William Blake is usually classified with the Romantic movement in English literature -- which coalesced in the revolutionary climate of the late eighteenth century, and roughly spanned the period from 1780 to 1830. The Romantic movement spanned a time of enormous social change in Britain. Not only was this a period of time that witnessed revolutions in America (1776) and France (1789), Britain itself would have to subdue a rebellion in Ireland (1798) quickly followed by the imperial annexation of its neighboring island by parliamentary Act of Union. In the meantime, the religious life of Britain was still in an uproar, due to the disenfranchisement of both Roman Catholics and "dissenters" like Blake himself, who were attracted to fringe Protestant sects or creeds (such as Quakerism or Unitarianism) which were not in full doctrinal accord with the established church. But the social condition of Great Britain in this period was at a genuine nadir: the Hanoverian King, George III, suffered from the genetic disease of porphyria which caused long and untreatable bouts of mental disturbance, leading to the regency of his ne'er-do-well son, the future George IV. But meanwhile the rapid pace of the Industrial Revolution had upended large segments of Britain's rural industries, consolidating the textile industry from a business of individual weavers and smallholders in cottages into the vast looms of Britain's northern industrial cities -- what Blake would memorably term as "dark Satanic mills." To a certain degree, William Blake could not have been more revolutionarily opposed to the spirit of these times: his strange Christianity, influenced by the mystical doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg, preached a radical egalitarianism which would look to the revolutions abroad for poetical subjects, and his status as a working-class artisan in London (he would support himself through engraved illustration work for publishers) meant that he was likely to stand with the oppressed workers whose lives were being altered by industrialization. However, one way in which Blake was truly in advance of the spirit of his time was in his sexual politics, and I propose to examine three of his crucial early works -- The Book of Thel and its sequel Visions of the Daughters of Albion, combined with the strange prose-poetry hybrid The Marriage of Heaven and Hell -- in order to assess the truly radical character of Blake's thought and art.
We can assume the radical character of Blake's work more or less at first glance -- it resembles nothing else published before or since, and sits oddly with the work of the other Romantic-period poets. In fact, Blake himself detested most of the Romantics, and would claim to his friend the diarist Henry Crabb Robinson that reading Wordsworth's poetry "caused him a bowel complaint which nearly killed him" (Robinson 15). Yet Blake's originality is palpable from just a glance at his work: his poetry consists of engraved books, some of which Blake would term "Prophecies" and which would be written in long flowing unrhymed lines of vaguely Biblical cadence, filled with suggestive and symbolic sounding names and terminology. To a certain degree, criticism of Blake's poetry must entail criticism of his visual art too; but in my consideration of the sexual politics in Blake's early work, I am reassured that Blake's most eminent twentieth-century expositor, Northrop Frye, considers the earliest works to be less integrated in terms of text and image, therefore making my concentration on just the text of these works legitimate. As Frye notes:
In the earliest prophecies, The Book of Thel and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, text and design approach one another rather tentatively. In Thel the design is always at the bottom or the top of the page, but in the Visions the text is occasionally broken in the middle, and an important step has been taken toward the free interpenetration of the two which belongs to Blake's mature period. In the early prophecies there is often an unequal balance between the amount Blake has to say in each of the two arts. Thus The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is in literature one of Blake's best known and most explicit works, but for that reason it is less successful pictorially. The text predominates too much, and what design there is follows the text closely and obviously. (Frye 37).
The audience for these works within Blake's own lifetime was limited, to say the least. Blake's own circle was very small, apart from a few interested parties such as Robinson and Garth Wilkinson, and his readership almost nonexistent. Garth Wilkinson was one of the few contemporaries to have seen Blake's first "illuminated Prophecy" The Book of Thel and its sequel (Visions of the Daughters of Albion), and his recorded comments in a letter of 17 July 1839 make it clear that Blake was definitely operating beyond the acceptable literary mainstream:
The designs are disorder rendered palpable and powerful and give me strongly the impression of their being the work of a madman. Insanity seems stamped on every one of them; and their hideous forms and lurid hellish colouring, exhale a very unpleasant sphere into my mind; so much so that I confess I should not like to have the things long in my house…I felt puzzled what to say of the man who was compounded of such heterogeneous materials as to be able at one time to write the "Songs of Innocence" and at another "The Visions of the Daughters of Albion." "The Book of Thel" is, partly, an exception to the general badness or unintelligibility of his verse and designs. I can see some glimmer of meaning in it, and some warmth of religion and of goodness; but beginning to be obscured and lost under the infatuating phantasies which at length possessed its author. (Bentley 50)
But I think it worth asking whether this reaction -- recorded by Bentley as the only example during Blake's own lifetime when the works in question actually received any extant criticial commentary -- is based on Blake's striking modernity. The "hellish colouring" of Thel's sequel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, is surely deliberate on Blake's part: the subject of the poem is a traumatic rape. It is unsurprising that he found Thel more congenial, because its form is much milder and more familiar: it seems like a dark fairy tale. Yet we must not read Blake's symbolism as simplistic: Marjorie Levinson mention's "Blake's notorious disdain for allegory -- specifically, for the dualistic ways of thinking it encourages," and his symbols often represent a "union of contraries" presenting deliberate paradoxes (Levinson 287). Thel is a virgin living in a mythical land of plenty and peace, the "Vales of Har" -- but Thel is tormented by the fact of death. She goes on a short trip to inquire of various created things in nature -- a flower, a clod of clay, a cloud, and a worm -- their view of the world. But there is no doubt that Wilkinson would have been just as shocked had he understood that the worm is meant to be understood as a penis, which Thel -- in her perfect virginal innocence -- refuses to accept. One also wonders if Wilkinson saw a copy of The Book of Thel which includes the extra two lines just before the concluding couplet that Blake withheld from certain editions, perhaps fearing their explicitness would shock or horrify. The full text of Thel's conclusion runs:
Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?
Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?
The Virgin started from her seat, & with a shriek
Fled back unhinder'd till she came into the vales of Har. (Blake, Thel)
Marjorie Levinson starts from a standpoint that seriously misreads Thel as "a Little Girl Lost/Found poem writ large," which ignores -- in her opinion -- the "suggestive identity between Thel and Desire" (Levinson 287). This is undoubtable, as Swearingen indicates, due to Blake's derivation of the name Thel itself from a Greek root meaning desire. (Swearingen 123). In other words, to some degree Blake is presenting a symbolic vision of female sexual desire -- one which, shockingly, in its purest form has no desire for the worm, either as a phallic and penetrative symbol, or as a symbolic baby. (Norvig notes Blake's use of the worm imagery in his poem "The Rose" from Songs of Innocence and Experience has this same dual sense, of phallic penetration and burgeoning parasitic life.)
The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lilly's leaf,
And the bright Cloud sail'd on, to find his partner in the vale.
Then Thel astonish'd view'd the Worm upon its dewy bed:
'Art thou a Worm? image of weakness, art thou but a Worm?
I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lilly's leaf.
Ah weep not, little voice, thou canst not speak, but thou can weep.
Is this a worm? I see thee lay helpless & naked, weeping,