Eld Pl Csirmaz

The Second Coming of Urizen: An Attempt at a Structuralist Analysis

 

Introduction

Although The [First] Book of Urizen by William Blake may well strike one as obscure, it can be argued to have a symmetric structure, the consequences of which fact might also enable the Reader to guess the motives and capabilities of the supernatural entities described in Blake’s mythological work. The analysis based on the symmetries to be described may shed more light on the notion that Blake’s views on God resembled Gnostic tenets and may allow an insight into the development of Blake’s personal mythology.

My reading of the poem is based solely on the text. For easier reference, and as in some editions, plates were rearranged and/or left out, I have attached the entire text, with line numbers, to the present essay. The source of the text is <http://www.english.uga.edu/nhilton/Blake/blaketxt1/book_of_urizen.html>.

All parenthesised references are to the attached text.

 

The Necessity of Obscurity

Before undertaking the task of describing the possible symmetries of the poem, and thus arguing that its alleged obscurity does not necessarily make an interpretation impossible, let me point out that this obscurity may well serve a denite purpose.

Erich Auerbach, when contrasting the text of Odyssey to that of the Bible (the recognition by the scar and the sacrice of Isaac in particular) describes the Homeric text as lucid, as aiming at complete description thus making suspense impossible, and as lling the ‘present’ so totally that no background, no contrast may nd its way through. The text of the Bible, according to Auerbach, has opposite characteristics. “Where are the two speakers? We are not told.”[1] “[The story] unrolls with no episodes in a few independent sentences whose syntactical connection is of the most rudimentary sort.”[2] These descriptions may well strike one as applicable to The [First] Book of Urizen of Blake. It can be argued that this fact is not the result of a chance coincidence; that Blake intended the poem to be a paraphrase of the Biblical creation story.

That The [First] Book of Urizen might have been intended to be a counterpart of the Bible (or, of the rst one or two books, at least) might be inferred from the last but one sentence in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which appeared a year before The [First] Book of Urizen: “I have also the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no.”[3] It is, naturally, unclear what Blake meant by “the Bible of Hell,” whether it refers to one work only, or to all of his works that were to follow. Still, the intention to create an alternative to the creation as described in the Bible can be inferred from this remark.

The question still remains, what the purpose of this obscurity is in the cases of the Bible and Blake’s creation myth. Auerbach argues that the incomprehensible nature of the Biblical text makes it capable of being an all-inclusive explanation of the world and its existence. As it is riddled with gaps, its ‘meaning’ becomes unlimited and dependent on interpretation. Auerbach goes even further. “[The Biblical stories’] religious intent involves an absolute claim to historical truth. […] What [the scriptor] produced, then, was not primarily oriented toward ‘realism’ […] it was oriented toward truth.”[4] By their totality, “the Scripture stories […] seek to subject us.”[5] “The Old Testament […] presents universal history.”[6] One may suppose a similar aim in The [First] Book of Urizen: by its obscurity, the text becomes a dangerous opponent to the Bible. Unlike rigid and lucid historical explanations that seek to limit the meaning of it, Blake’s text presents an alternative to the Scriptures that operates on the same level and with the same techniques. By being similar in this respect, it dislocates the canonised creation myth; by presenting an alternative, it deconstructs the Biblical story and, as the (im)possibility of the following analysis also shows, ultimately, itself.

 

Symmetries of The [First] Book of Urizen

It was mostly on the narrative level of the story that I attempted to discover some recurrences, repetitions, etc., but at times, I have searched for links on the lexical level, too. I have not attempted to restore a plausible, chronological order of the events depicted—rather, I have relied on the linear ordering of the various elements and events as they appear one after the other in the text itself (in the version I have attached). Moreover, I have also disregarded the sectioning of the text into chapters and plates, and considered the whole of the poem as one, linear ow of elements.

Using these presuppositions, I have discovered the following elements which might be argued to be repeated “later” on in the poem. I have listed these elements in the order in which they appear in the poem.

Law 1. By creating the Book of brass (61–95), Urizen creates uniform laws for all: “on / This rock, place with strong hand the Book / Of eternal brass, written in my solitude. // Laws of peace, of love, of unity: / Of pity […] One command, one joy, one desire, / […] One King, one God, one Law” (82–86, 89–91). The link between his laws and various forms of metals is enforced even at the end of the Book, where he cursed, for “no esh nor spirit could keep / His iron laws one moment” (52–53, my emph.).

Elements 1. The four antique elements might be argued to surface in Urizen’s descriptions of his ghts while writing the Book (65–74). After re, winds (air) and waves (water), a “solid obstruction” (earth) appears in the text (65, 70, 73, 74, respectively).

Seven 1. The poem alludes to the seven days of the Biblical creation twice during the course of the poem. The rst instance can be found at the stage when Los creates a body for Urizen. The Biblical refrain, “And the evening and the morning were the Xth day”[7] is here replaced by “And a Xth age passed over, / And a state of dismal woe” (214–215, 223–224, 232–233, 239–240, 244–245, 252–253, 260–261). Interestingly, in this listing, there is no crucial difference between the seventh and the previous stages, unlike in the case of the Biblical counterpart.

Body 1. This element refers to the same passage as Seven 1, but emphasis is laid on the description of the formation of Urizen’s body. Let me call attention to the crucial role of the globe, representing the heart: “Down sunk with fright a red / Round globe hot burning […] Panting: Conglobing, Trembling / Shooting out ten thousand branches” (217–221). Conglobing might be associated with coagulating, as the words contain similar sounds ([k], [g], [l]), with the latter word being a reference to the usual change in blood exposed to air. That the globe in the previous section quoted refers to the heart is made clear by the following lines, in which branches are repeated: “His nervous brain shot branches / Round the branches of his heart” (226–227, my emph.).

Pity 1. Pity rst occurs when it divides Los’s soul, which process culminates in his emanating Enitharmon (290–330): “He [Los] saw Urizen deadly black, / In his chains bound, & Pity began, // In anguish dividing & dividing / For pity divides the soul” (292–295), “At length in tears & cries [Los’s globe of life] imbodied / A female form trembling and pale” (320–321), “They [the Eternals] call’d her Pity, and ed” (330).

Body 2. This element refers again to the same section as the previous one, Pity 1, while the focus now is on Los’s emanating the female Enitharmon. The centre of life, probably the heart, is again depicted as a globe: “globe of blood” (300), “And the globe of life blood trembling” (314, repeated in 315). Branch, now as a verb, can also be found in line 316, which further supports the parallel between Body 1 and Body 2.

Science 1. Science (with a capital S) is rst created by the Eternals during lines 331–338. It is represented as a woof, which will be used for a tent to be built around the void created by Urizen, so that “Eternals may no more behold them [Urizen, Los and Enitharmon, probably]” (333). That science is a borderline, a limit, matches well the Blakeian thought that empirical knowledge is never able to ‘see’ the true nature of things.[8]

Science 2. Science might be argued to be created for the second time by Urizen during lines 407–418. He forms dividing rule, scales, weights, quadrants and compasses (412, 413, 414, 415, 416, respectively). Please note that the word Science itself does not appear in this section: it is based on the equipments for measurement that I speculated its connection to science in the Blakeian sense.

Pity 2. Pity appears for the second time in Urizen: “And he wept, & he called it Pity” (457). This Pity results in the appearance of Religion, for “where-ever he [Urizen] wanderd in sorrows […] A cold shadow follow’d behind him / Like a spider[’]s web. […] Till a Web dark & cold, throughout all / The tormented element stretch’d / From the sorrows of Urizen[’]s soul […] And calld it, The Net of Religion” (461–476). Several reasons are given for Urizen’s sorrow: “Most Urizen sicken’d to see / His eternal creations appear / Sons & daughters of sorrow on mountains / Weeping! wailing!” (435–438); see also line 449–453, where Urizen curses his race for not following his rules and because “he saw that life liv’d upon death” (454).

Elements 2. The four elements appear for the second time as Urizen’s children in lines 438–445; they might signify the various distinctions and segregations Urizen’s activities caused, or, alternatively, might signify the universality of the sorrow of Urizen’s descendants. Thiriel represents the air (see cloud in line 440), Utha the water (441), Grodna the earth (442) and Fuzon, who is to have an important role at the end of the poem, the re (see Flam’d out in line 445).

Seven 2. The second allusion to the seven days of the Biblical creation can be found at the description of the effect of Religion on the inhabitant of the cities, in lines 493–496: “Six days they shrunk from existence / And on the seventh day they rested / And they bless’d the seventh day, in sick hope: / And forgot their eternal life.”

Law 2. Finally, the second creation of law happens in lines 507–508, at this time, by the descendants of Urizen. They “form’d laws of prudence, and call’d them / The eternal laws of God.” Please note that the word law occurs only in the contexts of Law 1 or Law 2. I would also like to call attention to the word eternal, without a capital E, which might mock the truly eternal Eternals, now unavailable both for Urizen and his creations.

Leaving Body 1 and Body 2 aside, the remaining, repeated elements listed above form a nearly perfect symmetry. The order in which they appear in the present version of the text is: Law 1 — Elements 1 — Seven 1 — Pity 1 — Science 1 — Science 2 — Pity 2 — Elements 2 — Seven 2 — Law 2. Only the order of Elements and Seven is reversed in the second part of the poem. The main importance of this supposed symmetrical structure is that the existence of a turning point can be supposed in the poem. Let me return to the question what this point might be later.

Before that, let me investigate on what level the various elements listed above appear. I presuppose three main levels: that of the Eternals, which—based on the facts that they have defeated and limited Urizen (lines 2–3), defeated him again, according to my reading, as Urizen ran away and tried to hide (120–122, see also the repeated expression “Eternal fury” which seems to be opposed to him), and built a tent, possibly around his world which now contains Los and Enitharmon without any opposition (331–338)—I deem superior to Urizen; the level of Urizen and Los, both of whom appear to have “fallen” from Eternity, and the level of Urizen’s creations or descendants, who are inferior to Urizen, as he made laws for them. The following table shows the level of the listed elements, again excluding Body 1 and Body 2:

 

Eternals

 

 

 

 

Science 1

 

 

 

 

 

Urizen & Los

Law 1

Elements 1

Seven 1

Pity 1

 

Science 2

Pity 2

 

 

 

descendants

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elements 2

Seven 2

Law 2

 

It is apparent that apart from Pity, all elements recur on an inferior level. That is, there is a diminishing return of the creative acts (Law, Seven[9], Science) and even of the four elements (which cannot be connected to any creative act in a clear and straightforward manner). It seems as though Urizen is not a bad superior entity; he merely failed: his creations get out of hand and recreate themselves, but in an inferior way, and his attempt at imitating what the Eternals have already done to limit him (Science) happens only on the atomic level of instruments, limiting Science further to Measurement.

This failed nature of Urizen can also be traced in his relationship with the Seven Deadly Sins. He appears to ght them in lines 75–81: “Here alone I in books formd of metals / Have written the secrets of wisdom / The secrets of dark contemplation / By ghtings and conicts dire, / With terrible monsters Sin-bred: / Which the bosoms of all inhabit; / Seven deadly Sins of the soul.” Actually, the Law (Book) he creates appears to be intended to be the very antidote to the Sins. This notion is further emphasized by his self-expressed goal: “I have sought for a joy without pain” (61). Still, the moment he places to Book on the rock (93–95), “All the seven deadly sins of the soul // In living creations appear’d” (100–101). That is, he failed in his rst goal to ght the Sins.

Urizen may also appear before the Reader as a failed God as he is unaware of creating a Religion solely by walking over the cities. He appears to have no control over the events, and no control over the re-creation of his creations.

Let me now return to the question of the turning point in the symmetry. It appears to occur between Science 1 and Science 2, that is, in the middle part of The [First] Book of Urizen which depicts the fate of Los, Enitharmon and Orc. (Los appears in line 138, he takes over the scene by line 290; and the little family completely disappears after line 422—we get to know nothing about the “enormous race” Enitharmon bore.) The event which enabled Urizen to go and re-create Science and Measurement was hearing the cries of Orc chained to a mountain. It is hinted that the cry could raise the dead: “The dead heard the voice of the child / And began to awake from sleep / All things. heard the voice of the child / And began to awake to life” (403–406) and it is hinted many times before this point that Urizen, despite having a body, is dead. Before Los’s work: “But Urizen laid in a stony sleep” (148), “The Eternals said: What is this? Death / Urizen is a clod of clay” (150–151), and after it: “He saw Urizen deadly black” (292), “Before the death-image of Urizen” (303), and nally, “They [Los and Enitharmon] chain’d his [Orc’s] young limbs to the rock […] Beneath Urizen[’]s deathful shadow” (400–402). That is, it appears to be Orc who gives life to Urizen. Urizen wakes, and “craving with hunger,” as now he had a body to feel hunger, cf. lines 249–251, “Stung with the odours of Nature,” (he had nostrils, see line 243) “Explor’d his dens around,” (407–409) which, it seems, he was not able to do before. The fall of Urizen from Eternity is complete: now he lives subject to his materiality. Orc could give him life, but did so on a level inferior to Urizen’s former standing. It follows naturally that from this point on, actions which repeat themselves do so on a lower level.

The supposed symmetrical structure of The [First] Book of Urizen put Orc in the focus. The question naturally arises, how his gure can be interpreted. He is referred to as Infant (364), Child (369), and he is chained to a rock. Based on these elements, he appears to be a mixture of Christ and Prometheus. If so, something can be expected that he gave to peoplekind (redemption, re, knowledge, etc.) who appear to be represented in The [First] Book of Urizen as the descendants of Urizen. Let me return to this question when investigating the possible parallels between The [First] Book of Urizen and Gnosticism.

 

Repetitions in the Biblical Creation-Story

In depicting the creative actions twice, Blake might be said to have followed the example of the Bible. By establishing this link, the suggestion that Blake indeed strove to create an alternative to the Bible can be further supported.

Indeed, many actions in Genesis 1–2 are repeated twice. God divides twice: rst the waters with the rmament (Authorized Version, Gen 1:6–8), second the lower waters so that earth may appear (Gen 1:9–10). God creates man twice, rst to his likeness (Gen 1:26–27), second of dust (Gen 2:7); and creates woman twice: rst along with man (Gen 1:27), second out of Adam’s rib (Gen 2:21–23).

Apart from the repetitions listed above, Urizen can also be said to act twice when he creates his world: rst, he creates a void (10–13), and later, his world, a womb-like globe appears that he framed (128–137). These repetitions in both cases might be said to increase obscurity, which, as I have argued, might be regarded a necessary feature of all-explaining prophetic works.

 

Blake, The [First] Book of Urizen and Gnosticism

The notion that Blake held views resembling Gnosticism is widespread. Although dening Gnosticism is not straightforward, most branches of it appear to be common in presupposing an unknowable supreme entity distinct from the creator god, which is clearly true for The [First] Book of Urizen; consider the Eternals and Urizen. Moreover, many branches appear to suppose the creator god to be malevolent. A. D. Nuttall, quoting The Four Zoas, suggests that “Blake’s oppressor-god, Urizen, for example, is evidently Jehovah,”[10] which not only entails that Urizen is malevolent, but also maintains the idea that he is a critique of the Father, the Old Testament god. Indeed, according to Nuttall, “the Father for Blake is a jealous tyrant.”[11] This suggestion is clearly in contradiction with what I have argued based on the repeated actions of creations, the Seven Deadly Sins, etc. According to that line of thought, Urizen is not a malicious, simply a failed god.

That Urizen was actually a negative, cruel gure for Blake (at least at some, possibly later point in the development of his personal mythology) is further supported by a sepia drawing of his, titled ‘Christ Trampling upon Urizen’ and copied by Thomas Butts in 1805.[12] As Christ is thought to have represented the love-based, non-regulative, New Testament god for Blake, the drawing clearly renders Urizen to be on the wrong side.

Moreover, further points of similarity can be discovered between Blake’s mythology and Gnostic thoughts. Nuttall mentions that Gnostic thinkers often created a pre-genetic theology, often “add[ed] preliminaries to the creation itself.”[13] This, if the Urizen = Jehovah equation can be uphold, is clearly true of The [First] Book of Urizen, where the nonvoid world of the Eternals with directions (see north in line 3) exists even before the rst (de)creative action of Urizen. But if this is so, then Blake may well have incorporated the idea of an “alternative trinity”—which Nuttall argues Gnostics had[14]—as well, in which the Son is in opposition with the Father. Based on various works of Blake (the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, for example) this was indeed so. Blake criticised the Father-like, regulative institutional Church while hailed a love- and Christ-based religion.

These observations raise a number of questions if contrasted to the reading of The [First] Book of Urizen I provided above. Can the maliciousness of Urizen be perceived in this work? Or it only became a part of Blake’s mythology later? Can a saviour-gure, which would counteract the wrongdoings and limitations of Urizen, be traced in the poem? And if Blake equated Urizen, at least as a rst step, with Jehovah, why can four supernatural characters be found in the poem, instead of three, which could represent an ordinary or an alternative trinity?

Let me start with the question of the saviour. Based on his names, Orc has already been associated with Christ, but his gift to peoplekind, for which, if he is either Christ or Prometheus, he is punished, remained obscure. A possible reading of the fate of Orc in The [First] Book of Urizen is the following: according to a psychoanalytical reading, Orc is bound with the Chain of Jealousy because of a reversed Oedipal complex that frustrates his father, Los. In other words, apart from his existence, Orc accomplished nothing that led to his punishment. Still, his gift to peoplekind, to Urizen’s descendants can be traced: it is knowledge, for it is immediately after Orc awakes Urizen by his cries that Urizen forges equipments for measurement, thus bringing Science, originating with the Eternals, down to his people.

This reading, naturally, rests on shaky grounds. One objection to it can be that it renders Science positive, as opposed to the supposed bias of Blake, which, nevertheless, is complicated by the fact that in The [First] Book of Urizen, while repressive Religion originates from Urizen, it is the Eternals who create Science. Another objection can be that this way, Orc is not in real opposition with Urizen, while Nuttall suggests that this is the case in Blake’s other prophetic works. According to the Ophites, the serpent in Paradise is a benefactor, as he resisted the oppressor god and led people to knowledge. Based on these grounds, Christ is often identied with the serpent. And indeed, in America and in The Four Zoas, Orc is represented as a serpent, and described as being in clear opposition with Urizen, as ames are opposed to snow.[15]

Still, enough hints could be found in The [First] Book of Urizen to uphold the idea that Orc is indeed a saviour-gure; and the above interpretation of his gift can be upheld if one does not seek a complete interpretation of all prophetic works of Blake. However, by equating Orc with the Saviour, one is faced with further questions. It is unclear why, if Orc is opposed to Urizen, he is not opposed to his father, as the notion of the alternative trinity would suggest? Or, posing the question from another point of view, why is he the son of somebody else rather than Urizen himself? I think that within the present poem, this problem and the problem why four characters can be found instead of three, can both be solved by suggesting that Urizen and Los are in fact, one.

This identication is further supported by the facts that Los becomes active only after Urizen becomes dead, that Urizen, apart from a few movements in pain (254–261), remains inactive until the cries of Orc, and that Los quickly disappears from the scene after Urizen awakes.[16] If this identication can be made, then The [First] Book of Urizen can be argued to represent an alternative trinity. Orc is now the son of Urizen–Los, and is opposed to the pair: he is opposed to Los for intratextual reasons, and he is opposed to Urizen as suggested by other prophetic works. Finally, instead of four entities, we have only three.

Let me emphasize, though, that this identication of Los with Urizen is possible only within the ‘limits’ of The [First] Book of Urizen, which is one of the rst of the works in which the supernatural entities that later were to constitute Blake’s personal mythology appear, and thus might reect yet unclear or blurred relationships between them.

Yet, interestingly, a possible identication of Los with Urizen might be argued to haunt the later works of Blake. In Peter Otto’s reading of Milton, we nd:

 

The lines which follow the Bard’s introduction to his Song seem to offer some respite from the temporal dislocations of the opening passage. Plate 3 is for the greatest part taken up with a myth which, although radically condensed, recalls the creation story of The Book of Urizen. The narrative begins with Los attempting to give body and form to Urizen, who lies ‘in darkness & solitude, in chains of the mind lock’d up’. In Eternity the body is the site of an encounter between self and other; by contrast, the body that Los forms for Urizen is a thing which encloses him. It gives form and body to the state of withdrawal that he has entered.[17]

 

The fact that this identication could be made may show the way in which Blake distorted the Gnostic ‘alternative trinity’ to gradually arrive at his own mythological entities.

 

Conclusion

Despite the obscurity of The [First] Book of Urizen, in this essay I attempted to show that certain structural symmetries could be found in the poem. The mere fact of these symmetries put a rather vague gure, Orc in the focus, and he indeed turned out to have a crucial role if The [First] Book of Urizen is to be analysed in the light of other works of Blake or of certain Gnostic tenets and traditions.

The nature of these symmetries, diminishing recurrences, suggested that Urizen cannot be straightforwardly interpreted as a malicious gure based on this work only. This might be because The [First] Book of Urizen represents a preliminary stage of the development of Blake’s mythology. This suggestion was further supported by the possibility of establishing a link between the ‘alternative trinity’ of Gnosticism and the four gures of The [First] Book of Urizen, showing a way in which Blake may have arrived from a variation of Christian mythology to his own views.

‘Diminishing recurrences’ can, naturally, be found outside Blake’s oeuvre. Yeats’s The Second Coming might serve as an example, in which the next cycle of human history, after the era of Christ, is to be dominated by a monster: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”[18] Both poems appear to use this technique to depict a state of human existence that has declined: in Yeats, by reaching the end of a cycle, in Blake, by falling from Eternity.

What might save peoplekind so declined according to The [First] Book of Urizen is unclear. The sons of Urizen not withered under Religion are led out of Egypt by Fuzon (520–523). Blake’s version of the Exodus may give some hope that peoplekind so freed from under the Net of Religion may ultimately be saved when Urizen’s world is reunited with the rest of Eternity. However, if one tries to apply the idea of symmetries further, the interpretation of Urizen as a malevolent god turns upside down. For the counterpart to Fuzon’s exodus may be the very rst act of Urizen: his leaving and turning against Eternity and the “primeval Priests,” which might be the prerequisite of redemption and the very existence of Urizen’s descendants, the human race. Was it not Urizen himself that was saved by Orc?—while Los is standing at the anvil constructing a body, Urizen, the text, Blake and Religion appear to be deconstructing themselves.

 



[1] Erich Auerbach, “Odysseus’ Scar” (originally in Mimesis) in Literary Criticism and Theory: the Greeks to the Present, ed. Robert Con Davis and Laurie Finke (New York and London: Longman, 1989), 632–647, 636.

[2] Auerbach, 637.

[3] William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., ed. M. H. Abrams et el (New York: Norton, 2000), 2:82.

[4] Auerbach, 640–641.

[5] Auerbach, 641.

[6] Auerbach, 642.

[7] Authorized Version, Gen 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31.

[8] See for example, Footnote 1 to All Religions Are One and Footnote 1 to There Is No Natural Religion in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., ed. M. H. Abrams et el (New York: Norton, 2000), 2:41.

[9] Seven 1 creates the Urizen fallen from Eternity; Seven 2 repeats this creation (by alluding to the same Biblical passages) and creates his descendants fallen from Urizen’s void (not Eternity any more, provided in in line 500 is interpreted as into). See “No more could they rise at will / In the infinite void” (499–500, my emph.).

[10] Anthony D. Nuttall, The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 4.

[11] Nuttall, 4.

[12] Ruthven Todd, William Blake, the Artist (London: Studio Vista Limited, 1971), 72, 73. The drawing could not be found in the electronic Blake Archive at www.blakearchive.org.

[13] Nuttall, 7.

[14] Nuttall, 15.

[15] Nuttall, 242.

[16] I have disregarded here the events of lines 419–422, in which Los separates Enitharmon, and, supposedly, himself, from the two other men.

[17] Peter Otto, Constructive Vision and Visionary Construction: Los, Eternity and the Productions of Time in the Later Poetry of William Blake (Oxford: Calderon Press, 1991), 43, my emph.

[18] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., ed. M. H. Abrams et el (New York: Norton, 2000), 2:2106–2107.