William Blake created Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion between 1804 and 1820. Since its conception this epic poem, compromised of one hundred illuminated plates divided into four chapters, has baffled many good readers. In 1811 Robert Southey thought it was “perfectly mad”; in 1978 W. J. T. Mitchell called it “some species of antiform” whose “narrative goes nowhere”; Robert Essick more recently wondered if “it is more than a curiosity shop with some treasures hidden amidst the clutter?” Many reasonable readers think the poem makes no sense.
The poem resists interpretation by rational means alone, and this is as it should be, for Jerusalem’s words and images seek to move us (with its characters) away from a purely rational way of seeing and living to one that is highly imaginative.
Jerusalem is not a poem to which we assign ‘meaning’; it is meant to be experienced. It does not progress in a linear fashion: people and places morph into one another; the story unfolds kaleidoscopically, a changing montage of words and images.
This changing montage is full of treasures when we engage with it imaginatively; it does not respond to a solely intellectual approach. Of course intellectual analysis cannot be discarded; but reading Jerusalem involves using reason in the service of imagination.
Blake wants us to experience imaginatively how we and all things are interconnected, “divine members of a Divine Body”. We can move (with Blake’s characters) from a state of rationality and isolation (which he calls Ulro) to one of creative interconnectedness (called Eden/Eternity). In Eden/Eternity forgiveness is a spiritual and social structuring principle – which Blake advocates as the basis for all human and political relationships.
The Politics of Forgiveness
Embarking on this Edenic journey may seem “perfectly mad” until we enter the world of the poem on its own terms.
We have to understand its fluid characters, shifting settings, and strange words and images. We have to attend to what Blake calls the Minute Particulars (or the unique and specific details) of the poem. This requires analysis and critical thought; we need to know what, where, how, and why things are in order to experience how they interrelate. Entering imaginatively into Jerusalem involves close textual reading and analysis – and close reading and analysis depends upon imaginative engagement with the text. Jerusalem asks its readers to be both critical and imaginative.
The concept of ‘visionary theatre’ lets us explore Blake’s masterpiece both critically and creatively. Jerusalem is a visionary text, replete with theatrical elements (e.g. song, dance, monologues, special effects). In the preface to Jerusalem’s opening scene Blake lets us know that the poem is a performance, for every word has been chosen “to suit the mouth of a true Orator”. The poem is meant to be heard – and its luminous images are meant to be seen. What we see and hear leads us into new imaginative worlds, changing our perception. This is what theatre does. “Theatre” in Greek, means “seeing place” – and the kind of seeing that happens in this place is essentially imaginative.
In the opening scene Blake makes it clear that Jerusalem arises from a visionary experience; it is dictated by “the Saviour” who is singing and “spreading his beams of love”, connecting heaven and earth. Visionary art and literature often deal with the relationship between heaven and earth, between the human, angelic, and the divine. A visionary text, like a visionary experience, is unconfined by mundane space and time. Action can happen both in a psychological or spiritual realm (on a microcosmic stage) and in a socio-political or cosmological realm (on a macrocosmic stage). Characters can be in several places at once; a visionary narrator may present us with a ‘god’s eye’ view of the action, asking us to see several scenes or vignettes simultaneously.
This can be confusing. It is especially confusing when a reader tries to assign a fixed meaning to Blake’s fluid creatures, places, and imagery. So it is helpful to think, not merely like an objective critic, but like an actor or director, responding to this visionary creatures by asking, not ‘what do they mean?’ but rather: ‘How do they look? What do they want? How do they sound? Where are they?’ Attending to their movements, motivations, and actions reveals, not the abstract meaning of Jerusalem, but an experience of the poem – as we experience a play by attending to what is happening onstage. Of course Blake’s Jerusalem cannot be confined to a mundane three-dimensional stage; it requires what I call visionary theatre.
‘Visionary theatre’ is a fluid term. It can refer, not only to the locus of the action, but also to a way of reading, to the nature of a text, to elements within the text, and to creative productions (or interpretations) of the text. In visionary theatre the text and the reader are not confined by mundane space and time; action can take place both within the microcosm (‘little world’) of an individual mind or soul and the macrocosm (‘great world’) of politics, ecology, and the body of God. The ‘stage’ is within, around, and before us – and on that micro- and macrocosmic stage, the human, the angelic, and the divine interrelate. Imaginatively, we can think of ourselves as being as fluid as Blake’s peculiar characters.
We can ‘enter into’ them imaginatively, as an actor would do – and we can be transformed by them. This is in keeping with the purpose of the poem; Blake wants us to open our eyes “into Eternity … into the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination”; he wants us to dwell with and in his characters, with one another – and with God.
Visionary theatre allows us to engage with Blake’s composite art both sequentially and synchronically, and to perceive how micro- and macrocosmic dramas interrelate, transforming characters and their audiences. Such an approach is helpful when engaging with any poetry (and particularly with epic poetry). However, visionary theatre is particularly helpful when reading Jerusalem because of the extreme fluidity of time, place, perception, and character in the poem.
Susanne Sklar is a member of the Cumnor Fellowship, Oxford, and an assistant professor in English and Great Ideas at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The above article is an excerpt from her remarkable book Blake’s Jerusalem as Visionary Theatre: Entering the Divine Body (OUP, 2011) and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.