Blake and the Assimilation of Chaos

Blake and the Assimilation of Chaos

by Christine Gallant


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In all of his works Blake struggled with the question of how chaos can be assimilated into imaginative order. Blake's own answer changed in the course of his poetic career. Christine Gallant contends that during the ten year period of composition of Blake's first comprehensive epic, The Four Zoas, Blake's myth expanded from a closed, static system to an open, dynamic process. She further argues that it is only through attention to the changing pattern of Jungian archetypes in the poem that one can discern this profound change.

Using the depth psychology of Jung, Professor Gallant presents a comprehensive interpretation of Blake's poetry from his early "Lambeth" prophecies to his mature works, The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem. She offers a Jungian critical approach that respects the work's autonomy, but still suggests how literature is an ongoing imaginative experience in which archetypal symbols affect their literary contexts. What interests the author is the function that the very process of mythmaking had for Blake.

Professor Gallant finds that the metaphysical opposition between God and Satan in Blake's earlier work gradually evolves into an interplay of these powers in the later works. The quality of Chaos changes for Blake from something unknown and feared, contrary to Order, to something intimately known and embraced.

Originally published in 1979.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691628059
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1781
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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Blake and the Assimilation of Chaos

By Christine Gallant


Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06367-6


Myth and Non-Myth

William Blake struggled with the question of how chaos can be assimilated into imaginative order in all of his works. With his Lambeth Books and Prophecies of the 1790s, he began to address directly this fundamental issue with which all myth may be said to be concerned. These poems primarily attempt to forge a mythos, while at the same time intentionally showing the possible errors into which the mythmaker may fall. They make possible Blake's later centripetal prophecies, themselves "regenerative" of their readers: The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem.

Blake's early conception of chaos seems close to the classical Greek one of the primeval Void from whose undifferentiated elements the cosmos was formed, as well as to the alchemical idea of the prima materia that awaits the symbolic transmutation of the dark formless matter into spiritualized gold. This conception underlies Blake's cosmogonic poems: The Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania, and The Book of Los. But in both his "minor" and his "major" prophecies he came to see chaos as a mythic principle of existence, to be perceived in the horrors of contemporary social circumstance and in the psyche's unexplained unconscious contents. The historical manifestations were only too plain to him from the very beginning of his poetry; but the broader psychological and cosmic implications gradually became apparent to him as well, and his concern to comprehend them became increasingly urgent.

This human compulsion to domesticate chaos (or "Non-Existence" as Blake frequently termed it) by invoking it, reflecting on it, and making human images of it, has always been an important source of mythmaking. There is ever the danger, however, that this all-too-human urge to create order may lead to entropy, manifested in an overly "systematic" poetry as well as a sealed-off attitude to life. Blake became increasingly aware of the problematic aspects of mythic system. His determined lines from the beginning of Jerusalem often have been quoted:

I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans
I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.
(J 1.10.20-21)

The resulting creation by Los of Golgonooza, the symbolic city of art in Blake's own myth, proves to be paradoxical. Los is creating this "System" in Ulro, "in the depths of Hell" (J 1.12.15), and what is strongly suggested is that Los is only creating another fixed dead "System:"

In pulsations of time, & extensions of space ...
With great labour upon his anvils; & in his ladles the Ore
He lifted, pouring it into the clay ground prepar'd with art;
Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those
(J I.11.2-5)

A consideration of what Blake says about the properties of "true" art may clarify the nature of the problem just described. In his "Annotations to the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds," he calls "Non-Existence" the "General" and "Indeterminate," for he was preoccupied in his art, as in his poetry, with absolute clarity of vision. This concern is particularly evident in his belief in the superiority of the "firm and bounding outline" over "tints," "points and dots," and obscuring "lights and shadows": in the firm precision and lucidity of the line rather than the indefiniteness of these other artistic qualities. Even his choice of copper engraving as his metier is significant, since its basic characteristic is strength of line.

When we consider what he has written about the superiority of linear art, we see that he attaches spiritual value to this artistic quality of vision. Thus in The Ghost of Abel (1788) he writes,

... Nature has no Outline:
but Imagination has ...
Nature has no Supernatural & dissolves: Imagination is
(GA 1)

In "Annotations to the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds" (1798) he exclaims, "The Man who asserts that there is no Such Thing as Softness in Art & that everything in Art is Definite & Determinate has not been told this by Practise but by Inspiration & Vision because Vision is Determinate & Perfect." And again, "Singular & Particular Detail is the Foundation of the Sublime ... Minuteness is [the] whole Beauty [of forms] ... What is General Nature is there Such a Thing what is General Knowledge is there such a Thing All Knowledge is Particular."

In his comments in A Descriptive Catalog (1809), we can see that for Blake the artistic proscription has blended with his most fundamental concerns. He writes: "The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling. ... How do we distinguish one face or countenance from another, but by the bounding line and its infinite inflexions and movements? ... What is it that distinguishes honesty from knavery, but the hard and wirey line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions? Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again, and the line of the almighty must be drawn out upon it before man or beast can exist [italics added]."

Yet how much all of this reminds one of that famous drawing by Blake, "The Ancient of Days," in which the main figure, who is busily outlining the world with his compasses, is — Urizen.

It is psychologically appropriate that those qualities in himself that Blake most disliked would be precisely those projected outward onto the figure of Urizen, and indeed he shows an ambivalent loathing-fascination toward this character. As Jean H. Hagstrum remarks, Blake spends a lot of time in his poetry describing Ulro. Seemingly the archvillain of the myth, Urizen causes man's fall from the company of the "Eternals" in The Book of Urizen, and serves as representative of Satan in America: A Prophecy and Europe: A Prophecy. Yet his history dominates the cosmogonic poems, inextricably interwoven with that of Los, the great creative hero who is the "Eternal Prophet." As will be shown, the story of Urizen parallels that of Los at important points — or is it the other way around? — and the two figures prove to be complementary in the Lambeth Books (The Book of Urizen, The Book of Ahania, and The Book of Los). These poems show the beginning of Blake's complex ability to understand the Urizen within himself. As he wrote in The Four Zoas:

Startled was Los he found his Enemy Urizen now
In his hands, he wondered that he felt love & not hate
His whole soul loved him
(FZ 7.90.64-66)

Blake seems to have "drawn out ... the line of the almighty" upon "chaos" to his satisfaction in his art, with the same linear quality remaining characteristic right up until his last "Ugolino with his Sons and Grandsons in Prison," which he completed weeks before his death. But his Lambeth poetry shows an increasingly restless dissatisfaction with the myth that he was trying to construct. The Prophecies show only too plainly Blake's real necessity for myth — the citizen's real necessity for myth at that time. The contemporary social horrors, which were to be purged by the American and French Revolutions — at first hoped to be millennial beginnings of The End — were only deepened as those revolutions provoked England to declare war on France in 1793. Everything in the Lambeth Prophecies suggests the belief that there must be further pages in God's Book that will show all of this disorder expunged by some divine scheme.

Yet even when this is said, it must be added that Blake himself seems to have been aware of the hovering danger of oversystemization. For the Lambeth Books consciously show the paradox central to Blake's situation. There is at once the satiric self-awareness in them of the basic problem of the systematic thinker, and also the determined reassociation through myth of that which seems most dissociated in actual experience. Either may lead to rigidity: in the first case, to a tired and ironic resignation to the impossibilities of the work confronting the mythmaker; in the second, to a petrifying of the imagination as the myth becomes fixed. It was truly a gigantic task that Blake had set for himself but there were quite real psychological imperatives goading him on, for without persevering he would have fallen either into imaginative death or experiential dissociation.

If one considers the three Lambeth Books together, one may see an evolving solution to this paradox. The advance of the mythmaker (both Blake and Los-Urizen) is painfully won and precariously kept in them, but it is quite real nonetheless. The course of events in the later Book of Los clearly parallels those that overtake Urizen in the first three chapters of the earlier Book of Urizen, but one may measure how far Los has come by what he is able to make. Urizen's first "dark revolving ... silent activity" (BU I.3.18) resulted in his doomed formation of the "Book of eternal brass"; Los's concluding creation from his anvils in The Book of Los is the sun, the "immense Orb of fire," which is able to stand "self-balanc'd" (BL IV.5.45). Neither does Los show Urizen's early primitive abhorrence of "the petrific abominable chaos" in The Book of Los, but instead the promising attitude of curiosity.

The Book of Urizen has long been recognized as an "intellectual satire, directed at accounts of cosmic and human genesis in the Bible, Plato, and Milton." The satire is also directed at Blake the mythmaker himself. The poem shows a great deal more than this, of course, and its political and philosophical place within Blake's thinking has been amply dealt with elsewhere. But it is surely not an unconscious coincidence that in the first half of this poem (chapters one through five) Blake shows all of the various attempts to create system in the face of chaos, and then devotes the second half (chapters six through nine) to his own systematic account of the beginnings of "fallen" time, which cycle toward the historical present. As he recognizes quite well, such "enormous labours" must be undergone and Los must "rouz[e] his fires" when man is "affrighted at the formless unmeasurable death" (BU III.7.8-9). Blake himself plunges on bravely to continue his mythic account of the Titanic struggle between Urizen and Fuzon in The Book of Ahania after the latter has left Egypt, and then continues it from Los's point of view in The Book of Los. But the limits of this reaction are shown by its results in The Book of Urizen: Urizen's "Book of eternal brass," Los's creation of man's material body, the Eternals' curtains and pillars and woof "round the Void," which is "called ... Science" (BU V. 19.5-9).

The "abominable void," "the soul-shuddring vacuum" (BU I.3.4-5) with which Urizen contends in the beginning of The Book of Urizen is very like the "Abyss," the "Voidness" of "non-Entity" faced by all the Zoas and Emanations in the opening Nights of The Four Zoas (which seems to have been begun around the same time that The Book of Urizen was written). Blake explores the inward psychological correspondence to this "Void" in the closing Nights of The Four Zoas, and there is a strong suggestion in The Book of Urizen also that this "vacuum" has its beginnings in the human psyche. In some curious way, Urizen is its cause, since it is he who perceives it as something to be overcome:

... what Demon
Hath form'd this abominable void
... Some said
"It is Urizen"
(BU I.3.3-6)

But it is not a possibility that is developed as fully as in The Four Zoas, and in all three of these Lambeth Books the void seems more like an outside condition with which to struggle. The alchemical idea of the prima materia which awaits the scientist's transmuting touch is alluded to in The Book of Urizen. The "abominable void" is dark, cold, and described by Urizen as "Natures wide womb" (BU II.4.16) — all common alchemical designations of it. It is also very like the Greek "Chaos," in which the elements of the universe whirl about dizzyingly, as yet unorganized:

... [Urizen] strove ...
In unseen connections with shapes ..
Of beast, bird, serpent & element
Combustion, blast, vapour and cloud.
(BU I.3.13-17)

In these two traditions, however, the void is necessary to existence, since it contains the elements from which the cosmos (or the philosopher's stone) is to be made. Urizen here sees it as something with which to "str[i]ve in battles dire" (BU I.3.13), and goes on as long as he can with his desperate, churning effort to create order as a defense against the "vacuum." The "Eternals" themselves "avoid The petrific abominable chaos" (BU I.3.25-26). Later, as mentioned, they will build the tent "called Science" against the void. Always in this poem the characters attempt to transcend chaos, or to change it into something different from what it is, and that, as Blake sees quite well, is their essential error. The real God behind the scene (so to speak) rather considers chaos to be a characteristic of "Eternity" in which

The will of the Immortal expanded
Or contracted his all flexible senses.
Death was not, but eternal life sprung.
(BU II.3.2-4)

This will prove to be the same vision of the "Regenerated" Albion at the end of Night Nine in The Four Zoas who is able to see the height and depth of the universe:

The Expanding Eyes of Man behold the depths of
wondrous worlds
One Earth one sea beneath nor Erring Globes
wander but Stars.
(FZ 9.138.25-26)

But that is a long time away.

Urizen's way of creating order is obviously wrong (he is "unprolific! Self-closd, all-repelling" — BU I.3.2-3), and his self-justification in chapter two really a revelation of how obtuse and "un-regenerated" he is at this point. Yet at the same time, his account of his cosmogonic struggle could be Blake's own as mythmaker. Urizen seeks "for a joy without pain, For a solid without fluctuation" (BU II.4.10-11). Blake himself celebrates over and over in his poems the glories of an apocalypse that will consume this present anguish and leave only the "desires of ancient times" (A 15.25) as "the Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes Her hollow womb" (SL 7.35-36); or else he reworks the genealogy of his pantheon, the narrative of his myth, and the cycles of history which have led to the present. The result of all of Urizen's battles with the "void immense" is Urizen's "Book of eternal brass" — and how reminiscent that is of Blake's own engraved books. Of course, Urizen's "Book" with its impossible "Laws of peace, of love, of unity" and its "one King, one God, one Law" (BU II.4.34-40) is a warped parody of the Word that really should inform the "void." But his impulse still is Blake's own as he writes The Book of Urizen in the first place.

The immediate result of Urizen's efforts is the provocation of what he has tried so hard to "close": the "petrific abominable chaos" now seen more clearly as possessing "enormous forms of energy":

Rage, fury, intense indignation
In cataracts of fire blood & gall
In whirlwinds of sulphurous smoke.
(BU III.4.45-47)

Urizen in turn runs to seek shelter from the "roaring fires," the "whirlwinds & cataracts of blood" (BU III.5.12-13) and frames around himself "a roof ... like a womb; Where thousands of rivers in veins Of blood pour down the mountains" (BU III.5.28-30). He almost seems here to create the first rudiments of the human body, presaging Los's actions.

The two mythic characters act similarly, although Los's "System" will prove somewhat more successful than Urizen's: at least the material body that Los forms does not provoke the destructive rage of the "Eternals," as did Urizen's "Book of eternal brass." Los sets about to create form, just as Urizen did, anguished since his fellow mythmaker "Urizen [is] rent from his side" (BU III.6.4) and a "fathomless void" opens beneath his feet. Urizen "fought with the fire" as he struggled in "a void immense, wild dark & deep," writing his laws of consistency "in books formd of metals"; Los too rouses "his fires, affrighted At the formless unmeasurable death" (BU III.7.8-9), and binds "every change With rivets of iron & brass" (BU IV.8.10-11). Los also is nearly enveloped in the "enormous forms of energy" as "the surging sulphureous Perturbed Immortal mad raging In whirlwinds & pitch & nitre" surges "round the furious limbs of Los" (BU IV.8.3-6). The similarity to Blake's own physical labors of engraving the plates of his poetry is quite pronounced here, as:

The Eternal Prophet heavd the dark bellows,
And turn'd restless the tongs; and the hammer
Incessant beat ...


Excerpted from Blake and the Assimilation of Chaos by Christine Gallant. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Acknowledgments, pg. vii
  • Contents, pg. ix
  • Abbreviations, pg. xi
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • ONE Myth and Non-Myth, pg. 9
  • TWO The Balance of Archetypes in The Four Zoas, pg. 48
  • THREE The Reassumption of Ancient Bliss, pg. 95
  • FOUR Going Forth to the Vintage of Nations, pg. 116
  • FIVE Beyond Myth, Beyond Non-Myth, pg. 155
  • Bibliography, pg. 187
  • Index, pg. 197

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