The previous post reprinted Blake’s Europe a prophecy, written shortly after the French Revolution and depicting the political and psychological womb out of which it emerged. His illustrations and text are dense, poetic, and richly ambiguous. Here I unpack some of the main themes of the poem, which revolve around Blake’s critique of materialism, and explore the psychological subtext of the poem. As Paley notes, the function of the prophetic form for Blake was “to expose the otherwise hidden motives and consequences of human decisions”. Blake’s concept of ‘prophecy’ is therefore a form of political psychoanalysis, a powerful new way of going under the skin of contemporary events and accessing the deep psychological and sexual dynamics that lie behind both religious and political structures. This superimposition of different fields of reference (simultaneously political, sexual, religious, psychological) is one of the things that makes Blake’s works so striking and distinct, as well as so dense and multivalent. It is also a feature of his thinking that he has in common with modern psychoanalytic approaches. As Adam Phillips notes:
You can only understand anything that matters — dreams, neurotic symptoms, literature — by overinterpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses. Authority wants to replace the world with itself. Overinterpretation means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; it means assuming that to believe one interpretation is to radically misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and indeed interpretation itself.
Blake located the source of contemporary struggle in a specific complex of psycho-social structures and dynamics, which we still see being played out and repeated in contemporary European politics. Until we learn to understand and recognise these processes, Blake believed, we will be doomed to repeat the same underlying cycle again and again: a world where revolution becomes simply endless re-cycling.
Introduction: Prophecy as Psychoanalysis
“The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious”, Freud observed, “what I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied”. Blake was one of the great pioneering poets of the unconscious and Europe a prophecy is perhaps the first modern psychoanalytic poem.
In the poem Blake draws on a number of key ideas and elements of psychoanalysis: dreams, subconscious driving forces, Oedipal configurations, and the deep structures of the psyche. For Blake, these structures and patterns are simultaneously psychological, sexual, and political, as they play themselves out in multiple spheres. The dream sequence in the poem, for example, allows Blake to explore “the growth of the old order, of the unholy alliance of organized religion with tyrannical monarchy”, as well as the personal and unconscious dynamics involved in them and driving them. These historical and psychological developments are also generational and gendered, Blake notes – powerful and recurrent dynamics of aspiration and frustration that we see repeatedly played out in history, and which for Blake characterise contemporary Europe: a world torn between surveillance and rage, between Urizen’s repressive laws and Orc’s violent response. Blake’s remarkable intuitions into processes of psychic splitting and dissociation, and his interest in the origins of trauma and the mechanisms of its transmission and reproduction, allow him to see contemporary Europe as a profoundly traumatised and divided state. And the nature of this trauma, Blake suggests, is simultaneously personal and political.
Childhood development and trauma specialist Gabor Maté: “When I look at who actually forms the apex of the hierarchy in our society, it’s largely traumatised people. For example, if you believe you live in a horrible world, you have to be aggressive, grandiose, paranoid, selfish. In other words you have to be the President of the United States. Trump’s brain was formed in a family where he was demeaned and punished, and attacked and humiliated by his father. His opponent was also traumatised. They were two traumatised people fighting to govern a traumatised world. What we have are deeply entrenched and traumatised systems that are predicated on unconscious choices, unconscious drives.”
Blake’s Europe a prophecy is also a poem that revolves around the theme of materialism and the underlying psychology of materialism – by which Blake means not merely the philosophical and scientific belief in matter and ‘things’ (‘cognitive’ materialism) but also the sense of possession and possessiveness that underwrites and drives it (‘affective’ materialism). In order to possess or own something, one paradoxically needs to think of oneself as detached from it in the first place, notes Blake, which is precisely how the left brain does experience embodied being (reality). This process of reification and objectification – the mental process of turning experience into ‘objects’ which can then be possessed or owned – is the result or byproduct of what Blake referred to as Urizen, “the Reasoning Power/An Abstract objecting power” (Jerusalem). The “objecting power” of such rationality neatly encapsulates the way in which fallen or divided (dissociated) reason operates and processes experience, capturing both its objectifying stare and stance, and also its tendency to “object to” everything: to judge, to dissect, and to analyse. The processes of supposedly ‘cold’ rationality and bureaucratic rationalisation, Blake acutely notes, are actually rooted in emotional complexes, and especially in anxiety – anxiety at being alive, at being embodied, at being mortal, and above all at being human.
Where Blake problematises this so interestingly is the way in which he connects his analysis of economic and philosophical materialism to ‘sexual materialism’ (monogamy), both being rooted in the desire to possess or ‘own’ reality. If we can somehow ‘control’ and privatise our fleeting sensory pleasures, so our rationalising Urizenic minds think, they won’t be able to leave us. Thus, materialism is in many ways an emotional substitute for past hurt on the one hand and surety against future pain and loss on the other. By nailing it down, the Urizenic mind thinks it can control pleasure (‘Ahania’, in Blake’s terms): it can’t see that it actually kills it.
Fear drives materialism on every front: the desperate search for things that do not disappoint, for things that we can grasp and hold on to. For Blake, this psychological project lies behind the whole confinement and commodification of the senses, a project which he believed Locke and Bacon had done so much to develop, codifying this way of paranoid thinking into a sophisticated system of bodily and mental imprisonment called ‘materialism’.
But Europe is also about revolution, an attempt to uncover and analyse the underlying dynamics that drive the revolutionary struggle, and to understand why it so often ends in failure, as it did in both Britain and France. It is significant in this respect that Blake wrote his poem in the glow of the French revolution and only months after the dramatic beheading of Louis XVI, an act that sent shockwaves through the Urizenic establishments of Europe. The poem is an investigation of the effects of trauma on a generation, and how our current Urizenic system is itself the product and manifestation of earlier trauma.
Blake believed that the current template for revolution was precisely that: a revolving of the wheel of the same complex, so that the forms and faces of the new regime might change but the underlying power structures and psychological dynamics remain the same. Long live the King. Blake suggests that we now live in a world of constant revolution – a wheel of continual aspiration and frustration simply going round and round as the underlying processes remain unconscious and unexamined.
If we can understand and acknowledge these deep motives and dynamics, Blake suggests, we can perhaps shape the future so that it does not simply repeat the past. Blake’s sense of social prophecy as a process of uncovering “the otherwise hidden motives and consequences of human decisions” suggests a radical, psychoanalytical view of prophecy – of psychoanalysis itself as a contemporary form of prophecy.
It is in this sense, I think, that Europe can be seen as the first great poem of psychoanalysis, exploring and analysing the unconscious psyche of the contemporary world.
“a world torn between surveillance and rage, between Urizen’s repressive laws and Orc’s violent response” – ‘gilets jaunts’ protests in Paris (Europe 2018), the latest turn of the wheel
Uncovering the nature of these concealed complexes – which is the essence of his ‘prophecy’ – is what these colourful and sensually-charged 18 plates seek to do.
The Rough Guide to Blake’s Europe
Plate 1 This remarkable and powerful image sets the tone and provides the ‘internal working model’, as psychoanalysts say, for the whole poem. Here Blake depicts the dominant ruling mental construct of Europe – the ‘god’ of the psychological and political world, and as such the template to denote ‘This is what governs’: the great architect of Europe. The image itself represents power – or at least the kind of power which we are familiar with in Europe: dividing, authoritarian, hierarchical, imposed.
Blake gave no title to this striking frontispiece, but the figure is widely known as ‘The Ancient of Days’, after one of the terms used to describe an aspect of God in the Old Testament and also in the Kabbalah. Milton, in his great poem Paradise Lost, presents this archetypal figure or process as dividing the world with golden compasses, which we also see in Blake’s image: “He took the golden Compasses, prepar’d/In Gods Eternal store, to circumscribe/This Universe, and all created things”. Division and control are central to the operating system of this figure, who for Blake is merely another embodiment or manifestation of the vast ratio-nalising power he calls Urizen.
Urizen represents, amongst other things, the principle of rationalisation, bureacratisation, standardisation, and oppressive hierarchy – all recognisable as ‘left hemisphere’ brain processes and programs, which is also where this power is located in Blake’s work (see Tweedy, 2012). In the political terms of the poem, it alludes to the whole raft of dissociated aristocrats, technocrats, and bureaucrats who rule through what is usually called ‘rationalisation’, an austere form of economic and political misery. The perfect, self-enclosed circle in which this figure is placed represents Reason, an endless cycle of repression and containment that this Enlightenment mind-set represents and pushes through, and this theme of circles, coils, and spirals will be a dominant motif throughout the poem. In subsequent images, Blake will show us the results of this ‘enlightened’ project: profound social division, famine, plague, and constant war.
Look at his dividers: he knows what he’s doing. He genuinely believes his policies and way of doing things are correct, and efficient, and logical – and in their own way, they are. If Urizen was only measuring and dealing with inert units of data or information (which of course is what he thinks he’s dealing with), that’d be fine. But, notes Blake, he isn’t. Life is alive. That’s Urizen’s central problem: his algorithms and equations and percentages don’t actually correlate to reality (to lived, relational and embodied being) and therefore constantly generate misery and distress:
He, in darkness clos’d, view’d all his race
And his soul sicken’d! he curs’d
Both sons & daughters; for he saw
That no flesh nor spirit could keep
His iron laws one moment.
As Blake notes, actual living things (“flesh and spirit”) will eventually rise up and challenge this iron reign, which is what we find suggested in the next striking image.
Plate 2 So this is what he’s both up against and unconsciously generating. Urizen sees it as external to him – ‘why are all these carbon-based units protesting and rioting?’ – he can’t see that it is his own policies, his own way of attending to reality – that is fuelling and fanning the flames. ‘As a man is, so he sees’, Blake once observed: we are all entangled in our own constructions, our own destinies and downfalls, which is what makes Urizen a tragic (rather than, say, malicious) figure. Blake has some sympathy for Urizen’s dilemma: as McGilchrist would say, the left brain simply doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.
The two plates are beautifully synchronised and mutually reflective – capturing the Orc/Urizen struggle, in which both sides blame and damage the other. In a way, these two plates are what the whole poem is all about. This struggle or antagonism, Blake notes throughout this poem, recurs in various different forms: in class war, in economic division, in sexual relationships (the ‘battle’ of the sexes), in religious sublimation, in science’s project to dominate nature – because it is a relational issue at heart, and all human relations have become entangled in Urizen’s machinery of power and resistance. In Freudian terms, it suggests the conflict between the so-called reality principle (egoic rationality) and the id (eros).
Look at those coils rising up – and ‘rise up’ will be a repeated theme of this poem (both as active rebellion, as in France, and also the summoning up of internal powers and processes within the body, that the poem repeatedly depicts). This is a momentum that will not go away, even if it is repressed – because it represents a dynamic that is real and enduring in the human psyche – the impulse towards a freer and more self-directed, self-determined, and erotic (eros-based) society.
The serpent is an ambiguous and uncertain figure in Blake’s work, denoting the massively destructive as well as creative potential of libidinal energy – harnessing it is as problematic as repressing it. In Blake’s world, neither side is exclusively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – there are shadow sides to everything, and recognition of this essential multiperspectivity is crucial for both mental and political health – for successful integration.
The way the snake’s tongue picks up the lines of the word ‘Europe’ suggests that the snake, in many ways, is Europe – a continent engulfed in upwards revolutionary upheaval – ‘the age of the war of the oppressed against the oppressors” – as Shelley beautifully and succinctly put it in his preface to Hellas – another great revolutionary poetic analysis of the situation in Europe and its struggle for freedom.
And just as Urizen doesn’t recognise himself in the revolting masses – in the oppressed and split-off ‘serpent’ he has both created and depends upon, so too the crowds don’t see how they have been complicit in the maintenance of Urizen, through their own dissociations and logics. Both Blake and Shelley explore this profound dynamic in their attempts to unravel and work out, or as psychoanalysts would say ‘work through’, the implications and consequences of the French revolution on the contemporary traumatised psyche. As Shelley declared in a letter to Byron in 1816, the French Revolution is “the master theme of the epoch in which we live”. And in his great poem Prometheus Unbound, Shelley explores and uncovers the exact same dynamic whereby the terms of Jupiter’s dominance (Jupiter being Shelley’s equivalent to Blake’s oppressive Urizen) exactly match and mirror those of Demogorgon’s/Orc’s subjugation: human history, both poets suggest, depend on the realisation (or non-realisation) of this underlying, unifying, connection between the oppressed and the oppressor. As the later psychoanalyst Ferenczi brilliantly put it, what links the two – the traumatised and the traumatising – is the idea of “identification with the aggressor”: our internalisation of the Urizenic reality principle, a sort of mass Stockholm Syndrome.
Both Shelley and Blake note that contrary to popular opinion the attempts at democratic revolution in England, America, and France all failed (all employed the rhetoric of democracy but all ended with power and production being controlled by a financial elite). And both sought to understand why – to understand the deep mechanisms of failed revolution. As Blake scholar S. Foster Damon notes, all Orc-like revolutions will fail, and Blake’s poem Europe a prophecy attempts an analysis of why: “The tale of Orc is a revolutionist’s analysis of the contemporary American and French revolutions; Blake shows their cause, outburst, initial success, and eventual failure, thus establishing the formula for all revolutions”. Both Blake and Shelley see that there is an intrinsic tie connecting the governed and the governing, the oppressors and the oppressed, slave and master. Interestingly, the German philosopher Hegel was also working out the same dynamic at precisely this same time in his analysis of ‘master’ and ‘slave’ patterns within society, and how both sides are curiously bound to each other through unconscious processes of projection and introjection.
For the masses also split off and dissociate – this can perhaps still be seen in the orthodox ‘Them versus Us’ mind-set, or the Trump vs Clinton polarity, or the Remain vs Brexit splitting – ways of seeing and relating which exactly mirror Urizen’s own dissociated and disavowed shards, the need to frame things in terms of an enemy or opposition, which we can then ‘defeat’.
The idea of the 1% – while seemingly radical – is therefore in many ways merely another chink – reinforcement – of this mutually enslaving Urizenic chain, another coil in the snake’s twisting. Those strong serpentine coils and swirls are rather Dantean in their evocation of the powerful and passionate but ultimately doomed embrace of lovers swept along through the stream of their own unconsciousness. But denoting ‘energy’ and eros they also signify hope: these are not the static, dead circles of Urizen but the upwards-spiralling of living Hegelian dialectics, in which things apparently separate and distinct are actually tied together, bound back to back, mutually entangled: Subject and object; theory and practice, reality and history, consciousness and materialism.
Plate 3 This deceptively simple and apparently whimsical passage (added apparently some years later, and sometimes considered as marginal or even superfluous to the main poem) actually draws our attention to the poem’s key theme of materialism, and starts to analyse and process what materialism really is – to psychoanalyse it, if you like. Blake suggests that it’s basically a form of imprisonment. As McGilchrist has acutely noted, materialism is an under-valuation, not an over-valuation, of the body: “The left hemisphere is concerned with abstraction and has a preference for inanimate things, particularly as they have use for us. There is no paradox involved: materialists, as I suggested earlier, are not people who overvalue, but who undervalue, matter.”
What actually gives us life is the intense sensual reality of existence – which we experience through the various portals of our bodies which, as Blake notes in the opening lines, ’light’ our caverned, abstracted minds. (Blake brilliantly reverses the usual Gnostic metaphor: here, the rational ‘mind’ is dark and caverned; the bodies are spectrums full of colour and life).
Five windows light the cavern'd Man; thro' one he breathes the air; Thro' one, hears music of the spheres; thro' one, the eternal vine Flourishes, that he may recieve the grapes; thro' one can look. And see small portions of the eternal world that ever groweth; Thro' one, himself pass out what time he please, but he will not; For stolen joys are sweet, & bread eaten in secret pleasant.
These verses suggest that something has gone wrong with the 5th sense in particular – with sex (bodily touch) – that it’s become dominated by ideas of possession (‘stolen joys are sweet’) and secrecy (‘in secret pleasure’). In ‘capturing’ the Fairy in his hat, the narrator of these lines has neatly illustrated this himself – he has used his sense of touch, to entrap. And why? To get something he wants. Wants (desires, thinks he lacks). In this case – what he thinks he wants is ‘knowledge’ (note also the undertone here of sexual ‘knowing’).
We can’t let a beautiful thing be alone, and free … something in us wants to ‘possess’ it, to keep it, nail it down, hide it away … so others can’t see it, hear it, taste it, touch it, have it…. all those senses, locked down. This deep anxiety, Blake suggests, is the epistemological basis of moon-like monogamy and fiery jealousy (images that are to recur throughout the poem), the negation and antithesis of actual love (which is based on freedom).
So sang a Fairy, mocking, as he sat on a streak'd tulip, Thinking none saw him: when he ceas'd I started from the trees, And caught him in my hat, as boys knock down a butterfly.
And ‘Thinking none saw him’: What a great line, and insight – how would we act, and sing, if we didn’t care who saw us, or how we looked on Instagram? because they will want to ‘steal’ it… all those ‘feasting eyes’, which Ezekiel also talks about (Ezekiel 20:7): the distinctive left-brain mode of attention, which is to use, manipulate, and consume – with the eye as much as with the hand (McGilchrist). This perceptual consumerism and desire to possess (and to reify reality) is of course not only the basis of monogamy but also of capitalism.
In these deceptively short verses Blake is rejecting – ‘problematising’ – a whole way of seeing. This connection between possessing and a particular way of seeing goes to the heart of Blake’s work as both a thinker and an artist. As John Berger notes in his landmark series Ways of Seeing, capitalist culture has developed and greatly amplified a whole new form of commodity perception, in which all sensory experience gets turned into and seen as ‘things’, and things that we can own. This ‘thingyification’ of reality and experience, and the commodification of human perception that it relies on, was, Berger notes, particularly evident in the spectacular growth of the medium of oil painting which coincided with the growth of capitalism itself:
Oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. This analogy between possessing and the way of seeing which is incorporated in oil painting, is a factor usually ignored by art experts and historians. Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity.
“It is interesting to note here”, Berger continues, “the exceptional case of William Blake. As a draughtsman and engraver Blake learnt according to the rules of the tradition. But when he came to make paintings, he very seldom used oil paint and, although he still relied upon the traditional conventions of drawing, he did everything he could to make his figures lose substance, to become transparent and indeterminate one from the other, to defy gravity, to be present but intangible, to glow without a definable surface, not to be reducible to objects. This wish of Blake’s to transcend the ‘substantiality’ of oil paint derived from a deep insight into the meaning and limitations of the tradition.”
In Blake’s poem Europe a prophecy, it is therefore perhaps significant that the being he uses to convey these disturbing thoughts about sensory reality and materialism is a Fairy, a creature whom modern post-Newtonian materialists say can’t possibly exist – who they can’t ‘see’. As Blake scholar Marsha Keith Schuchard notes, Blake is drawing here on a specifically Shakespearian usage of fairies as ‘often ambiguous ministers of sexual joy’, since Shakespeare often made them ‘the traditional symbol of sex’. Note also that the Fairy is singing a ‘Song’ – which already suggests an opened Sense – a delight, an indifference to possession and judgment … a gateway into heavens. However, the Fairy is soon caught up and trapped in the narrator’s hat, and resigns his freedom “seeing himself in my possession” – YES! – that’s exactly the word.
The passage is both sad and to the point – both whimsical and profoundly Hegelian – in recognising that he’s been ‘possessed’. The fairy behaves as if the possessor is now the ‘master’ – and he will ‘obey’…. i.e., they have become Husband and Wife in effect, the possessor and the possessed. ‘I am yours’. Those words – which should sound happy – which we are taught through a thousand Beatles love songs and courtly love traditions to revere – now sound like prison knells, or the terms of a surrender treaty. Note how quickly – how readily – the Fairy submits …. how quickly we accept our chains.
Note also how like the Genie in the bottle he is – the butterfly trapped in a hat – the ghost in the machine – it’s a sort of id-like, trickster entity – that seems entwined somehow with the materialism of the ‘Master’ who wants to ‘possess’ and ‘use’ this spirit for his own ends. It’s perhaps notable that these ends are both scientific – the narrator wants to know – ‘what is the material world and is it dead?’ – and selfish (tell me!) [tell me!]. This is very much Urizen’s ontological dilemma.
Note also the 5 senses preoccupation here, the focus on our ‘inlets’ of experience in this life: the root mistake of materialism, Blake suggests, is basing a whole model and paradigm of reality on simply the ‘ratio’ of those inlets. Perversely and paradoxically, the more we rely on the empirical senses, the less we apprehend of wider, more implicit, worlds. As Blake brilliantly notes in The Marriage of Heaven of Hell, our senses are necessarily limited, and we limit them even more through this enforced left-brain rationalisation process: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense World of Delight, clos’d by your senses five?”
And just as, by implication, we have limited and belittled the other senses, so we have turned our our sexual realities into coy, secret, guilty, secrets…. ‘eaten in secret’ – not shared. What a great metaphor – bread, food – for how sexual possessiveness (monogamy) and its twin perversities of chastity and prostitution replace the liberated sharing and exuberant communion of sensory and sexual life.
Perhaps as a hint of the depth of our estrangement, alienation, and disconnection from sensory life, the narrator actually asks a surprisingly abstract question – he could ask this peculiar Fairy anything and what he actually asks is: What is matter, and is it alive or dead? The Fairy answers at least half of this, implying that the world is alive, and that this is known not through abstract cognitive rationality, but through embodied (‘right hemisphere’) states or experiences (he helpfully lists music, love, poetry, wine etc as instantiations of these). These are what we live for, to quote dead Poets, something which the materialistic mind often forgets in its obsession with ratios, percentage points, and algorithms.
Note too, that the narrator’s question – is the material world dead or alive? – already implies such distance from it. The Arthurian quest to try and find life again in this arid waste land of the left brain – through the pursuit of love, books, poetry, imagination, fantasy, alcohol, music – also suggests how these pursuits can equally become simply further symptoms of our desperate desire to escape the deadness, the dissociation from being, and to want to know what a more alive life might be like – which is ultimately what the narrator’s question is.
So it’s apparently the trapped and imprisoned Fairy who actually ‘dictates’ the poem Europe to the narrator – which also implies that this whole work is a sort of answer to his initial question about what is driving materialism …what do we really want … where is it going wrong … why do we feel so dead… why are we asking these sorts of questions? Note also that the poem is, Blake says ‘dictated’ – i.e., that Blake himself doesn’t ‘own’ (possess) the poem ….
Plates 4 and 5 Typical of Blake’s rather lateral, or non-literal, method, the illustrative images in these ‘Preludium’ plates do not seem to relate at first sight to the actual text. So here, the words don’t refer directly to the scene at all, but to a ‘nameless Shadowy Female’ , who according to one critic represents “this material world” (Damon), or what one might call Mother Nature or Gaia – the projection of femininity onto ‘objects’, and perhaps the whole process of objectification itself. This implicit association between the material and the maternal (both rooted in the same word) is crucial to the whole argument of the poem.
Damon refers to her as the ‘nameless shadow’, a sort of projected cloud or fantasy who envelops everything, hovering over the ‘material world’ like a cloudy attraction, ‘elusive and remote’ like the stars she ‘counts’. In many ways she represents the modern concept of ‘Nature’, an enigmatic and ‘shadowy’ concept itself once you start to analyse it, and one that fuses contradictory elements of materialism, rationality, and pagan literalism. This “hovering” aspect to the world of phenomena is why in some cultures “Nature” is referred to as “Maya” or “Māyā”, an illusory and seductive phantom that is the disavowed split-off aspect of a detached hyper-rationality. It is no coincidence, for example, that our modern understanding of ‘Nature’ arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, along with the Age of Reason itself. In that sense, as I argue elsewhere, belief in “Nature” is as much a by-product of the Industrial Revolution as industrial effluent (Tweedy, 2016).
As contemporary ecological philosopher Tim Morton notes, it is important to recognise that in this sense the concept of “Nature” is not itself “natural”: it is an “arbitrary rhetorical construct” that “wavers in between the divine and the material. Far from being something ‘natural’ itself, nature hovers over things like a ghost.” It is for these reasons that Blake often refers to this entity as “Vala”, or what the Book of Revelations sometimes refers to simply as “Mystery”. In all such instances, the concept and indeed perceptual process of objectification is always associated with the feminine.
The ‘Shadowy Female’ of the poem gives voice to a rather beautiful and plaintive song about the pains of labour and the theme of generation, which is linked to a cycle of perpetual birth and ‘consumption.’ She seems tired, and associated with clouds, and water, and mists – her mantles perhaps, and again suggesting impermanence and a sort of delusory, siren-like but deeply attractive quality (similar to the figure of Thel in Blake’s earlier poem). Damon notes “her agonised cry at her incessant fertility. She is the voice of the Darwinian world, the struggle for life”.
I think this is right: the song is the Song of Darwin’s Nature: red in tooth and claw, with Nature like some weary Malthusian workhouse mother, compelled to progeny, to fight for survival, and knackered with it. It’s got that feel to it – a sigh of misery and exhaustion.
`My roots are brandish’d in the heavens, my fruits in earth beneath
Surge, foam, and labour into life, first born and first consum’d!
Consumèd and consuming!
Then why shouldst thou, Accursèd Mother, bring me into life?
It’s the song of the unconscious of ‘Mother Nature’ – a sexual (perhaps even Oedipal) dynamic within existence, suggesting an anxious and even potentially traumatic generational relationship within being itself, both mothering and murdering. As Tim Morton notes in his remarkable podcast on Blake: “DNA is kind of an anxious chemical. It’s trying to wipe itself out – so it unzips itself. The trouble is when it unzips itself it actually creates the conditions for its reproduction, So it’s caught in a kind of ironic loop. That’s way below even a single cell level – that’s happening in your being, if you’re a life form” (Romanticism 6).
So here in the text we have images suggesting the relentless factory of life; of ‘prolific pains’ – mothers give birth, but they also thereby give birth to death – each child that emerges will die and Nature, from a ‘natural’ perspective, becomes a vast factory of death being constantly recycled, rather like the harvested pods in The Matrix, their blood feeding off each other in endless pointless cycles. The word ‘matrix’ of course means mother: matter, and mother, and matrix all point to this self-enclosed, self-consuming grid. Her song ends with a withdrawal back into “the secret place” – you sense that in some ways this opening song is the Song of the Vagina.
Given the rather esoteric and enigmatic words of the text, it’s rather a shock to find that the accompanying images seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with the travails of mother nature or shadowy females, but instead depicts a rather Gothic scene of a highway robber or assassin waiting in a dark cave to assail a traveler or pilgrim. It recalls the start of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where “Once meek, and in a perilous path,/The just man kept his course along/The vale of death”. Both passages suggests the ‘off the beaten track’ idea – that life is a path beset with people who want to push you off it, consciously or not. Also, note the innocent-looking walker (presumably the ‘just man’, or pilgrim), and the experienced-looking assailant…. a bit like the opening narrator and the Fairy again – one waiting to capture and entrap the other.
On the next plate is a brilliant – and strikingly modern – image that looks more like something from a Stan Lee or Alan Moore comic book than an 18th century print, depicting some sort of ‘fight in the clouds’.
Both images (the potential assassin, the wrestlers here) suggest the idea of This World: as a place of hijack, and potential murder, and fighting, contesting powers and processes. And the little innocent soul/wayfarer is unsuspectingly caught in the middle of it all, like a fly in a web (another image that will recur in this poem). A world where flowers grow, but with all sorts of bugs on them ….and people want to pull them up and keep them, to ‘admire’ them. In this context, all the spirals and tendrils (plate 4) seem more like enchaining or strangling swaddling clothes now, the bands of DNA twisting and snaking, tying us to this world.
Maybe that opening cave – is the vagina (an unusually intense shade of velvet darkness/blackness to it) – suggesting the darkness out of which this world emerges, with dagger in its hand…. and the next page is perhaps a closer look inside that cave – the contending powers and psychic forces of this world. The images and text both seem to be about domination and threat and survival and struggle. The Kleinian world perhaps, of early (‘primitive’) infant states of being – early developmental processes being presented here with a vengeance: primitive states of murderous envy filled with sadistic rage, endless sexual longing, and self-battling psychic processes and objects.
Perhaps the cloud – one of the recurrent images of Europe (see frontispiece, plate v, viii, p. ix, p. x, p. xii, etc) – echoes the theme of the Shadowy Female’s hovering, insubstantial, and shape-shifting world. The fact that the figures seem engaged in a form of struggle on it also underscores the modern concept of ‘Nature’ – the world of the devoured and devouring. The central figure in Plate 5, for example, seems to be dominating, and looking quite happy to be on top, again suggesting a sort of proto-Darwinian world that Blake had already glimpsed and assimilated, partly through his familiarity with the work of Erasmus Darwin – Charles’ grandfather – whose work Blake had already illustrated, and whose personal motto was apparently ‘eat or be eaten’. The figures seem to be, literally, at each others’ throats – perhaps again a reference to the senses, somehow, being throttled and blocked.
Plate 6 ‘Lord, Have Mercy on Us’ was the desperate prayer and complaint of those affected by Great Plague of London, which killed an estimated 100,000 people—almost a quarter of London’s population (1665-1666). The plague was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, another of Nature’s little gifts for us, which was transmitted through the bite of an infected rat flea, thus neatly illustrating the obscene catastrophe of living in both Urizen’s divided social world and Nature’s often malign and malignant environment. Blake’s stark depiction highlights the distress and suffering caused to women in particular, reinforcing the underlying theme of a world of death, and motherhood, and suffering. Note also the gestures: reaching upwards, beseeching upwards … although we’ve already seen who lives up there.
Plate 7 Again, two prominent Females feature here, and again with a sort of red/blue colouring (colourings that recur throughout the poem on a visual level, perhaps illustrating the ‘gendered’ theme of Blake’s prophecy). The connection between women and suffering and death seems to be very prominent again – very much highlighted, literally, in the foreground. In the world of Nature, as Darwin established just a few decades later, generation exists but is always linked to mortality and destruction – a sort of cycle perhaps, like a washing machine. Enitharmon is the washing machine of nature, on a continual generation Spin.
The gesture, as in the previous plate, is again beseeching upwards: ’Unwilling I look up to heaven, unwilling count the stars’ (from plate 5 – Nature’s Recycling Song). This relation – suggesting both aspiration and frustration (‘unwilling’) – also perhaps recalls the dynamic of plates 1 and 2: Urizen raining down, but the serpent rising up – to challenge and complain, but with a sort of sense of desperate ‘cycle’ sense about this relationship again – the coils, twisting in on themselves. Blake here suggests the social aspect of this mistaken and disturbed dynamic: the masochistic link between the oppressed and those they call on to try and help them. This pattern recurs constantly in such an unconscious world – like all the charity workers, poorhouse victims, and social whistle-blowers who similarly ‘beseech’ their elders and betters – the heads of business, the political establishment figures – to help them. But these people are, as Blake’s frontispiece glaringly and dramatically shows, the very people who are generating the conditions of distress and misery in the first place. It’s a dynamic rather like the possessor/possessed one: this is a ‘supplicant/grantor’ dynamic, a chain binding the victim and the perpetrator, the teeming, tortured female and the distant, but sought-after rescuing ‘Lord’. Both are ultimately aspects of the underlying Master and Slave (Hegelian) dynamic at work in European consciousness.
Lord, Have Mercy on Us: “A group of people come across a river. There’s a load of dead bodies floating down the river. And the first reaction of the first group is to run off and phone for an ambulance, or maybe get in touch with their MP, or phone the police. They think or believe that by telling the authorities about this problem the authorities will do something about it. And that’s what a whistleblower believes, whether it’s Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden. They believe that by putting this information out there, somehow that’s going to change the situation. The next group of people, they jump in the water, with the dead bodies and the half dead bodies, and they try pulling them out. They say, ‘we gotta help these people.’ And that’s the reaction of the charities. But there’s another reaction: and that reaction is to go up the river and confront the people who are throwing the bodies in. And when you go up the river and confront the people who are throwing the bodies in, it turns out, they’re exactly the same people that the whistleblowers are trying to speak to” – former SAS soldier and founder of Veterans for Peace UK, Ben Griffin, on how the supplicant/grantor dynamic works in modern society.
Plate 8 In many ways, like a dream within a dream, this plate marks the start of the Poem proper, after the initial setting of the scene and Preludium – hence the large lettering on the page ‘A PROPHECY’, as if this was a frontispiece.
This section of the poem tries to answer the implications of the previous illustrations: how did we get here? Where did all this materialism come from? How did sexual relations get to be so problematic? The current world of continuous cycles of violence, oppression, and war seem all the more odd and incongruous, Blake hints, given that we’re meant to be an ostensibly ‘Christian’ culture – one which proclaims a rhetoric of peace, and forgiveness, and love, and spirit. (Hence Blake’s deft and darkly ironic references to Milton’s great ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ and its references to the birth of “the secret child” in “the deep of winter”: “Peaceful was the night/Wherein the Prince of Light/His reign of peace upon the earth began”.) So what went wrong?
Blake also raises another question: why haven’t we had a revolution yet? It’s been 1800 years since this “reign of peace” was promised, Enitharmon notes. 1800 long years later, we have all the material conditions and the desire for it, and almost continual rhetorical allusions to an imminent Apocalypse, the Second Coming, the End of Days, the ‘Awakening’, the final revolution – even in Blake’s day these had become hackneyed – but we seem stuck. Why?
The section begins with another song, this time sung by ‘Los’, who represents poetic inspiration, creative transformation, and the faculty of prophecy in Blake’s work. Perhaps in ‘answer’ to the opening song of distress from the ‘shadowy female’ and Enitharmon’s pitiful but passive lament, Los seems to pick up on their ‘subconscious’ wish or imagination for a better world and tries to actively and creatively develop it. In other words, Los is a sort of mental program in the brain that responds to these conditions. Enitharmon’s unconscious aspiration for a transformed world kickstarts the LOS program into action – inspires his programs for social change, and a different sort of world or narrative.
The song of Enitharmon and the response song of Los seem ‘unconscious’ in another sense: they collapse time. The two infant births (of Jesus and of Orc – both revolutionary, socially rebellious figures for Blake) are curiously superimposed or presented simultaneously in Enitharmon’s 1800-year Cinderella-like ‘sleep’ state. This suggests that nothing really happens unless and until this underlying (psycho) dynamic between the ruled and the rulers is recognised and resolved. This ‘psychoanalytical’ aspect of Blake’s poem is further suggested by the litany of references to subconscious imagery and associations: moon, sleep, night, rest, dreams, unconscious desire.
And note also all these ‘arisings!’ in the poem – rather like commandments, or perhaps the summoning of ghosts – but also, obviously, revolutionary risings – they are being ‘summoned’ in a way … again suggesting that programs are being activated ….
And perhaps in turn, this fusion of Enitharmon’s plight and Los’s prophetic agency, calls up an even more active and angry Program – as their byproduct or ‘offspring’ – the ORC program – to actually fulfil what they subconsciously seem to ‘wish’. And since reality always appears not in the form we concisely will, but in the form of our unconscious desire, what appears is the furious, rebellious, but dysregulated Orc. What is wished for is an end to the cycle, but this wish is written in the code of anger – which manifests it.
Blake presumably chose Los to speak here because this is intended as a ‘prophecy’. As we’ve seen, he appears on the page where that word is written in huge letters, and he seems to be prophetically urging something or calling up something – hence his repeated references to ‘awake’, ‘arise’ … There also seems to be an underlying musical theme at play – references to “the elemental strings”, “to our loud strings”, “warbling joys” – perhaps denoting that the revolution, if it is ever to be successful, must be musical and relational in nature (i.e., in the key of our five senses, as plate 3 suggested, rather than at war with them), integrative, not oppositional.
Los’s invocation also seems to echo the narrator’s earlier confrontation with the Fairy, both in its references to intoxication and a sort of blind ‘joy’ – and also in wanting to ‘bind’ that joy, just as the narrator traps the free-spirited ‘Fairy’ in his Hat. This suggests the fatal, but enduring, project of trying to rationalise and analyse joy, life. Blake observes that this ideology is rooted in a Urizenic world preoccupied with security and control, with wanting to make all these fleeting pleasures and experiences permanent and under its bureaucratic jurisdiction – under its hat and control: as standardised and reliable as a Coca cola bottle. This Urizenic project is understandable in so many ways, but it’s also fundamentally tragic, and counterproductive, as the ‘sons of Urizen’ (scientists, technocrats, and bureaucrats) work ever more frantically at making ‘joy’ deliverable and efficient, i.e. unjoyful.
Plate 9: Orc arising. The pointed word ‘envy’ that Blake employs here seems significant: the sons of Urizen seem to ‘envy’ Los (maybe envying the hippy carefreeness of poets and artists, who seem more in touch with being), and so start to ‘bind’ and enumerate the joys associated with those worlds. Is this another variant on the idea of sexual binding, and envy? Urizen – the curious, rational, mind – wants to keep its distance and control but also wants to preserve its pleasures…and it does so, rationally, by binding them to itself – through the pronoun ‘my’ – my love, my house, my cow, my money, my wife:
Why wilt thou number every little fibre of my Soul
Spreading them out before the Sun like stalks of flax to dry?
The Infant Joy is beautiful, but its anatomy
Horrible hast & deadly! nought shalt thou find in it
But dark despair & everlasting brooding melancholy! – Jerusalem
To resist this process of deadening rationalisation, standardisation and homogenisation – summed up in Urizen’s electioneering slogan ‘One King One God One Law’ – what Los does is to summon up Orc (“Arise O Orc from thy deep den” – again pointing to the psychological dimension of Blake’s world). Orc is, in many ways The Struggle for Life – the DNA of restless energy, struggling through “fish, bird, & beast”, wrestling with the dull ‘material’ of the world. It’s a sort of weird Oedipal configuration – caught between the containing, holding, nurturing, and preserving Mother Nature on the one hand, and her son Orc’s fiery, transformative, squirming, restless, self-transcending, rather nervous energy on the other – the one constantly fucking the other, in endless serpentine double helixes.
Orc also represents the powerful driving impulse of repressed desires – from the serpent in the Garden to the Place de la Révolution in Paris to the Oedipal child in Vienna, the unconscious is always trying to manifest and break through it seems. But in this form or state, Orc is not really revolutionary – but merely revolutionary: doomed to repeat the same process again and again, like the Oedipal complex itself.
Plate 10 Enitharmon seems momentarily happy with this situation – she senses in this Oedipal configuration “That Woman, lovely Woman, may have dominion”. This ‘dominion’ is rooted in the idea of sexual control and mortality. Blake suggests that the historical manoeuvre of relocating the experience of heaven from the embodied sensory world of the here and now onto the fantasy of a bliss-filled afterlife, has its roots in a perverted sexual sublimation. The chief mechanism of sublimation, Blake suggests, is the cult of chastity and the militarised battle of the sexes, a combination that became encoded in what we think of as ‘courtly love’: knights rescuing virgin maidens from id-like dragons. The poster girl for this whole mechanism of vile and toxic sublimation, Blake notes, is the Virgin Mary, who has dominated European culture and libidinal thinking for 1800 years.
But it is internalised in the whole raft of codes and concealments that have driven this perverse view of sexual activity as something simultaneously idealised and denigrated, sinful and ‘special’ – an ideology which might perhaps best be summed up in the image of the chastity belt. All the nets in the poem seem to spring from this complex: “shall the little Female/ Spread nets in every secret path” Enitharmon reflexively asks, though the nets also entwine and bind women in them.
Enitharmon’s desire for dominion has conjured up an emotional world dominated by the twin evils of jealousy and chastity: Incels and revenge porn. And they combine: so we get sexual struggle, aka The Battle of the Sexes, through the mobilisation of change through the Orc program. In plate 11 we therefore see Enitharmon drawing on the energy of Orc – uncovering his sleeping Spirit of Struggle – to help her in her fight to get female recognition, to control if not the means of production then the means of reproduction (i.e., sex). This plate seems to signify a shift from passive sleep to the start of awakening.
Blake’s Europe is in part an historical overview of the last 1800 years (from the birth of Jesus to the French Revolution) and this plate seems to capture the Dark Ages: a world of knights in shining armour and damsels in distress, a world as political and religious as it was sexual and relational. In the text, Blake suggests that 1800 years of the cult of the Virgin Mary and then of an idealised and romanticised Mother Nature has been in many senses a dark ages of the spirit, a dream-like suspension for humanity, now living firmly and fatally within the Frame of the idealised Mother.
It’s a world, even in Milton’s original Nativity ode, oddly dominated by ‘Nature’ – and a very particular kind of ‘Nature’ at that. This is a culture ostensibly celebrating maternal love and virgins and purity (maidens, queens, goddesses), but actually full of the worst forms of repressed and frustrated sexual desire and lust in a proto-Darwinian world of struggle and competition. In such a neurotic, traumatised, and threatening world, the adoration of the ‘mother’ program effectively keeps us all infantilized children – dependent children – and dependent Oedipal children at that. So the words and adjectives Blake uses here suggest the ambivalent and perverse sexual world generated by this schizoid position: a world of wanton lust on the one hand and saintly veils and mantels on the other: of ‘woos’ and wooing and ‘innocent’ snow, and ‘guilty’ fronts, naked shame, and sinful blame.
The underlying sexual dynamic is, Blake notes, war-like and dominating – with the squadrons of shame, guilt, and jealousy used to dominate human relationships. Blake traces this back to Milton’s ode on the Nativity again: a poem that operates on two levels, a conscious one (peace, light) and an unconscious one in which Milton’s heavily militarised ‘heaven’ (“The helmed Cherubim / And sworded Seraphim … Are seen in glittering ranks with wings display’d“) waits patiently, and ominously, in the background. Blake’s poem investigates that split – which is not simply about Milton’s poem, but is about Western Christianised consciousness. The Christian dream for peace and harmony and light is revealed to be unconsciously built on denial and brutal repression of its ‘shadow’ side, the bodily energies. Indeed, this ideology or religion of light is built on shaming the darkness. THAT’s the problem – that’s the terrible secret of the Ode.
Hence we have the rhetoric of ‘the Prince of Light’ (and later the similar rhetoric of ‘Enlightenment’ and scientific ‘illumination’) and the reality of the Dark Ages: knights in shining armour, the endless Crusades, the rise of the monasteries; the armouries, the litany of European wars (100 Years War, Wars of Roses, Thirty Years War, Anglo-Dutch Wars, English Civil War, Spanish Armadas, Empire, not to mention the conquest of Africa, and Asia and America). All of these activities are united by the theme of dominion, control, and possession – again Blake draws a link between the sexual and the military: ideas of chastity and purity (the purity of our cause!) and jealousy (get your hands off them!).
In plate 10, we therefore encounter Blake’s rather doleful knight in shining armour – except here it’s shown properly: blackened, reptilian and cold – a knight in scaly armour. And he looks sad, having to do his duty, while two self-righteous virgins/ maidens (for whom he will presumably murder according to his chivalric codes) frame him, demurely leading him on and encouraging him with their pious gestures. It’s kinda cool too: I mean, chain-mail is a bit like reptilian, snake skin…..The poses of the women already seem to suggest the attitude of pious self-abrogation and arms-crossed (rolling pin waiting at the door) complicity.
The message – in the voice of Enitharmon – seems to be that the idea of entering eternity has now been successfully displaced from embodied human relationships – where it is actually to be found – and deferred and relocated to a supposed un-bodied after life. Thus, Blake links the idea of a Christian ‘heaven’ with the repression and projection of libido. And he also suggests that common to all these difficulties and sources of conflict is the whole ideology of conquest and possessiveness – which, as we’ve seen for Blake lies behind both philosophical materialism, militarism, and sexual monogamy.
However, Enitharmon is for the moment delighted at this new arrangement: she thinks this seemingly endless line of knights in shining armour – killing for women’s love, castrating themselves for women’s love, and dying for sublimated and hypocritical chivalric codes – are ways to assert and recognise her power.
Plate 11 This plate shows the other side of militarism and the perverted sublimation of sexual libidio. As Damon observes, “Blake anticipated the theory of Freud that war is the result of suppressed sex” – seen, for instance, in his striking psychological observation: “I must rush again to War, for the Virgin has frowned and refused.” But women are also very much the victims and casualties of war, as this image notes. What evil the old man is desperately seeking to ward off is not shown but it strongly suggests some sort of attack or invading force (the fact that we do not see it makes it all the more powerful and arresting). The woman, clasping her father’s form, suggesting perhaps she may be raped – presumably by all those Knights in shining Armour.
Plate 12 This rather random and unexpected – but certainly very striking – image depicts strands of corn or wheat, and two elemental figures representing them. The picture seems to suggest both plague and pestilence on the one hand (mentioned in the text) and harvest on the other – perhaps even a Biblical form of apocalyptic harvest (the “trump of the last doom” that the text refers to later). This imagistic ambiguity and multivalency is a typical ‘contrary’ in Blake’s thinking, like his roses with sick worms, and his docile tygers. Perhaps the image captures both the exhilarating successes of modern agriculture (the result of Newtonian materialism in many ways) and also its blights – the endless diseases of agribusiness, because it’s all about control and domination: it’s a monoculture in every sense. In this Blake’s text feels rather like an agrarian version of Marx’s later ambivalent paean to capitalism – look at all this energy! all this fruitfulness! but look at all this misery! these plagues! this disease and distress!
Plate 13 Our Blakean serpent makes another striking appearance here, accompanying a rather dense philosophical discussion about the collapse of the nervous system into the five enclosed senses (the slow contraction and binding of being), the formation of the new religious architecture to reflect this (the ‘serpentine’ druid stone circles), and the formation of the human skull – another sort of standing stone, Blake suggests: a Plato-like cave, overhung with shaggy roof and red berries – a bit like the Assassin’s cave in the earlier plate. The reference to the ‘Druidical’ serpent-temple at Avebury is doubly effective here in meshing Blake’s various lines of thought together, since Avebury was also the home of Lord Bacon, one of Blake’s great representatives of Materialism. The idea is that scientific rationalism and Nature-worship go hand-in-hand, and that neither accepts the idea of any reality beyond the material world.
Continuing the underlying theme of war and militarism, Blake refers to a war council and strikingly collapses Parliament and Stonehenge into one image – as a Druid centre of blood sacrifice, again seeming to suggest that both topographies share a similar mind-set (rooted in natural religion, natural perception, natural morality, and natural politics). In other words, these plates focus on the deeper spiritual processes of materialism: the slow formation of Natural religion, and with it the ideology of natural sight (closing out the infinite, the transcendent, the non-literal and the non-natural). This ideology, for Blake, is represented in England above all by Stonehenge – the great monument to Nature and natural religion, and Knowing Your Place. Stonehenge serves to remind poor rational man that he is nothing but an insignificant little worm, wriggling on the breast of wonderful Mother Earth:
‘I am your Rational Power O Albion & that Human Form
You call Divine, is but a Worm seventy inches long
That creeps forth in a night & is dried in the morning sun …’
So spoke the Spectre to Albion. he is the Great Selfhood Satan – Jerusalem
Stonehenge is All About Ratios. To revere it is to be In it – to be part of its gigantic mechanism of natural control, and mother matter matrix domination. In a phrase calculated to upset every pantheist and deist in the land, not to mention every card-carrying member of English Heritage and the National Trust, Blake called this revered pile of blood sacrifice and human self-loathing “A building of eternal death.”
Blake accurately and acutely diagnoses the Freudian basis of post-industrial Nature worship as an unconscious and delusional form of “Mother worship”: “Worshipping the Maternal/Humanity, calling it Nature, and Natural Religion” (Jerusalem). The “serpent” form of Stonehenge also illustrates how “Thought chang’d the Infinite to a Serpent”: how Logic changed Eternity into Nature. The vast energies and forces – these serpents – are aspects of the divine therefore, but turned into a demonic process by rational Thinking: the programs that make us believe we are tiny and insignificant carbon units in an overwhelming universe billions of years old billions of light years wide. Natural perception generates that perception, and then uses that perception to justify its belittling of man.
Then was the Serpent temple form’d, image of Infinite,
Shut up in finite revolutions, and Man became an Angel,
Heaven a mighty circle turning, God a tyrant crown’d
Beautiful – suggests the sort of inversions going on, of perception and cognition: how the (originally internal) Zodiac got estranged and turned inside out, onto the sky – as our cognitive maps and apps revolved and panicked, – the priests and military kings seized control – making the cosmos the image of their inversion of hierarchy.
There are references in these plates to contemporary political and military events: the “Guardian of the secret codes” for example refers to the Lord Chancellor, who had been forced to resign. But Blake’s point is simultaneously local and cosmic: Europe is about exploring the deeper, or ‘occult’ psychological reasons for monarchy, and tyrants – for that whole system of obedience and control. And, to everyone’s surprise, Blake links this to how we ‘see’ – to a loss of perception of the ‘infinite’ – and how the ‘Nature’ program in the human brain (‘VALA”) shuts this all out, and makes the world seem huge and fearful, and us as weak and insignificant and therefore needing strong rulers or mothers to protect or comfort us. That is, these ideological and political agendas are still all to do with the ‘five senses’ in many ways – are to do with ‘materialism’ and the ‘fall into division’, as Bake interestingly calls this psychological process of dissociation and self-separation, which created both a fearful subjectivity and an alienated politics.
Plate 14. We’ve got the bat wings again here (as in plate 4); and note those clouds again as well – linked to Enitharmon. The text refers to the Stone of Night, the coronation stone deftly linking Priest and King – indeed the central figure seems to combine aspects of both ecclesiastical and political authority, seemingly reading from a common Urizenic hymn-book.
As Blake scholar Christopher Rowland notes, “Blake took the opportunity to insert his protest against the political repression in the England of the 1790s, giving expression to the violent culture of kings and their ideologues. Blake depicts the monarchical deity with papal tiara and throne with his brazen book of rules in Europe a Prophecy.”
Plate 15 The transition from the scene of thrones and kings with bat wings to this page full of spiders and traps and nets is just so cool, suggesting now the inner world of this fake system of ‘rule’ and control and surveillance. Perhaps these creatures represent the sub-programs that (blindly) carry all this out – the programs of feeding off, and preying on – not very conscious ones, old archaic matrix programs, that seem to make up most of the underlying web of this psychological, interconnected, web-like world.
Still “Enitharmon slept” we are told: – i.e. Goethe’s ‘Eternal Feminine’ is still unconscious of her own processes and role in this complex of dominion and objectification. Blake draws attention to this aspect by turning our eyes to the domestic scene, where fear rules the hearth, child exploitation rules the chimney, and emasculated workers drag their de-eroticised limbs out of these houses into work – there is a terrifying sense that this ideology (materialism) is eating into the very limbs and spirits of the people – is petrifying there (“grew one with his flesh”).
Under this system of ‘enlightened’ rationalisation and secular technocracy more and more people are unhappy and angry (hence the “howlings” and “hissings”), as Orc stirs up. Orc thinks the moment is ready and blows the “Trump” – but it fails – three times he tries (perhaps denoting the failed English revolution, the failed American revolution, and the failed French revolution). It’s an anticlimax, in the poem as in history.
History seems stuck – forever on the precipice or verge of resolving itself, waking itself up: every generation since 1792 has thought of itself as the final one, the apocalyptic age, from the milllenial hopes of the French Revolution itself, to the dreams of the Russian revolution, to the counter-revolution of the 60s, to the age of the internet and the supposedly paradigm-shifting, ‘woke’ generation of the 2010s. Being outraged (Rintrah) or moved (Palambron) by the fate of the oppressed (the slaves, the factory workers, the chimney sweeps, the workhouses, the homeless, the sweatshops) (Palambron) was not sufficient to change the underlying Cycle.
What was actually apocalyptic and world-changing – to everyone’s surprise – in the end came not from political upheaval, or spiritual war – but from Newton (“A mighty Spirit leap’d from the land of Albion/Nam’d Newton”). He revealed the true nature and End of materialism, as well a providing the means for its overthrow. This even wakes Enitharmon.
Indeed, it’s interesting that this poem ostensibly about ‘Europe’ revolves so much on Albion, and especially London. This is partly because London was the epicentre of industrial capitalism, materialism and the brave new world when Blake was writing, and he was living in the epicentre of the epicentre. This is the future, his poem seems to be saying, this is now, happening all across Europe, a perpetual ‘howl’ from the oppressed. It’s not just the Dark Satanic Mills of Albion that catches Blake’s attention – it’s not even MAINLY that. Blake’s target is materialism, the rule of the naturalising thought-processes that blinker and black out eternity, now. It’s everything that makes us think we live in a Natural world – it’s Darwin, it’s Newton, it’s Stonehenge, it’s everyone who tries to tell you that you’re just a worm that lasts 60 years and is gone (Blake reserves some of his most withering scorn for those people). That is what is constraining revolution, Blake infers, because that is what is constraining our imaginations, our belief in our abilities to create something significantly better.
Enitharmon’s and Urizen’s nets have captured and caught everyone in them, so there’s not much life – the occasional wriggle of an entrapped radical Fly. But it’s basically the Matrix, firmly in place now … all unconsciously ….
Plate 16 Blake beautifully and deftly links these two plates through the lateral connection between webs and prisons: the Prison here being an echo and development of the Net of the previous plate. Presumably the figure leaving the scene, with the bigs keys, is the Jailer… perhaps even the “Guardian” with the keys and the codes. The image picks up on all the earlier references to “gyves”, chains, manacles etc: this is a state of imprisonment, mental slavery.
The final revelation: This is all a Prison, Blake suggests. A prison for your Mind (hence the “mind-forged manacles”). The Jailer, with his huge keys to the system, is perhaps the key-maker – is there, disappearing – you can now see him/sense him, but only unconsciously (only his ‘back’). You also notice that the chains are not actually attached to anything: the prisoner is, ultimately, self-imprisoned by his way of thinking. (His way of thinking, his central illusion, is that he is individually ‘free’; paradoxically, when he loses this – when he realises all being is interconnected – he is liberated, or rather the whole system self-liberates). You could also see this prison as a Web – as in the preceding image. A world wide web, built on control and possession, aspiration and frustration, revolution and pornography. We are all flies in it.
Plate 17 The tone of the speech here feels somehow deluded and delusional, and is related in Enitharmon’s dream-like perspective:
‘Ethinthus! thou art sweet as comforts to my fainting soul …
Manatha−Varcyon! I behold thee flaming in my halls.
Light of thy mother’s soul! I see thy lovely eagles round;
Thy golden wings are my delight, and thy flames of soft delusion.’
She ceas’d; for all were forth at sport beneath the solemn moon …
Then every one fled to his station, and Enitharmon wept.
She lastly calls on Orc, but when he does appear (in the next plate) – in the supposed blissful new Dawn – it suggests bloodshed and “red France”. However, in the slash of red light and the azure tint, there is at least the possibility of hope (“Arise O Orc and give our mountains joy of thy red light”).
Plate 18 Perhaps fittingly for a poem about contemporary Europe written in the aftermath of world-changing war and revolution, Blake ends this work with a scene of conflagration and fire.
A figure is shown escaping the flames and leading a way forward – presumably the figure is Los – perhaps also alluding to the extraordinary generation of revolutionary writers and poets who both shaped and were shaped by the events surrounding them, and whose words still resonate, inspire, and ignite: Byron, Rousseau, Voltaire, Hegel, Goethe, Shelley, Blake.
Then Los arose: his head he rear’d, in snaky thunders clad;
And with a cry that shook all Nature to the utmost pole,
Call’d all his sons to the strife of blood.
TO BE CONTINUED …
Rod Tweedy was Editor at Karnac Books, Senior Editorial Assistant at Routledge, and is currently Commissioning Editor at Confer. He is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness. He is a supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and has written a number of articles on war and militarism, including My Name is Legion: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance and How We See War.