When it is reduced to a formula, Blake’s mythology in the masterpiece Jerusalem conveys one of the most plausible and demanding of insights into humanity: that Albion, the primordial man, the unity of a nation and individual alike, has been divided into four, Urthona (Imagination), Tharmas (The Senses), Luvah (Emotion), and Urizen (Reason), and those four set in opposition, or else fallen; that the promise of Albion to be redeemed as Jerusalem is likewise destroyed; that it is Los, whose name registers the dilemma, who, a diminished spectre of Urthona, labors to preserve the form of Albion and the hope of Jerusalem against the sons and daughters of Albion, but also against his own emanation, Enitharmon, who rebels against his patriarchial will, and his own spectre, who would deceive him to surrender to the fallen state. It is a myth about unity, division, and hope. But it is also deeply unsettling, because the twin poles of feeling in the poem are those of tragedy: compassionate grief on the one hand (which Blake in this poem sometimes calls “pity,” in a sense that is not malign; in this redeemed sense, the word is sometimes coupled, “pity and compassion”), and terror on the other. Opening himself to compassionate grief and terror, feeling them for what they are in response to seeing a world for what it is, Los perseveres in creating, laboring at his forge, violent, unreasonable, stubborn, willful, grotesque, sublime; in creating, he is driven by pity and terror, but he also forges that which inspires pity and terror. But at the same time, his labor is elsewhere: he labors not only to hope for the restoration of Jerusalem, but labors to forgive. The prospect of forgiveness in the poem is inseparable from the terms of tragedy: they demand forgiveness, they also allow it, and it is the proper response to the pity and terror he feels.
The “philosophy” of Blake is in fact remarkably simple, dramatizing the need for forgiveness and all of the emotional pressure not to forgive; expressing the sundered sense of human life, a dissolution of the faculties and capacities of humanity; it would take very little effort to quote some of Robert Brandom’s or Sebastian Rodl’s readings of Hegel (bringing to the fore the duty and difficulty of forgiveness), or Habermas’ reading of Weber, with the colonization of the life-world and the fragmentation of its validity-truth-legitimacy claims, to lard Blake’s poetry with the claim that he, more than any of his peers, was diagnosing not just industrialization or revolutions in the nature of what even counted as a revolution, but diagnosing modernity itself—revealing it in a new form. His Christianity is as palpable a Gnosticism as could be, rejecting all but the worship of a salutary, unified whole person endlessly forgiving and redeeming by creativity. The difficulty arises because the diagnosis and philosophy are not, in the epic poems, least of all the most fully realized, Jerusalem, presented in naked form; the question becomes why Blake did not want to do so, and the answer must have to do with the diagnosis itself. The answer, everyone knows, is given in short-hand by Los, when he says, “I must create a System or be enslaved by another man’s | I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to create.” This is as heroic an articulation of Romantic poetry, and modern poetry, as any. But it does not directly shed light on the really knotty question of why this system. We get a bit closer with: “Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems.” And we come closer still with Los’ threat to his Spectre: “I will compel thee to assist me in my terrible labours. To beat | These hypocritic Selfhoods on the Anvils of bitter Death | I am inspired: I act not for myself: for Albion’s sake | I now am what I am: a horror and an astonishment | Shuddering the heavens to look upon me.” And we are closer still when we take into account the belief that “He would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars” and “For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars” and “General Forms have their vitality in Particulars: & every | Particular is Man; a Divine Member of the Divine Jesus.”
When we take these together, though they seem initially to collide rather than coopeate, we are reminded not so much of Blake’s determination to make a system for himself as of his desire to express the minute particulars of history, politics, personal struggle, biblical precedent, all at once in a unified form, that does not recede into abstraction and that does relates always to the fallen Albion and the hope of Jerusalem’s restoration. As in Los’ threat to his Spectre, the effort will be not only be violent but will require Blake to beat “hypocrite Selfhoods” out of his poetry, to narrate history, politics, biography, and bible in terms of experiences of imagination, desire, hatred, and loathing that must be understood in the minute particularity of individual existence—but that cannot be appreciated in the hypocrite Selfhoods of the social and political landscape surrounding him. The mythic titans of his imagination allow Blake to narrate the dynamic that resides within, and drives, history, politics, personal life and even Christian myth—and to narrate that dynamic in terms of grief and grievance, desire, willing, striving, enduring, creation, violence, cruelty, and betrayal, by way of his mythic figures. Those figures are challenging not because they are abstractions but because they are so many places at once; they occupy so many orbits of reference and significance. When Blake writes “Luvah is France,” it cannot mean that Luvah is only France, but that Luvah is France, in a sense, or among other things. The final lines of the poem celebrate the promise of “all human forms identified” with the restoration of Jerusalem, and they suggest why the identity of the mythic figures is as difficult as it is: because identity has itself become impossible in the fallen world, with the the fragmented human experience, the dissociated Zoas, and the deceptions of “hypocrite Selfhood.”
Blake’s mythic figures possess “human form,” and are vital particulars (“every particular is man”), but baffle attempts at identifying them definitively, neatly, or simply with one thing or another, or to identify them at all, beyond what Blake offers. That is not a bug of the poetry; it is a feature, an corollary of its argument about dissociation and fragmentation, since all of the things that each of the figures might be identified with (Blake himself, a nation, a political party, a Biblical figure, a personal friend or enemy) is not adequately, in the life we know, with Jerusalem absent and Albion enchained, related to the other figures; they are all one, but we cannot see how they are whole together, and that because no one of us—Blake not excepted—is whole and unified. Their plight and despair is division; unity is the poem’s hope, and unity, and the recovery of identity, can only happen by way of forgiveness, since forgiveness reconciles.
Much of the force of Blake’s poetry owes to his insisting on establishing relationships of identity, correspondence, and equivalence among objects that cannot fit in the same conceptual framework; the point would seem to be there not fitting. This is true even on the large scale, where Blake’s generic precedent would seem to be Old Testament prophetic and poetic voices, transposed to a post-Christ world, situated in British History, with British literature and myth at its back; these are, for Blake, all able to speak to each other, but following the vision of our world as fractured, its parts severed from one another, it is not surprising, by the poem’s own lights, that they do not feel organically coherent. Blake’s prophetic hope brings them together, but it would not feel like hope or prophecy if the combinations did not in some conspicuous ways fail to cohere and join.
It is a poem about a reconciliation that history, politics, the common interpretation of the Bible, and Blake’s personal life not only have failed to bring about, but have seen the truth of only in glimpses; in the poem Blake transcends himself—the inspiration and enthusiasm—allows him to understand what has prevented reconciliation and what reconciliation would mean. Ultimately, for Blake, Jesus alone can offer the true forgiveness that is reconciliation, but to live in the hope of Jesus means striving to forgive and striving to perceive the reconciliations of forms and the divisions that do exist. The fatal error of which Blake accuses humanity is to balk at the difficult imaginative work of knowing division and knowing what genuine unity must bring together, and to instead take a part for the whole, lazily, and to worship, say, Satan, or Vala, as the absolute (the taking of a part for a whole, the worship of Reason as the essence of Man, say, is what we would call ideology; Blake includes this, and more); to negate what is opposed, rather than seeing the work of forgiveness as a transcendence of opposition, a true mediation or synthesis of contradictions that preserves the terms in a third. I’m obviously working in Hegel’s terms here, but Blake would find much to admire Kierkegaard, the anti-Hegelian, insisting on existence-in-time and experience against the abstractions of History. Suffice it to say that he writes in the same arena as them, battles some of the same anxieties, with very different weapons.
In some of its beautiful passages, Blake imagines what it would be to create a form of disparate elements that could prepare the way for Jerusalem; such a form is the poem itself, Blake’s House of Poetry to James’ House of Fiction:
And what are those golden builders doing? where was the burying-place
Of soft Ethinthus? near Tyburns fatal tree? is that
Mild Zions hills most ancient promontory; near mournful
Ever weeping Paddington? is that Calvary and Golgotha?
Becoming a building of pity and compassion? Lo!
The stones are pity, and the bricks, well wrought affections:
Enameld with love & kindness, & the tiles engraven gold
Labour of merciful hands: the beams & rafters are forgiveness:
The mortar & cement of the work, tears of honesty: the nails,
And the screws, & iron braces, are well wrought blandishments,
And well contrived words, from fixing, never forgotten,
Always comforting the remembrance: the floors, humility,
The cielings, devotion: the hearths, thanksgiving:
Prepare the furniture O Lambeth in thy pitying looms!
The curtains, woven tears & sighs, wrought into lovely forms
For comfort, there the secret furniture of Jerusalems chamber
Is wrought: Lambeth! The Bride the Lamb’s Wife loveth thee:
Thou art one with her & knowest not of self in thy supreme joy
Go on, builders in hope: tho Jerusalem wanders far away,
Without the gate of Los: among the dark Satanic wheels.
The poetry does its work by becoming the architecture that holds together London geography, Biblical geography, the physical materials of construction, and pity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, thanksgiving, and devotion. This is Blake’s ideal of poetry, what he would, but cannot ultimately, bring about in the poem itself, which repeats its narrative, struggling to find closure, and its own unity. The story of Los is told anew in the third and fourth books, and I do not think the only reason for some of the redundancy and disorder can be the duration of composition, with Blake finishing some parts earlier than others. For one thing, Blake is imitating Old Testatment prophets and poets, who do something similar, at a smaller scale; for another, Blake’s subject matter divides within itself, divides against Blake, and being nothing less than division itself, divides from itself. The poem is creation that regenerates itself successively—and that regeneration outdoes earthly generation, is a mark of its inspiration.
In this passage, the first line is remarkable for the words “doing” and “golden.” They–whoever they are–are evidently “builders,” but what they are doing cannot be captured by that verb alone; they are themselves “golden,” whereas we might think they work in gold. Instead, they are gold in light, golden because themselves of a precious substance, because unearthly, and also because they are themselves the most perfect of earthly forms, now doing something that transcends physical earthly materials (that is composed instead of hope itself, of thanksgiving itself, of devotion itself…) just as it transcends the activity of “building.” Then we have the interweaving of Biblical Geography and London Geography, places made persons, Paddington ever-weeping, in a series of questions that revolves into one question: “is that all of these places, or any of these places, ‘becoming a building of pity and compassion’”: where the verb “becoming” suggests a process of life and transformation more organic or fluid than we would associate with construction: again “building” is not the right verb, though a “building of pity and compassion” is what results. It is instead that what the builders are doing, whatever it is, results in these places “becoming” something else, something more becoming. It has to mean something that Blake (alone of English poets?) can write “Lo!” with validity. This scene warrants it: it brings him and up short, and it is also a measure of Blake’s having something to say that allows him to put pressure to bear on the copula. It’s not that “to be” means something different or strange here, but it’s “identificatory” power, that something exists not just as something, or in similitude to something, but IN and inseparable from something else, and that the direction of identity runs two ways: “the stones are pity” means that the stones are made of pity but also that these stones are what pity is. To know what these seeming abstractions are is to see them as the creation that Blake here incisions, supporting one another, a dwelling in hope of Jerusalem’s return. Nowhere does Blake write “made of”: instead, the verb itself is elided as the passage progresses, with “the floors, humility/,the cielings, devotions: the hearths, thanksgiving.” Floors are humility because low; ceilings devotions because we look up towards them; hearths thanksgivings because they draw together and give forth light and warmth (forgiveness as rafters are the support structure). Though the colon suggests a strong interruption, and, along with the line break, creates a set of pairs, the absence of the verb makes the whole seem like a list, the items piling on top of each other, the parts of the house intermingled, abstraction and concretion, the unity greater than identity within any pair. But we do feel some unity in each pair, the identity of the two terms established as a pair—but even granting this, the succession of pairs is itself a list cohering into a greater whole. And within each pair, the absence of a verb removes even the metaphorical potential carried by “is.” As a list of two, each item in each pair stands, co-existent with the other.
“Pitying looms” is characteristic of Blake’s extraordinary mind, justified here because the looms are animate and inseparable from the person that is the place that is Lambeth: the looms pity because the weave from tears and sighs, curtains, suitably, since curtains close the windows, obscure the vision, obstructing sight, and because they are themselves translucent, cascading, delicate, and a sign of privacy and interior life; they are made of sighs because curtains stir in the winds, are the lightest furniture in any room. The curtains “wrought into lovely forms” by the looms, since tears take on a lovely form, liquid and orderly; but also magically, strangely, since sighs are themselves formless, dissipating and ephemeral, and here preserved as something solid and defined. All of this is “pitying” not only because it concerns tears and sighs, but because the looms themselves pity the tears and sighs sufficiently to make something of them, to take them up into art; pity here contains care, and care contains creation, a “becoming.” Nicholas Shrimpton, in a note, thinks it strange that Blake would talk about Lambeth here, as it was no longer his place of residence; he speculates that he might be thinking of the secret truth still contained within the Archbishop’s palace. That would be surprising, in light of Blake’s dissenting faith. But whether that is the case or not, it seems fairly clear that Blake is responding to the sound of the word, “Lambeth” and “the Lamb’s Wife” joining in sound.
The dissolution of self, the self-annihilation that is not negation, that is repeatedly celebrated in this poem, a consequence of true forgiveness, is beautifully touched upon in this line: “Thou art one with her & knowest not of self in thy supreme joy.” This is not a destruction of self, but it is a loss of the sense of self that for Blake blinds one to the greater whole of which one is a part; and it might be that self-annihilation is not self-evisceration but is the annihilation of self-consciousness, the stem of ego and selfishness, that the word “self” carried into the nineteenth century (in George Eliot still, for instance). It is significant that Blake writes “knowest not of self” rather than “knowest not thy self,” though I’ve been speaking as if it were the latter; since it is the former, it is the concept of self that has itself been lost. That point is much more interesting, since it suggests that the sense of self either cannot or does not coincide with “thy supreme joy.” “Thy” reinstates a sense of property, a core of personhood, so that this joy belongs to you, but the notion of you or me, the conception of selfhood, is dissolved in it. It might be that this joy is inimical to any sense of self, and so precludes it, or it might be that the joy follows on from the union with the Lamb’s bride. “Go on, builders in hope”: they build in the material of hope, in the terrain of hope, in the place of hope, but they build also in hopeful expectation (the verb “build” again elided), and these all amount to the same. Then closure: all of that “tho Jerusalem wanders far away,” where wanders suggests error, perplexity, but also independence, and the strength to return. Not just “far away” but far away “without the gate of Los; among the dark Satanic Wheels,” with the succession of prepositions across these lines, “in…away…without…among,” tracing an arc of experience, from where Jersulaem ought to dwell, to distance, to absence and exile, a stranger surrounded by strangers, out of doors and among enemies. The turning of wheels recalls, with a difference, the spinning of the looms: the latter creative, bringing form into being, the “dark Satanic wheels” spinning in sterility, grinding, recalling perhaps orbits of astronomy, gears of a clock or watch, as well as early factories, all associated with the targets of Blake’s ire: natural religion, the laws of physics, and industrial indifference to suffering.
The preoccupation with unity and the form of unity in Jerusalem leads Blake to his radical renovation of meter, of which he boasts: “When this verse was dictated to me I considered a Monotonous Cadence like that used by Milton and Shakespeare and all writers of English Blank Verse, delivered from the modern Bondage of rhyming. But I soon found that in the mouth of a true Orator such monotony was not only awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself. I therefore have produced a variety in every line, both of cadences and number of syllables. Every word and every syllable is studied and put into its fit place: the terrific for the terrific parts–the mild and gentle, for the mild and gentle parts, and the prosaic, for the inferior parts: all are necessary to each other.” There is much here to think through, not least the relation of Oratory to poetry, and the suggestion that, though the verse was dictated to the inspired Blake, he had to nonetheless fashion it into a form. But the boldest claim is that he is writing something like free verse, with variety in every line. There is regular variety in the poem. At the same time–as I had recently pointed out to me–Blake’s meter varies from a base of “fourteeners,” fourteen syllable lines that few English poets have mastered. Perhaps because they swell to such a length, they extend the scope of variation that can be had without disrupting the sense of order and regularity; it is not, at any rate, a poem in free verse.
In a passage that is “mild and gentle,” he writes about Vala, who we find later in the poem will be falsely worshiped—and will wrongly accept worship—as a goddess of Babylon, participating in human sacrifice at the hands of the corrupted, druidic Daughters of Albion:
Why wilt thou give to her a Body whose life is but a Shade?
Her joy and love, a shade, a shade of sweet repose:
But animated and vegetated, she is a devouring worm:
What shall we do for thee O lovely mild Jerusalem?
/ – / / – / – / – – / – / – / (15 syllables; 8 stresses; 7 feet)
– / – / – / – / – / – / (12 syllables; 6 stresses; 6 feet)
/ / – / – – / – / – / / – – / – / (17 syllables; 9 stresses; 8 feet)
/ / – / – / – / – / – / – / (14 syllables; 8 stresses; 7 feet)
There are two patterns. The fourteen-syllable line is a governing norm, from which Blake varies. The total number of syllables across the four lines is 57, which divided by four is just over 14, and the variance from 14 is +1, -2, +2, 0, for a total of 1 (if each number is an absolute value, a total of 5), whereas from 12 it would be +3, 0, +5, +2, for a total of eight (if each an absolute value, a total of 10), and from 16 it would be -1, -5, +1, -1, for a total of minus 6 (if absolute values, a total of 8), so on any way of counting 14 is the center. But then there is another pattern within each line, concerning what I count as the number of stresses: the number of stresses in each line is one unit more than half the syllables, and though there are spondaic, trochaic, and anapestic substitutions, and the feet cluster around 7, with two lines measuring 7 feet, one six, and one eight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only line without substitutions is the second, where Blake offers his vision of the proper state of Vala; similarly the last line, after the imploring spondee of the opening, gently caresses Jerusalem in iambs.
[NOTE: Since writing the above, I’ve been given advice on how to scan Blake’s verse, and had a few of my stresses corrected. In the first line, “thou” should not be stressed, making that an iamb; the “y” of Body might be swallowed by another syllable; those two changes would make it a fourteener with seven stresses. In the third line, “But” should not be stressed and I accept the suggestion I was given that “she is a devouring worm” would be elided for “she’s a devouring worm with three stresses. In the fourth line, “what” might not be stressed, giving it a regular iambic structure.]
It’s near the epic’s close that Blake is most formally inventive, straining to imagine the reconciliation that must remain a hope and not a reality on this earth. If we read the poem looking for anticipations of literature to come, here we have what seems a glimpse of stream-of-consciousness, except the rushing torrent is not only a reflection of Blake’s inspired mind gasping after the vision he hears and sees, but is also a reflection of that vision itself, as its parts are drawn together, into the abyss of creation centered on Jehovah’s forgiveness; it’s an unknowable center of things that Blake approaches, and as he approaches it, his poetry seems to accelerate, one phrase cascading into the next. Even the diction warps, “NonEns” and “Humanize” both differently sitting strangely in the language of the poem:
The labyrinthine ear. Circumscribing & circumcising the excrementitious
Husk & Covering into vacuum evaporating revealing the lineaments of Man
Driving outward the Body of Death in an Eternal Death & Resurrection
Awaking it to Life among the Flowers of Beulah rejoicing in Unity
In the Four Senses in the Outline the Circumference & Form, for ever
In Forgiveness of Sins which is Self Annihilation. it is the Covenant of Jehovah
The Four Living Creatures Chariots of Humanity Divine Incomprehensible
In beautiful Paradises expand These are the Four Rivers of Paradise
And the Four Faces of Humanity fronting the Four Cardinal Points
Of Heaven going forward, forward irresistible from Eternity to Eternity
And they conversed together in Visionary forms dramatic which bright
Redounded from their Tongues in thunderous majesty, in visions
In new Expanses, creating exemplars of Memory and of Intellect,
Creating Space, Creating Time, according to the wonders Divine
Of Human Imagination. throughout all the Three Regions immense
Of Childhood, Manhood & Old Age & all tremendous unfathomable NonEns
Of Death was seen in regenerations terrific or complacent varying
According to the subject of discourse & every Word & Every Character
Was Human according to the Expansion or Contraction. The Translucence or
Opakeness of Nervous fibres such was the variation of Time & Space
Which vary according as the Organs of Perception vary & they walked
To & fro in Eternity as One Man, reflecting each in each & clearly seen
And seeing: according to fitness & order. And I heard Jehovah speak
Terrific from his Holy Place & saw the Words of the Mutual Covenant Divine
On Chariots of gold & jewels with Living Creatures starry & flaming
With every Colour. Lion. Tyger. Horse. Elephant. Eagle. Dove. Fly. Worm.
And the all wondrous Serpent clothed in gems & rich array Humanize
In the Forgiveness of Sins according to thy Covenant, Jehovah.
The word “Terrific” appears here, “And I heard Jehovah speak | Terrific,” and I think this passage must as a whole be taken as a record of what the terrific words of Jehovah sound like, when rendered, approximately, in human speech. This is a raw vision of the divine redemption for which Blake hopes. It is “terrific” in so far as “terrific” is opposed to “pathetic,” the latter inspiring pity and compassion, the former terror–the two extremes of tragedy, fear and pity, are both essential to understanding divine forgiveness (as they are both necessary for understanding, say, “the tyger,”) and we might grasp also how for Blake the experience of terror at Jehovah requires a meter and sensitivity not only to rhythm, but syntax, that breaks free from what was available; the word “break” though does not do justice to the molten liquid, wild mercury, movement of the lines, everything of a part, barely separated out for Blake to discern, and always in the process of becoming something else, until it rests in the solid doctrinal clarity of the final line.
Blake’s Jerusalem is a poem to live by. However strangely open its mythology, however relentless its scenes of anguish, envy, division, and cruelty, it is deeply compassionate, humble, and hopeful without sentimentality: it holds fast to the necessity, and human impossibility, of true forgiveness, and forgiveness as an endlessly frustrating, arduous creative task, requiring imagination, the senses, reason, and feeling all at once. For all of its otherworldliness, it is wisely, wonderfully, subtly humane.