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Beginning with the publication of Brian Wilkie's and Mary Lynn Johnson's 1978 Blake's Four Zoas, there have been several book-length studies devoted to Blake's longest poem, Vala or The Four Zoas.  The work was never engraved and exists in a single manuscript that Blake reworked over a ten-year period from roughly, 1797 to 1807. This period coincides with major changes in Blake's symbolism, mythography, and, at least according to the school that espouses what it has termed "the thesis of fracture,"  his religious and political beliefs. These changes are visible in the poem's numerous revisions, and many critics have attempted to use The Four Zoas to trace the development of Blake's thought between the more politically explicit Lambeth prophecies and the later, more obscure, and Christian Milton and Jerusalem. As Jonathan Wordsworth has noted, the relation between the revisions and the development of Blake's mind suggests strong parallels with Wordsworth's Prelude (35). But in The Four Zoas the additions, emendations, drawings, and erasures occur atop the older material and each other, meaning that Blake's intentions are veiled by a complex palimpsest. At least since the mid-1980s, when similar questions regarding materiality were being put to Blake's illuminated books, critics have wrestled with how to incorporate the physical state of The Four Zoas manuscript into readings of the poem. For most critics, this question has meant either demonstrating how the poem evolved to its present state or examining the poem as it presently exists. Concerned with historical conditions or acts of individual production, the former method draws on historical influences and biography, as seen, for example, in Andrew Lincoln's Spiritual History or George Anthony Rosso's Prophetic Workshop. The latter approach is often more concerned with the act of writing. As expressed by V. A. De Luca, this school suggests that Blake's "revisions introduce real, not metaphoric, openings into the text at the same time they introduce disruptive content": "the fact of interpolation is itself as significant as the content that is interpolated" (113). The telos of the text from this perspective is the text itself and the ways readers are implicated by its dramatic as well as physical features.
Like a good Blakean, Peter Otto attempts to marry these contrary approaches in his latest book, Blake's Critique of Transcendence. The book's introduction provides a sketch of approaches to the poem similar to the one above, and Otto criticizes what he sees in both approaches as a fundamentally "romantic response to disorder," where one attempts to cure chaos through either "transcendent powers or immanent faculties," such as God or the Romantic imagination (6). In contrast, Otto wishes to embrace the chaotic space between transcendence and immanence, which he aligns with the chaotic textual body of The Four Zoas's manuscript, reading what he calls "The sublime 'surface' of the poem" (8).
Otto's attempt to integrate previous approaches to the poem plays down the history of his own partisanship, which has immense bearing on the argument found in Critique. This history began in a 1987 essay, in which Otto responded to Paul Mann's and Robert N. Essick's 1985 explanations of Blake's possible publishing intentions for The Four Zoas. As early proponents of what Mann called Blake's "production-aesthetic" ("Apocalypse" 13), Mann and Essick theorized that The Four Zoas was one of Blake's attempts at formats "more accessible" and "reproducible" than illuminated printing ("Final State" 204). On the basis of the manuscript's multiple scripts and the change from blank paper to Blake's Night Thoughts proofs shortly before the end of Night III, they put forth the idea that Blake may have had initial plans for publishing the poem in intaglio designs (like the late Lambeth books, The Book of Ahania and The Book of Los) and later in relief or letterpress accompanied by intaglio or etched designs (similar to Blake's Night Thoughts or Hayley's Ballads). In his response, Otto did not dismiss these possibilities directly but linked Mann's and Essick's approach to previous accounts of The Four Zoas that held the poem a failure for not being illuminated and sought some ideal state of the poem's production. Concerned with the manuscript as it existed in its present state, Otto rejected the idea of its failure, and he argued instead that "when Blake finally stopped working on the manuscript he believed that the form taken by the work was the only one the subject matter could assume" (144). This form, he suggested, "embodies the poem's insights about the nature of the fallen world and of fallen perception" (144). This notion of the relation between the poem's material state and ontological and eschatological arguments drew much on Balachandra Rajan's notion of an unfinished poem, such as The Faerie Queene or Don Juan, which does not ask to be finished and whose power is fundamentally intertwined with its incompletion. Hence, given The Four Zoas 's concern with telling a fallen, universal history, the manuscript becomes the "only form which is appropriate for the effort of a fallen self to recount the origins, history, and regeneration of the world" (146).
Otto's arguments led to some not-so-surprising corollaries that seemed contingent less on one's understanding of Blake than on one's approach to texts. These include such ideas as that "the narrator is himself an 'effect' of the story that he recounts" and that the poem undermines its own claims of unity (144). Mann, in his reply, questioned Otto's basic metaphor that equated the unfinished state of the manuscript with the fallen world (141). The poem, he contended, was a failure—a fact that would have to be acknowledged without support in an external, critical "discourse of unfinishedness" (141). Otto answered that some discourse always structures our reading, and that since The Four Zoas tells a universal history, the "narrator, author, and critic" are enclosed "within its spaces" (143). This exchange highlighted not only key issues in theoretical debates regarding givens such as history, print materiality, and the body, but also many of the contradictions found in Blake himself, who was a materialist in practice utilizing a vocabulary of transcendence.
The dispute between Mann and Otto came to no definitive conclusions, but Otto's basic argument gained a powerful ally in Donald Ault's 1987 Narrative Unbound. Adopting as its motto "the Eye altering alters all" (E 485), Ault's massive reading of the poem interrogated the many levels of textual and conceptual ambiguities enmeshed in the poem's revisions. These revisions, he suggested, construct a narrative that seeks to avoid reduction to a "systematic analytic explanation" (Narrative 3), which Ault, following Blake, associated with what he called a Newtonian narrative. The manuscript status of the poem, for Ault, allowed critics to challenge "cherished assumptions concerning what in fact a text is" (xiii), and Ault's tenacious reading refused to seek refuge in any of the conceptual paradigms that much of twentieth-century Blake criticism had developed as necessary aids. Ault, however, intended his work to be "incommensurate with previous criticism" (xvii) and wrought a powerful interpretation that truly defamiliarized the poem and its manuscript state. But while critics were digesting Ault's thick prose, Otto was carrying forth his view on the poem in a pair of articles less oblique, which had insights of their own to offer. His "Spectrous Embrace" suggested that the two infamous Night VIIs each actually reflect different realities, "parallel narratives of the flesh and the spirit" (142), while his "Multiple Births of Los" showed how the event of Los's birth is enveloped by multiple narratives about it and character relationships constituting it. In the language of narratology that Otto eschews—which seems unfortunate when one considers the theoretical structure it might have provided him— this birth becomes, in effect, an unknowable, pre-narrated sjuzhet.
Together these articles best illustrate Otto's sense of The Four Zoas's ontology as an irreducible perspectivalism that manifests itself materially in the poem's manuscript, showing Otto clearly in the camp of textualists. The essentials of these articles find their way into Blake's Critique of Transcendence, where the efficacy of their insights is only slightly diluted by their new context. In the first section Otto lays out his concept of the sublime, defined as "the model for a wide variety of cultural practices designed to achieve transcendence" (18). For Otto, the traditional sublime is a movement away and out to another world and works off a tripartite structure that he labels blockage, transport, and elevation (22). The blocking agent raises the faculties to an ineffability that is either transcendent or immanent. The Four Zoas, according to Otto, evokes these sublime maneuvers, but only to counter any notion of transcendence (8). The poem "directs us to a human rather than transcendent reality" and this reality is "a dismembered communal form (Albion), rather than a single faculty" (33), such as the unifying Romantic imagination. As readers of this textual chaos, we must "embrace the conflicting voices and narratives of The Four Zoas" and learn that its sublime blockage (i.e., our difficulty in reading the poem) "details the shape of the fallen world" (33). In doing so, we can celebrate "the human divine," in which "the self embraces the body, which for the religious sublime is an object of disgust" (34). The alternative to the human divine is the worship of the blocking agent itself, such as God or death.
While Otto claims to be rejecting Romantic solutions to chaos, he seems to have turned to historical discourses of the sublime in order to defend his own school of textual indeterminacy. None of his previous remarks regarding the poem are fundamentally revised as much as they are defended by new means. This historical turn is a welcome step, but Otto's engagement with history, unfortunately, presents some real methodological difficulties that echo the ways in which the physical manuscript is theorized. Counter to Mann and Essick (as well as later studies of The Four Zoas by Lincoln and John B. Pierce), Otto continues to maintain that "the final state of the poem cannot be reduced to the story of its production" (11). Such a statement is not damning in itself, but Otto, who insists laudably on referencing the illustrations and proofs as crucial parts of the text, ignores the last decade's insights regarding material practices in general and Blake's in particular. This work could have invaluably aided Otto's chief point of dissension from Mann and Essick in 1987 and helped him explore how Blake, once his clear intentions for publication had failed, might have utilized the material features of his manuscript as a source of thematic emphasis. While Critique features many references to Ault's Narrative Unbound, revealing perhaps an acute—though really unnecessary—anxiety of influence, Otto refrains from grappling with the manuscript changes in Ault's tenacious fashion. Instead, the poem/manuscript is seen almost exclusively as a synecdochical representation of the fallen world in toto—a vision that causes Otto to avoid analysis of particular medium-based effects in favor of a perpetual emphasis on the textually fallen state. Outside of the illustrations and proofs, the physical manuscript and its revisions are rarely considered, and he, disappointingly, adopts as his text Erdman's 1988 arrangement, which serves as an unfortunate intermediary to the manuscript's actual state.
Otto's historical gestures work off a similar logic of homology. He is not always clear in distinguishing between his postmodern emphasis on the prison-house effect of language and Blake's conception of the eighteenth-century religious sublime. As a result, his historical argument is often subsumed by his theoretical maneuverings in a manner that frequently seems anachronistic. When, for example, Otto names the poem's readers, it is always you and I with our Erdman editions propped open, rather than Blake's imagined nineteenth-century reader. Given Mann's and Essick's underutilized suggestions about the poem's probable production methods and Otto's own sense of the poem's reference back to Albion's dismembered community, some consideration of Blake's ideal audience would have been worthwhile. Admittedly, with the poem's history of reception, if one excludes the Linnell family who held the manuscript until the 1890s, Otto's insistence on us as readers is accurate, though frustrating, and this frustration is intensified by Otto's nominal historicization of Blake's influences and subject matter. Despite the chapter entitled, "Blake, Blake Criticism, and the Sublime," there is surprisingly little engagement with Vincent de Luca's more historical grounding of Blake's sublime in Words of Eternity or any other recent work on the eighteenth-century sublime. Burke's and Kant's theories are, at times, invoked as rough homologies to Blake's own, but these parallels, such as the analogy between Kant's faculties and the Zoas (45), are strained by the violence that must be done to both concepts.
The uneven use of history detracts from one of Otto's key insights: namely, the importance of Young's concept of the religious sublime to The Four Zoas (16). Given the poem's use of the Night Thoughts proofs, this influence (not treated in depth by De Luca or other critics to any appreciable degree) is possibly the richest area for exploration and provides, at times, the book's biggest rewards. Through an interpretation of Young's general influence on the poem as well as a reading of the Night Thoughts proofs in their original textual setting, Otto emphasizes Young's seemingly incongruous connection between Death and Christ as sublime figures (23) and shows how Albion echoes Young's poor Christian, who strives so pathetically with the material world around him. Such analysis follows usefully upon Rosso's tracing of the genealogy of The Four Zoas to "the long poem of eighteenth-century Christian apologetics" (49), and, despite seeing Young's influence as finally negative (216n3), Otto shows effectively how Blake's conception of the religious sublime derives from generic norms of little-discussed eighteenth-century religious and didactic poetry. Yet this very insightful discussion of Young is, unfortunately, weakened by the fact that Otto considers Young alongside two strange bedfellows, John Locke and Emmanuel Swedenborg. While all three of these writers had, no doubt, immense influence on Blake's thought, if Young's concept of the religious sublime was, indeed, as Otto declares, The Four Zoas's primary target (18)—and he would have been the most popular of the three—then the reason for Locke and Swedenborg's prominent place is never made sufficiently clear. At one point, Otto suggests that Blake considered "Young's 'divine reason,' Swedenborg's rational spirit, and Locke's empirical understanding as metamorphoses of the same faculty" striving for "rational order" (35), but this conflation seems to elide the details of Blake's particular use and critique of each. The case could certainly be made that these figures represent certain religious attitudes, but to do so, Otto would have to take more seriously the religious claims of all three, and, in particular, of Locke, by reexamining how the figures fit into "the Christian tradition" he positions Blake against (17).
For all these difficulties, the book is at its best in its extensive reading of the poem, which constitutes the majority of the book. A strong component of this reading is Otto's discussion of the illustrations and proofs. These, he claims, are "mutually clarifying," composing "a multifaceted 'visual' narrative, that stretches across the entire length of the poem" (10). Like much in the book, this statement is asserted rather than argued, but Otto makes it worth one's while to follow the implications of this assertion through the manuscript. Otto's explication of Swedenborg's influence on Blake's later cosmology, which draws on the more complex view of Swedenborg suggested by Milton, is another important innovation in readings of the poem.  While I was not fully convinced by Otto's argument that the cycles of history found in The Four Zoas replicate Swedenborg's four stages of history, he is more persuasive regarding Swedenborg's influence on the poem's sexual politics. Blake's association with the New Jerusalem Church coincides with its dispute over the status of concubinage, making Otto's use of Swedenborgian thought in explaining the relationship between the Zoas and their Emanations especially appropriate. Otto's description of the sexual content in the illustrations of Night II and its relationship to Urizen's vegetative world is also particularly informative, as is his discussion of the presence of Cupid—an important figure to take note of in a poem concerned with "The Torments of Love & Jealousy"—in the drawings of the early pages of Night I (128-33; 72-75, 99-100). Otto also suggests that The Four Zoas draws heavily on Swedenborg's sense of the Last Judgment. Occurring spiritually, this Last Judgment leaves the material earth in place "forever," "an inexhaustible source of both angels and devils" (304). This oscillating Last Judgment parallels, significantly, Otto's own sense of the poem's cyclical return. Night IX's apocalypse, then, is finally only the fall of the Regenerate Man who in error splits his soul and body. According to Otto, the poem shows this false turn towards transcendence on the verso of the last page, which is a depiction of Death from Blake's design for the title page of Young's Night I. Death here as a traditional blocking agent for the transcendent sublime returns us to the title page and frontispiece, which, Otto observes, depict events that actually occur after the Last Judgment. Thus, Otto closes his reading emphasizing the connection between the sleeper of the frontispiece and the reader, both of whom are making a Swedenborgian choice between spirit and flesh (text and manuscript?) that Blake himself knows is false.
Blake's Critique of Transcendence will prove worthwhile to those interested in a close reading of The Four Zoas. I wish, however, that Otto had turned away from his more transcendental theoretical language and grounded himself more in both Blake's historical sources and the particularities of the manuscript. His basic instinct that Blake did things to the manuscript after all publication intentions had evaporated remains, for the most part, unexplored by his Critique. Doing so could tell us much about how Blake exploited the medium of paper, pen, and ink with the same felicity he brought to copper, quills, and acid.
- For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the poem as The Four Zoas. In his review of John B. Pierce's Flexible Design, Thomas A. Volger suggests the title VALA, with a line crossing it out, which would best replicate the title page.
- For more on the label "thesis of fracture," see the introductions to Clark's and Worrall's Historicizing Blake (1994) and to DiSalvo's, Rosso's, and Hobson's Blake, Politics, and History (1998).
- Rintrah and Palamabron refer to Swedenborg as the "strongest of men, the Samson shorn by the Churches!" (pl. 22 Erdman 117).
- Ault, Donald. Narrative Unbound. Introduction by George Quasha. New York: Station Hill Press, 1987.
- Clark, Steve and David Worrall, eds. Historicizing Blake. London: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
- De Luca, Vincent Arthur. Words of Eternity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
- DiSalvo, Jackie, G. A. Rosso, and Christopher Hobson, eds. Blake, Politics, and History. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.
- Erdman, David, V., ed. With commentary by Harold Bloom. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. 1965. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
- Essick, Robert N. "The Four Zoas: Intention and Production." Blake / An Illustrated Quarterly 18 (1986): 216-21.
- Lincoln, Andrew. Spiritual History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
- Mann, Paul. "Apocalypse and Recuperation: Blake and the Maw of Commerce." ELH 52 (1985): 1-32.
- Mann, Paul. "The Final State of the Four Zoas." Blake / An Illustrated Quarterly 18 (1986): 204-09.
- Otto, Peter. "Final States, Finished Forms, and The Four Zoas." Blake / An Illustrated Quarterly 20 (1987): 134-43.
- Otto, Peter. "The Multiple Births of Los in The Four Zoas." Studies in English Literature 31 (1991): 630-53.
- Otto, Peter—. "The Spectrous Embrace, the Moment of Regeneration, and Those Two Seventh Nights." Colby Library Quarterly 23 (1987): 135-43.
- Pierce, John. Flexible Design: Revisionary Poetics in Blake's Vala or The Four Zoas. Buffalo: McGill-Queen's UP, 1998.
- Rajan, Balachandra. The Form of the Unfinished: English Poetics from Spenser to Pound. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985.
- Rosso, George Anthony. Blake's Prophetic Workshop. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1993.
- Vogler, Thomas A. Rev. of Flexible Design: Revisionary Poetics in Blake's Vala or The Four Zoas, by John B. Pierce. Blake / An Illustrated Quarterly (1999): 51-62.
- Wilkie, Brian and Mary Lynn Johnson. Blake's Four Zoas. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.
- Wordsworth, Jonathan. "Revision as Making: The Prelude and its Peers." Romantic Revisions. Ed. Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 18-42.