You may recall I wrote at some length about William Blake’s Four Zoas, so I’ll keep this fairly brief: I just read the whole shebang from start to finish in a few days! I find completing two books in a week, even if one (the Blake) is only 100 pages long, an auspicious beginning to a year of ambitious reading goals.
Late Blake is not for the faint of heart. If I were to pan this obscure classic, I would say it is repetitive, incoherent, and hilariously, melodramatically violent (oh, the floods of gore from the heavens! The clouds of smoke redounding!) And (to my insufficiently visionary eye) it is. But, of course, it’s a lot more. It’s studded with stunning and accessible or almost-accessible gems of imagery and thought. It explores a richly developed metaphysical and inner world that most of us would call both unreal and unfamiliar, though there is a good chance Blake actually believed in it. And it attempts (perhaps with a clumsy rather than artful indirectness; and perhaps also with a profundity few readers can appreciate without long study) to address questions like, “If/when/how are cruelty and vengeance justified? Why is there suffering? Who or what is God? If and how can peace, inner or outer, be achieved? What is death? What is this universe in which we live — where does it come from and what will become of it?”
The story arc is….um….extremely confusing in the specifics and rather simple in the gist: the Eternal Man (who might be England, everyone, Jesus, and/or Blake himself) falls apart into warring segments, who proceed in their power struggles to make everything worse and worse and worse until finally one of the segments (the Spectre of Urthona) helps another (Enitharmon) come to her senses, and a reintegration progresses in fits and starts — a reintegration that preserves the integrity of the parts.
So, I confess, a lot of this poem still blends into one mass of incomprehensible and interchangeable conflicts between incomprehensible and interchangeable characters in unclear settings. I am ninety percent sure this means that I need to read it and reread it and read scholarship about it, now that I have a basic outline in my head — Blake is an author to whom I would happily devote a lot of time and love, and one who, my brief glimpses of beauty and sense suggest, would amply repay that love.
Since I haven’t done that yet, though, allow me to leave you with a few choice images: Tharmas disintegrating into a sea full of monsters and reanimating in dire rage; Enion (his wife, other half, “emanation”) wandering “blind & age bent,” lamenting the death of the sparrows that fall from the trees in winter; Urizen, himself grown aged, covered in white hair, holding an orb of light, traversing skies and abysses and “desarts” and “Vortexes” with his metal books in which he transcribes his cruel and hypocritical laws in hopes of limiting the chaos.
As always, there are irrational personal components to my response. I love Blake’s art and some of his easier thought and poetry, as well as his mad-genius image. On the other side, whenever I read a lot of one poet quickly, any unpleasantly distinctive habits that poet may have come to the front of my mind and the intricacies and beauties both fade.
Regardless, whatever cocktail of the subjective and objective go into my analyses, I look forward to filling out my understanding of this and the rest of Blake’s oeuvre over the next few years.
Next up? Either John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction or Final Harvest (selected Emily Dickinson poems). Once again, these blog posts will not appear regularly, but, rather, whenever I finish a book and gather my thoughts about it!