“The Road of Excess Leads to the Palace of Wisdom”: Alternative Economies of Excess in Blake’s Continental Prophecies
The immense social and political turmoil accompanying the French Revolution prompted William Blake to reactivate a religious and political tradition, antinomian religious dissent, that had been actively repressed in British history. Blake’s energetic revival of his religious heritage in the Continental prophecies-America, Europe, and TheSongofLos (1793-95)-allows a reading of his politics in the prophecies as both traditionalist and conservative. This claim complicates the long-established reading of Blake’s radicalism as emerging from the secular Joseph Johnson circle, which included Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine, and William Godwin. Reading Blake as a radical, progressive liberal narrows our understanding of the source of Blake’s antirationalism, which dominates the Continental prophecies. David V. Erdman, for example, outlines in compelling detail Blake’s support for the French Revolution throughout his lifetime, but he concludes from this that Blake’s prophecies represent a “revolt of Energy against the restraining reason of kings” (209). Blake’s relationship to revolution is far more complicated, however, for his critique of reason and mathematical justice were in fact precisely contrary to the systematic reasoning of Jacobinism that opposed the anachronism of monarchy.
Blake scholars have recently recognized that the reading of Blake as a radical liberal underestimates the amount of diversity within 179Os “radicalism.” The oft-assumed stable dichotomy between loyalist and radical in Blake scholarship is insufficient for understanding Blake’s political position, as Jon Mee argues:
Terms like “the English Jacobins” serve us ill if they are used to suggest that radicalism was part of a binary opposition with loyalism in the decade. Such an opposition obscures that fact that radicalism, or for that matter loyalism, was far from being a stable entity either in terms of ideology, membership, or organization. (“‘Doom'” 99)
As Mee argues, the loyalist/radical binary is unstable and problematical to the point that it collapses, a point I want to attend to while arguing for Blake’s “radical conservatism.” Furthermore, Mee argues elsewhere that there were pronounced differences between radical religious and secular/Unitarian dissent. While rational dissenters “wanted to align themselves with a narrative of progress and reason,” the “enthusiasts” of radical religious dissent had “a perspective from which the Enlightenment cult of reason could be viewed, quite self-consciously, as simply another means by which the power and knowledge of an educated elite were perpetuated” (“Anxieties” 179). The various factions of radicals were divided not only by religious as opposed to secular commitments, but also by the particular interests of their respective class. Modern scholars tend to view Blake as a man of genius, for both his poignant social criticism and his artistic ability, and rightfully so, yet Mee’s research into the letters written by Joseph Johnson’s radical group indicates that he was most often referred to as “Blake the Engraver,” thus affiliating him with his tradesman status (“‘Doom'” 103). Mee infers that Blake may have been intellectually and artistically disregarded by this radical circle on the basis of his class.1
In addition to Mee’s historical redefinition of 179Os radicalism, my claims resonate with those of Saree Makdisi, who has also contested the view that Blake was aligned in sentiment and goals with the Johnson circle. Makdisi defines the political philosophy of the Johnson circle as “hegemonic radicalism”:
The hegemonic radical critique of the ancien regime and its “traditional culture” of despotism, patronage, ritual, corruption, and privilege helped to define an emergent culture of modernization based on a universalist discourse of rights and duties, rather than inherited privileges; a discourse of merit, rather than religious inspiration; and above all, a discourse of sturdy, rational frugality, control, virtue, and regulation, rather than emotional (let alone sensual) excess. (206)
The “discourse of merit” reflects a belief that society should be reorganized on the basis of “equality” so as to allow free competition among individuals, and thus the radical “liberal” Johnson circle held beliefs more in common with libertarians and anarcho-capitalists than with present-day liberals.2 Furthermore, their rational frugality and regulation hardly figures into the economy of excess that Blake repeatedly advocates in his work. Therefore, Blake’s critique of reason and rationality arises less as a consequence of his critique of the monarchy, as Erdman suggests, but rather more from his experience that the capitalist work ethic is increasingly dominating his own sphere of radical religious dissent.
W.J.T. Mitchell also notes Blake’s departure from liberal radicals, and he associates Blake’s anti-rationalist tendencies with conservative thinkers: “The pure negativity in Blake’s attack on rationalist writing is scarcely distinguishable from that of Burke, Coleridge or Carlyle” (132). Blake’s anti-rationalism places him squarely into a conservative ideology that distrusts the recurrence and regularity of any rational concept; such a distrust, as J.G.A. Pocock maintains, produces an “antinomian and anarchic strain in conservatism” (269). Blake manifests that antinomian strain in conservatism, and, moreover, his anti-rational prophecies resist the assimilation of radical religious dissent to radical secular dissent. Blake’s Continental prophecies attempt to revitalize a type of radical religious dissent on the cusp of dissolution-threatened both by the growing power of a nationalist church-state and by radical secularist capitalism.
Blake likewise vehemently opposes the progress of industrial capitalism and commodity driven “possessive individualism,” yet he understands the small, organic artisan or pastoral community as the founding tradition for that political perspective. Blake’s advocacy of and participation in small, interconnected economic and social networks reflect his emergence from a family grounded in radical religious dissent. Stephen Behrendt notes that these radical dissenting sects
seemed typically to have promised their followers a community cohesion that was presently lacking in their daily lives, and this promise was especially attractive to the urban populace, which was already showing the effects of that alienation and despair which have come to epitomize the modern urban experience. (389)
It is important to point out that Blake most certainly does not understand these communities to be linked together by the benign influence of the resplendent monarchy and Anglican church, as the secular conservative thinker Edmund Burke does; in fact, he attributes rather sinister intentions to the church-state hierarchy. Yet Blake nevertheless grounds his political position in the cultivation of the tradition of radical dissent that goes back to at least the early seventeenth century. The avant-garde quality of Blake’s work is engendered by his desperate clinging to aspects of his life that are on the verge of dissolution: his radical religious tradition and his artisan status as an engraver.
Thus, rather than emerging from secular liberalism, Blake’s Continental prophecies emerge from the idiosyncratic, antinomian Christian tradition he inherited from his family and the dissenting artisan community at large. Conservative traditionalism, according to Anthony Quinton, asserts that “a historically evolved social order incorporates the accumulated practical wisdom of the community” (17).3 E.P. Thompson and G.E. Bentley Jr. speculate that Blake was affiliated with a radical dissenting group, the Muggletonians, “a dwindling band of determined worshippers clinging to a faith first articulated during Cromwell’s time a century before” (Bentley 10). After their initial triumph and regicidal extremism, radical religious dissenting groups, such as the Muggletonians, were defeated and pushed entirely underground, creating a secret and archival culture. Antinomian religious groups, according to E.P. Thompson, “would hire a room [in a tavern] for their meetings, drawing up an agreement with the publican to install a locked closet holding their books and records” (67). If Blake emerges from such a religious group, then he is conservative in the sense that he attempts to conserve and archive the unique beliefs and Biblical interpretations of his antinomian religion, a religious tradition that exists primarily within archived and hidden texts. Thus, Blake’s conservatism marks a return of a repressed-literally repressed-part of English history. In Blake’s time, radical religious dissent still manifested its original seventeenth-century critiques of the old corruptions of the monarchical church-state (these are the beliefs that lead scholars to argue that Blake is a radical liberal), and Blake further makes use of this tradition to criticize the new phenomena of rational liberalism, empirical science, and utilitarian economics.
Recognizing these signs of conservatism generates a complex picture of both Blake’s profoundly inventive yet religious critique of modernity, as well as the range of possibilities, both “radical” and “conservative,” for critiquing government and social inequities. For example, the frequently quoted “Drive your cart & your plow over the bones of the dead” (2), a “Proverb of Hell” from The Marriage ofHeavena ndHett, has been influentially interpreted in light of Erdman’s suggestion that “Blake has determined to plow across the graveyard of old ideas and old allegiances” (175). But if we read this proverb literally, then the plow does not negate the old; rather, it turns the old up and brings it to the surface. Furthermore, in the recurrences of this metaphor in “The cut worm forgives the plow,” or “As the plow follows words, so God rewards prayers” (MHH plate 7,6; 9,43), the plow turns out to be associated with praying, not politics. The plow as a spiritual metaphor for praying originates from the minor prophet Hosea: “Judah shall plow; Jacob shall break his clods. Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you” (10.12-13). Thus bearing in mind Blake’s frequent references to and expansions on the writings of the Old Testament prophets, driving a plow over the bones of the dead becomes an admonition to break up the hardened ground of the heart rather than hardened traditions. As an agricultural metaphor, the plow implies the production of something organic and beneficial out of resources already available but occluded by the top layer. The above proverb, then, rather than indicating Blake’s desire to destroy the past, as Erdman and others have suggested, reflects his belief in utilizing the fecund ground of existing traditions as the basis for contemporary communities.
The concept of a world already filled with the fecundity of life that need not be rationed nor economically divided-what Blake calls “the eternal world that ever groweth” (Europeiii,5)makes possible his conception of an alternative model of production. Blake’s economy of excess underlies the way he joins revolutionary energy (which scholars have read as secular and liberal) with a redemptive notion of the Biblical Jubilee (which is profoundly conservative). Blake’s economy of excess appears at times hedonistic or anarchic, especially in light of the proverb ‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough” (MHH9, 46). Yet a close reading of this proverb will reveal that it is not simply about libertinism, even if it similarly transgresses moral norms, because if one endeavors to find out what is more than enough, eventually limits are discerned. In other words, for the radical antinomian, to err is not simply transgressive, but rather to err is to find an alternative spiritual truth, the “Everlasting Gospel,” that places love and forgiveness over and against any type of religious law.4
“Literature is either essential or nothing,” George Bataille comments; “I believe that the Evil-an acute form of Evil-which it expresses, has a sovereign value for us. But this concept does not exclude morality: on the contrary, it demands a hypermorality” (Literature 1 ). The “evil” Bataille refers to constitutes a resistance to the greedy habits of accumulation that mark themselves as moral prudence. Prudence, Blake states, “is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity” (MHH 7,4). Blake’s scathing critique of moral prudence amounts to a deliberate condemnation of the Protestant work ethic; “Antinomian belief,” according to Saree Makdisi, “could pose as much of a problem for industrial discipline (and what Max Weber would call the Protestant work ethic) as it would for the established political order” (74). Moreover, the “hypermorality” of Blake’s excess seems to be linked to faith in God’s almost reckless productiveness: “The Prolific would cease to be Prolific,” Blake writes, “unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights” (MHH 16). Delighting in the God-like forces of fecundity and death, Blake asserts that the human relationship with God involves emanating energy that is always overflowing in a world understood through the spiritual sense.
As such, excess-both prolific and devouring-creates the basis for an alternative, non-utilitarian model of economy based on excessive generosity, which counters the puritan, middle-class morality of liberals such as Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft. “Deferring gratification,” as Niklas Luhmann claims, “is a main prerequisite for the economic system, since it is a condition for capital accumulation and investment” (28687). If deferred gratification, or carefully calculated prudence, facilitates capitalism, then it is no surprise that Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1757) elaborates at length upon prudence: “security, therefore, is the first and principle object of prudence. It is averse to expose our health, our fortune, our rank, or reputation, to any sort of hazard” (311). The value of prudence and middle-class self-control is echoed by many of those whom Makdisi calls “hegemonic radicals,” especially Mary Wollstonecraft, who admonishes women, “Whoever rationally means to be useful must have a plan of conduct” in order “to act contrary to the present impulse of tenderness or compassion” (68). The prudence of Smith and Wollstonecraft constitutes the backbone of liberal, middle class morality that, as Saree Makdisi argues, “must be understood as a project to locate and articulate a middle class sensibility against the unruly excesses of both higher and lower orders” (207). As a project, prudence then is a moral value that supports capitalism, which requires, after all, that excess-of wealth, goods, energy-must be carefully invested rather than squandered.
In Blake’s first Continental prophecy, America (1793), Ore’s declaration of “non servium” to the combined church/state of England arises from his critique of an overtly prudent, utilitarian moral economy. Ore exclaims,
In place of the former system of spontaneous generosity, which seems to be analogous to the virtue of aristocratic noblesse oblige, a calculated, pragmatic morality prevails that allows individuals to grow rich while preaching self-control.5 As “performers of nature,” the ungenerous seek to “perform” the generosity (in a controlled and prudent fashion) that the generous would do spontaneously and excessively.6 Blake here manifests what Thomas Pfau has called a “conspiratorial imagination,” one that views and ultimately repudiates “abstract models of value within political, economic and cultural life as something of a conspiracy in its own right” (99). Blake’s horror at the mathematical calculation of charity may recall the conservative thinker Edmund Burke’s horror at the geometric reorganization of France into departments-both Blake and Burke abhor the “justice” of mathematical equations. Blake’s critique of a mathematical, scientific generosity may also allude to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian algorithm, the felicific calculus, that Bentham argued should be applied to moral and political judgments. In The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781), Bentham advises, “Sum up the values of all the pleasures on one side, and those of all the pain on the other.” After calculating the balance for one person, then “Take an account of the number of persons,” and “Take the balance” in order to surmise what is best for the group (31). In this system every individual becomes an identical unit so as to be as efficient as possible with this mathematical, moral calculation. Bentham wanted to apply his calculus to legal reform, a proposition to which I assume Blake would answer, “One Law for the Lion and the Ox is oppression” (MHH 2,4).
When Blake represents revolution positively, those spectacular events are described in terms of expenditure, or sacrifice, that would restore religious and social meaning to an increasingly secular and scientific world. Blake’s economy of excess exhibits what Georges Bataille has called the principle of unconditional expenditure, in which “the accent is placed on a loss that must be as great as possible for that activity to take on its true meaning” ( Visions 119). Reading Blake’s support of revolution as his support of the secular French Revolution, therefore, obscures the unique convolution of Blake’s alternative social and economic visions. When Blake appears to support revolution, he understands revolution through an older model, that of radical religious dissent and the Commonwealth, relating to a pastoral, green England, the potential new Jerusalem.
A re-reading of the oft-discussed song of freedom that interrupts the political events in America substantiates the claim that Blake understands revolution through his religious tradition. By analyzing “the prophecy’s attempt to blast a hole in what the radicals (and generations of scholars since them) understood to be a continuous and progressive history” (156), Makdisi astutely points out the collapse of time on this plate and the way that interruption of work leads to freedom. Moreover, the interruption of time is not just an explosion of it or a “no-time” but is rather the ancient rest period of the jubilee imposed over the linear, clock-time of capitalism.
The first two lines of the song allude-with watchmen, spices, linen, and a grave burst-to Christ’s bodily resurrection. The following two lines allude to a typological prefiguration of the resurrection of Christ, Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (37.1-14), for the “sinews shrunk & dry’d / Reviving shake” directly echo the prophecy “And I will lay sinews upon you . . . and ye shall live” (37.6). Furthermore, verbs that describe the bones coming together-shake, move, breathing, awakening-may refer to the way the more radical dissenting sects described their physical experiences of God during their worship (hence, they were called Ranters, Shakers, and Quakers). Therefore, instead of voicing support for the secular revolution, Blake’s conception of revolution seems to be based on uniquely antinomian, religious allusions.
In the fifth line, Christ’s resurrection is revealed as a prototype for political, economic, and social liberation, with another Old Testament prefiguration of Christ, the year of Jubilee. Every fiftieth year, when the trumpet is sounded on the Day of Atonement, all slaves and bondsmen are released, all debts are forgiven, all property reverts to its ancestral owners, and families are reunited on their estates: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee to you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family” (Lev. 25.10). Rather than embodying total social upheaval as in a secular revolutionary movement, all property reverts to the old order and all people return to the homes and towns of their ancestors. The return to the ancestor is central to Blake’s understanding of liberty. In addition, the following year must be a time of absolute leisure regardless of class; the people share and consume all the excess that has been stored (and they may harvest what the previously cultivated ground gives up naturally). An entire workless year depends on depleting and consuming the excess of labor rather than saving and reinvesting it in other economic enterprises. As Blake conjoins revolutionary energy with a redemptive notion of Jubilee, he thus counters a model of mechanical commodity production and competitive individual accumulation.
Moral and economic restraints on generosity and on the dispersal of energy appear to create the oppressive social and political situation represented in the second Continental prophecy, Europe (1794). The tyrannical social situation begins as the mythic figure Enitharmon orders,
Go: tell the human race that Womans love is Sin:
That an Eternal life awaits the worms of sixty winters
In an allegorical abode where existence hath never come:
Forbid all Joy… (5, 5-8)
After Enitharmon’s declaration, she falls asleep for eighteen hundred years, the length of the Christian era.7 Religious joy and pleasure are allegorized into a mythical future in a manner analogous to the ideal of saving money and investing it for future returns. For Blake, such a life is less than “existence” and is profoundly lacking in joy. The results of Enitharmon’s teaching and sleep, according to Blake, are forms of deferred gratification that weaken, rather than strengthen, humanity. Humanity’s weakness is written into the architecture, for “Over the doors Thou shalt not; & over the chimneys Fear is written,” and the citizens have “bands of iron around their necks, fasten’d to the walls” (12, 28-29). Abstinence and fear, or the lack of joy and expenditure, weaken and enslave the inhabitants of both the cities and the country. In the wake of the rise of the Protestant work ethic and industrial capitalism, Blake points to the almost apocalyptic social consequences of ajoyless life based on prudence and accumulation instead of generosity.
Yet, the misinterpretation of the Christian religion is not exclusively responsible for negative political and social events, for Europe recounts an attempt by Newton to wake the dead. When Newton blows the trumpet of the Last Day, signaling humanity’s resurrection, he evokes a mere “Rattling of their hollow bones in howling and lamentation” ( 13,8). If the dry bones of Ezekiel come together and back to life to initiate a Jubilee in America’s song of liberty, here the bones cannot be raised by Newton, who represents the Enlightenment and scientific progress. The bones failing to come together under the command of Newton further signifies that the modern paradigm of accumulative, scientific knowledge is ineffectual in invigorating social ties. Isaac Newton, as Ian Balfour points out, “is systematically reviled in Blake’s work as a proponent of mathematical reason, one who views God as the overseer of a machinelike universe devoid of living form” (142). The Enlightenment promises light and revolution yet fails to produce a true revolution, just as Newton’s trumpet provokes nothing more than a mere shaking of bones.
Newton is not the only Enlightenment figure Blake implicates in the current state of spiritual dissolution. He also attacks John Locke ‘s emphasis on the five senses, blaming his philosophy for the shift from a spiritual to a scientific understanding of the world:
Here British empiricism-looking outward for knowledge with the five senses-forecloses other sensory and spiritual possibilities for perception and understanding. This dual critique of Newton and Locke demonstrates that Blake views the restoration of the monarchy and the subsequent strengthening of the Anglican church during the Glorious Revolution (which occurred as these figures were living and writing) as a deepening decline from a previously ideal state produced by the first English revolution, the Commonwealth.
As Enlightenment thinkers living during the Restoration and during the active repression of radical religious dissent, both Newton and Locke, according to Blake, further corrupt social beliefs by introducing theories that make distinctions between belief and knowledge. This corrupting distinction between belief and knowledge is addressed directly in the introductory segment found in plate 3 of copy K of Europe. In this dialogue, the bard asks a Fairy a pressing question: “Then tell me, what is the material world, and is it dead?” The Fairy answers that he would “shew you all alive / The world, when every particle of dust breathes forth its joy” (17-18). This fairy then dictates Europeto the bard, who merely records this spiritual insight. The “joy” in a particle of dust cannot be measured by science or history; that joy must be perceived with something other than the five senses.8
Blake thus argues, like the conservative thinker Edmund Burke, that the erosion of religious, spiritual, and imaginative sensibility leads to abysmal political and social consequences. Blake continues in Europe to claim that “Thought changed the infinite to a serpent,” and, paradoxically, this scientific “reasonable” understanding leads to monarchical tyranny, for “Then was the serpent temple form’d, image of the infinite / Shut up in finite revolutions . . . / God a tyrant crowned” (10, 21-23). In Europe, therefore, the fiery King acquires his power not as much from a corrupt government as from the corruption of individuals by Enlightenment thought. The explosion of science and Enlightenment thought corrupt the thinking of humanity in the seventeenth century, a time contemporaneous with what J.G.A. Pocock calls the “financial revolution,” the establishment of banks, public credit, speculative finance, and the virtualization of value.9 Thus for Blake speculative capitalism, empirical science, and a tyrannical monarchy all arise from the dissolution of the Commonwealth.
In the prophecy, Blake represents the revolutionary overthrow of the King as a scapegoat sacrifice-the King “drag’d his torments to the wilderness” (12,20)-not a reasonable, rational move towards freedom, allied with Jacobin sentiment. Blake’s sacrificial logic is tied to an economy of excess wherein extensive losses create meaning. In addition, Blake seems to refer back to the Commonwealth, back to a society that is founded on religious enthusiasm and the scapegoat sacrifice of Charles I. Blake’s “vision had been not into the rational government of man,” Thompson similarly claims, “butinto the liberation of an unrealised potential, an alternative nature, within man,” and this vision “derived from sources far older than the Enlightenment” (229).
At the end of Europe, as Ore rises and “in the vineyards of red France appear’d the light of his fury” (15,2), there remains very little indication of Blake’s unequivocal support for Ore’s revolutionary energy. Blake’s description of the French revolution reads,
The furious terrors flew around!
On golden chariots raging, with red wheels dropping with blood:
The Lions lash their wrathful tails!
The Tigers couch upon the prey & suck the ruddy tide. (15, 4-7)
Here the “terrors” of the French revolution are depicted as a Lion lashing its tail. Elsewhere in Blake’s work, in both The Marnage of Heaven and Hell and America, empire is represented as the Lion and the Wolf: “For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease!” (America 6,15; MHH25 ) By representing the revolution as a lion, Blake demonstrates that he understands the revolutionaries’ goals to be not just “liberty” but also, and perhaps foremost, the expansion of empire, which was after all the chief accomplishment of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. In addition, with the aid of the imagery of the chariots and the tigers attacking and eating their prey, Blake may be suggesting that while the ostensible goals of the revolutionaries are to return France to the glory of the Roman republic, their politics are in fact more likely to manifest the ideology of the Roman empire, with its violent, bloody games.
The Song of Los (1795), the third of the Continental prophecies, goes beyond the history of Christianity documented in Europeby attempting to cover all of history in its sections on Asia and Africa. As a result, The Song of Los deals chiefly with the religious law. The stony encoding of the law-“Moses beheld upon Mount Sinai forms of dark delusion” (3, 17)-is represented as a global infection that contaminates humans with disease and fear. Therefore, after the law is given, “The human race began to wither, for the healthy built / secluded places, fearing the joys of Love / And the disease’d only propagated” (3, 25-27). Since the “healthy” hid from their desires and the unhealthy indulged in them, Blake’s economy of excess requires a moral component, as I argued previously with respect to the “Proverb of Hell”: ‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” Blake’s ideas about excess do not simply encourage an endless indulgence of appetites, nor is a “diseased” type of sensual excess socially healthy. Blake’s indulgence extends rather from “healthy,” community-building generosity.
Blake goes on to critique calculated generosity, a critique that connects The Song of Los with Europe:
The churches and hospitals are linked to castles and palaces because the storage of wealth in the castles and palaces reflect the calculated generosity towards the poor in the churches and hospitals. Thus the “care” that churches and hospitals extend reinforces a moral economy that stockpiles goods and defers gratification. Blake claims that the calculated generosity of the churches and hospitals insures that there will be no need for excessive expenditure.10
In The Song of Los, the spiritual world of excess and infinity is at first bound and hemmed in by religious law, which seeks to establish guidelines for morality that impose restrictions on spontaneous spiritual acts. The religious law then culminates in Enlightenment reason:
Thus the terrible race of Los & Enitharmon gave
Laws & Religions to the sons of Har binding them more
And more to the Earth: closing and restraining;
Till a Philosophy of Five Senses was complete
Urizen wept & gave it into the hands of Newton & Locke. (4, 13-17)
Again Blake points to a connection between religious law and the Enlightenment, using the same two philosophers from Europe, Newton and Locke. Their philosophical insights replaced spontaneous, faith-based perception with perception based on procedure, thus reining in the natural spiritual energies of humanity.
In “Asia,” despotic kings run from the “thought-creating fires of Ore” (6,6), or from revolutionary energy, and while this seems to be an auspicious moment, I argue that it is important to read Blake’s Continental prophecies as an unfolding prophecy continually expanding in scope; in Europe “thought” changed the infinite into a serpent and crowned a tyrant. Thus Ore’s revolutionary fervor arising from “thought” must be held suspect. Blake’s last Continental prophecy demonstrates an increasing hostility towards reason, and therefore realistic political situations are absent from the poem, as the prophecy chronicles the mass movements of humanity in relation to Blake’s mythological giant forms. The end of The Song of Los makes clear that a real revolution is spiritual in nature: “Forth from the dead dust rattling bones to bones / Join: shaking convuls’d the shivering clay breathes” (7, 31-32). Ezekiel’s dry bones manifest themselves again, yet this time the bones are coming together, which they could not do under Newton’s command.
The dry bones of The Song of Los will be revitalized because they are not entirely anonymous; these bones are in the “ancient place” of Jerusalem, and they belong to Adam, who “Lay bleach’d in the garden of Eden,” and Noah, who is “as white as snow / On the mountains of Ararat” (7,21,23). Skeletons of the Jewish patriarchs arise again to become the human race-“all naked flesh”-and thus the redemption of humanity literally arises out of its Judeo-Christian ancestry. Blake’s vision of revolution, therefore, differs profoundly from the goals of the secular radicals who wanted to disregard religious tradition in order to facilitate progress.
The final lines of The Song of Los describe a redemptive celebration:
The Grave shrieks with delight & shakes
Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem;
Her bosom swells with wild desire:
And milk & blood & glandous wine,
In rivers rush & shout & dance,
On mountain, dale, and plain. (7, 35-40)
The theme of resurrection in this celebration recalls the Jubilee in America, and here instead of the restored laborer, Blake envisions a restored earth, personified. As the earth exhibits enthusiastic worship by dancing and shouting, even the “grave” manifests life’s overflowing fecundity. Such an image is clearly modeled on a Biblical prophecy of messianic redemption: “the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isa. 55.12). In spite of such profoundly religious images, scholars have tended to interpret Blake’s final Continental prophecy in primarily secular, liberal terms. For example, Behrendt suggests that Blake’s “familiarity with Wollstonecraft and other early feminist activists [. . .] undoubtedly affects this second part of The Song of Los, which culminates in a resurrection of the dead in a decidedly visceral, sexual celebration” (384). While it is true that some of our own contemporary versions of liberal and radical feminism may emphasize sexual excess, this was not an element of Wollstonecraft’s feminism. Excessive sexual relations had no place in the prudent liberal thought of Mary Wollstonecraft, and, in fact, she went so far as to recommend that a wise woman “represses the first faint dawning of a natural inclination . . . and in the bloom of life forgets her sex-forgets the pleasure of an awakening passion” (50). The liberal Wollstonecraft recommends extreme moral prudence, even to the point of sexual abstinence, not free sexuality. Thus, while Behrendt astutely notes the “visceral, sexual celebration” that concludes Blake’s poem, this passage recalls the antinomian “Everlasting Gospel” of love rather than Wollstonecraft or other early feminists’ writings.
Repeatedly in his work, Blake makes a distinction between the generous spiritual excess that communally celebrates the fecundity of existence and a calculated control of excess for personal, financial gain. If religious law leads to the Enlightenment, which leads to tyranny, then Blake could not have been sympathetic with the goals of the French revolution or those of the British secular radicals. When Blake represents revolution positively, it is based on an antinomian fantasy of an economy of excess, and the fantasy aspect of Blake’s work suggests the impossibility of “conserving” traditions during the rapid progress of modernity. One of the “Proverbs of Hell” summarizes how Blake looks to and trusts his own tradition and exhibits skepticism, maybe even pessimism, towards progressive modernity: “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without / Improvement, are roads of Genius” (MHH10, 66-67). Blake was no progressive, for he held to tradition as fiercely as Burke, even more so in some ways because Blake had such an earnest belief in his spirituality. While Blake did not champion the current monarchy as did Burke, he nevertheless was always nostalgic for the potential of new Jerusalem in green England. The French Revolution prompted Blake to create a new version of Revolution based on an old model: the Commonwealth, the momentary triumph of enthusiastic radical religious dissent. Erdman points out that Blake “grew up in a time of peace and never lost the feeling that England was a green and pleasant land, potentially the mart of peaceful nations; that London’s towers were a fit dwelling place for the Lamb of God” (3). Blake spent his entire lifetime attempting to conserve that initial vision and experience, to conserve his religious heritage, which paradoxically engendered an artistic form that scholars still consider to be shocking, alienating, and thus avant-garde.
1 Such research puts Blake into a different light, not only as a man whose radical religious commitments were threatened by the increasingly intolerant and authoritarian church/state structure, but also as a man who was marginalized by the circles of intellectual dissent on the basis of his status as a tradesman. Mee explains,
It is likely the Johnson’s circle would have regarded Blake as a peripheral figure, a copy engraver who worked for Johnson, rather than a writer or artist published by him. In the relatively few references to Blake made in his contemporaries writings, he is denned by his trade and frequently referred to as “Blake the Engraver.” It is probable that the Johnson circle only ever really regarded him as a tradesman rather than as an intellectual like themselves. (“‘Doom'” 103)
2 Isaac Kramnick argues for a similar interpretation of the 179Os radicals in Republicanism and Bourgeois radicalism. Kramnickasserts the following dennition of what he calls bourgeois radicalism, which is similar to Saree Makdisi’s “hegemonic radicalism,” although Makdisi does not cite Kramnick:
It was the political program of middle-class men and women who were convinced that they had done more than the aristocracy, and that they more than anyone else deserved social and political rewards. Bourgeois radicalism was the ideological vision of industrialists, scientists, and their intellectual spokesmen who set out in late eighteenth-century Britain to destroy the political, social and cultural hegemony of people who had merely gone to the trouble of being born. (28)
3 Blake’s conservatism differs from secular conservatism (such as Burke’s), which maintains a steadfast adherence to the church/state/monarchy structure of British politics. However, Blake’s more profoundly religious conservatism still manifests what Anthony Quinton has designated as the three major principles of conservatism: traditionalism, skepticism, and organicism.
4″The notion of the Everlasting Gospel had,” Thompson argues, “by the late 164Os, become part of the available vocabulary of radical heresy” (24). Thompson further notes “the ubiquity and centrality of antinomian tenets to Blake’s thinking, to his writing and to his painting. Throughout his work there will be found this radical disassociation and opposition between the Moral Law and the gospel of Christ which is known-as often in the antinomian tradition-as ‘the Everlastme Gospel'” (18-19).
5Robert Essick similarly points to the increasing technology of morality in liberal thought:
Indeed, much of the liberal thought in the early years of the decade was dedicated specifically to the application of values and methods developed in other fields to the reconstitution of social systems. The leading intellectuals of the Johnson milieu wished to “transfer the proofs of the natural to the moral Sciences,” as Coleridge succinctly characterized this great Enlightenment endeavor. (191)
6THe phrase “performers of nature” also signals Blake’s recognition that modernity is characterized by a move from an agricultural to a trade cycle disconnected from nature.
7A question remains as to why Blake is so adamant to point out that women are implicated in law-giving and spiritual slumber. Most readings of Blake understand his position as one of a liberated sexuality, and Blake here pairs women and priests in their repression of sexuality. Positive depictions of women “glowing with the lusts of youth”(America 15,22), however, ignore the risks and responsibilities that are connected with sexuality for women. In a time when women still routinely died in childbirth, the consequences of a “liberated” sexuality are obvious.
8Blake claimed that he lived in a world beyond that which can be perceived with the senses. In a letter to Reverend Dr. Truster, dated Aug. 23,1799, Blake writes, “You certainly Mistake when you say that the Visions of Fancy are not to be found in this World. To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination” (702).
9 See J.G A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought and History Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985) 108-110.
10 Blake’s suspicious views of organized health care may have been truly prophetic. The current health care crisis in which the middle class/advanced societies have health care and the poor/Third World are refused care demonstrate how a system of “generosity” has turned into a system of creating and maintaining wealth and political power.
Balfour, Ian. The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2002.
Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Calder and Boyars Ltd, 1973.
_____. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Trans. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985.
Behrendt, Stephen. “History When Time Stops: Blake’s America, Europe, and The Song of Los.” Papers on Language and Literature 28.4 (1992) : 379-97.
Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988.
Bentley, G. E. The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. New Haven; London: Yale UP, 2001.
Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Anchor Books, 1988.
Erdman, David V. Blake: Prophet against Empire. 3rd edition. New York: Dover Publications, 1991.
Essick, Robert N. “William Blake, Thomas Paine, and Biblical Revolution.” Studies in Romanticism 30 (1991): 189-212.
Kramnick, Isaac. Republicanism and Bourgeios Radicalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990.
Luhmann, Niklas. The Differentiation of Society. Trans. Stephen Holmes and Charles Larmore. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
Makdisi, Saree. William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.
Mee, Jon. “Anxieties of Enthusiasm: Coleridge, Prophecy, and Popular Politics in the 1790s.” TheHuntington Library Quarterly 60.1/2 (1998): 179-203.
_____. “‘The Doom of Tyrants’: William Blake, Richard ‘Citizen’ Lee, and Millenarian Public Sphere.” Blake Politics and History. Ed. G.A. Rosso Jackie DiSalvo and Christopher Z. Hobson. New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 1998. 97-114.
Mitchell, W.J.T. ‘Visible Language: Blake’s Wond’rous Art of Writing.” New Casebooks: William Blake. Ed. David Punter. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. 123-48.
Pfau, Thomas. Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790-1840. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.
Pocock, J.G.A. Politics, Language, and Time. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971.
Quinton, Anthony. The Politics of Imperfection: The Religious and Secular Traditions of Conservative Thought in England from Hooker to Oakshott. London: Faber and Faber, 1978.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Amherst, NY: Promedieus Books, 2000.
Thompson, E. P. Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. New York: New Press, 1993.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.
KATEY CASTELLANO is a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. Her current project explores British Romantic conservatism and its relationship to aesthetic innovation and radical politics.
Copyright Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville Winter 2006
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved