Prophetic Books of William Blake: A Critical Assessment

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      The Subject Matter : It is in Blake's Prophetic books that he gave expression to his sublime thoughts and ideas. As a matter of fact, in these books we notice a constant development of thought and symbols, and so it is changing and highly experimental. It is not, of course a collection of poetic rendering with any rigid code of logical unity which we find in stories and epics of chapter-wise progress because Blake never referred to what he had written in the previous night when he began to resume his versification the next day. Precisely, we may deem his prophetic books as an infinite commentary on his spiritual and physical life written night after night like a diary. Obviously, the subject is the distortion of man by the stringent and dehumanising instructions of law and society and their conventional systems. However, as the poet expostulated it, the victory is always the emancipation of man by his own energies. It deals with war, tyranny and poverty and the ultimate victory and restoration of human freedom.

The Two Opposing Characters : The subject as we have seen of Blake's prophetic books is war, tyranny and poverty. The triumph is of human freedom. In all the complicated network of Blake's mythology, this is the sole theme and it is expressed in two opposing characters.
William Blake

      The Two Opposing Characters : The subject as we have seen of Blake's prophetic books is war, tyranny and poverty. The triumph is of human freedom. In all the complicated network of Blake's mythology, this is the sole theme and it is expressed in two opposing characters. One is the jealous and fearful God of the Old Testament, oppressive in State and Church, whom Blake calls Urizen. The other is the figure of Christ in everlasting youth with a sword, toppling down the established orders and bringing danger and liberty in his two hands. Blake first called this character Orc, and later divided him into two parts. One part is the male hero Los, who has to struggle with his own human failings as wella against Urizen. The other is Los's more cautious female counterpart Enitharmon. whose womanly shrinking and whose tenderness to the natural world must be mastered before humanity can fulfill itself. And if men and women do not fulfill themselves, if they shirk experience, they are dead in spirit. This is the theme also of the early Book of Thel.

      An Expansion of Blake's Own World : These ideas and thoughts in Blake developed out of his own experience, which he constantly portrayed. Los works at a forge and his female counterpart, Enitharmon, at a loom. These two portray als are exceptionally significant because they adopt their crafts from the Industrial Revolution of Britain through which Blake lived. His ears and nerves were horribly accustomed to the noise of machinery. His own craft of engraving (which was his bread-winning craft too) in the end was affected badly by the Industrial Revolution. Thus, we see that his poems and prose renderings involve plenty of sensible references to the news of the day and time. To put it briefly, the world of Blake's poems was not a retreat from but an expansion of his everyday world.

      Powerful Symbolism and Mythology : The most prominent characteristic of Blake's prophetic books is that they have an amazing fund of symbolism and mythical connotations. The symbols are powerful, varying and dynamic. Blake's collection is more of a nationalistic vein than a psychological one. In it, he sees things with a patriotic mentality perpetually teased and offended by a domination of scientific or rational philosophy. He unfolds the destructive set up of the contemporary British society which negates the soul and promotes materialism. It is to support this view of Blake's that he has chosen and employed myth and where he lacked a proper one, he went on with a sound and sensible one created by himself.

      Blake's power of invention is liable to be credited with exceptional praise and admiration because his world of poems is peopled With plenty of gods, angels and goddesses. These effigies and deities originating from his visions were also assigned with their own individual potencies and he set the whole pantheon in motion. Blake's angels and gods are inter-related and control human destiny from their own isolated world of immortality. Blake's prophetic books are not to be conceived as a rough jargon of his philosophy depicted in a high-flown language. They are by far myths, such as we find employed in outstanding poems of all periods, of all major poets such as Dante. Spencer and Milton. The art of reading myth as myth must be re-learned, provided we are to understand such characters as Shakespeare's Caliban (The Tempes) or Spenser's Una or Redcross Knight or the characters of James Joyce's Ulysses. Once caught in the track of interest we seek after the gods and symbols in Blake's poetry as well as the major poets mentioned above. Unaware of them we will be doomed to find them as time killers. In a sense the symbols were the 'objective correlatives' of the poet's thoughts and feelings. This also explains why Blake worked with a proportional felicity in the two media of poetry and painting or engraving.

      Why Prophetic : Strictly speaking, Blake's only prophetic books are America and Europe, each of which is subtitled: "A Prophecy." But the epithet prophetic' is also attributed to his long symbolic poems in general. These poems are called prophetic because they reveal what Blake believed to be eternal truths. It is true that a thorough study of the symbols of Songs of Innocence and Experience may help us much understand Blake's symbology. But since the occasion and system of symbols have been undergoing incessant change in course of his development of thought, we shall be on our guard when we equate both on the same scale.

      1. The Book of Thel: It is the first of Blake's Prophetic books. Thel is derived from a Greek word meaning 'wish' or 'will' and in Blake's poems it is the symbol of unborn soul. She may be understood as descending to earthly life, to death or to the state of Experience. Like the virgin goddess Persephone, she undertakes a descent to the underworld: but she fears and rejects the transformation. In this poem Blake adapts the ballad form. Thel laments the decay of innocence in this poem.

      2. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: In Part: Marriage of Heaven and Hell records Blake's reaction to Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish engineer turned visionary, whose many works were being translated into English in the 1780s. Blake met John Floxman, a fervent Swedenborgian and attended the first General Conference of London Swedenborgians in 1789. There was much to attract him. Swedenborg was an enthusiast, believed in 'Divine Humanity,' in the Bible as God's dictation to inspired men, in minute and total correspondences between the natural world and the world of the Spirit, and in the possibility of ordinary people attaining spiritual revelation. Swedenborg also exalted sexuality and formulated the image of a 'Grand Man' whose bodily form was the form of Heaven. Blake's marginal comments on Swedenborg's Wisdom of Angles concerning Divine Love are sympathetic and include the remark 'Heaven and Hell are born together.' But further reading persuaded Blake that Swedenborg's theology and morality were conventional at heart, and his imagination limited. On Divine Providence he annotates Cursed Folly and calls Swedenborg a Spiritual Predestinarion. The Marriage of leaven and Hell attacks Swedenborg as inflated and pompous. Blake's 'Memorable Faricies' parody Swedenborg's 'memorable relations of spiritual experiences.

      Apart from its attack on Swedenborg, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell constitutes Blake's first full-scale foray on religious, political, social and literary orthodoxy and a self-confidently exuberant announcement of his own principles.

      3. The Gates of Paradise: In 1793 Blake published an emblem book entitled For Children: The Gates of Paradise consisting of a frontispiece and sixteen design's with brief legends, symbolically depicting the sufferings and limitations of mortal life. Years later he reissued this book with a new title, expanded inscriptions, a prologue and three new pages of the text. In these, Emblem I depicts a woman plucking an infant from under a tree-root. Emblems 2 to 5 depict water, earth, air and fire and so on.

      4. Visions of the Daughters of Albion: Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion depicts a simple story. Oothoon loves and offers herself to Theotormon, but is raped and held captive by Bromion. Maintaining her spiritual purity and liberty, she continues to offer her love to Theotormon, but he does not respond As a tract on Free Love, the poem is a contrary' response to Milton's Comus, which idealizes Chastity. But other issues are also central to this poem: the slave trade with its sexual abuse of female slaves, the exploitation of child labour, political and religious tyranny, and the rationalism which justifies such evils. For Blake all these issues are one-Slavery versus Liberty and all are dramatized by the opposition between closed human possessiveness and will to power, as against open human generosity and will to love.

      5. America: A Prophecy: Like the French Revolution. America treats history mythologically. But now Blake concentrates less on day-to-day events. and more on the spiritual significance of the American revolt in this poem. The plot is as follows: Washington and his friends complain of oppression and are confronted a wrathful Albion's angel (spirit of Repression). At this moment Ore (revolution) explodes irom the mid-Atlantic, defies England and promises human liberation. The angel sounds to war, but the thirteen colonies refuse to obey and the thirteen governors are helpless. The angel sends spiritual troops armed with plagues, but the plagues recoil upon England. Urizen, the tyrant-god. intervenes and freezes the action for twelve years, but it is promised that the light of revolt will reach France and set Europe aflame.

      6. The Book of Urizen: It is Blake's ironic version of the biblical Book of Genesis. It is also the locus for his mythology in 'A Song of Liberty: The story is as follows: Urizen - a god of Reason who separates himself from the other Eternals, demands obedience to his self-proclaimed principles, and falls into chaos - is an abstract, vain and punitive deity. A body is created for him by Los, the Eternal Prophet' or Divine Imagination. But Los, exhausted, divides into male (Los) and female (Enitharmon). Their child Orc (Rebellious Energy) is born but is immediately chained to a rock. Urizen then explores his deadly world, and mankind shrinks up from Eternity, Finally, some of Urizen's children begin an exodus.

      7. Europe : A Prophecy: The poem Europe continues and extends the mythological mode of America. The poem takes place in a single 'night', in which the goddess Enitharmon, as dominion over her consort Los and all their - Children. One night lasts for 1800 years of spiritual terror from the time to the advent of the French Revolution. Enitharmon's dream - a poem within the poem - concentrates on the efforts of England to resist revolution. This takes up where America let off. At the conclusion, dawn comes and the inevitable final apocalypse approaches.

      8. The Book of Los: It is a poem that begins with a prelude on a Golden Age when 'sins' were not sinful because they were not forbidden. Blake describes Los as surrounded by flames of desire (his desire to act) but is chained and forced to guard the fallen Urizen. As he rejects the fires, they turn cold and congeal around him like marble.

      9. The Book of Ahania: "Ahania is Blake's version of the biblical Book of Exodus. This ironic and bitter narrative, which tells of failure of Man's first attempt to rebel against the god of Reason, follows directly from The Book of Urizen. Fuzon (Moses) attacks God, is slain by a rock which then becomes Mt. Sinai, and is crucified on a Tree of Mystery. His corpse, seemingly alive, sheds pestilence throughout the forty years;, wandering in the wilderness, until the Israelites reach the Promised Land (here called Asia). The impulse to liberty has been thwarted successfully, and the poem concludes with the lament of Urizen's female 'soul' the once beloved, now deserted Ahania.

      10. Pala of The Zoas: Blake's first attempt at a long epic poem exists in the form of a much revised manuscript of one hundred and thirty-two pages inscribed on seventy large sheets and a fragment. Its theme is a cosmic history of Mankind and his universe, from initial collapse and division among his primal energies, to final regeneration. In its first forms the poem was called 'Vala' divided in nine 'Nights' like-Young's 'Night Thoughts', and may be dated 1797-1803.

      11. Milton: Blake's poem Milton tells the story of the poet Milton's descent to earth and entry into William Blake, an event at once intimately personal and of cosmic reverberation. Blake assumes that the poet's task is no less than the salvation of Mankind. He acts through divine inspiration and conveys as best he can, within his historic and personal limitations - divine truth. As history proceeds, poets embody more and more of truth, and expose more and more of error. The final result of this process will be the Coming of Jesus. Now, as Blake sees it, Milton was a true poet, but did not escape error. His self-righteous religion interfered with his vision. To correct this, Milton must return to earth, annihilate his moralistic selfhood, and unite with his rejected inspiration, which takes the form of a female emanation' Ololon. He is aided in this quest by all the powers of imagination, and assailed by all the powers of mundane error. His ultimate success brings the entire universe a step nearer to its final fulfilment in Jesus.

      12. Jerusalem: Jerusalem, Blake's final epic poem, is his monumental equivalent of Milton's History of England. Incorporating Blake's various earlier mythologies into a self-consistent myth, it tells the story of the Fall of Albion - who is Blake's Mankind - from union with Jesus, the Divine Vision; Albion's rejection of his Emanation, Jerusalem, and his seduction by the lower female principle of 'Vala', the labours of the prophet Los - who embodies man's visionary and creative powers to save him from the violent and cruel nightmare of his ensuing history; and his final regeneration and reunion with Jesus.

      Jerusalem is more complicated in its personages and actions than any of Blake's other works, in part because it is an intellectual allegory in the Dantean sense of pursuing several different levels or types of meaning simultaneously. It includes historical-geographical, religious-sexual, political, psychological and visionary meaning and references.

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