sacrificial pose expected of her, even if she remains in literal chains at the end of the poem. In conjunction with my reading of Visions, the illustrations offer a manipulation of the story of Jephthah to emphasize the similar perversities of violent arrogance and passive hypocrisy, especially with regard to male constructions of virginity. Like Theotormon’s troubled image of Oothoon, Jephthah’s adoration of his daughter in these illustrations is a “sick man’s dream” (Visions 6.19).

In its most obvious connection to Visions, the Judges narrative offers us a chorus of wailing women, voices who lament the fate of a virgin judged, misjudged, by a warped sense of patriarchal perceptions. In some ways mirroring critical debates in Blake studies, scholarly readings of the Jephthah story have proliferated in the last twenty years, including numerous articles and at least three book-length studies of Judges.[12] Within modern biblical scholarship, a dialectic has emerged between feminist theologians and feminist historians. In the introduction to her collection Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel (which provides an excellent overview of the state of biblical gender criticism), Peggy Day credits feminist theologians for affirming gender equality, thereby “claim[ing] female experience as a yardstick of theological truth” (2). One of the most well-known of these, Phyllis Trible, wrests Jephthah’s daughter from the margins assigned to her by traditional biblical exegetes.[13] Day’s volume, however, attempts to redefine the scholarly contexts by engaging in a feminist historical inquiry that will question the value and sometimes the validity of previous studies that have not taken gender into account, document instances wherein gender biases typical of the modern, western worldview have been inappropriately read into the material under study, and implicitly challenge the interpretive frameworks that have characterized and limited the discipline’s formulation of questions (3). This line of critical inquiry requires, as Day says, the recognition of gender-role asymmetries present in the communities that produce texts and the formulation of questions “directed toward ‘demystifying’ the social factors that both produced and perpetuated gender asymmetry in ancient Israel” (4). This kind of conceptual framework characterizes the best critical studies of Blake as well, for example, Chapman’s insistence that Blake might be feminist in his own contemporary context and sexist in our own, thus demanding the kind of demystification of cultural factors that Day invokes.

This female chorus becomes in Blake’s “text of terror” (to use Trible’s term) the “daughters of Albion,” who with “trembling lamentation . . . echo back [Oothoon’s] sighs”; thus, Blake links Oothoon to Jephthah’s nameless daughter. The female heroines in both texts occupy a site of sacrifice in the narrative; both are constructs of virginity (in their respective Hebraic and eighteenth-century British cultural contexts), and the fate of both is the subject of fierce critical controversy caused partly by textual/rhetorical ambiguity. Biblical scholars are divided over whether Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter was literal (a burnt offering) or figurative (that she was sent away to remain a virgin for the rest of her life). While I agree with Marcus’ argument that the ambiguity is intentional, far more interesting is the fact that, either way, the virgin body becomes an offering.[14] And, more importantly, whether or not we read the Jephthah narrative as a scene of physical, literal sacrifice or not, Blake’s second illustration makes it clear that he did and, thus, lays bare (as Hutchings claims about the figure of Theotormon) some of the “most ominous of the underlying ideological assumptions” about Hebraic culture.[15] Whether celibacy or death, the link between celibacy and death in both females is telling. In an important study of Blake’s Jerusalem, Persyn astutely remarks that the daughters of Albion in Visions are enslaved by “restrictive laws of virginity, chastity, and female ownership” (64). Her larger argument is that the “metaphorical links between female chastity, human form, and sacrifice . . . demonstrate that for Blake the law of chastity is dehumanizing and destructive” (53), a persuasive suggestion that the discourse of sacrifice is a necessary subtext for study of Blake’s treatment of gender.[16] Clearly, the representation of female sacrifice in the story of Jephthah’s daughter offers an illuminating site from which to view Oothoon’s enslavement to these restrictive laws, as well as Blake’s representation of law in the male characters in the poem.

The strange character of Jephthah the Gileadite offers a compelling understanding of the perspectives represented by both Bromion and Theotormon. Critics have long polarized these figures in a range of interpretations, but, as Goslee has pointed out, both male characters fail to understand Oothoon’s rape in any ways other than their own, and so “their apparent plurality—the difference between Theotormon’s and Bromion’s views—is only apparent, since each believes in a single vision, a single standard” (115). In her assertion that both men “allow their epistemology to be dictated by a version of religious law” (116), Goslee opens the door for my reading of these figures as conflated through a single biblical character as the errors of both lover and rapist are embodied in Jephthah.[17] This kind of conflation makes sense in terms of a reversal of Jurij Lotman’s discussion of plot and typology. Rajan underscores Lotman’s distinction between myth and “plot-text” in that myth can “precipitat[e]” within a “single text-image characters who in literature would be distinguished synchronically (like Los and Urizen) or diachronically (like Orc and Fuzon).”[18] In this case, Blake’s literary text figures a “single text image” (Jephthah) within two seemingly opposing characters. While Bromion and Theotormon have sexual and romantic relationships with Oothoon (not the father/daughter relationship as in Judges), these characters, once collapsed, recall the figure of Jephthah both as tyrant/warrior and as perverted troubled theologian. A psychological portrait of shame and subsequent cruelty, Jephthah is the poster child for the connection between repression and violence. Introduced as the son of a harlot, Jephthah has no known father, although translations suggest that the town of Gilead sired Jephthah. Danna Fewel’s critique of Judges interprets the narrative as suggesting that the town of Gilead fathered him with a prostitute, then kicked him out because he is a prostitute’s son. Such a reading—exemplary of the targeted hypocrisy in Blake’s proverb “Brothels are built with the bricks of Religion”—makes the entire culture complicit here. In any event, Jephthah is said to have grown up in exile, rejected by his half-brothers, and gathering a group of other “empty men” around him. As Klein asserts, Jephthah is a man “whose social role is catapulted from the fringes of that society to outside that society and from there to the center of the same” (Klein, The Triumph Of Irony 86).

Not only, then, is the lineage of Jephthah in question, but so also is his motive,a need to show himself superior neither out of zeal for Yahweh nor concern for Israel. A tormented psyche (strikingly similar in specific ways to the figure of Theotormon), Jephthah is also a Bromion-like warrior in that Bromion is a study in the pathology of violence and the ways in which sexual violence is linked to all kinds of cultural exploitation. As Ostriker has succinctly summarized, Bromion is a number of things “which to Blake are one thing”: the slaveowner, the racist, the rapist, the believer in a God to whom obedience is all (Ostriker, “Desire Gratified” 93). Jephthah the warrior conjures such a God, and his rash vow is critically controversial in its apparent characterization of a wrathful God. Jephthah’s vow, in fact, sounds more like a bargaining tactic: “If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me . . . shall be the Lord’s and I will offer him up for a burnt offering” (Judg. 11.30-1). This exchange, significantly, sets up a tension between the gift of the spirit and the vow. For if we interpret Jephthah’s action as a kind of submissive piety to God (even though a human sacrifice would be against Mosaic law), what kind of god would we have? As Old Testament critic Thomas Romer asks, what are we to do with a story “where a seeming cruel and impetuous Jephthah is going to kill his only and unnamed daughter to accomplish a vow made to a Yahweh who appears to be as cruel as Jephthah” (27)? Blake’s Oothoon, in her most passionate rhetorical moment, calls such a god a “mistaken demon of Heaven” (5.3) and a “Father of Jealousy” (7.12). Blake is adamant about such “wickedness”: “To me who believe the Bible . . . a defense of the Wickedness of the Israelites in murdering so many thousands under pretense of a command from God is altogether Abominable and Blasphemous” (E614). While it is clear how Blake would have read this incident, Old Testament critics have debated it, partially due to the very objective, skeletal presentation of the order of the events. While Romer and Niditch ponder the neutrality of God (no one condemns nor praises Jephthah’s action), Marcus believes that the neutrality of the narrator actually allows us to see the story as critique of Jephthah, arguing that the narrator is a “brilliant stylist and craftsman who, being familiar with Hebrew rhetorical devices . . . devises a deliberately ambiguous ending” (50). That Jephthah’s actions are so at odds with his show of submission to God reveal his vow as manipulation of God. This narrative of sacrifice is clearly contrasted to the Abraham/Isaac story where the father assures the son, lovingly if ironically, that God will provide a burnt offering. According to Klein, Jephthah’s act of human sacrifice misses the point of the tale of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, the point being that the sacrifice was averted due to faith (Klein, The Triumph Of Irony 91). It is clearly the critical consensus that in Genesis, God tests Abraham, whereas in Judges, “Jephthah, by attempting to ensure his victory via his vow, is testing God” (Marcus 39). Trible summarizes his act as a desire to “bind God rather than embrace the gift of the spirit. What comes to him freely he seeks to earn and manipulate. It is doubt, not faith; it is control, not courage. To such a vow, the deity makes no reply” (97).

Without any divine or narrative judgment, then, it is Jephthah’s own discourse that indicts him, a rhetoric much like Theotormon’s. In the scene of confrontation with his daughter, as she comes forth to meet him, with “timbrels and dancing,” the narrator reports, “. . . he rent his clothes, and said, ‘Alas my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me’” (Judg. 11.35 emphasis added). Jephthah rends his clothes in a sign of grief and despair, but the reader wonders for whom he grieves. His direct discourse indicts him as he targets the victim, his own daughter, for blame here in this passage. It is not surprising that Blake would actively appropriate this character. Jephthah’s lineage from a harlot and punishment from the “acceptable” culture has bred instability and perhaps hostility to sexuality; his warrior role is an attempt to dominate absolutely as a response to that instability of self; his manipulations with God show him to be antithetical to the spirit of the law, blindly holding to the letter; and his hypocritical blame of the female victim as her body is to be violated demonstrates cruelty, passivity, and solipsisim. Jephthah is an incredibly powerful model for Theotormon since Blake consistently attacks the masked gestures whereby religion, in the name of law and holiness, attempts to subdue desire. Hoerner suggests that Theotormon’s name stems from the roots of “theos” and “thereos,” meaning “god” and “spectator” respectively. This etymological connection has significance for both Theotormon and Jephthah in that it highlights Theotormon’s erroneous vision of “theos” and his passive position as spectator of Oothoon’s fate; it further links Jephthah and Theotormon in that Blake’s second illustration of the Jephthah narrative, as we have seen, positions Jephthah as gazing at the spectacle of virgin sacrifice.[19] In Visions, we first hear of Theotormon, through Oothoon’s confession in the argument, “I loved Theotormon / And I was not ashamed” (iii). The opening imagery in Blake’s poem, Oothoon’s expression of exuberance and spontaneity (plucking the marygold in the vale of Leutha, trembling in her “virgin fears”), recalls the site of Jephthah’s return to his home, an initially celebratory moment where his dancing daughter greets him, only to become a victim of sacrifice. We see Oothoon coming forth to meet Theotormon with a version of timbrels and dancing, as Blake says, “in wing’d exulting swift delight” (1.14). After the act of violence against her body, Theotormon reacts in Jephthah fashion. As Jephthah rent his clothes, so “storms rent Theotormon’s limbs” (Visions 2.3). He “folded his black jealous waters” (Visions 2.4) around the pair, not seeing the distinction between the victim and the victimizer, and binds them back to back. His response to the tragic victimization of the body of one he supposedly loves is passivity, cruelty, and self-obsession. He sits “wearing the threshold hard / With secret tears” (Visions 2.6-7), a passivity that Blake links to cultural ramifications of such blindness, the economic and religious oppressions that allow for “The voice of slaves beneath the sun and the children bought with money” (2.8). Theotormon is frozen in this posture, as in the end of the poem, he sits “Upon the margind ocean” (Visions 8.12).

The divided nature of Jephthah—represented in Blake’s poem as both warrior and hypocrite—is countered by the singularity of his daughter’s response. Unlike many of the virgins throughout Judges (and by the end of the book hundreds of virgins are abducted, raped, or dead), we hear her speech, and in it she both subtly acknowledges her father’s rigidly-conceived notion of the vow and asks for a kind of room of her own, two months to lament her virginity with female companions. This is all we have of Jephthah’s daughter, but it is more than enough to fuel Blake’s imagination. More importantly, the fact that her very first line may be interpreted both as submission to patriarchal authority and critique of her father’s power makes her an interesting model for Oothoon’s devilishly confusing rhetoric. First, she repeats her father’s absolutist statement of fact back in his face. After he admits having “opened [his] mouth” (Judges 11.35) she repeats, “you have opened your mouth unto the Lord” (Judges 11.36). As Reis, Exum, and Carthage all suggest, this is not just simple pious submission for which the Victorians praise Jephthah’s daughter. While Exum argues gingerly that her speech bears traces of attempts to assert herself (137), Reis argues that the “six repetitions on the word ‘you’ then seem an attempt to cast the onus for her fate onto him; that is, ‘You did it. It was your vow, your mouth, your revenge, your enemies’” (285).[20] Rabbinical tradition has it that her words curse Jephthah by her obedience as his rule dissolves into civil war immediately after the sacrifice—he has the shortest reign of any judge—and the text insinuates that he was buried in multiple gravesites, which resulted in a legend that his limbs withered and fell off in various cities of Gilead. The idea that Jephthah’s daughter cursed him validates the tradition of interrogating the virgin’s apparent rhetoric of submission and complicity; such rhetorical complexities are analogous to the way we must navigate Oothoon’s verbal shifts and turns.

The question of Oothoon’s submission or subversion has, likewise, taken many twists and turns—from Bloom’s unbridled characterizations of the text as a “hymn to free love”(E900) to Mellor’s argument that the free love envisioned by Oothoon “is a male fantasy that serves the interests only of the male libertine” (Mellor, “Sex, Violence, and Slavery” 367). As Linkin shrewdly puts it, “the liberated Oothoon of the . . . 1960s is revisioned as the coopted Oothoon of the 70s and 80s” (184).[21] While these readings may seem like products of their critical climates, Oothoon’s rhetoric encourages such disparity. Her speeches—confusing, ironic, deliberately taunting—test the reader’s response to key ideologically-loaded terms (namely, harlot/virgin/marriage). In fact, as Ostriker puts it, “most of Visions is Oothoon’s opera. Raped, enslaved, imprisoned, rejected . . . her rhapsody moves from insight to insight” (93). The most significant moves in her argument are the ways she indicts a wrathful Urizenic god who would deliver her up to punishment, claims for herself a definition of sexual purity; and rejects the cultural commodification of males and females in the marriage system. To judge from critical debate, her message gets lost in the medium. My non-reductive reading of Oothoon’s progressively manipulative rhetoric underscores Heffernan’s assertion that Oothoon’s contradictions are a central part of her character: “What makes her marginal is precisely her resistance to classification, her refusal to be polarized . . . Oothoon challenges all binary oppositions” (6). Her first response after the attack seems to suggest a submissive acceptance, what Hutchings calls an “unwitting capitulation” (“Gender” 6), of the guilt Theotormon has shifted to her. She “call[s] Theotormons eagles to prey upon her flesh” (Visions 2.13), to “Rend away this defiled bosom so that I may reflect / The image of Theotormon on my pure transparent breast” (Visions 2.14-15).[22] Even this line, however, semantically, cancels any sense of shame, as “this defiled bosom” becomes “my pure transparent breast” in a space of ten words. This passage where Oothoon, uncharacteristically for a rebellious heroine, expresses self-loathing and a call for violation of her flesh is arguably one of the most pivotal if we are to understand the rest of her rhetorical gestures. The eagles have been explained as the product of Oothoon’s imagination (Erdman 131), as Theotormon’s devices of law and order (Duerkson 189), as analogues of slaveowners’ whips (Howard 103), and, closest to my reading, as a kind of simulation of remorse (Bloom 109). More usefully, Goslee interprets the eagles as a kind of “psychological violence from [Theotormon]” (108), suggesting that the metaphorical “storms” that rend Theotormon’s limbs are now transferred momentarily to Oothoon.

Regardless of how we metaphorize the passage, the literal image of physical dismemberment recalls another significant, nameless woman from the book of Judges, a violated woman whose story Milton used as a “powerful indictment of all kinds of social, religious, and political injustice” (Simons 149), and as Klein notes, whose story in the nineteenth chapter is the second re-enactment of the Abraham sacrifice narrative in the book of Judges (91). In this final story in Judges, a Levite takes as a wife a woman who does not stay with him. The narrator tells us only that she returned to her father, thus resisting her husband.[23] After retrieving her, the husband finds shelter with an old man in Gibeah, where a group demands that the Levite be sent out to be tortured. The husband, instead, throws out his wife to the angry mob. Abandoned by her father, betrayed by her husband, then raped by a mob, she is then returned to her husband. Finding her there on the threshold, he takes her home, seizes a knife and cuts her body into twelve pieces; as if her dismemberment had some sacrificial purposes, he sends her piece by piece throughout Israel. As Fewell emphasizes, this powerful story is of a woman who has no speech, whose broken, commodified body speaks to Israel, the pieces of her flesh defined by those who have used her in life. Again rewriting the drastic horror of the fate of Judges’ women, Blake appropriates the image of physical dismemberment for sexual impurity here as the psychology of Theotormon’s possessive jealousy manifests itself as an instrument of punishment. Oothoon, however, resists Theotormon’s psychology, and that of the Levite husband, and begins her instruction of Theotormon and Bromion from this point on.

After this ambiguous passage, Oothoon’s monologue moves quickly to reject Urizenic restraints, which she extends to a whole range of injustices, culminating in her long discussion of sexual experience. The rhetorical form is important here as the shift to sexuality is marked by the word “Till”:

With what sense does the parson . . .
With cold floods of abstraction . . .
Build him castles and high spires where kings and priests may dwell.
Till she who burns with youth and knows no fixed lot is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes.

Visions 5.17-21

As Aers points out, the word “Till” yokes the passage on exploitation with the lines on sexuality, emphasizing sexual experience as an integral aspect of cultural principles of division and domination (29). Oothoon’s definition of marriage (a system where a woman is “bound in spells of law to one she loathes”) leads her to reflections on virginity and modesty. This scene is key to understanding Oothoon’s rhetorical mutations, yet many critics are uncomfortable with the turns she takes. Celebrating “honest open . . . vigorous joys” (Visions 6.6-7), she condemns modesty as a dissembling gesture used to “catch virgin joy, / And brand it with the name of whore” (Visions 6.11-12). Again, using these loaded terms (virgin/whore), she directly attacks Theotormon for his pharisaical hypocrisy, using sarcasm and hyperbole as she does so:

And does my Theotormon seek this hypocrite modesty
This knowing, artful, secret, fearful, cautious, trembling hypocrite.
Then is Oothoon a whore indeed.
And all the virgin joys
Of life are harlots: and Theotormon is a sick mans dream
And Oothoon is the crafty slave of selfish holiness.

Visions 6.16-20

After a pause, and a line break, then she says, “But Oothoon is not so” (Visions 6.21). Haigwood and Linkin have argued that Oothoon loses her prophetic stature here by adopting Bromion’s reductive namecalling (Haigwood 88; Linkin 190), but conversely her rhetorical power here is at its climax. A careful reading reveals that Oothoon makes a radical claim here. Her syntax does its work, asserting that if Theotormon looks at her, seeking the “hypocrite modesty,” which she brilliantly modulates in the adjectives following (“knowing,” “secret,” “fearful”), then her denial of such hypocrisy must cast her as a whore, and all innocent joys of life as “harlots.” Her indictment of the culture which fosters this repression of desire is nowhere more clear than here, and her sharp insight anticipates Laqueur’s argument, in Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud, that “perversions” like masturbation and prostitution became, in the eighteenth-century, regarded as “social perversions visited upon the body rather than sexual perversions with social effects” (247). After exposing the culture’s warping of joy into harlotry, through Theotormon’s hypocritical judgments, Oothoon victoriously casts off the label of harlot when she says, “But Oothoon is not so.” Her assertions indict religion, Jephthah’s brand of it, Theotormon’s brand of it, for fostering the “sick man’s dream”: self-righteous addiction to the law and repressed desire.[24] Quoting Judith Butler’s discussion of ascetic discipline, Hutchings has emphasized Theotormon’s self-renunciation, what Oothoon connects to repressed desire, tauntingly asking him, “Are not these the places of religion ? the rewards of continence? / The self-enjoyings of self-denial . . .” (Visions 7.8-9). In Butler’s terms, Theotormon’s “intermingling of pleasure and pain” is the product of a “renunciation of the self which can never quite accomplish that renunciation, which as an incessant accomplishing, carries with it the pleasurable assertion of self” (qtd. in Hutchings, “Pastoral” 9).

It is in this heightened, hyperbolic rhetoric that Oothoon makes the speech that has become a touchstone for critical controversy:

But silken nets and traps of adamant will Oothoon spread,
And catch for thee girls of mild silver, or of furious gold;
I’ll lie beside thee on a bank & view their wanton play
In lovely copulation bliss on bliss with Theotormon;
Red as the rosy morning, lustful as the first born beam,
Oothoon shall view his dear delight, nor e’er with jealous cloud
Come in the heaven of generous love: nor selfish blightings bring.

Visions 7.23-9

The passage is arguably one of the most ambiguous in the poem—is Oothoon offering Theotormon a set of girls that she will watch him play with? Will they watch the girls together? Will they all play together? Is the passage a metaphoric flight of fancy about liberated desire?—but the most literal interpretation of her offer has been the catalyst of critical outcry. In offering to bring girls for wanton play with Theotormon (and/or with her?), Oothoon, according to Mellor, endorses a view of “the female as procurer of love and sexual gratification . . . but for men only” (Mellor, “Sex, Violence, and Slavery” 369). Goslee, Anderson, and Bracher (in varying degrees) have offered an alternative reading, more sympathetic to Oothoon, arguing that Oothoon has been coopted by the webs of Urizenic psychological enslavement (see especially Goslee 122, Anderson 14, and Bracher 170). For these critics, Oothoon is still caught in a humiliating position, submissive to male desire, but cannot be blamed for it since she has been hoodwinked in a way.

My reading, however, opposes the systematic conclusions regarding Oothoon’s “failure” here and, instead, intersects with the two different critical camps who maintain Oothoon’s autonomy and authority, even at this scene of what Hutchings has termed a “disconcertingly problematic scenario” (“Gender” 13):

  1. Oothoon can be “defended” by critical claims that she really does, willingly, offer up a scene of sexual indulgence which we as contemporary critics simply cannot accept; this reading places the error on academic critics, as both Elfenbein (151) and Gruner (26-7) do.

  2. We may read the scene figuratively since Oothoon’s use of the term “copulation” suggests not just sexual intimacy but an imaginative apprehension of the world; this reading thus avoids seeing a purely sexual scenario, and has been articulated most strongly by Ellis (28).

My own reading of this scene depends upon a consideration of both of these critical responses, so let me briefly summarize their positions. The first, most strongly articulated in Andrew Elfenbein’s queering of Blake in Romantic Genius (1999), offers a clear, spirited challenge to these apologists of Oothoon, and his argument, in a general way, supports my reading of Blake’s manipulation of the Jephthah source. Elfenbein points out that most readers agree that Blakean revolution depends upon breaking down “system,” liberating desire, and finding the spaces between gender dichotomy. Yet in the last twenty years, it seems as if academics have “met such [Blakean] hopes with stern demystification” (Elfenbein 151), arguing that because Blake does depict innocent female victims and the monstrous, if abstract, Female Will, we cannot believe critical claims that he anticipated the liberation of women from sexual repression.[25] Elfenbein asserts that some Blake critics write as if they fear that “an unwary reader might be deluded into thinking that Blake were more sexually liberating than he really is” (151), an assertion that is borne out in absolute critical statements like this one from Mellor: “Despite claims [to the contrary], Blake shared his culture’s denigration of the feminine gender” (Romanticism 22). Finally, Elfenbein’s study is corrective, I think, because he refuses to believe that to historicize Blake and to acknowledge the contested discourses of the time must always result in a negative view of Blake, that, in fact, as Punter insinuates, if we do not take this view, we are somehow unrigorous Blakeans, complicit ourselves (Punter 85). Elfenbein responds to Punter’s accusation in this way: “More problematically, [Punter] writes as if putting Blake in history necessarily transformed a visionary poet into a chauvinist creep. History makes obvious to him what is less obvious to me . . .” (151).

Reading Blake’s Visions in terms of the contextual discourse of Judges certainly makes Punter’s conclusion less obvious as it redirects readers to the text’s entanglement of virginity and violence. In response to the virgin’s sacrificial posture in Judges, Blake offers Oothoon’s imaginative desire. While Jephthah’s daughter can only lament the waste of her life, Oothoon imagines an alternative where she would not restrain desire, vowing to watch “bliss upon bliss” as opposed to jealous clouds, selfish blightings, and the economic evaluations of the cold miser. What she actually, literally, offers cannot be reduced to a single interpretation, but I believe her invitation does not reveal her complicity but, rather, her continuing dialogic inversions and manipulations of her oppressors’ rhetoric, both Bromion’s sexual abuse and Theotormon’s self-righteous hypocrisy. While her use of “nets and traps” to catch girls most obviously sounds like she is adopting the rhetoric of captivity, her progressive use of this metaphor throughout the text suggests a playful manipulation of the image. In the first textual reference, Oothoon ponders the difference between the “nets and gins and traps” of the farmer and the parson, indicting the parson for “claim[ing] the labour of the farmer” (Visions 5.17) by setting up economic “nets” (tithes) and the trap of “cold floods of abstraction” (Visions 5.19). This shift from literal traps to metaphorical ones heightens when Oothoon addresses the modest virgin who uses “nets found under [her] night pillow to catch virgin joy, / And brand it with the name of whore, and sell it in the night” (Visions 6.11-12). As Chapman notes, this corruption of sexuality becomes bound to a system of economics (10). Within this conflation of nets and commodification, Oothoon’s offer to “catch” girls of silver and gold and give them freely continues this juxtaposition and hyperbolically inverts it.[26] Gruner, like Elfenbein, finds the lines of sexual fantasy “the only indication that the characters might escape”(30) the nets and traps that bind them, both patriarchal, Urizenic ones and those of the deceptively modest females. The fantasy, however, according to Gruner, only liberates Oothoon if we subsume this physical vision to “the poem’s interest in perception”(30), and this maneuver is the second foundational critical defense of Oothoon.

Based upon study of the rhetorical and semantic play on the term “copulation,” Ellis significantly suggests that “copulation” need not always mean sexual intercourse since earlier in the poem Blake uses the word for intense imaginative pleasure. In Ellis’ reading, rather than a simplistic offer of voyeuristic or radical sexual pleasures, Oothoon’s invitation can also been read as imaginative improvement of sensual enjoyment. Blake uses the word “copulation” twice in the poem, earliest in an ecstatic vision where Oothoon sees herself as a virgin “Open to joy and to delight wherever beauty appears / If in the morning sun I find it: there my eyes are fixed / In happy copulation” (Visions 6.22-23, 7.1). Copulation here is the imaginative breaking through of the tyranny of the five senses into sensual enjoyment. As Ellis points out, Blake uses the term for the most intense physical pleasure known to humans as a symbol for humans’ most intense imaginative pleasure (28).[27] Pointing to Blake’s consistent intertwining of sexual/imaginative/spiritual realms, Hutchings labels Oothoon’s speech here as “rhetorical synaesthesia” that “articulates an imaginative alternative to the oppositional subject/object dynamic so often associated with the economy of the gaze” (“Gender” 13). While Hutchings goes on to argue that Oothoon’s view of the wanton play of girls is very much at odds with this view (“Gender” 13), we can at least posit that Blake continues his denial and inversion of the mechanics of the male gaze so apparent in the second illustration of Judges. I do not agree with Ellis’ claim that, therefore, Oothoon is not offering Theotormon a literal set of girls, and that she means copulation only in a figurative sense, but that the lines contain intentional ambiguity given Oothoon’s pattern of very slippery syntax—it may be that Oothoon exaggeratedly offers him a pair or girls to shock his pharisaical mind, that she and Theotormon will together watch, or play with, some wanton girls, or she may speak a metaphorical flight of fancy about liberated desire. The intentional ambiguity, however, in terms of who is perceiving and who is engaging in sexual and/or imaginative copulation, stands in clear contrast to Oothoon’s obvious and singular critique of the gaze of “lamp-lit eyes” staring at the “frozen marriage bed” (Visions 7.22) In this way, Oothoon refuses to sacrifice female autonomy; she refuses to occupy either the position of spectator around the “frozen marriage bed” or participant within it just as Blake’s illustration of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter positions us as spectators in order to demand that we acknowledge the errors of Jephthah’s embrace of virgin sacrifice and refuse that position.. As Elfenbein’s study reminds us, Blake’s texts consistently oppose codes of sexual respectability that, in effect, sacrifice female desire. In opposition to critics who can only see Oothoon’s vision of visual-tactile copulation as capitulation, I argue that seeing the intertextual manipulation of the Jephthah virgin sacrifice narrative redirects our critical focus on the poem as a critique of a patriarchal obsession with virginity as illustrated in Judges and manifestly demonstrable in British culture, frozen marriage beds, in Blake’s day.

Because the enslaved daughters remain enslaved, weeping and echoing back Oothoon’s sighs, at the end of the narrative, it is fair, as many critics do, to ask what effect the wailing women have. Agreeing with Anderson’s label of Oothoon as a failed prophet, Goslee has argued that Oothoon’s final speech must be seen as ultimately ineffective because “its triumphant last lines of ‘eternal joy’ are followed by the narrator’s comment: ‘Thus every morning wails Oothoon . . .’” (122). Yet it is this similarity to the Jephthah narrative—the function of the chorus of women—that enables a more positive reading of Blake’s ending. After Jephthah grants his daughter’s request, the narrator, in the place one might expect some praise or blame of Jephthah from Yahweh, simply reports, “So it became a custom in Israel, the Israelite maidens would go every year, for four days in the year, to mourn for the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite” (Judges 11.39-40). Pious nineteenth-century commentators interpreted this as an experience of penance, defining “female heroism” as passivity, loyalty, and submission to duty (Burchard 151).[28] For Blake, the all-female ritual might more signficantly signify the opposite of sober obedience, as contemporary biblical critics of this passage suggest. Exum’s study of the irrevocable power of language in the Jephthah narrative highlights the ambiguous translations of the verb in this passage. According to different translations, “letannot” may be interpreted as the women every year “lament” or “mourn for” the daughter or, more interestingly, they “recount” the daughter, which links the annual custom to the power of speech. As Exum says, “we are speaking of a memorial event that is in some sense a linguistic act, not a silent vigil” (132).[29] This reading which emphasizes the power of words in Judges is appropriate given that the culmination, really the only significant act of Jephthah’s short rule, is his imposition of the test of the shibboleth by his people, upon their fellow Israelites the Ephraimites. To a man each Ephraimite pronounced the word “sibboleth” and all who failed the test (some 42,000) were put to the sword. This story—illustrating vividly the power of words and the danger of speaking the wrong ones—challenges readers to acknowledge the power of voicing, in the same way Blake demands that readers confront their own culturally-laden responses to words like virgin/harlot. Like the Israelite maidens in Gilead, Blake’s chorus of women mourn Oothoon’s punishment, but speak to the importance of “telling,” just as the reader’s suspension between the monologues of all three characters dramatizes the importance of hearing. As Hutchings concludes, “Refusing a premature apocalypticism, Visions soberly acknowledges the complex difficulties . . . [and] places ultimate responsibility for political transformation upon his readers . . . hoping, it seems, that we will do more than merely ‘echo back her sighs’” (“Gender” 15).

Finally, it is right to question why Blake uses the frame of the Jephthah story in his commentary on late eighteenth-century British cultural abuses. It is fair to ask what the Israelite story, aside from its obvious power in the representation of this one virgin sacrifice and the yearly memorial for her, would have registered in Blake’s consciousness of his own culture’s blindness. Recounted in the Babylonian exile, the Judges tale was but one attempt to explain what had become of Israel at this time. As Fewell synthesizes, the book marks a pivotal point in the story extending from Genesis to 2 Kings in that the narrative tells of Yahweh’s gift of the land of Canaan and Israel’s subsequent loss of it. The Israelites show themselves to be no better masters of the land than the Canaanites before them, and as Judges closes, the people recognize no leadership, and their community has denigrated into chaos. The female characters in Judges function as a mirror of the decline of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. After a long list of virgins and wives raped and abused, the book ends as Israelites slaughter all the women and children in the tribe of Benjamin, abduct hundreds of virgins from Jabesh-Gilead and Shiloh (an abduction that takes place while virgins are engaging in festal dances), and accept no responsibility for their own violence. As the narrative of Judges unfolds, the motivations for violence have turned more and more personal, from stated claims for the glory of the nation to concern for personal vengeance. Just as Milton used the story of the Levite woman from Judges 19 as a powerful indictment of all kinds of political injustice, Blake’s visual illustrations of the misguided Jephthah and his appropriation of the Jephthah source in Vision serve as warning to his contemporary culture. As Gruner’s study of the poem in terms of the genre of captivity narratives suggests, captives serve as figures to “awaken the public to its servitude” (22). In a broad sense, this intertextual study of Jephthah/Visions redirects attention to Blake’s persistent and emphatic critique of Israeli atrocities and his broader rejection of all biblical commentary used to support contemporary “State Religion.”[30] In contrast to such “Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University” (E95) as he calls them in the Preface to Milton, Blake rewrites Jephthah’s nameless daughter as Oothoon and casts Jephthah in a dual role of warrior/hypocrite within a critique of mandated female virginity and culturally-endorsed violence.

Finally, the illustrations and the poem document Blake’s engagement with this biblical book where Israel’s destiny unfolds through accounts of judges who again and again misjudge, who enact sexual violence and fail to see its connection with their own violent ends. In Ostriker’s staged poem, Jephthah’s daughter tells it this way, “The violence of my father is a mirror he holds to the face of God”(Ostriker, “Jephthah’s Daughter” 212). But like the women who annually remembered Jephthah's daughter, and like Ostriker, who conceived her poem as a collective act of mourning to further cultural change, Blake knows the power of retelling the troubling stories of one’s own culture; he knows that the Bible must be, in Frye’s words, “shaken upside-down before it will yield its secrets” (120). Blake’s Visions begins and ends with the chorus of daughters—in between it chronicles the horrors of exploitation, rape, slavery, cultural imperialism and links those to individual sexual repression, like Theotormon’s troubled image of Oothoon, like Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter, truly a “sick man’s dream.”

Appendices