Introduction: Gender and Perception
There are several accounts of the Fall in Blake but the invariable characteristic of them is Albion’s relapse from active creative energy to passivity. This passivity takes the form of wonder or awe at the world he has created, which in eternity he sees as a woman. The Fall thus begins in Beulah, the divine garden identified with Eden in Genesis.
Once he takes the fatal step of thinking the object-world independent of him, Albion sinks into a sleep symbolizing the passivity of his mind, and his creation separates and becomes the “female will” or Mother Nature, the remote and inaccessible universe of tantalizing mystery we now see. Love, or the transformation of the objective into the beloved, and art, or the transformation of the objective into the created, are the two activities pursued on this earth to repair the damage of the Fall, and they raise our state to Beulah and Eden respectively.
On earth the cult of worshiping the independent object or female will takes two chief forms. One is the superstitious reverence for a Mother God, the primitive fear of the sibyl or prophetess whom the Teutons called Vala. This is a symbolic form of nature-worship, and Blake gives the name Vala to nature in his symbolism. The other form is the worship not so much of vegetative nature as of the Queen of Heaven, the remote, mysterious beauty of the starry heavens. This produces on earth the blind devotion to a mistress who is expected to elude and tantalize the lover, the basis of the Troubadour code. The Queen of Heaven’s name in Blake is Enitharmon.
Emanations and Objectification
The word “emanation” in Blake means the object-world; creature in Eden, female in Beulah, object or nature in Generation, abstraction in Ulro. Jerusalem is the emanation of the awakened Albion. The union of Albion and Jerusalem suggests a parallelism between English and Hebrew history which runs all through Blake’s symbolism, and which underlies the famous hymn beginning “And did those feet in ancient time.” This is natural, for the Last Judgment is seen by a poet “according to the situation he holds” and Blake’s situation was that of an English Christian.
The seven attempts made by God to awaken Albion divide history into seven great periods, each with a dominating religion. These Blake identifies with the “Seven Eyes of God” mentioned in Zechariah, and he gives these “Eyes” the names of Lucifer, Moloch, the Elohim, Shaddai, Pachad, Jehovah and Jesus. The “eighth eye” he occasionally speaks of is the apocalypse or awakening of Albion himself.
The Fall was not a single event, but required many generations, and covered the first three “Eyes” of God, described by Hesiod and Ovid as the silver, bronze and iron ages which followed the golden one.
The silver age or Lucifer period was a time in which the universe was tearing apart in chaotic disorder, and gigantic energies, sprung from the body of Albion, were fighting for imaginative control of it. Myths of the war of Titans on Zeus in the Classics, and of the Jötuns on Odin in the Eddas, preserve accounts of a war of giants and gods. The giants are rightfully defeated, according to most of our Scriptures, because even the fallen order of nature which the gods established is preferable to chaos. But the feeling that Odin and Zeus are really usurpers can still be traced.
Gradually, as the universe took its present form, the weakening human imagination was slowly pushed down and contracted into its present helpless state. Yet gigantic energies still remain in men, imprisoned, but struggling to be free. The revolt of Prometheus nearly destroyed Olympus; and in the Eddas it is prophesied that some day the chained Loki will burst free and begin the destruction of the world. This imprisoned Titanic power in man, which spasmodically causes revolutions, Blake calls Orc. Orc is regarded as an evil being by conventional morality, but in Blake the coming of Jesus is one of his reappearances.
A Brief History of Urizen: The Seven Eyes of God
The victory of the sky-god over the Titans means that the universe slowly became more orderly and predictable, and that men, weaker than the Titans but still gigantic, turned to internecine war as history enters the “Moloch” brazen period. The new thundergod of moral law and tyrannical power, whom Blake calls Urizen, was a projection of the death-impulse, and these giants, at the nadir of the Fall, worshiped him in a cult of death consisting largely of human sacrifices. Since then, the belief that somehow it is right to kill men has been the underlying cause of all wars.
This is the period of Druidism, when giants erected huge sacrificial temples like Stonehenge and indulged in hideously murderous orgies. The burning of great numbers of victims in wicker cages went on for centuries and is referred to by Caesar and other Classical writers: Blake, for some reason, speaks of the “Wicker Man of Scandinavia,” where such practices, according to his authority, were unknown. Early explorers found the same custom in Mexico, indicating the world-wide spread of the Druid culture. The main characteristics of Druidism, to be treated in more detail later, were megaliths or temples for human sacrifice, sun worship, serpent worship and tree worship—in Britain, of the oak.
During the Druid period the world took its present form, which means, as to be is to be perceived, that men’s bodies were gradually shrinking down to the point at which they now perceive it. When the present body of man was achieved, the universe necessarily appeared to that body in its present shape. Its present shape is a stabilizing of the object-world, made permanent on a basis of “mathematic form” or mechanical order. Therefore the creation of the present body of man must have been part of this stabilization. Such a creation must have been an “act of Mercy” and the work of the yet unfallen God, for men by themselves in their fallen state have sunk below the instinct of self-preservation.
This process is described in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Ask and Embla of the Eddas. Adam in Blake is the physical man, the soul in the form of the bodies we now see. He is called the “Limit of Contraction”: that is, he has fallen as far as man can fall without losing his imagination altogether and the ability to recreate himself along with it. Along with his creation went the completion of the present universe, which Blake calls the “Mundane Shell,” and, probably, the settling of animals and plants into their present natural order of spawning and preying, the aggregate of which Blake calls the “Polypus,” a huge wriggling mass of life.
This all took place in the third “Eye” of the Elohim. This word is plural in form, and Blake follows tradition in regarding the Elohim as a trinity. But on the principles of Blake’s symbolism the trinity would become a collective singular at a little distance, and is so portrayed in the great picture of the Elohim Creating Adam.
From Adam’s time until the Last Judgment, a period for which Blake adopts the conventional figure of six thousand years, the remaining four eras or Eyes of God are divided into twenty-seven phases or “Churches”.
The first twenty of these Churches cover the remainder of the Druid period and the fourth and fifth eyes of God, Shaddai and Pachad. They are known to us only from the genealogical lists of the Bible. Seth, Enoch, Methusaleh, Noah, Shem and the other patriarchs down to Abraham, who are said to have lived for centuries, are not individual men but civilizations or historical cycles which grew up in Africa and Asia.
We know the African culture only from its final decadence in Egypt, with its hieratic ritual, oppressive priestly code, tyrannical monarchy and the “mathematic form” of its pyramids. Apparently the Exodus in the Bible is a reminiscence of the founding of new Druid kingdoms in Asia at the beginning of the Shaddai period. The Noachic deluge, which may be partly a reminiscence of the overwhelming of Atlantis, is also connected with the same event, and symbolically it completes the establishing of the “Limit of Contraction” in Adam. When man falls, nature falls too; and when man is locked into an enfeebled body, born in helpless dependence on a pre-created object, and a prey to selfishness, fear and all other symptoms of weakness, nature becomes a prey to sudden accidents and senseless cataclysms.
However that may be, the great “Druid” civilizations of Asia, particularly Mesopotamia, produced magnificent works of art and literature in their prime: again, history records only their late degenerate period.
We can get some idea of what their art was like from the Greeks, however, for the Greek Muses were daughters of Memory, which means that Classical culture is a parasitic growth on the earlier Asiatic ones, and Classical mythology contains many echoes, usually misunderstood by its compilers, of earlier and more authentic visions:
No man can believe that either Homer’s Mythology, or Ovid’s, were the production of Greece or of Latium; neither will any one believe, that the Greek statues, as they are called, were the invention of Greek Artists; perhaps the Torso is the only original work remaining; all the rest are evidently copies, though fine ones, from greater works of the Asiatic Patriarchs. (Blake, A Descriptive Catalogue)
The Trojan war symbolizes the taking-over of Asiatic culture by the Greeks. The beings of the earlier myths, which appeared on the walls of Solomon’s Temple and were called Cherubim, were recognized as imaginative creations: the gods of the Greeks, derived from them, were conceived as independent of man:
Visions of these eternal principles or characters of human life appear to poets, in all ages; the Grecian gods were the ancient Cherubim of Phoenicia; but the Greeks, and since them the Moderns, have neglected to subdue the gods of Priam. These gods are visions of the eternal attributes, or divine names, which, when erected into gods, become destructive to humanity. They ought to be the servants, and not the masters of man, or of society. They ought to be made to sacrifice to Man, and not man compelled to sacrifice to them; for when separated from man or humanity, who is Jesus the Saviour, the vine of eternity, they are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers. (Blake, A Descriptive Catalogue)
Troy in Blake therefore stands for the abstraction of the “fairies of Albion” into “Gods of the heathen.” Hence the conquest of England by the Trojan Brutus symbolizes the final collapse of the great Druidic civilizations of antiquity, paralleling the Platonic account of the defeat of Atlantis by Athens. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history, the source of the Brutus story, is to Blake a repository of ancient prophetic poems which, like much of the Old Testament, has survived only in the form of a chronicle of kings and queens:
Names anciently remember’d, but now contemn’d as fictions
Although in every bosom they controll our Vegetative powers.
The Trojan war is also, because based on the love of a whore, the source of all the chivalric female-will worship of the Middle Ages. After it, imaginative animism almost drops out of culture and a belief in abstract gods reigns supreme over most of the earth, the former surviving among the Druids only as esoteric traditions preserved by the caste of bards.
Before this had happened, however, the Jehovah cycle of history had begun with the founding of a new Hebrew culture, presented in the Bible as the escape of a patriarch (really a “Church”) called Abraham, from Chaldea. The essential feature of this was the giving-up of human sacrifice in favor of animal sacrifice, symbolized in the story of the substitution of a ram for Isaac as a victim:
Adam was a Druid, and Noah; also Abraham was called to succeed the Druidical age, which began to turn allegoric and mental signification into corporeal command, whereby human sacrifice would have depopulated the earth.
So far, so good; but truth precipitates error, and in every culture great imaginative work is done in the face of a consolidating tyranny. The growth of the Classical civilization was only part of this negative response to Abraham: the rest came in the establishment of a moral law and a ceremonial worship of a thunderous tyrant by Moses, the twenty-second “Church,” completed by the integration of this into a political tyranny by David and Solomon, who represent the twenty-third.
According to Swedenborg, the Hexateuch is a compilation of earlier and later documents. The first eleven chapters of Genesis, down to Abraham, are ancient and belong to an original Ur-Bibel; but most of the Exodus account is drawn from earlier books, now lost.
The Passover incident represents, like the Isaac story, the decline of human sacrifice, and the Exodus itself seems to go back to the emergence of an Asiatic civilization which probably took place nearer the time of Adam. But the real basis of the Exodus story was a poem in which Egypt symbolized Ulro and the Promised Land Eden. In that poem the imaginative energy which achieved the entry into Eden, the pillar of fire, was called Joshua, which means Jesus. (Blake usually calls it Orc, who is also Jesus, but in one poem Fuzon: he rejects the identification of Jesus and Joshua suggested in Milton’s line, “And Joshua, whom the Gentiles Jesus call”). The pillar of cloud, the power of tyranny which kept the Hebrews wandering in a wilderness trying to follow their elusive Sinaitic ghost (Urizen) was Egypt itself, which Moses represented.
With the coming of Jesus or the seventh Eye the finale of history begins. The first consolidation of tyranny established to meet this new threat was the “Church Paul,” absorbing Jesus into the old Pharisaic legalism. Next comes his further absorption into the Classical tyranny, represented by the Church Constantine, then the establishment of the female-will culture of the Middle Ages, the chivalric code and Madonna-worship associated with Charlemagne and Arthur. Finally comes the twenty-seventh Church in Luther and the Renaissance, the tyrannical precipitate of which is Deism. These twenty-seven “Heavens,” as they are called, roll round us in a circle forever, and Deism is spiritually as far from Eden as Babylon or Egypt or Rome ever were.
Only with the twenty-eighth, the last phase associated with Milton, does the apocalypse get under way (Swedenborg, we remember, said it began in Blake’s birth year). Milton himself represents an imaginative penetration of the spiritual world unequalled in Christian poetry, and Blake, especially in his poem on Milton, attempts to clarify his vision still further. The apocalypse proper begins with the French and American revolutions, when the revolutionary iconoclasm of Orc, which was made manifest in Jesus, returns to the world to complete the seventh cycle. Then, as St. John says:
In the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets.
Opposed to this is the development of empiric thought denying the reality of all states above Generation, which only needs a little pushing until it becomes a materialist tyranny so complete that humanity will finally be able to see all its ramifications as part of a single unified falsehood, an epiphany of Satan.
Three: The Principle of Eternal Recurrence
The numbers four and three, in Blake’s later prophecies, are respectively the numbers of infinite extension and of cyclic recurrence. The world of eternity is fourfold, and any imagination trying to reach that level must incorporate a threefold world within itself. In the world of time and space, time is in three dimensions, past, present and future. The visionary tries to combine all these into an eternal vision in which he may say with Blake: “I see the Past, Present & Future existing all at once Before me.” Space is in three dimensions also, and the imagination similarly tries to achieve an eternal vision of that. The fourth dimension of time is space and the fourth dimension of space is time, so that a fourfold perception is one which unites time and space in eternity. Mythology is full of sinister female trinities who suggest the power of a hostile destiny.
Numbers built up of threes, notably nine and twenty-seven, are associated with Antichrist. Strictly speaking, and Blake speaks very strictly in Jerusalem, a symbol of Antichrist should be associated with three, nine or twenty-seven rather than with twelve. Antichrist in Blake is a threefold monster, but not exactly three women. The world of Ulro is, like the lowest segment of Plato’s divided line, a shadow-world, in which subject and object reect one another, a monstrous union which Blake symbolizes by the term “Hermaphrodite.” The three forms of Antichrist, therefore, are really hermaphroditic.
Chief of them is Satan, the Covering Cherub, the dragon form of the objective world with the revolving stars forming the rattles of its tail. Another is the Rahab or Great Whore who sits on this dragon, the ultimate fallen form of Vala, the Lamia who entices men with the evil beauty of an elusive mysterious nature, symbolized by the cloak of shame spread over love, the “foolish woman” of the Book of Proverbs. The third is Tirzah, the shrouding womb of the physical universe out of which we must break to live, the “Necessity” of Plato’s Republic who turns the spindle of the universe, the physical basis of all nonhuman gods.
The fallen life of warfare is male energy controlled by a hidden religious belief in an external and therefore ultimately female god, as we have seen in discussing Enitharmon. Rahab, “Religion hid in War,” therefore is a “Male-Female” hermaphrodite. Conversely, the man who is born in helpless dependence on an outward environment is a male imagination imprisoned within a female will. Tirzah, then, is a “Female-Male” hermaphrodite. But as Rahab and Tirzah are part of the female will, they are usually referred to simply as female.
The combining of these three principles is expressed in Blake by multiples of three. The product of Tirzah and Rahab together is the “nine enfolded spheres” which constitute the “ninefold darkness” of Urizen. The product of all three of them is twenty-sevenfold, twenty-seven being the cube of three, the supreme aggravation of three, so to speak; and twenty-seven is the gure Blake always uses for the fallen world or “Mundane Shell”:
The Mundane Shell is a vast Concave Earth: an immense
Harden’d shadow of all things upon our Vegetated Earth,
Enlarg’d into dimension & deform’d into indefinite space,
In Twenty-seven Heavens and all their Hells; with Chaos
And Ancient Night; & Purgatory. It is a cavernous Earth
Of labyrinthine intricacy twenty-seven-folds of opakeness,
And finishes where the lark mounts
– Milton 19: 23-29
The threefold historical tyranny of Egypt, Babylon and Rome is also symbolized by twenty-seven, the number of “Churches” or historical generations that stretch from Adam to Luther, just before the twenty-eighth or last age begins.
Northrop Frye was an eminent Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered to be one of the most influential of the 20th century. The article above is taken from his remarkable study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947), one of the greatest interpretations of Blake’s works ever written.