William Blake and The Body of Vision, by Rosalind Atkinson

Vision and De-Vision: Sexuality, Slavery, and the Fall of Perception

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Introduction to William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion

This essay examines how almost the entire critical discussion of Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion enacts the exact dynamics (which we could anachronistically label ‘rape culture’) that the poem itself dramatises in order to dissect. I hope it can be of interest beyond Blake enthusiasts to anyone wanting to understand if being interested in ‘how we perceive’ affects our political and social ideas and positions, and to anyone interested in how dualistic ways of seeing (encompassing transcendence and materialism equally) abuse our bodies and the world.

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“The work’s challenge to slavery and patriarchy”: Blake shows how the two are intimately connected, like links in one chain, as forms of each other

William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion is an extraordinarily rich poem. The work’s challenge to slavery and patriarchy, its position at an approachable threshold to Blake’s later prophecies, its inspiring heroine, and its genesis in a politically explosive England, have stimulated great critical attention.

This attention has spread an exceptionally wide net, resulting, as E. P. Thompson charts, in “a great many William Blakes on offer … most of [which] have some plausibility”. This essay charts how accounts of the poem have often either isolated or ignored certain passages of the poem, resulting, I will argue, in distortions of possible meaning overall.

Robert N. Essick’s commentary on Visions, for instance, observes that the epistemological middle section of the poem “delves into some rather obscure eighteenth-century debates over the nature of the senses” and as a result, “does not speak directly to the issues of sex, slavery, and colonialism of central interest to modern commentators”. The segregation of the perception-focused middle section (2.21 to 4.24, as bookended by the chorus of the Daughters) from the rest of Visions creates an unhelpful, ‘disembodied’ split between ways of perceiving and ways of acting. This essay examines whether this claim can be upheld and considers the implications of ignoring or isolating these passages. I propose an ‘embodied’ reading which aims to find some historically grounded relevance in these so-called “obscure … debates.”

The critical or interpretive “war” between idealistic and materialistic modes of reading is to some extent played out in Visions itself, where both modes are revealed as complementary aspects of a dualistic epistemology that surprisingly, as I will show, share a denigration of the material realm and the body. Placing the epistemologically-inclined sections in relation to the rest of the poem reveals the connections Blake draws between ways of seeing and their lived expressions.  I use the framework of ‘Embodied Visions’ to reassert the necessary continuity of the poem, and explore, to borrow Peter Otto’s phrase, “the fate of the body in a culture of transcendence”.

Jane Peterson wrote in 1973 that “Visions of the Daughters of Albion has not yet been discussed as Blake’s portrayal of the problem of perception”. Relating the centre of the poem to the ‘action’ will show that ‘Urizenic’ perception is not merely an unfortunate individual choice made in a vacuum of non-ideological freedom.

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“the fate of the body in a culture of transcendence”

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Embodying Vision: Knowing the Body 

As Edward Larrissy notes, “Blake inverts the values of the occult tradition. He believes that body and soul are one”. With this in mind, Visions can be read as pointing towards an enriched vision that includes and re-animates the material world and physical senses, rather than to the imposition of imaginary ideals, as critics from diverse dualistic traditions have sought to prove.

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“Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses”

Blake described this elision in a variety of ways, from the clear statements of ‘The Voice of the Devil’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul,” and that “Energy is the only life and is from the Body”, to the narrator of Europe who asks his muse, a “fairy,” “what is the material world, and is it dead?,” to which the fairy promises to “shew you all alive/The world, when every particle of dust breathes forth its joy”.

Against the harmful effects of such dualisms, philosopher Val Plumwood argues for a reanimated relation to the material world, an enriched materialism, and Visions can be read as Blake’s dramatization of a similar critique and solution—an inclusive embodiment that enlivens perceiver and perceived.

Mid-century critics established a tradition that set Blake against the material world, taking his denunciations of ‘Nature’ as transcendently anti-corporeal and explicitly anti-natural. Northrop Frye’s landmark work Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake attributed the view to Blake that “nothing outside man [is] worthy of respect. Nature is miserably cruel, wasteful, purposeless, chaotic, and half dead. It has no intelligence, no kindness, no love and no innocence”. As Otto notes, this view “polarize[s] life between ‘the Creator and the Creation’”. Frye’s formulation was influential to the point that Blake’s 1995 biographer Peter Ackroyd could mention “the material world that [Blake] despised” without causing any reaction. The belief that Blake scorns the literal world around him, rather than criticising dualistic ways of being in that world, has influenced even those who are critical of this account.

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Epistemology and Sexuality: Separating Knowing and Seeing, the Perceiver from the Perceived

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“The Eye sees more than the Heart knows”

More recent critics have noted the destructive nature of ‘free love’ interpretations of the poem, and redefined Visions in historical relation to the tangible issues of oppression the poem indicts. As mentioned above, Essick suggests that “modern interpreters” are more likely to focus on “the issues of sex, slavery and colonialism” than on the epistemological turn, leaving the question of perception, with all its taints of idealism, largely behind. However to divide Visions is to accept epistemology and action as separate, and valorize the opposite, maligned side of the division, without examining how the poem connects these problems.

Rather, the invitation to us as readers is to make sense of the connections between what Oothoon, Bromion and Theotormon say, do, think, and see. The same cultural norms exposed in Theotormon and Bromion’s treatment of Oothoon underwrite a reluctance to engage with her unfolding exposure of the interrelatedness of violent actions and thought structures. Is it possible to reintegrate the dynamic Blake builds between perception and action?

The motto which opens Visions—“The Eye sees more than the Heart knows”—has been subjected to every possible divergent interpretation. Bloom claims it suggests “the primacy of perception over the limited wisdom of the natural heart”, and Debbie Lee that it instructs “viewers to … disentangl[e] themselves from the self-centred heart”. Both seem to reference Blake’s tirade against “the Selfish Virtues of the Natural Heart” in Jerusalem, but this is no reason to take all references to the “Heart” as critical.

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Blake’s prophetic mode is diagnostic, rather than prognostic.  In Isaiah 6:9 the prophet is acting as cultural critic to identify a problem whereby information is taken in but not digested or absorbed (“Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not”). Similarly the motto may be read as a diagnosis of what is wrong with the Urizenic ideology the poem exposes: much is available at a sensory “Eye” level, but less is processed or understood at an integrated “Heart” level.

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No Heart: “whereby information is taken in but not digested or absorbed”. The problem with all information processing. It makes the brain into a cave.

Blake’s use of the word “more” raises the question of quality versus quantity—the sense-based way of knowing evidently involves a great deal of information, but these sense data are of limited worth if the understanding is impoverished. The enrichment of the knowledge of the Eye constitutes both Oothoon’s perceptive progression and the narrative movement of the poem. Thus I agree with Peterson’s remark that we must take the motto to indicate that the poem deals with “the problem of perception”.

The images and principal words from the motto recur at the point where Oothoon begins to question ways of seeing. Oothoon rejects the reductive binaries she has been made to see and taught to see, describing an engagement with only the empirical “five senses” in claustrophobic terms of imprisonment. This circumscription, by the repeated forces of “They,” has injured the eye’s ability to integrate knowledge beyond the intake of sense-data, meaning that the Heart is “sunk … into the Abyss,” like an apocalyptic sunset:

“They told me that the night & day were all that I could see: 

They told me I had five senses to inclose me up.

And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle. 

And sunk my heart into the Abyss. a red round globe hot burning

Till all from life I was obliterated and erased. 

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“like an apocalyptic sunset”

Oothoon frames this constrained vision as a kind of death in life, a loss not only of the perception of life outside the self, but of the experience of being alive itself, with only “single vision” left as a substitute. Within this passage, she does not reject the senses, only the way they have been used to “inclose [her] up” into an uncreative, dead materialism, which is sensory engagement without embodied participation. The violence of being “obliterated and erased” reveals Blake’s insistent connection between coercive ways of seeing and their expression.

Like Bourdieu’s account of education as “the process through which a cultural arbitrary is historically reproduced,” Oothoon realises the extent to which her education has served to perpetuate an ideology rather than teach her anything.

Bracher argues that “each character [in Visions] represents a metaphysical perspective”—Bromion empiricism, Theotormon “the metaphysics which valorizes the pure essence or ideal of a being in separation from the being’s actual existence … the type of Platonic and also Christian idealism which demands that actual existence conform to a pure, abstract ideal”.

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The Rape of John Locke:  Google Anal Ytics, Cambridge Anal Ytica, and Data Collection as Bromion Rape

Locke’s interest, like Bromion’s, is in an expansion of the amount of sensory data one might catalogue, with a simultaneous insistence upon its unknowability. Bromion’s “infinite microscope” is a Blakean mockery of Locke’s faith in increased knowledge from accumulated data about “visible tangible Qualities”. Blake creates a generic travesty of his own prophetic mode in Bromion’s infinite yet misguided desire.

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Things to be Used: How Bromion sees the World

W.H. Stevenson notes that “[d]iscovery, by travel or by microscope, was part of the texture of the age,” and Blake’s portrayal of Bromion is a portrait of an empire bent on acquisitive discovery. In all his multiple personae—slave owner, rapist, colonial appropriator of land—Bromion relates to things outside himself in a way that justifies active violence.

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“Blake’s portrayal of Bromion is a portrait of an empire bent on acquisitive discovery”

We can read this as an indication that Bromion’s desire for more of “the joys of riches and ease” is misguided, as it still reduces everything outside the self to a resource, rather than the “All” which recognises the world as rich and mindful in its own right.

Bromion’s impoverished knowledge leads him to seek ‘quantitative easing,’ yet his approach is a “lamentation” and doomed to failure, as it is founded upon the sense of lack it seeks to assuage. Bromion’s speech reveals the contradiction in Locke’s thought whereby the focus appears to be on the physical, whilst making the physical subservient to the organising activities of the mind, which “hath no other immediate object but its own ideas”. The purpose of Bromion’s “infinite microscope” is to confine the chaos of reality to an orderly series of empirical data.

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“”The Eye sees more than the Heart knows.” The new chains are digital.

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Theo Tormon: The Tormented Body (of God)

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Because Blake’s presentation of Theotormon indicts the kind of idealism that has often been imposed upon the poem, and because Bromion appears more obviously and actively pernicious, Theotormon has been glossed even more variously than his counterpart. There are some knotty contradictions within Theotormon, hence the decision to discuss Bromion first. Just as Bromion seems to be a materialist who upon closer inspection depends upon the manipulation of the material by the mind, so conversely Theotormon’s apparent idealism can be seen to rely upon the material reality he disdains.

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“the God of the Moral Law”

His name is often glossed as tortured by god (theo), or the law (torah). If so, it is the God of his own conception, the God of the Moral Law that Blake refers to in a wide variety of hostile terminology, such as “Antichrist” in his Annotations to Watson. This system of morality assumes an opposition between ideal spirit and chaotic body.

Blake frames Theotormon’s moral stance in opposition and antagonistic relation to the impulses of the body, demonstrating the effects of the imposition of the moral law as opposed to the antinomian belief in the availability of inspiration to the enthusiastic body. This moralistic self-control is then imposed upon Oothoon, whose “tears are locked up” also. Theotormon’s asceticism leaves him as dry and lifeless as a “desart shore,” enacting self-harm at a bodily level. His replacement of reality with moral ideals creates specifically “religious caves,” where the injustices that his narcissistic search for transcendence avoids “shiver”.

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The Body Under Urizen – under “your-Reason”. “This moralistic self-control is then imposed upon Oothoon, whose ‘tears are locked up’ also.”

Heaven is his perfectly controlled body, whereas Hell is the bodily energies Heaven is invoked to suppress. Blake suggests that both are “alienated and projected portions of our earthly psyches” (Otto). In this short passage, Blake intertwines economic, political, psychological and religious forms of alienation. The society from which Theotormon takes his moral laws is based upon slavery and child labour: the polite “white pink & smiling” angel of the Marriage similarly denies the energetic bodily basis of his existence.

Theotormon’s lust is his search for transcendence of the despised body, a search that denies and controls the disorderly material, which ironically further fuels “the burning fires.” The alienated aspects are not discarded but become “a furnace of dire flames/Quenchless unceasing,” as phrased in The Four Zoas. Otto argues that Blake indicts religious practices designed to achieve transcendence, and rationalising practices such as Locke’s philosophy, as different forms of the same impulse. In both cases Blake wants to bring our attention back to “the repressed and mutilated physical body that is the hidden referent of the disciplined body and of … heavenly bodies” (Otto).

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“The Urizenic, bearded figure of the title page, who is also ‘self-closd’,”

Theotormon’s hypocrisy is his reliance on the material possession of Oothoon for his emotional wellbeing. His supposed idealism is revealed to be a made-up abstraction, his apparent religiosity an avoidance strategy. Oothoon exposed this doctrine of purity, revealing its contradictions in lived experience. This shows the split between what he appeared to value (a religious essence which he has now misplaced), and what he actually values (a conventionally ‘pure’ female possession to enhance his status, also misplaced).

Blake’s visual depiction of Theotormon supports this analysis. On the frontispiece, his body is barely human in its condensed negation of the sensory. He is “closd up in Moral Pride,” clenching the body against reality. This stance is echoed in the Urizenic, bearded figure of the title page, who is also “self-closd,” in contrast to Oothoon’s gestures of openness.

Similarly, on Plate 4, where Oothoon “hovers by his side, perswading him in vain”, Theotormon’s head is buried in his knees, encircled by his arms wrapped over the knees, and only one foot is visible: his body is again contracted into the smallest possible shape. His inability to engage with Oothoon confirms his rejection of the material world for an attempted transcendence.

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What the dissociated rationalising egoic program does to the human body. These gestures are both causes and effects – we end up in them, in their poses, when we are depressed, crushed, overwhelmed, isolated – what causes this? the ideology of narcissistic, rationalising perception in others, of not seeing, not paying attention, of treating each other as commodities or resources – as DATA.

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Mind-Forged Algorithms: The Attack on the Body from Plato and Christianity to Descartes, Newton, and Locke

A close examination of Bromion and Theotormon illuminates how reductive materialism and idealist religiosity rely on the same perceived split between matter and spirit. Against accounts that suggest that the theories of Locke and other thinkers of the Enlightenment erased and replaced older religious beliefs, the similarity of Visions’ two male characters suggests their basis in similar assumptions.

The reductive materialism of modernity is revealed as only a truncated version of the older mind-body dualism, one that preserves the distinction between inert matter and the creative, animating spirit, intelligence or reason, whilst abandoning the latter as incoherent or irrational.  This separation is Descartes’ “empire of man over mere things,” as everything outside the self is stripped of agency and autonomy, available to be possessed or exploited. Thus Bromion and Theotormon are flipsides of the same exploitative coin.

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“Urizen! Creator of men! mistaken Demon of heaven”, the ideological father of both Theotormon and Bromion. What unites Plato’s atack on embodiment as an unreal, shadow world, Descartes’s psychotic split between mind and body, and the modern Enlightenment view of the body as a machine or computer, are their common roots in dissociated Urizenic thinking.

Thus Oothoon identifies “Urizen! Creator of men! mistaken Demon of heaven” as the ideological father of both Theotormon and Bromion. Urizen reveals that rather than opposites, Reason and Faith are equally suitable vehicles for his project of creating an eternal world. He is both the moralistic force mistaken for God, and the rationalising force mistaken for truth. Either way “the head governs and controuls the Body under it,” as Swedenborg wrote in The Wisdom of Angels Concerning Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, for “the body is nothing but obedience”.

Yet Oothoon reveals the violence that such a project inflicts, in its attempt to shape human bodies into the ideal bodies of “thine image”. Oothoon’s insight is to see that, despite seeming to embody opposite epistemologies, Bromion and Theotormon both depend on the same dualism, which reduces everything outside the self to a lifeless commodity.

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Branding. The whole of classical Greece and Rome culture – the basis of so-called rationalised ‘civilisation’ – was based on slavery, as is modern capitalism. “Oothoon reveals the violence that such a project inflicts, in its attempt to shape human bodies into the ideal bodies of “thine image which reduces everything outside the self to a lifeless commodity.”

In addition, it also fuels the impulse to use everything so, because a “heart [sunk] into the Abyss” will continue, like Theotormon’s “burning fires/Of lust,” to seek more and more at this level of the commodity, in an attempt to satisfy its impoverished relation with the world.

Oothoon’s alternative to this kind of Urizenic relation to the world is an erotic vision: “where ever beauty appears/If in the morning sun I find it: there my eyes are fix’d/In happy copulation”.

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Oothoon’s rejection of this system of structural branding. “Oothoon’s alternative to this kind of Urizenic relation to the world is an erotic vision: ‘where ever beauty appears/If in the morning sun I find it: there my eyes are fix’d/In happy copulation’.”

Instead of a possessive hoarding of sense-data, or rejection of the senses outright, Oothoon envisions a procreative relationship with what she sees, thus returning agency and animation to the world beyond herself. This is how Blake imagines expansion from “Single vision & Newtons sleep”. Fourfold Vision is not so much an argument for pluralism calling for further debate between the extremes of a hypocritical idealism and a denuded materialism, as it is Blake’s solution to his motto’s diagnosis: the reintroduction of the heart’s knowledge into what the eye sees.

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Coda: The Relation between Ideology and Practice, Eye and Heart

The narrative movement of the poem indicates both how epistemologies cause certain actions, and how actions shape and use epistemologies. It “is no coincidence of course,” Plumwood writes, that “[b]y consolidating the narratives of the empire of man over mere things, reductionist rationality removes key constraints at the dawn of commoditisation and capitalism”.

Oothoon’s turn to indict Urizen is, like her identification of “they” as the instillers of some of her ideas, a recognition that “human beings are constrained by ideologies and projections which, as individuals, they are not responsible for” (Larrissy).

Screen Shot 2021-05-10 at 15.20.26The distortion of Blake’s version of freedom into an autonomy of the sovereign individual can be seen in the poem “London,” from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The “mind-forg’d manacles” of this poem are often cited, but it is useful to remember that these occur within the shaping forces of “London” itself—the poem and the city. At no point does Blake’s work suggest that the manacles are a result of an unfortunate and isolated individual choice. In his notebook Blake frames freedom from these manacles in terms of the removal of hierarchal, coercive structures:

Remove away that blackning church

Remove away that marriage hearse

Remove away that ––– of blood

You’ll quite remove the ancient curse 

It is not a coincidence that Visions simultaneously analyses multiple forms of domination, both within and without the human body, as the politics and structures are made by humans in what Blake sees as a fallen, fragmented state, which meanwhile craft more humans into that state.

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London: What Capital does to the Body

Visions could be described as prophetic in that it can be seen to anticipate the conditions of its own critical reception. Blake engages in productive battle with those of his contemporaries he sees as shaping the dominant culture, giving bodies to their doctrines to reveal their lived effects. Visions dramatises the patterns of the logic of domination, revealing the violence caused by the impulse towards transcendence. As inheritors of the liberal legacy of Locke’s Enlightenment, we have, generally speaking, “go[ne] on So,” and played out the very tensions dramatised within the poem itself. It is in this sense that the poem can be seen to predict its own reception.

Oothoon is made to live within these divisive contradictions and by giving them form, she moves towards an enriched, not transcended, human relationship with the material world. By reading the epistemological sections of Visions as part of the continuous whole of the poem, we regain Blake’s poetic, political representation of the relationship between perception and action. This has the potential to reconcile the ‘mental’ and ‘corporeal’ strains of Blake criticism, and suggests that Visions, at least, both analyses the specifics of historical reality, and works towards a millenarian expansion of the body’s perception through desire.

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This essay is adapted from the final chapter of ‘Embodied Visions,’ by Rosalind Atkinson, a thesis submitted in fulfulment of the requirements for a Master’s of Arts in English Literature and published in 2015 through Victoria University of Wellington, Te Whare Wanaga o te Upoko o te Ika a Maui, Aotearoa / New Zealand. To read the full essay, please click here.

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The title page of Visions, showing the heroine Oothoon running across the ocean, embracing desire, while a patriarchal god-figure flies above with his arms wrapped around his body, a gesture that in Blake’s work is never a good sign. Playful sexual figures dance within the rainbow even as a storm bears in from the side.

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The frontispiece to Visions, showing the three characters locked together in an eternal triangle

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The final page of Visions, where the heroine soars engulfed in flames, while her sisters huddle fearfully below, able only to “hear her woes and eccho back her sighs”.

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