This essay originally appeared inWild Orchids #3: William Blake
The cycle of creation, redemption, and apocalypse wheels like a great zodiac in the creative heavens of Blake’s prophetic works. Creation was Blake’s mastery; as Los, he toiled at the furnaces of Ulro, contemplating Enormous Works, battling the world to forge his poetry. Redemption was the promise held out to him for all his tireless labors. But apocalypse was his superb talent. Has a poet in English ever enacted an incitation of the revealed as completely as Blake? “All futurity / Seems teeming with Endless destruction never to be repelld / Desperate remorse swallows the present in a quenchless rage” (FZ 8: 101, 30-2).
Three incredible convictions generate the work. First: “The Old & New Testaments are the Great Code of Art.” Second: Milton’s poetry, especially Paradise Lost, is the model for making any further poetry. And third: “The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination” (The Laocoön). But these convictions neither define nor describe the experience of encountering the great prophetic poems, nor the righteous proclamatory power – the kerygma, in Northrop Frye’s word – the poems induce in the reader’s intensifying audience. Through these works the reader calls down apocalypse as its mantic summoner, as the sacred’s entranced technician.
The lyric poetry, the satiric works, the didactic poems, and the minor prophecies all anticipate the major prophecies, incendiary discoveries each. First came The Four Zoas, also called Vala, conceived as a dream in Nine Nights, never technically completed. Never engraved. Then, Milton a Poem in 2 Books, originally conceived to fill twelve books (one for each of Milton’s in Paradise Lost), but taken “only” to two. (“Only” because the poem comes to over two thousand lines.) Engraved, stunningly. Then, Blake’s summa: Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, in four chapters. Engraved. Illuminated. In an edition of a mere handful. One of the most beautiful books ever produced? Surely.
Both Jerusalem and Milton cycle in significant elements from The Four Zoas. Rereading all of Blake’s poetry a year ago (I was teaching a class), and after having drunk from the headwaters of Blake when I first immersed myself in poetry twenty-five years ago (to the point where I had become intoxicated without realizing it and without ever reckoning the work with the attention I ought to have), I came to the determination that The Four Zoas is the work, the place where Blake’s poetry becomes something as necessary as it is otherworldly, where the work doesn’t so much develop or inscribe vision as it creates simultaneous imaginal realities the Living Forms of the poem inhabit such that we activate these realities and we envision these Living Forms and we make eternity through these Living Forms, these Zoas, which is our human body, our Imagination.
The battle howls the terrors fird rage in the work of death
Enormous Works Los Contemplated inspird by the holy Spirit
Los builds the Walls of Golgonooza against the stirring battle
That only thro the Gates of Death they can enter to Enitharmon
Raging they take the human visage & the human form (FZ: 101, 38-42)
The Four Zoas makes Milton and Jerusalem possible.
“Book the First” of Milton is a masterpiece of crisis and call. Has any poet’s work and figure undergone the scrutiny Blake gives to Milton? Blake’s distance from Milton is essentially mine from Whitman. No poet yet has absorbed Whitman as thoroughly as Blake absorbed Milton. Blake wrote his poem evidently to correct errors he perceived in Milton’s own poetry and outlook. In 1803, writing to Thomas Butts, he claimed of his poem, “I may praise it, since I dare not pretend to be any other than the Secretary; the Authors are in Eternity. I consider it the Grandest Poem that this World Contains…” (in Damon, 276). In Blake’s poem, Milton – an Eternal being – involved in an Assembly in Eternity – both asserts his place in the Eternal Family (which includes Jesus) and atones for the sin of bifurcating human belief when he created an appealing Satan in the face of a bland Savior. Milton plunges from Eden through Beulah – Blake’s place name for the Earthly Paradise, source of all inspiration – into the world of Generation – vegetative and fibrous – where he can rebuke the materiality of debased creation and be reunited with his six-fold Emanation, Ololon, all the while asserting that Satan is also God and that God is Everything. (In Blake’s archetypalism, an Emanation is the female projection or counterpart of a creative (and essentially bi-sexual) male.) Blake himself generates poetry of shocking idiosyncrasy:
The nature of infinity is this: That every thing has its
Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro’ Eternity
Has passd that Vortex, he percieves it roll backward behind
His path, into a glove itself infolding; like a sun:
Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty,
While he keeps onwards in his wondrous journey on the earth
Or like a human form, a friend with whom he livd benevolent.
As the eye of man views both the east & west encompassing
Its vortex; and the north & south, with all their starry host;
Also the rising sun & setting moon he views surrounding
His corn-fields and his valleys of five hundred acres square.
This is the earth one infinite plane, and not as apparent
To the weak traveller confin’d beneath the moony shade.
Thus is the heaven a vortex passd already, and the earth
A vortex not yet pass’d by the traveller thro’ Eternity. (Milton 15: 21-35)
Milton has left Eden and entered Beulah – he’s passed from Eternity into the “Sea of Time & Space.” Though Beulah is paradisal, it exists in time. The vortex, then, is “the eddy or whirlpool of human consciousness” (Bloom). It’s the actualization of an idea; a premonition of a strange attractor, made visible in created space, created time. Milton in this passage is seeing time as he enters back into it vibrate around him and then trail him like a wake. As a visitation, it’s prophetic.
The poem is filled with stunning things stunningly said. But one more pronouncement will do to retroject us back into The Four Zoas. Milton contains the greatest treatment of poetic lineage and inheritance in literature, I think. In the midst of Milton’s plunge to Generation, he visits Blake at the cottage he was living in with his wife at Felpham – a loaner from a short-term patron, Hayley (whom Blake satirically identified with Satan in the poem) – where Blake, like Elisha from Elijah, accepts the mantel of prophecy from the poet, permitting himself to be summoned into action:
But Milton entering my Foot; I saw in the nether
Regions of the Imagination; also all men on Earth,
And all in Heaven, saw in the nether regions of the Imagination
In Ulro beneath Beulah, the vast breach of Miltons descent.
But I knew not that it was Milton, for man cannot know
What passes in his members till periods of Space & Time
Reveal the secrets of Eternity: for more extensive
Than any other earthly things, are Mans earthly lineaments. (Milton: 21, 6-11)
Blake’s poetry is filled with felicities such as this one (Frye calls this “one of the tremendous metaphors which are a main reward for reading him” (338)): what could be more inarguably right than the vision of Milton’s Eternal form entering into the poet’s left foot, thus allowing him to see the totality of the imagination, including its most overcast shadows? “Imagination is not a State,” the poem insists. “[I]t is the Human Existence itself” (Milton: 32, 32).
Apocalypse, in addition to being revelation, can also be perceived as and through acceleration. Robert A. F. Thurman, in noting the features of esoteric, magical Buddhism, which is to say Tibetan Buddhism, describes its “[a]pocalyptic insistence on accelerating history and evolution, realization of individual Buddhahood and universal buddhaverse here and now, in this lifetime preferably, through magical, high-tech means” (Thurman, 17). This characterization accords harmoniously with the Christian apocalypticism that drives Blake’s vision, the one – erupting vividly forth at the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century (thus manifesting perplexing similarities to both Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz one hundred years later, both of which bear the year 1900 on their title pages) – Blake honed into flame in The Four Zoas. Northrop Frye claims that in 1796, upon the completion of his minor prophecies (“Visions of the Daughters of Albion,” “America a Prophecy, “Europe a Prophecy,” “The French Revolution,” “The Song of Los,” and the Books of Urizen, Ahania, and Los), Blake discerned his new task, to bring forth “a cyclic vision of life from the Fall to the Last Judgment in one long poem. This would constitute in a single form the totality of what Blake came into the world to say, and would be his poetic testament or Word of God in him” (Frye, 269). He intended a summative masterpiece.
In 1793, Blake was commissioned to create engravings for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, a poem constructed in “nine nights” and written in blank verse, first appearing in complete form in 1745. Blake’s book was printed on large sheets, folio sized. His engravings enclosed smaller boxes for text in which Young’s poem was printed. The Four Zoas was drafted, beginning in 1797, in part on proof sheets from Night Thoughts, which provided him two divining structures: his own poem conceived in nine nights and clean white boxes in which to compose that poem. The material properties of the composition of this poem – in that they not only contribute to but potentially generate the acceleration of his imagination – cannot be overstated. “The moment in which the epic poet finally chooses his subject,” suggests Frye, “is the crisis of his life, as Dante and Milton at least show very clearly; and his choice, once made, almost precludes the idea of ever finding another” (Frye, 269). Blake’s choice – to write the great apocalyptic poem in the language – found a field for unremitting exploration of possibility.
Famously, The Four Zoas was left uncompleted. Many critics read this leaving off as a recognition in Blake that he had overstepped his bounds, that the poem he had begun could not be completed, that he could redirect the scattered energies of his poem to something more coherent. Which, more or less, is what he seems to have done. Alicia Ostriker, in her notes to the Penguin Classics edition of Blake’s poems, refers to “The Four Zoas” as the great “quarry of ideas and passages” for Milton and Jerusalem (Ostriker, 921). I’m fascinated to look into the moment or period when a great poet comes into his or her power. By power, I mean here what Frye in The Great Code calls kerygma, or proclamation, “[o]ratory on the highest level of oracle,” which he clarifies as a “mode of rhetoric…, a mixture of the metaphorical and the ‘existential,’” but not like all other modes of rhetoric a kind of argument hidden by figuration. “It is the vehicle of what is traditionally called revelation, a word I use because it is traditional and I can think of no better one” (Frye, 29). Put more specifically, I’m intensely interested to observe when a poet’s work undergoes kerygmatic transformation. You witness this, archetypally, when Dante gives up on the vast scheme of the Convivio, in which he planned to comment on all his canzone, an egotistically sublime undertaking but one the daemonic aspect of his imagination required of him, in order to begin The Divine Comedy, in which his work becomes universal. You witness it as well in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855, especially the poem that would take the name “Song of Myself,” for which, in Whitman’s own work and in perhaps in all of literature, there appears to have been no precedent. More recently, you witness this in H.D.’s poetry, when she shifts from the epigrammic lyrics of her Imagism to the epic scope of Trilogy, a poem of amplifying intelligence. And you see it, of course, in Robert Duncan’s transformation between Letters in 1956, a superb book, and The Opening of the Field in 1960, a masterpiece. (Joseph Donahue’s Terra Lucida is another enactment of this shift.) Looking at such a change, we can ask, What enables it to happen? What brings the poet into new speech, oratory on the highest level of oracle? Some permission, some restriction. The Four Zoas, instead of being an uncompleted quarry (and despite the fact that Blake took large chunks from the poem for Milton and Jerusalem) is the anticipatory agent of his transformation. The poem allowed him to discover kerygmatic speech, revelation. “Night The Fifth” opens with a vision of the moment of such transformation. Los, the fallen form of the Zoa Urthona, who stands for instinct and whose eternal virtue is creativity, experiences rebellion generated in the cosmos even as the forms of that renewal are hardening. Feeling this, he dances like a shaman, ecstatic and released:
Infected Mad he dancd on his mountains high & dark as heaven
Now fixd into one stedfast bulk his features stonify
From his mouth curses & from his eyes sparks of blighting
Beside the anvil cold he dancd with the hammer of Urthona
Terrific pale. (FZ 57, 1-5)
Features distinctive of Blake’s verse percuss and repercuss in these lines. How he compounds his adjectives, driving one into another (“Infected mad”; “Terrific pale”). How he inverts adjective placement to indicate quality and links object to object (“Beside the anvil cold he dancd”). How he works through an irregular seven-beat line, in which stressed syllables receive a beat but unstressed syllables can stretch out the sound (“Infected Mad he dancd on his mountains high & dark as heaven”). How he uses words like “stonify.” (Elsewhere in the poem, he uses “bonify.”) How his mythology is shameless.
The Four Zoas, claims Donald Ault in Narrative Unbound, his compendious and visionary reading of the poem, “is the most uncanonical, unmanageable, and recalcitrant text Blake ever wrote.” Ault’s understanding of the poem is guided by an intuition: “[W]hat would happen if… the supposed substance of Blake’s myth were merely a network of pretexts or narrative operators while the anomalies, revisions, disruptions, and interferences were the primary features of the work” (Ault, xix). Ault’s notion accords with Henry Corbin’s description of the features of the “visionary recital,” a genre of Islamic apocalyptic writing exemplified in the works of Avicenna, the great mystic and physician who lived in Persia in the tenth and eleventh centuries, characterized by the practice of ta’wil, or spiritual exegesis, which Corbin describes as “not only the exegesis of a text but the exegesis of the soul” (Corbin, 42). Ta’wil is a process of reading and envisioning through textual recursion, retrojecting the imagination into the compositional dynamic toward manifesting creative consciousness. “Its process,” writes Corbin, “is best fitted to reveal to us both the secret of the genesis of our visionary recitals (since it also provokes the situation that originates them) and the secret of deciphering them. The operation properly consists in ‘bringing back,’ recalling, returning to its origin, not only the text of a book but also the cosmic context in which the soul is imprisoned. The soul must free this context, and free itself from it, by transmuting it into symbols” (Corbin, 28).
This Blake does conspicuously and shamelessly in The Four Zoas, a poem of cataclysm and disassembly spelled out as revisionary pageant and mythography. Parts of it are as good as parts of “Song of Myself”: it has the that same dynamic flexibility, that same concatenation of sequence where you recognize you’ve shifted into another mode sometimes several lines after the shift takes place. It has the same quality of derring-do, the same psychological acuity and generosity. Because of its fixation on characters who function as living forms and in terms of its mythic detonations, the poem feels like nothing else in English literature – not even Paradise Lost – except, perhaps, Dune. (A work I revere.)
Blake generates his poetry through a heroic line unlike anyone else’s, even as he derives it from the hexameter he found in classical verse and the fourteeners into which they were translated in English. His foot is something like a measure in music: as long as there is one beat per foot, he doesn’t worry about filling out his line with all sorts of sound and syllables. This flexibility matches the form of the poem, which records a collective dream. S. Foster Damon writes, “Perhaps Blake’s greatest contribution to literary methods occurs in this poem: his invention of the dream technique. It was also the cause of the greatest confusion among his earlier critics. This technique destroys the effect of a continuous and logical narrative. It permits the tangling of many threads, abrupt changes of subject, recurrent repetitions, obscure cross references, sudden intrusions, even out-and-out contradictions. Crucial scenes are omitted; others are expanded out of all seeming proportion. But this technique is closest to our deeper mental processes, and it was Blake’s ideal—complete freedom of the imagination” (Damon, 143). The poem is an epic rehearsal in dream monologues of visionary states of the Creation, Redemption, and the Apocalypse. Actually, it’s mostly Creation/Catastrophe, which then speeds up to Apocalypse in “Night the Ninth,” of which Frye has claimed, “There is nothing like the colossal explosion of creative power in the ninth Night of The Four Zoas anywhere else in English poetry.” Only in the Book of Revelation.
The plot of the poem involves the disintegration and warring of the Four Zoas – Urizen, Luvah, Tharmas, and Urthona – who lived united and together bound in Eternity in Man, called Albion. As they separate and fracture, they fall into Creation, sinking further into their attributes – so, Urizen retreats into Reason, becoming more tyrannical; Urthona, representing Instinct, takes on his fallen form as Los (Sol inverted), the blacksmith and spirit of Prophecy, who unites with Enitharmon, representing Harmony, who herself is the daughter of Tharmas (Sensation) and Enion, his Emanation, who is a chaotic flood. Together, Los and Enitharmon, who come to embody the creative hopes of humankind, fend themselves against the relentless overpowering onslaughts of Urizen, and try to love their children, including the rebellious Orc, whom they’ve bound in chains of jealousy to keep him from ruining the world. (You thought the Dune comparison was frivolous.) In “Night the Seventh,” Urizen’s ascension to power is completed; discovering Orc, who mocks his power, he compels his daughters to knead the bread of sorrow, which weakens Orc’s resolve. He is forced to change into a serpent. Meanwhile, their hearts broken to see humankind continue to decline, lured by a false god of Nature (named Vala), Los and Enitharmon set out to begin the work of recreating Eden in Creation by building Golgonooza, the City of Art constructed from the ruins and debris of Creation itself, a place of totally realized form in which humankind – and the Four Zoas themselves – can be reunited in Eternity. Speaking to Enitharmon, Los declares,
Lovely delight of Men Enitharmon shady refuge from furious war
Thy bosom translucent is a soft repose for the weeping souls
Of those piteous victims of battle there they sleep in happy obscurity
They feed upon our life we are their victims. Stern desire
I feel to fabricate embodied semblances in which the dead
May live before us in our palaces & in our gardens of labour
Which now opend within the Center we behold spread abroad
To form a world of Sacrifice of brothers & sons & daughters
To comfort Orc in his dire sufferings look my fires enlume afresh
Before my face ascending with delight as in ancient times.
My fires enlume afresh. Amazing. In making Golgonooza, Los and Enitharmon summon back to them their Spectres, which are something like the worst narcissistic part of the self that peels off from your unity as a result of falling into time and creation. In reuniting thus, they find they can love again, even Urizen, whom they feel for as a beloved child. Committed to visionary making, Los “in sweet modulated fury,” inspired by his love for Enitharmon, begins to build the City of Art. Here’s Blake describing him renewing his work:
… & Los his hands divine inspired began
To modulate his fires studious the loud roaring flames
He vanquishd with the strength of Art bending their iron points
And drawing them forth delighted upon the winds of Golgonooza
From out the ranks of Urizens war & from the fiery lake
Of Orc bending down as the binder of the Sheaves follows
The reaper in both arms embracing the furious raging flames
Los drew them forth out of the deeps planting his right foot firm
Upon the Iron crag of Urizen thence springing up aloft
Into the heavens of Enitharmon in a mighty circle
And he drew a line upon the walls of shining heaven
And Enitharmon tincturd it with beams of blushing love
It remaind permanent a lovely form inspird divinely human
Dividing into just proportions Los unwearied labourd
The immortal lines upon the heavens till with sighs of love
Sweet Enitharmon mild Entrancd breathd forth upon the wind
The spectrous dead Weeping the Spectres viewd the immortal works
Of Los Assimilating to those forms Embodied & Lovely
In youth & beauty in the arms of Enitharmon mild reposing (FZ 90: 26-44)
As Los sometimes stands for Blake, so Enitharmon sometimes stands for Catherine, his wife, who, it’s rumored, would sometimes color for him the plates Blake printed in his infernal labors. Does another poet so completely represent the experience of creation, the pulling of things loved and things loathed to make a work of art? Of course. Dante. Whitman. Masters. This is the poetry of great, compelling mastery. How so? Because it shows us the actuality of producing the inner world, the great labor of art. “We ourselves are literal, actual beings,” wrote Robert Duncan about Dante:
This is the hardest ground for us to know, for we are of it—not outside, observing but inside, experiencing. It is, finally, I believe, the only ground for us to know; for it is Creation, it is the Divine Presentation, it is the language of experience whose words are immediate to our senses; form which our own creative life take fire, within which our own creative life takes fire. This creative life is a drive towards the reality of Creation, producing an inner world, and emotional and intellectual fiction, in answer to our awareness of the creative reality of the whole.” (Duncan, 145).
If Dante invents the inner world of the creative life in The Divine Comedy, Blake is its latter-day herald in The Four Zoas, its prophet. The divine presentation is the great purgatorial pageant, the visionary recital on the mountain from which human civilization emerged. Blake’s awesome efforts to reconstruct that Eden, not as pastoral Beulah, but as the City of Art wrought in reconciliation with sublime enemies (Los reunites with Urizen, for instance, because in his art Los feels he can love his enemies again, as in Eden); Blake’s efforts to make Golgonooza are acts of the creative imagination summoning into the world the image that defines that inner world. “The Image in question,” writes Henry Corbin in his treatise on Avicenna, “is not one that results from some previous external perception; it is an Image that precedes all perception, an a priori expressing the deepest being of the person… Each of us carries in himself the Image of his own world, his Imago mundi, and projects it into a more or less coherent universe, which becomes the stage on which his destiny is played out.” (Corbin, 7-8)
It’s the surge of the poetry I find myself drawn to in The Four Zoas, the accelerated, generative visualization of the stage on which Blake’s destiny is played out that compels me that this poem is an answer. Reading it, I want to write better and better poetry. In “Night the Ninth,” there’s a moment when the fractured Four Zoas get their first taste of reunification. It’s as sweet as it is clear:
If Gods combine against Man setting their Dominion above
The Human form Divine. Thrown down from their high Station
In the Eternal heavens of Human Imagination: buried beneath
In dark oblivion with incessant pangs ages on ages
In Enmity & war first weakend then in stern repentence
They must renew their brightness & their disorganizd functions
Again reorganize till they resume the image of the human
Cooperating in the bliss of Man obeying his Will
Servants to the infinite & Eternal of the Human form. (FZ 126: 9-17)
Blake’s imago mundi was the human form endowed with divine imagination, who makes things. What to do, then, in this rotten world? Renew the brightness. Renew the image of the human and make.
Ault, Donald. Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning William Blake’s The Four Zoas. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, 1987.
Blake, William. The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by David V. Erdman. Commentary by Harold Bloom. New York: Doubleday, 1965.
Blake, William. The Complete Poems. Edited by Alicia Ostriker. New York: Penguin Classics, 1977.
Corbin, Henry. Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Bollingen, 1960.
Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary. Providence: Brown University Press, 1965.
Duncan, Robert. Fictive Certainties. New York: New Directions, 1985.
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.