|Figure 957: The frontispiece to The Book of Ahania, showing Urizen's murder of Ahania. (By William Blake, 1795)|
Previously in The Last War in Albion: William Blake, who contains within himself at least one entire past War in Albion, wrote compellingly of the importance of opposition in forward progress.
But as mentioned, by this standard Blake had no true friends; only those who, like Catherine, respected and pitied him. He wrote in mindful opposition to writers like Swedenborg and Milton, but both were dead by the time he addressed them, their replies to him limited to his own dreams and visions. He existed singularly within his time; and perhaps within any other. Given this, it is perhaps no surprise that he turned his vision inward, making a rival of himself to serve in place of the one the world would and could not provide. Within himself, however, Blake found far more than mere Contraries, a notion Blake was quick to move beyond, if indeed the simplistic alchemic model of unifying opposites was ever anything but an element of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’s satire. Certainly by the time of The Book of Urizen he had come to be more skeptical of the idea, hence the opposition of Los and Urizen being not a means by which Urizen is redeemed but a crucial step in creation’s fall into base materialism and the ensnarement of the world in the horrid net of religion. And much of Blake’s prophetic work in the period displays the same themes. From 1793-95 Blake produced two three-book myth cycles - the Continental Prophecies (America a Prophecy, Europe a Prophecy, and The Song of Los, which consists of two poems, “Africa” and “Asia,” that bookend the first two prophecies) and The Book of Urizen along with its two revisions/sequels The Book of Ahania and The Book of Los, across which he developed the early fundamentals of his mythology. And these are shot through with failed and frustrated oppositions: Orc’s faltering revolution in America, Enitharmon’s corrupted ascension in Europe, and both the failed revolt of Urizen’s son Fuzon and the destruction of his Emanation Ahania in The Book of Ahania.
Blake’s sense of doom and futility in this period is impossible to escape. He fashioned himself a prophet, yes, but his prophecies augured nothing good. Urizen’s tyranny seems inescapable, with every avenue of resistance doomed to sputter out or turn against itself. Even the grim eschatology of an unrelenting march towards doomsday would seem in some ways more optimistic than the utter despair of The Book of Urizen, which ends with a description of how “Beneath the Net of Urizen; / Perswasion was in vain; / For the ears of the inhabitants, / Were wither’d, & deafen’d, & cold; / And their eyes could not discern, / Their brethren of other cities.” The end, after all, is at least a form of escape and change. Blake, however, saw no escape or hope within his visions, writing in one of his notebooks in 1793 that “I say I shant live five years And if I live one it will be a Wonder.”
But four years later, his prediction far from true (he would in fact live twenty more on top of that), he commenced the second phase of his prophetic works, beginning composition of poem far larger than anything he’d composed up to that point (the longest of which, The Book of Urizen, was only twenty-eight plates long, many of them splash pages; the poem as a whole is just over 500 lines long. However his new work, alternately called Vala and The Four Zoas, eventually mushroomed to over four thousand lines across 139 separate pages, although many of these are scraps and fragments, as he never completed the typesetting and engraving of the poem.
|Figure 958: Blake diagrams his fourfold vision. (From Milton a Poem Copy C, 1811)|
The main purpose of this new work was to map out the full extent of his mythology, but it also served to advance this mythology beyond the stifling confines of mere dualism. As the title suggests, Blake moved to a system based around quartets, which he alluded to in a letter to Thomas Butts written in 1802, squarely in the middle of the poem’s composition, from which his famed injunction against “single vision and Newtons sleep” originates. This warning, however, comes only after he proclaims that “a fourfold vision is given to me / Tis fourfold in my supreme delight / And three fold in soft Beulahs night / And twofold Always.” Beulah - Blake’s term for the realm of dreams - is a Hebrew word meaning “married,” and the location of threefold vision within it seems a clear allusion to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - one expanded on in Milton a Poem when he proclaims that “Contrarieties are equally True” within Beulah. And so the choice of four is not so much Blake investing in quartets specifically as it is him moving entirely beyond the weary processes of dialectics and their resolutions; a placeholder, in other words, for an altogether more limitless possibility.
But this effort too ran aground; Blake never got The Four Zoas to work to his satisfaction, eventually abandoning the poem in 1807 to focus on Milton and Jerusalem. That is not to say that he abandoned the overall mythic structure he’d worked out; indeed, Milton contains a diagram of the system, in which the opposition of Urizen and Urthona (the unfallen form of Los) is positioned across a North-South axis, with a second East-West axis introducing Tharmas (physical embodiment) and Luvah (emotion, though in a decidedly fiery sense; Orc is retconned as Luvah’s fallen form just as Los is Urthona’s) added. (And just as Los and Urizen have their Emanations in Enitharmon and Ahania, Tharmas has Enion, representing sexuality, and Luvah Vala, the eroticization of war.) Blake even ended up incorporating some of passages of The Four Zoas into Jerusalem. But neither of these works offered the sort of broad map of the entire mythology that The Four Zoas attempted. And so Blake’s system remained eternally incomplete, its basic tenets never formulated even as Blake explored its depths again and again.
|Figure 959: A page of The Four Zoas highlighting the unfiniished state of the manuscript. (By William Blake, 1807)|
But this cannot be taken as a failure on Blake’s part. Quite the contrary, it is arguably the payoff to his entire approach. It is not, after all, that The Four Zoas does not exist. It may well be that there are lost Blake works that would be of considerable import in understanding his vision. It’s certainly the case that there are multiple copies of existing works, including The Book of Urizen, America a Prophecy, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, which exist only in private collections with no widely available reproductions. But The Four Zoas is not among them; its text is widely collected, the pages upon which Blake composed it mostly available online from the British Library, and forthcoming from the Blake Archive. What it lacks, however, is a final form. It is existent, but unfinished, and thus fundamentally uncertain.
In other words, if The Four Zoas represents a failure of Blake’s vision - an inability to create a map of his own mythology that satisfied his dense and formalist instincts - it represents a triumph of Blake’s method. In this regard, it is not merely a turning point in his style, but the culmination of it: a creation that absolutely resists single vision; that cannot simply be one thing. And in doing so - in failing at this key moment - he figures out a way to defeat Urizen. The answer is not some definitive statement - some defined alternative that exists in the material world. Nor is it some implied but unspoken next step - a simple splitting of the difference where the absolutes of black and white become gray. Nor is it merely nihilistic refusal - a negation without substance. It is simply the observation that nothing ever ends. Nothing is fixed and defined and certain. There’s no answer or revelation that explains everything. There’s no last or definitive word. There is always more.
That the shuddering maelstrom this implies should feel apocalyptic is hardly a surprise. The list of magicians who lacked a flair for the eschatological is a short one, after all. “The most brutal part,” said Blake in a 2014 seance, “was existing. Someone described it once as being cast out of Eternity into one stinking moment, and that’s exactly right. Alternatives and possibilities aren’t escape.” And this is essential to understanding Blake’s vision. Its primary difference from the more typical Christian theology of his time is not, in fact, his creation of a wealth of other gods that he unsubtly hides behind the word “Zoa,” but the fact that instead of imagining redemption as some ultimate restoration of God’s order - a rigorously symmetrical cosmos of “as above, so below” - he imagines it as a process of endless, ceaseless resistance - a desperate, clawing, and doomed effort to get out. Out from the stifling influences of his predecessors, out from the capricious authority of the government, and, in the end, out of the awful reality of time’s ponderous ticking forward.
|Figure 960: Urizen, solitary and preparing. (By William Blake, from The Book of Urizen Copy G, written 1794, printed 1818)|
But this was not a technique he invented by failing at The Four Zoas. Indeed, the approach defines The Book of Urizen, which, even as its plot is one in which rebellion against Urizen is continually frustrated, develops a narrative technique that fundamentally undermines Urizen’s seeming dominion, resisting his authority even as it proclaims it to be inescapable. Even he most seemingly basic aspect of Urizen’s fixed nature - his name - is in practice unstable. The first chapter of The Book of Urizen, for instance, asks “what Demon / Hath form’d this abominable void / This soul-shudd’ring vacuum?” before answering the question: “Some said / ‘It is Urizen’,” presenting the term not as some sort of True Name, but with a mealy-mouthed deflection more typically associated with undergraduates who can’t be bothered to look up a reference. Then, in the sixth stanza of the chapter, as the perspective switches from a horrified Eternity looking on at the self-closd, all-repelling Demon to the entity itself, Blake writes, “His cold horrors silent, dark Urizen / Prepar’d,” using the term, previously established as one possible and in no way universally accepted name offered by external observers, as the term for Urizen when he’s being described on his own terms. And then the second chapter essentially reboots the narrative, starting over with a description of the state of creation, referring to him first as “the Immortal” and then finally, in the second stanza, saying “Urizen, so nam’d / That solitary one in Immensity,” thus establishing yet a third relationship between the being and his name.
And this isn’t even a change over the larger course of the work: all three of these acts of naming take place on the first page of the poem proper. The changes over the course of the poem as a whole are even more striking. At the poem’s start, for instance, Urizen arises within a void, his defining aspect being his utter singularity. Then, in the second chapter, he describes how “First I fought with the fire; consum’d / Inwards, into a deep world within: / A void immense, wild dark & deep,” a description that suggests that his separation came through self-observation - a turn within. But in the third chapter, shortly after Los is introduced, Blake proclaims that “Urizen was rent from his side,” a declaration that is, charitably, a heavy revision of the first two accounts of Urizen’s fall. And so Urizen, for all that he seeks “a solid without fluctuation” is left by Blake in eternal flux.
|Figure 961: Plate 16 of The Book of Urizen, which variously depicts Los (left) and Urizen (right). (By William Blake, written 1794. Left: Copy G, printed 1818. Right: Copy A, printed 1794)|
But there is a more foundational aspect of Blake’s unfixed style - one upon which these textual incommensurabilities build. Blake’s illuminated works exist in individually printed and hand-colored copies, no two of which are identical. In the case of The Book of Urizen, for instance, eight copies are known to exist, six of which are widely available. And the differences among these copies are significant; as mentioned, the fourth plate (from which the “solid without fluctuation” line originates) only exists in three of the copies. No two copies place the full-plate illustrations in the same order or locations throughout the text. Plates 8 and 10 each contain the beginning of a section labeled Chapter IV, each of which begins with a stanza numbered 1; on top of that, the order of the two plates is reversed in several copies. Several illustrations change dramatically across copies as well; Plate 6 depicts three figures hung upside-down, bound in serpents, and cast into fire, save for in Copy D, where there is but a single figure. Plate 16, meanwhile, depicts Los in two of the three copies in which it is included, while in a third the figure is given a white beard indicating that it is Urizen. And these are just the variations with the biggest interpretive implications: every page of every copy has its own idiosyncratic decisions of coloring. [continued]Share on Twitter Share on Facebook