William Blake and the Body

Longacre, Jeffrey

Connolly, Tristanne J. 2002. William Blake and the Body. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. $65.00 hc. xvii + 249 pp.

Anyone familiar with the works of William Blake, particularly his later epic poetry, must be aware of the centrality of the body in both his engraved and poetic images. Bodies and parts of bodies are displayed in a variety of grotesque manners throughout the illuminated texts. However, this area of Blake’s aesthetic has been, for the most part, relatively glossed over or simply ignored. In 1974, Anne K. Mellor published Blake’s Human Form Divine, and that text remained the first and last word on the subject, until now. Tristanne J. Connolly provides a valuable and long overdue service to Blake scholarship in her aptly named book, William Blake and the Body.

By reexamining Blake’s corpus under the light of more recent theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Mary Douglas, Alicia Ostriker, Elaine Scarry and Barbara Stafford, Connolly identifies the cultural influences that shaped Blake’s conception of the body and examines his dialectic with the body over the course of his career, focusing primarily on the later epics. The task of explicating any subject of Blake’s can be daunting, in part because of the notorious difficulty and obscurity of much of Blake’s work, but also because he had a very ambiguous attitude towards the human body. He saw the body as simultaneously liberating and enslaving and, instead of attempting to reconcile these contradictions, he reveled in the paradoxes and complexities of embodiment throughout his artistic career. In her preface, Connolly writes, “The body is Blake’s preoccupation not because of a confident admiration of it, but rather a troubled obsession. He has a love/hate relationship with his favourite image; he at once reviles and glorifies the human body” (2002, vii). At the root of this ambiguity is the core of Blake’s philosophical and aesthetic thought; and it is because of this complex multiplicity that the body is such an important, yet thorny, subject in understanding Blake.

Connolly’s book is divided into seven chapters that trace the roots of Blake’s anatomical knowledge and follow its threads through his most complicated works. The first two look at textual and graphic depictions of bodies and the metaphor of the body as text and graph. The next two analyze the problem of embodiment in Blake’s illuminated texts, particularly focusing on the birth and miscarriage imagery that dominates The First Book of Urizen (1795) (Connolly’s close reading of this poem is enlightening in its own right) and Blake’s magnum opus, Jerusalem (c. 1804-1820). The following two chapters examine the proliferation of dividing and commingling bodies in Blake’s texts and negotiate the boundaries of the body while elucidating such problematic Blakean terms as “emanation” and “spectre.” The final chapter outlines and theorizes the lineaments of the eternal body from which all other bodies flow. Thus, Connolly’s book moves concentrically outward from the minute particulars of individual embodiment to the universalizations of the eternal body, highlighting their continuity and illustrating Blake’s lifelong project of reconciling the individual with the larger community.

By contextualizing Blake’s work within the tradition of anatomy and engraving (practiced by some of Blake’s contemporaries and friends such as William Cowper and John and William Hunter) and by placing him-as an engraver-within the parameters of the ongoing debate on theories of the artistic representation of nature, Connolly provides a strong historical foundation to Blake’s aesthetic theory and method. This offers another, fresh historical perspective from which to examine Blake’s texts. Connolly also convincingly points to the mixture of images and text in anatomical books of the time as a possible source for the arrangement of text and images in Blake’s own illuminated works. Supporting her argument with several illustrations from Cowper’s anatomies, Connolly writes, “Cowper’s book, like Blake’s, takes advantage of the relationship between text and picture” (2002, 48). This leads to a valuable conceptualization, with the aid of Barbara Stafford’s work on Hogarth as a springboard, of Blake as poetic anatomist working feverishly at engraving his texts, cutting into the metal with his engraving tools like a physician would cut into a cadaver, in an attempt to penetrate into reality in order to reveal the secrets hidden within. As Connolly notes, “The exposed physical systems of Blake’s graphic bodies . . . have a contradictory significance: they can enable intimate connection through visual penetration and sympathetic uniting, yet they can also indicate the imprisonment of the human in the restriction and isolation of the body” (65).

If contemporary interest in anatomy and dissection sheds light on the historical background of Blake’s bodies, it does not resolve the problem of embodiment in Blake. Connolly argues that Blake ultimately comes to terms with embodiment through the Romantic notion of sympathy: “The physical body, though it binds us in muscles and fibres, also plays an important part in making sympathy possible” (2002, 67). Therefore, by better understanding the isolation and limitations of our own bodies, we paradoxically come to a greater sense of sympathy for other humans, thereby strengthening our sense of community and the interconnectedness of human experience: valuable lessons, and one of the reasons Blake’s work continues to be urgently relevant.

The body is currently a hot topic in literary and cultural studies, and this enhances the timeliness of Connolly’s book. William Blake and the Body is not for the uninitiated. Connolly demands considerable prior knowledge of Blake’s work and provides little summary or elucidation of the complexities of Blake’s strange mythology, but there are other books for this. This book is a must for Blake scholars and would probably also be of interest to Romanticists-particularly the first two chapters, which are rich in general historical background. Also, although she adequately engages the difficult problem of gender in Blake’s work, Connolly could have developed some of this scrutiny a little further, but perhaps that subject is too large and needs a book unto itself. Connolly states,”Artistic ideas, then, just like human beings, can be imprisoned by bodies which obscure rather than show forth their eternal forms” (121). With this book, Connolly provides a key to unlocking Blake’s body of work in order to better reveal the beauty of his eternal form.

Jeffrey Longacre

University of Tulsa

Copyright West Chester University Spring 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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