So, I’ve already broken my promise a little—but perhaps only a little. I don’t have deep close reading in this entry. What I’m offering instead is some observations on my responses to Night the First of The Four Zoas (outlined in more detail here).
- Those who read my last blog posts on Blake will notice Blake’s peculiar punctuation, weird capitalization, and frequent use of ampersands instead of ands. I’ve seen these features of Blake’s writing left out, and it’s a tough decision whether to include them or not. On the one hand, getting rid of them gives in some ways a truer picture of Blake’s writing, because many features of his text that we find exotic or alienating and that we might, without context, attribute to his eccentricity, actually reflect the way spelling, grammar, and capitalization were in Blake’s time—much less standardized than they are now. Still, I find it valuable. Part of this is sentimental. But partly, Blake and his contemporaries’ habit of capitalizing the first letter of words that are not proper nouns or the beginning of a sentence provides important emphasis (perhaps the equivalent of italics or ALL CAPS in today’s writing). What’s more, Blake’s punctuation or lack thereof lets the writing flow in a spontaneous rush. I find myself at times eschewing punctuation because of precisely that sense of flow and expressive boundary-breaking which, if it’s not part of what Blake was doing on purpose, is certainly compatible with what Blake does.
- Blake’s language. Rolling, Biblical, evocative, unafraid of grandeur, it (duh) lacks many of the virtues or “virtues” of modern poetry and writing generally such as: avoiding abstraction and “showing instead of telling,” avoiding careless repetition of words, and avoiding melodrama. What it has, though, is a movement, an eloquence and intensity, that I rarely see anywhere, but especially rarely in today’s educated writing, which tends to feel delicate, careful, and (sorry) boring by comparison. Passages of Moby Dick come to mind, passages of the Bible come to mind. This is not “lyrical” writing, or not only lyrical writing—it’s writing many people would call bombastic, I suspect—sensual images are vague, improbable, often stereotypical. But it’s writing that I very, very much want to read aloud, and I’d recommend you try reading some aloud, feel the roll and rhythm of it. (Blake did free verse before Whitman! He thought rhyme and iambic pentameter were shackles to be cast off, and, when he came to later “prophetic” books like The Four Zoas, he did.)
- I love The Four Zoas purely as fantasy. I don’t mean the play of larger-than-life character and passion. There is that, but it’s bizarre, repetitive, melodramatic, unnatural, and “the play of larger-than-life character and passion” is something that I probably like even less when it’s relatable, well orchestrated, semi-plausible, and natural. Nor do I mean a developed and consistent secondary world. There mostly isn’t. Rocks change into oceans. People live inside each other and die over and over again. Contradictory accounts are given of the same events with no effort to reconcile them. Whole civilizations appear in the clouds and are dropped as irrelevant. I once said Charles Williams’ spiritual world in Descent into Hell and All Hallows’ Eve felt very real and/or exciting and/or right to me, in the way Kafka feels real to me, and all sorts of art, both realistic and fantastic, don’t. Much of Blake’s world, as he describes it here, feels real to me in a similar way. The idea of a geographically inaccessible, physically nonexistent, but very real heavenly world of which the earthly one is only a limiting, limited, insignificant part has gripped me since I met it in fantasy in childhood, though I’ve never believed it, and Blake’s Eden and to some extent his Beulah mirror this. I love the idea of a world “soft moony feminine lovely” full of pure, loving, gentle souls peacefully looking after the strife continuing “below”; I love the idea of “Spaces” that they open up to protect the dreamers they care for (pocket universes, I tend to think; if I understand Blake at all, the material world may be one of these, or something lesser still); I love the idea of fragments of people that slip into and out of one another; I love the idea of fragments of people (the Spectres) that are given the form of plants in Beulah (I’m thinking also of the Garden of Adonis in The Faerie Queene, for those who have read that) and yet can take on unholy and dangerous movement in lower realms; I love the idea that the fact that the earth is a sphere is a tragic consequence of the Fall and in some ways a misperception even though it is practically speaking true for us; that is to say, the sheer mechanical features of this world that Blake documents appeal to me immensely and connect to something in me. I think the world of the Four Zoas expresses something about my psyche, possibly even the human psyche, or many people’s psyches, at least, and, more than that, I find it a compelling imaginative space I have never seen created or documented elsewhere. It is a subcreation of a different and (to me) more impressive order than more apparently coherent fantasy.
- I also enjoy the work as allegory—not a more straightforward allegory like medieval works or The Faerie Queene where Envy has a body and carries a toad around (more straightforward; far from entirely straightforward). Blake’s allegory embraces the political world (apparently extensive work has been done finding parallels in his poems to historical events of his time), but also the events within his own psyche, and also dynamics that he considers universal within both individuals and society. In Blake’s allegory where the allegorical characters cannot be adequately pinned down to a single abstraction but rather exhibit shifting meanings and connotations. It is also an allegory that sometimes grows literal—at least, one suspects that Blake’s characters were sometimes real to him, independent of him, that they appeared to him in visions and seemed (sometimes) separate from him, and that sometimes they were also fictional characters to him, from whom he consciously created a myth for the sake of storytelling…. (I really wish I knew of a critical discourse centered around “appreciating the probably-false things, be they idiosyncratic delusions or socially acceptable religious beliefs of whatever stripe, that other people believe without trying to believe them oneself” and I think it is would be very much related to “appreciating the imaginary worlds that fantasy writers come up with without turning them into allegorical copies of our world,” another thing that I think critics could be better at). I am fascinated by the tensions among Blake’s different modes of representation.
- 5. On a less abstract level, there are passages I find beautiful and compelling (often quite disturbing as well). One example is the imaginative semi-sex-scene between Enion and the Spectre of Tharmas:
Mingling his horrible brightness with her tender limbs then high she soard
Above the ocean; a bright wonder that Nature shudder’d at
Half Woman & half Spectre, all his lovely changing colours mix
With her fair crystal clearness; in her lips & cheeks his poisons rose
In blushes like the morning, and his scaly armour softening
A monster lovely in the heavens or wandering on the earth,
Till with fierce pain she brought forth on the rocks her sorrow & woe
Behold two little Infants wept upon the desolate wind.
I love it that they fly for no reason; I love the (for me) perfectly balanced tension between beauty and horror (poisons are “blushes like the morning”) and the not-quite-equivalence between “lovely in the heavens” and “wandering on the earth” (that third-to-last line has been in my collection of favorite quotations for years)
6. Then there are surprising, perceptive, expressive passages that do offer wonderful insight into our world, like
The infant joy is beautiful but its anatomy
Horrible Ghast & Deadly nought shalt thou find in it
But Death Despair & Everlasting brooding Melancholy
This concept, that many of the best things of our nature when examined closely are made of things much less noble, much more frightening, is one that C.S. Lewis explores at great length in The Pilgrim’s Regress and one that haunts me in various ways. Being excessively aware of the foul rag and bone shop of the heart does indeed breed “brooding Melancholy” and “Despair,” and I think much virtue and love is more like the sublimation of a lot of manure than it is like light from heaven. Trusting the process of sublimation may be one of the things Blake refers to when he makes scathing attacks on those who “doubt” in “The Auguries of Innocence,” another poem I may share and discuss at some point.
I think one of the things one learns from reading Blake is what I’ve mentioned I learn from outsider art: the importance of staying true to one’s vision and working one’s butt off without worrying too much about the standards of the outside world. Blake is often nearly unintelligible, especially in his later work, but also richly original, because he perceived the world in ways other people don’t. I think that this outsider’s path probably leads less often to recognition (and possibly even success on purely artistic terms) than the insider’s path, the path of trying to learn society’s systems and transcend them while working within them. (Even less often. Recognition and artistic success are both often difficult things to achieve, regardless of how one goes about it.) But I think the outsiders’ successes are more spectacular, their failures are more interesting, and their work, regardless of its outcome, more rewarding, than the insiders’. (For the curious: I tend to think I fall on the border between the two categories—sometimes, I fear, with the follies of both and the virtues of neither.)