(1780 – 1830)



The historical context. Epistemological grounds. Romantic poetics and mode of vision. The romantic smith at his hammers and anvils: William Blake. The first (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and the second (Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, George Gordon Byron) generations of romantic poets. The progress of romantic drama from the history of feelings to the feel of history: Joanna Baillie and George Gordon Byron. Versions of romantic fiction: the Gothic school, (Horace Walpole, William Beckford, Ann Radcliffe, William Godwin, Matthew Gregory Lewis, James Hogg, Mary Shelley), the historical novel (Walter Scott), the novel of manners and sentiment (Jane Austen).


The landmarks defining the Romantic age are still a debatable issue among literary historians. The “authorized voices” to be heard from Cambridge in a collection of essays entitled British Romanticism (editor: Stuart Curran), with editions running from 1993 to 1996, spans a more restricted interval (from 1785 to 1825) than the earlier Cambridge History of English Literature. The reasons are expounded by Marshall Brown in his essay, Romanticism and Enlightenment:Pre-Romanticism”, though widely diffused, turns out to be an unwitting and accidental by-product of other impulses, and hence radically different from the consciously worked out aims of the various Romantic writers, richly elaborated in a coherent body of works [1]

Our dissatisfaction with this latest periodization comes from its neglect of the native roots, of the intellectual ferment which gave birth to a radically new poetic movement, and whose traces can be identified throughout the second half of the seventeenth century. Why absolutize (as Peter Thorslev does in German Romantic Idealism) the role of Novalis or of Immanuel Kant, when Edward Young, George Berkeley, and David Hume had preceded them in the emergent worldview we now construe as “Romantic”? Had not the term itself cropped up much earlier than these recently proposed limits? The “consciously worked-out” and worded aesthetic programme always comes after a good deal of discursive practice, whose defining design has finally become apparent. Aristotle did not spell out how Greek drama was to be written, he simply derived norms from its already-existing forms. Boileau laid down poetic principles derived from the revived literary forms of the antiquity during the French Renaissance. Wordsworth's Preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (18oo) came after a half-century movement towards a mode of sensibility different from whatever had been before. If we compare the works of Blake and Wordsworth, Burke's aesthetic of the sublime (fascination with what is dark, confused and terrible) and Wordsworth's prescription of writing as “recollection in tranquility”, the positive connotations of fear and sensationalism in the Gothic novel and the framed historical romances of Walter Scott, we may even infer that the late eighteenth-century sensibility is romantic in excess, while the “canonical” 1800-183o period is a more tamed version thereof. A mixture of various features (the dark side of the Enlightenment and the conservative aspects of Romanticism) is only natural, and so is the overlapping for a while of mutually exclusive paradigms in the modern world, which no longer relies on a shared context of religious and philosophical values. Writers do not, as a rule, go about with neatly-drawn literary manifestoes in hand, nor do they look up the date in calendars, to decide on the perfect timing for the shift towards a new poetic. Mihai Eminescu was well-aware of his elective affinities when he looked for models not only in Novalis but also in Edward Young, not only in Gautier but also in Rousseau.

The history of reception runs smoothly from Northrop Frye's label of “mythopoetic age” to M.H. Abrams's celebrated “Construing and Deconstructing” and The Mirror and the Lamp. It is a classical study, introducing valuable distinctions, such as that between mimetic, expressive, and pragmatic art, which would allow one to construct a pragmastylistic picture of classicalist, romantic and Avantgarde art. The romantic lamp of genius succeeds cyclically to the mirror of classical and realist art. The trajectory of Romanticism, from the projected return to Eden through revolutionary violence to the imaginative transformation of the self, through Coleridge's clerisy or Shelley's Poets-Prophets and Legislators, so as to see in a new, redeeming light, the world which could not be changed, is rooted in a wealth of empirical material. It is only with the “Yale School” (deconstruction and pragmatism) that revaluation took an unexpected twist. Paul de Man („The Rhetoric of Temporality”, Allegories of Reading, Blindness and Insight) deconstructs myth as figure: there are no epiphanies of a transcendental world, but only acts of language and of consciousness.

The object of desire is always lost within a separate ontological sphere, and poetry is the allegory of this loss and distancing through troping. The meaning structure is unstable, pluralistic, so the poem allegorizes its own unreadability. Geoffrey Hartman's work on Wordsworth lays bare the threads of tradition, literary conventions and generic markers under the delusive mask of spontaneity and simplicity of idiom.

Brian McHale[2] conceives of two possibilities to construct literary history, either in narrative form (as a list of canonical or countercanonical texts, which is what we have been doing so far) or as spatialized form. The latter is organized in the form of parallel lists of contrasting or opposing features: in the left-hand column, the defining features of period A; in the right-hand column, the contrastive features that define period B. As Romanticism means a significant break with the entire past, we think that such a picture of Enlightenment and Romanticism defined through binary oppositions will prove most instructive. Marshall Brown himself produces such a contrastive picture of their central concepts and generic forms [3]. Those ascribed to Romanticism are listed in the right-hand column:

empiricism                                              supernatural sensationalism

cosmopolitanism                                    nationalism and indigenous myths

satire, heroic couplets, moral and           blank verse meditative lyrics,

didactic poems, local poems                  mythological or metaphysical poems

                                                               first-person epics

picaresque or epistolary novels              social, historical or Gothic fictions

Setting out from these epistemological and generic distinctions, we have settled on the following chronology: a period of transition when neoclassic and emerging romantic elements coexist (1750 – 1780); the outbreak of Romanticism (1780 – 1800); the progress of Romanticism from generic self-awareness to its own parody (1800 – 1830).

The shift of population towards the factories of the North and the Midlands caused by the Industrial Revolution had awakened people to a sense of loss and nostalgic memories of the time when man had lived in harmony with nature. Even to those who had been left behind, the countryside offered now a different picture: the old open-field system with landowners who cultivated their strips of land and had access to large areas of the common ground for pasture had been replaced by private enclosed farms, which had swallowed the commonly shared meadows, woodlands, and waste. In 1817 Wordsworth bemoaned the dissolution of the principal ties which kept the different classes of society in a vital and harmonious dependence upon each other. The communion with nature or the assertion of a sense of fellowship with the other human beings found an anguished expression in the Romantics, as they had become problematical. Unlike the pastoralists, who serenely take such communion for granted, the Romantics apprehended it as something missing and desired in the alienating city-world.

In politics, this was an age of social upheaval; all standards were subject to individual testing, the traditional scale of values was radically modified. The War of Independence which freed the American colonies from the rule of the Hanoverian kings seriously diminished the power of the Crown, while the fall of the Bastille (1789) was greeted as the symbolical end of tyranny and feudal absolutism. While the neoclassic writers had generally supported the status-quo, the Romantic poets decidedly espoused the ideals of liberty and equality. Even Edmund Burke, who declared himself against the supporters of the French Revolution (Reflections on the French Revolution, 1790), only did so out of a sentimental commitment to tradition and chivalry. Blake welcomed both the French and the American rebellions, dedicating to them frenzied lyrical projections, mythically coloured and of epic proportions. Wordsworth saw France on the top of golden hours, Byron got involved in wars of independence on the continent. Romantic literature was a literature of subversion, which questioned the system into which it was born. William Godwin blamed unjust social organization for the evil surfacing in man. Napoleon's betrayal of the republican ideal deeply affected the second generation of Romantics who took various opportunities of depicting tyranny in the gloomiest colours (Shelley, Byron). The shifting relations of power between creator and creature (Frankenstein), the appearance of monsters turning against their creators [4], breaking social taboos and challenging social norms and laws, were outward symptoms of a mentality which set a price upon individual judgement and the power of the individual mind to create its own world, through imaginative vision. 

The agnostic and sceptical turn in philosophy was in a way a natural outcome of Locke's empiricism. The argument that all knowledge comes from experience, and is transferred through the senses to become our ideas, easily led to the conclusion that apart from what goes on in our minds there is nothing of which we have any positive knowledge. George Berkeley [5] radicalized the idea carrying it onto the ontological level: bodies are only ideas that do not exist independently of the spirit that has perceived them: esse est percepi (to be is to be perceived). The individual souls are spiritual substances  – active and invisible – contained in the largest monad which is God. For David Hume too the constantly-recurring mental complexes are our only guarantee of objective reality. This is the foundation upon which, according to Peter Thorslev [6], Kant constructed “a marvel of German intellectual engineering”. In his first great Critique, the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant conceded Hume's major antimetaphysical thesis. We cannot attribute the extension of time and space, or the relations of cause and effect (to take only the most ready-to-mind of Kant's “categories”) to the objects of perception, to the things-in-themselves, as Hume had demonstrated, for if we do, we become inevitably involved in confusion and contradiction (Kant's famed “antinomies”). On the other hand, it seemed perhaps to Kant's Prussian mind too dismissive, too flippant, to attribute these categories to mere “lazy” habits of perception. The categories, Kant maintained, are inevitable, built into the mind; they are also the a priori conditions of all intelligibility. In this... assertion consists the Copernican Revolution in epistemology that inaugurated the Romantic Age. Concepts without percepts are empty, Kant conceded, but percepts without concepts are blind. From thenceforth, the phenomenal universe became a something that, in Wordsworth's memorable phrase, we half-create, and half-perceive”. [7]

A doubling up of human biography accompanies the shaping of the self. In a letter to George and Georgiana Keats, John Keats defines the world as a “Vale of Soul Making”, to which the school and the hornbook have their decisive contribution. In Frankenstein, the biological facts around the creature's coming into being are an altogether massy affair, but his cultural integration into the semiological orders of the community (through reading) is a sine-qua-non condition for his being able to communicate and take part in social life It is only through conceptual frames that reality becomes intelligible to him. The Bildungsgeschichte in The Prelude spans “childhood and school-time” as inseparable aspects of the process of growing up. Self-development cannot be conceived of as mere biology; the hero's progress in the real world – disparagingly dismissed as “vulgar works of Man” – is cast into epistemological frames. The “Spirit of the universe” sees to it that the facts of life be “intertwined” with the passions, the movements of the “human Soul” (spelt with capital letter, like the affined all-pervading World Spirit). The progress of life is no longer viewed as a sequence of actions, states and events, but as a psychic evolution, described from inside the mind. At the same time, the soul is no more a destitute exile on earth (like the medieval Christian pilgrim). The dynamic and integrative mode of vision, fusing opposites, so characteristic of the Romantics, roots the sprit in the earth. Human existence is defined as “being-in-the world” (Nature lodges the soul, the Imagination of the whole) through tropes which assimilate the soul to nature's vegetative life. The same vital sap wells up in man and in the world, the World Soul descends into history with each individual birth:  

           Fair seed time had my soul, and I grew up

           Foster'd alike by beauty and by fear;

           Much favour'd in my birthplace, and no less

           In that beloved vale to which, erelong,

           I was transplanted.

The naturalization of Hegel's leading concepts in The Phenomenology of the Spirit („Wisdom and Spirit of the universe” for “Vernunft”, “Weltgeist”) could not escape detection by an authority in Romanticism like M.H. Abrams, who undertakes a brilliant reading of the Prelude in relation to The Phenomenology in his Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, Norton, 197l.

The Romantic preference for symbols is grounded in this same particular worldview: It is a finite image expressing infinite suggestibility. An iconographic expression of a concept, a perfect union between image, sound and idea, intellect and the senses. Imagination interacts with external reality, contributing its own shaping vision to representations thereof: An auxiliar light/ Came from my mind on which the setting sun/ Bestows new splendour (Wordsworth: The Prelude). Coleridge (The Statesman's Manual) sees the Bible as archetypal imaginative history, as it communicates truth through symbols. Instead of a collection of dead things on the one hand and of their qualities on the other, it exploits the mediatory power of the imagination, incorporating reason in images.

Thorslev too enlarges on the next generation of Postkantian Transcendental Idealists, singling out Hegel from among them as “the Grand Synthesis, the Ring Cycle of Romantic philosophy”: The moral and the creative will become one: the Absolute, the World Spirit, for which he appropriates the name of Reason – having nothing whatever to do with the “reason” of enlightenment philosophy, the mere “analytical understanding” as Coleridge also so dismissively names it. (...). The World Spirit realizes itself in and determines all history; it uses (Hegelian) heroes, world-historical individuals (weltgeschichtliche Menschen), but these heroes, like Carlyle's, know not what they do. The World Spirit becomes conscious of itself, but only in retrospect[8].

History is a gradual revelation of the “absolute Idea” (pattern, process, meaning). If it is not apparent to those acting in history but only to philosophers looking back on past events – could we not say that this is a Romantic reinforcement of Augstine's idealization of contemplative minds? It surely explains Wordsworth's definition of poetic creation as “recollection in tranquility”. It also justifies the new literary kinds which Romanticism develops as counterpoints to the picaresque of the Enlightenment, based upon the presupposition of a common, unchanging human nature. The grand Romantic myth of the developmental self threads texts as different as Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, Wordsworth's Prelude to the Growth of A Poet’s Mind, the revisit poems contrasting present and past selves, the Bildungsroman inscribed in Frankenstein. The retrospective narrator is also a cognitive hero of an epistemological quest: He tries to interpret his past life, and it is only now that the incoherence of actual experiences finally falls into an ordered pattern.

This process finally reaches out to what Shelley calls “Epipsychidion”: the soul around the soul, God's Oversoul. Georges Poulet, in Timelessness and Romanticism (Journal of the History of Ideas, 15, 1954) stresses the essentially religious character of human centrality with the Romantics, who took hold of the idea of eternity... and removed it from its empyrian world into their own (...) between the divine source and the individual source there is identity of origin and identity of growth. For Coleridge, the highest form of creativity is a repetition of the infinite Mind in the finite mind of the poet (Biographia Literaria). Man's god-like capacity of boundless dilation (to see a world in a grain of sand) is a leading motif in Blake. The consequence is an arrogant valorization of the subject, who, although a willing social exile, becomes the centre of his all-inclusive, imaginative projection. Individualism, subjectivity, self-determination, imagination are the new key-concepts.

One more consequence of the Hegelian dialectical view of the “concrete universal” is organicist historicism, nationalism. The Idea is revealed in organic  (having inscribed a certain teleological pattern of development) and time-specific forms. “... Die seltenste Form bewahrt im Geheimen das Urbild, says Goethe in Metamorphose der Tiere. These embodied paradigms (Urbild: archetype) are organic, teleological: Ganz harmonisch zum Sinne des Tiers und seinem Bedürfnis. William Blake, who sees in God the Great Designer of the universe, sounds even closer to the Hegelian model (from Idea to its reflection in embodied forms, and from here to recovery of intelligible pattern in the imagination): There exist in the external world the permanent realities of every thing which we see reflected in their eternal forms in the divine body of the SAVIOUR, the true vine of eternity, the human imagination (Vision of the Last Judgement, 18). 

Revaluations are undoubtedly a condition of each generation coming to terms with the vision, sensibility and discursive practices of those remote in time, yet sometimes they may falsify the spirit and scope inscribed in them. Little did we expect to see the British tradition of gothic fiction, which makes one's hairs stand on end, domesticated into a version of Enlightenment renovation: Gothic romance also aims to demystify the sublime obscurity by which, according to Enlightenment sociology, court culture overawes the whole of society, thereby maintaining the power of court government. In order to do this gothic romances often describe historical and social settings in terms of Enlightenment philosophical history and use of novelistic devices and figures to constitute a critical sociology of power operating in several ways: through institutions founded in the past and now outmoded (in ruins), but nevertheless difficult or dangerous for the outsider to understand, penetrate, or master (secret entrances, passages, labyrinths, pitfalls); through social conventions (conspiracies, secret orders) unrecognized or not understood by their victims; through application of hidden laws and instruments of force (the Inquisition); through an unsuspected, inward-working transformation (by philtres, magic) of the victim's perceptions, values, ideology, or being; and through alien, not truly English values and practices (Mediterranean, Oriental, Catholic) [9]

The ruins frowning in the Pre-Romantic poems and romances are not ascribable to a certain historical or political moment. On the contrary, they have lost any contingent connotations, taking the reader into a fabled past. From actual objects out there in the world, they have been abstracted to signs of former presences – that dialectic of presence/absence which allows the imagination to contribute its own share of fictional embroidery.  In most cases, mystery is not rationalized and explained away as somatic disturbances; the marvellous is an end in itself. Finally, whenever the British meant to demonize un-Englishness, they went no farther than the French, who had really become their bête noire in the period stretching from the Restoration (when the king had brought home rather objectionable tastes) to the Napoleonic wars. The Oriental setting of many stories of the age, just like the ruins, is only one form of constructing infinites of time and space. For a more genuine recovery of the plastic spirit of the age, one need borrow its own voices, which are addressing a readership in quest of wonder and sensationalism. The refuge into the past  is an effective form of escapism.

Historically, “Gothic” had meant anything wild and barbarous, and destructive of classical civilization. Later it became associated with the pointed arch in ecclesiastical architecture between the twelfth and the fourteenth century. To the Romantics, it meant the age of medieval romance, opposed to the classical culture.  Initially, the Gothic was a renovated instrument of subverting it. Later it turned into mannerism: the antique setting of a gothic castle, with secret corridors and labyrinthine passages, haunted by demonic characters, villains who had pledged themselves to the devil, ghosts.

Why not allow a contemporary to explain to us the riddle of this medieval revival, and how it was being experienced at that particular time? Charles Lamb, the subtle romantic essayist, did not even consider it to be a return to a past mode of vision, but rather the revelation of something deep and permanent within the human being, which the Augustans had programmatically suppressed: Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimeras – dire stories of Celaeno and the Harpies – may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition, but they are in us and eternal (Witches and Other Night Fears)

The need for the liberation of pent up emotion after the dry and rigidly prescriptive and unimaginative neoclassical age found a release in the previous world of medieval romances. The near past is erased and a palimpsest reconstruction gets started.

The word “Romantic” too changed from a historical  (narrative in a Romance language) to a typological concept (the falsehood of romance as against the truth of nature).  From the general meaning “like the old romances”, the word came in time to be used in reference to old castles, horrid mountains and gloomy forests, waste and solitary places. But the essential shift in the perception of nature is not just that from the orderly, man-trimmed, domesticated neoclassical landscape to the imaginatively stimulative and wild sights of the later eighteenth century. The difference is described in a very influential book: The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz: the term assumes a subjective character, bearing not so much upon the property of objects as upon their effects on an impressionable onlooker [10]. The setting undergoes a twofold displacement: a spatial one  – from the actual topical dimensions into the realm of subjectivity, i.e. a psychological translation – and a temporal one  – from the present into the past or into the future:

   The saint or moralist should tread

   This moss-grown alley, musing slow;

   They seek, like me, the secret shade,

   But not, like me, to nourish woe. 

  My fruitful scenes and prospects waste

   Alike admonish not to roam;

   These tell me of enjoyments past,

   And those of sorrows yet to come. 

Setting out to produce a landscape poem – The Shrubbery –, William Cowper is aware of a generic change pointing to an age of revived sensibility. The poem is not due to an outward event; it emerges out of a state of mind, as the subtitle reads: Written in a time of affliction. Whereas the Augustans had imposed didactic schemes on poetry (moral or religious), the new poets were aiming at self-reflexivity. What they sought in nature was not physical harmony but a match for the inward states, a consensus between the onlooker's feelings and a responsive natural background. If this intersubjective harmony could not be reached,

   How ill the scene that offers rest.

   And heart that cannot rest, agree!, 

the natural scene was to be replaced by visionary sights, in-built in the contemplating mind, sharing in its substance, like any organic outgrowth (my fruitful scenes). In other words, the onlooker's mind half-perceives and half-creates. Nature is not contemplated directly but through a mist of associated ideas and literary memories. The sunset in a churchyard builds into a metaphor for the transience of human life (Thomas Grey, An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard). The piteous sight of an unfortunate outcast swept away into the ocean, while the crew makes haste to save the ship caught by the storm is made into a metaphor of human solitude during the voyage of life (William Cowper, The Castaway).  Maybe that is why, although the word is used as early as 1654 by John Evelyn to denote “a very Romantic country-seat”... on the side of a “horrid Alp near Bristol”, Praz picks up on a different early occurrence: romantique, in Rousseau, meant to define the elusive and indistinct things which he would express by “je ne sais quoi”. As soon as things lose their precise outline, they can turn into grit for the grinding-mill of the infinitely expanding soul. The relationship between understanding and imagination as conceptualized by Locke or Hobbes is being reversed: a marvellous light, unenjoy'd of old, is pour'd on us by revelation, with larger prospects extending our understanding, with brighter objects enriching our imagination, with an inestimable prise setting our passions on fire, thus strengthening every power that enables a composition to shine... (Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition, 1758) It is also Young who supplants the neoclassical concept of the artist as imitator by that of an original creator, who enriches the province of letters, instead of merely duplicating it. Genius can dispense with rules and achieve “unexampled excellence”. The vitalist view of art as something organic, natural, dynamic (read: counter to imitated, consciously elaborated, static) anticipates German teleological speculations. An original writer may be said to be of a vegetable nature; it rises spontaneously from the vital root of genius; it grows, it is not made. Likewise, his Complaint or Night-Thoughts set the fashion for the graveyard school of rhetorical melancholy, as well as the tradition of romantic night musings (Novalis: Hymnen an die Nacht).

Freedom of mind consorts with freedom of expression. The break with the neoclassical tradition can be felt in the taste for the genuine pathos and simplicity of folk poetry. The three-volumed Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published by Thomas Percy in 1765 enjoyed wide audience, despite occasional charges of “irregular poetry”. The public taste had gone so extravagant as to invite hoaxes, as those played upon their readers by James Macpherson (who passed his own Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books for a collection of poems by Fingal's son, Ossian, translated from Gaelic), and by Thomas Chatterton, who pretended to have discovered a fifteenth-century monk's manuscripts. The latter, an enormously talented poet, died young  (suicide), as did most of the Romantic poets (i.e. those who were not afflicted with psychic depression or madness for a change), consumed with the flames of their passionate hearts.

A passionate thought content will break with any rhetorical decorum, finding expression in deliberate exaggeration. Edmund Burke (Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756) calls this deliberate process “amplification”. The “sublime” is precisely an inherent tension between finite and infinite, the limits only offering themselves in order to be surpassed. The unresolved tension between opposites means a denial of confinement to only one possibility. The immobile statuesque is abandoned in favour of the picturesque (expressive rather than beautiful, intellectual rather than visual, unstable, irregular); classical claritas is supplanted by the “mysterious ambiguity” of the coincidentia oppositorum. Mario Praz speaks about “an aesthetic theory of the Horrid and the Terrible”, which developed during the eighteenth century, with the bulk of examples provided, in this comparative book on European Romanticism, by English stock (Collins, Walpole, Shelley) William Collins writes an ode on... fear, Thomas Grey, on the Pleasure arising from Vicisitude; Shelley is fascinated by the tempestuous loveliness of terror, Wordsworth grows up foster'd alike by beauty and by fear. In order to define such wild looms of Romantic rhetoric, one needs to step into the acategorial realm of myth.

The dumping of neoclassical aesthetic norms is still a prerequisite of those advancing new aesthetic ideas (Young, or Edmund Burke) in the second half of the century.  By the end of it, when the new sensibility had settled in, Wordsworth would be able to spell out the Gospel of Romanticism without polemical bitterness.


The Romantic smith at his hammers and anvils: William Blake


T.S, Eliot's contention, that William Blake was an uneducated visionary who owed nothing to tradition, would probably have elicited a smile from the prophet of Romanticism. For the Romantic rebels did not believe in institutionalized forms, including those of education. Blake, the son of a London hosier, chose the intuitive art lessons provided by Gothic ecclesiastical architecture or by books on mythology and ancient art which he was called upon to provide engravings for.  Besides, his extensive knowledge of esoteric lore emerged reshaped as a personal mythology, for the poet well knew that, unless he created a new system, he was in danger of being ensnared by another's (Jerusalem). An attempt to pin it down to its sources was made by Kathleen Raine in a seminal book: Blake and Antiquity, Routledge 1963. In order to interpret Blake's symbolic language, one needs to translate it into the familiar mythosophic foundation of western civilization.

Blake's artistic initiation started at an early age. He was only fourteen when he was apprenticed to James Basire, the engraver, who sent him to make drawings of monuments in Westminster Abbey and other ancient churches. Being in a position to judge the differences between two forms of art, medieval Gothic and classical Roman and Greek, the young apprentice, whose visionary designs, illuminations and engravings earned him lasting fame in the history of visual arts, decided in favour of the former, justifying his option in terms characteristic of the shift from the mechanical view of the Enlightenment to the vital-organicist spirit of the new age: Mathematic form is eternal in the reasoning memory; living form is eternal existence. Grecian is mathematic form. Gothic is living form. His acquaintance with Hellenistic thought and Eleusinian mythology, which helped shape his own mythopoetic vision, was probably derived from Jacob Bryant's Analysis of Ancient Mythology and Erasmus Darwin's Botanic Garden, which were published with engravings by Blake. Whereas most Augustans had thought Plato was nonsense, the new age eagerly absorbed Platonic and Neoplatonic transcendentalism. Thomas Taylor was the first translator of Plato and Plotinus into English (1758). The same century saw the translation of Hermetica, whose cosmogony is subtly echoed in Blake's Vala, or The Four Zoas (Night the First).

The esoteric mixing pot which gave birth to Blake's intriguing and emblematic figures (Los, Vala, Thel, Tharmas, Ahania, Albion, Tirzah etc.), whose meanings have not been exhausted by subsequent interpretations, had mainly absorbed elements of Hellenistic culture – that impressive synthesis of ancient esoteric thought (Platonic philosophy, Hermetic doctrines, alchemy etc.). Some of its assumptions can well serve as analogues for Blake' visionary flights of imagination. Our account is partly based upon information provided by Raine's book, quoted above. According to the Neoplatonists (see Porphyry: De Antro Nympharum – Cave of the Nymphs), the souls come into generation attracting to themselves a watery envelope. The nymphs on the watery cave enact the perpetual cycle of descent through the moon (the northern gate, the Cancer) and ascent through the sun (the Capricorn, the southern gate of return). The nymphs at their looms weave the garments of generation (the moist cloud is a symbol of the body). In the Cabbala, the original pure source is diluted through its successive emanations (sephiroth) until they reach the earth, gross matter. The return to the original purity is possible through purging fire. In the Hermetic cosmogony, likewise, Anthropocosmos gets a glimpse of his own image reflected in water, from the lowest heavenly body, the moon, falls in love with it and dives into the sea. Out of his union with nature, seven children are born, who inherit their father's spirit and their mother's body [11]. The Uranian spirit, the divine principle is thus imprisoned in matter, and its release is the great work of the Alchemists.

Blake's Urizen is the God of the Old Testament or the fallen Demiurge of the gnostics, who created the earth in imitation of the divine Intellect's emanation into the heavenly bodies. He is a figure of authority, tyranny, of reasoning faculties (the patron of the mechanically-minded philosophers and mathematicians of the Enlightenment), a defender of an immobile status quo and a giver of the Ten Commandments. His antagonist, Orc („orcus” is the word for “hell” in Virgil and Milton), whom Urizen has chained down with chain of Jealousy (The Book of Los) is the archetypal rebel, a hater of dignities, the spirit of revolt which swells up in revolutionary moments of history (the French Revolution or America's War of Independence). Los (probably “sol”: sun), the time-spirit, balances the opposite movements of descent into matter and ascent to the immortals. He is a smith but also a potter, who takes the furnaces Urizen had used in creating the world and “builds them anew”. But the creation of Los is no longer one of matter but an imaginative architecture. The “terrible race of Los and Enitharmon” (Harmony) produce laws, religions, philosophy.

On the famous Barberini vase described by Erasmus Darwin in his book, the Eleusian scene of the descent of the soul to Hades and immortality is engraved by Blake with the additional element of a sleeping sun. The idea behind this strange image is that the two opposite worlds, of mortality and immortality are contrary to each other in point of time as well: when one is awake, the other is asleep. Albion, which is Blake's emblem for Britain, is now dead to eternity, as its imaginary vision has been extinguished by empiricist science and philosophy. The people of England, in the age of Newton and Locke, entertained the false belief that the phenomena of nature have an existence apart from that of the mind (analogous to Hegel's World Spirit or to Fichte's non-Ego, unable to recognize the phenomenal world as their own creation). Jerusalem is that blessed state of the Spirit's self-awareness: in your own Bosom you bear your own heaven/ And Earth ... though it appears without, it is within/ In your imagination, of which this world of mortality is but a shadow. Sacred history intersects the England of mortality. In ancient time the Lamb of God was believed to have walked “the pleasant pastures”, but now is the time of the industrial revolution, of material progress and mechanistic science. The prophetic tone (Bring me my Bow of burning gold...) mounts an apotheotic vision of the New Jerusalem built in England's green & pleasant Land. The successive moments of spiritual blindness or enlightenment yields a cyclic pattern of history which Blake describes in The Mental Traveller, a poem cast in the swiftly-falling cadences of the folk ballad form. The poem tells the story of an infant boy sacrificed by a woman Old. But then “The Babe” is born again, he grows old and the Old Woman grows young, until he is able to get the upper hand and nail her down. Then the story repeats itself. The pattern of consistent binary oppositions (abstract and concrete, visual and suggestive, vital and sapless, cruel and mild, cunning and innocent etc.) is uncommonly fanciful, the imagery, extraordinarily rich. She grows old, feeding upon his shrieks & cries, he grows young nourished by the honey of her infant lips/ the Bread & wine of her sweet smile. This troping strategy is meant to render the metamorphic vision of the mind, which can project its own world, irrespective of the data furnished by the senses:

   The Guests are scatter's thro' the land,

   For the Eye altering alters all;

   The senses roll themselves in fear

   And the flatt Earth becomes a Ball.

The human spirit vacillates between sensuous delight in the world and murdering Reason, which reduces the rich variety of the earthly show to the barren, geometrical representations of Newton's spheres rolling through the void. Blake's pattern of conflicting historical cycles might have been inspired by a passage in Plato's Politicus, which was published in English at the time when Blake wrote this poem. Plato sees history as a movement between two poles; sometimes God is in control of the universe, and at that time man grows from age to youth, and sometimes God abandons mankind, those being retrograde cycles, when man grows from youth to age. Plato uses the simile of a spring wound up in a purposeful direction, and then left by God to unwind itself. In Milton, one of Blake's prophetic books, the two cycles are called “vortexes”: heaven is a vortex passed already and the earth a vortex not yet passed. The present moment would thus be that of the God-forsaken man.

Huge symmetries organize Blake's prophetic books, as well as his Songs of Innocence and Experience, as they tell again and again his original version of a traditional myth: the saga of the fall and redemption (descent and ascent) of The Universal Man, or The Eternal Great Humanity. The poet has abandoned the Augustans' petty concerns with present social events, taking a view of mankind from the highest standing, as Shakespeare or Milton had previously done.

Whereas the Songs of Innocence move from dawn to dark, telling of man's Edenic state (in a metaphorical, not in a topical sense), in the pastoral mode of a Shepherd-Christ figure, the Songs of Experience coming from a Bard (Blake's mask) pour forth from dark to daybreak, exorcising, by naming, the evil in the lapsed world.

The universal gospel of love communicated in the Songs of Innocence, with the artless rhetoric reminiscent of nursery rhymes (one piece is entitled Nurse's Song), makes one think of Dürer's Adam and Eve in Eden, looking pure yet a bit dull. Man's Edenic condition is a metaphor for a set of values universally cherished: kindness, peace, blissful communion. In this prelapserian world, free from death, pain or cruelty, all anatagonisms have been abolished: a little girl who gets lost is safely lulled to sleep in a cave by animals of prey – wolves, tygers and lions, which shed “ruby tears” of compassion. “And the lion will lie with the lamb”, as John's Revelation prophesizes. For in the world which is still with God, Logos becomes true, reified (identical in physics and metaphysics[12]) The poems do not refer to a reality outside them, they narcisistically mirror their textual nature, the fact that they are a reinscription of the nursery or pastoral convention. In the manner of Milton, in Lycidas, Blake mixes up elements of the pagan and of the Christian pastoral: the shepherd's pipe, the hollow reed, the tradition that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and Christians are his flock, or that Jesus is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for the redemption of the sinning man. The colour symbolism (black and white reconciled) would point to a moment before Genesis (light creating a world separate from God), one of Unity: The black boy has a white heart, the Chimney-Sweeper is guarded by a white angel, the orphaned child finds in God a father, the lost girl is protected by beasts etc. The Christ figure is also troped as a child, as the incarnated God. The Word is its own World.

The world of the Songs of Experience is a postlapserian one, with topical allusions and unresolved conflicts. We recognize names of places, social institutions, the power relations governing Blake's real world. Whereas the world of innocence is equal unto itself, a state of perpetuity („echoing green”), the world of experience exists in a time fragmented into “„Present, Past, & Future”, disputed by the “lapsed Soul” and the redemptive voice of the Bard. The figure of the Incarnation is replaced by that of the Holy Word of the Old-Testamental Genesis, Jesus by Jehovah, the artlessness of the pastoral by a variety of rhythms and rhymes, most of them breathing the pathos of a psalmic invocation:

   Hear the voice of the Bard!

   Who Present, Past, & Future sees

   Whose ears have heard

   The Holy Word           

   That walk'd among the ancient trees.


   Calling the lapsed Soul,

   And weping in the evening dew;

   That night controll

   the starry pole,

   And fallen, fallen light renew!

Once again, the poet combines heterogeneous elements, in his version of the Fall (a Hellenistic mannerism): the myth of captivation (Hermetic), the descent through the watery cave (Porphyry), and the cruel, “jealous” (of the true Divine source), fallen Demiurge of the gnostics. After all, as reads an early prose fragment, he did believe that “All Religions are One”:

   „Prison'd on wat'ry shore,

   Starry jealousy does keep my den...” 

Education does not seem to be much good (The Schoolboy), churches and priests are exposed as forms of obscurantism and repression (A Little Boy Lost), man's vital energies are suppressed by social and religious taboos (The Garden of Love). The insistence upon the word “chartered” (“charter'd streets” of London, the “charter'd Thames”) suggests a doubling of the bodily prison of the flesh by a metaphorical prison of institutionalized forms, pseudo-scientific assumptions, falsifying theoretical systems, which are constantly imposed upon man. Evil lies outside man, in the victimizing social institutions: the monarchy sending people to war, the Church denying natural inclinations and desires, deadening the profusion of the worldly show („blackening” as opposed to the creative white light):

   How the Chimney-sweeper's cry

   Every black'ning Church appalls

   And the hapless Soldier's sigh

   Runs in blood down Palace walls.


While the pastoral allows of the reconciliation of opposites, all the elements of the postlapserian world are mutually destructive. The world is divided against itself: Innocence is corrupted by Vice, birth and wedding already contain the germs of death (the oxymoronic phrase is in imitation of Blake himself):

   But most thro' midnight streets I hear

   How the youthful Harlot's curse

   Blasts the new born Infant's tear,

   And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse. 

The indefinite article is a grammatical index of the present dissolution and fall from unity: The Divine Image in the first book of songs becomes A Divine Image in the second;

Mercy, Pitty, Peace and Love are supplanted by Cruelty, Jealousy, Terror and Secrecy. If Tirzah is the female generative principle of the mortal body, imprisoned in the senses, who will help the ascent from “generation” to “regeneration”? The most often quoted poem in the collection seems to provide the answer. And in order to answer the disquieting question – Did God who created the meek lamb also create the destructive tiger? –, one needs to remember the allegorical significance of the tiger in the Anglo-Saxon allegory, as both destroyer and redeemer of a fallen world. The Redeemer figure, according to Kathleen Raine, is not only Jesus here but also the artist who imaginatively recreates the world of matter, as the type of interrogation reminds of the one in the fifth book of Hermetica, the passage about the Workman, the Creator-Artist. Let us compare them:

And what shoulder, and what art,             Who circumscribed and marked out

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?          his eyes? Who bored his nostrils and

And when thy heart began to beat,            ears? Who opened his mouth, who

What dread hand? and what dread           stretched out and tied together his

feet?                                                         sinews?  

The shift from past tense to the subjunctive might suggest that the De-miurge who created the tiger in the world illo tempore might be different from the present “workman”, who intends to produce the Tyger poem on the page, in twin likeness to the real one: 

      Tyger! Tyger! burning brigh

      In the forests of the night,

      What immortal hand or eye

      Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell might well serve for an introduction to the prophetic books of archrebels. The unprecedented attack on all forms of social and doctrinary tyranny, the overthrowal of the basic assumptions of aesthetics, religion, and ethics find an appropriate language of shocking paradoxes, whose turns are still on everybody's lips, even when the author is not remembered: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom; The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction; Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion; Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius etc.

The gnomic phrasing, the grand design of a sage discourse, the epic sweep of the symbolic cast, the sophisticated versification reveal unexpected resources of a poet who had earlier exercised himself in the folk ballad and the pastoral. The French Revolution, in almost regular fourteeners, mounts a vision of history, while the succeeding America is cast into short-numbered paragraphs, like the verses in the Bible. It opens with a Preludium, which provides the mythological context for the events occurring from the early 1770s to the British defeat in 178l. The “red Orc”, arisen from hell, where he had been confined, opposes the authority of Urizen's iron laws; he stamps the Ten Commandments to dust and scatter(s) religion abroad. In response to his speech, Albion's Angel calls on the thirteen angels of the American colonies to suppress the spirit of rebellion. The thirteen angels hold a meeting and, after some debating, tear off their robes and throw down their sceptres (a recurrent image in Blake, suggesting repenting authority). They descend, taking sides with Washington, Paine, and Warren. In their turn, the thirteen colonies turn from loyalty to Britain to loyalty to each other. The battle between America and Albion is mainly a contest of visions, of values.

Blake has long been apprehended as a poet of wild and uncontrolled visions, yet, as Northrop Frye emphasizes [13], his manner is not allegorical but mythopoetic; meaning is not oblique but communicated through the total simultaneous shape of the poem. The looms of his visionary flights are well-tempered by a heightened sense of form. The tightness of an archetypal script is not annulled by the variety of names or accidents it applies to. The structuring principle is provided by the Smaragdine Table of Hermes Trismegistus, poetically explored in Plate 71 of Jerusalem (“for that which is above is like that which is beneath”). Divine Vision is also Living Form, not an abstraction. It received an actual shape in the body of the Saviour (Milton). Human Imagination is its time- and erath-bound correlative. Urizen's Tent, confined to the facts of the earth, stands for the failed envious imitation of the former. Vala is the soul that makes the descent, accompanied by Luvah, the divine lover who, in the world of mortality, becomes the serpent. Thel is also a soul who descends through the four elements, yet being able, through visionary projection, to escape the prison of “the Clod of Clay”. Her name suggests “Thalia”, art being a form of escape, of transcendence. Orc, as the timeless Spirit, Imagination, finds in Los an earthly counterpart. Albion is opposed to Jerusalem, the daughters of Albion, at their looms of generation, bind the eternals into mortal bodies, while Enitharmon's looms produce the superstructure of human systems of belief (In Milton, humans fall into three categories: the Elect, who live by the Will of God, the Reprobate, who break the Ten Commandments, believing in the imagination, and the Redeemed, who “live in doubts and fear”). The mode of vision is defining for a human typology: you are that you believe in. Immortality is always achieved through union with the heavenly emanation, or the earthly counterpart: Urizen and Ahania (Earth), Orc and a daughter of Urthona (possibly, “earth-owner”), Milton and Ololon, Tharmas and Enion. A “marriage of heaven and hell”, for, as we read in the homonymous piece, without contraries is no progression. Vision is the true demiurge, it transforms the objects it touches: The microscope knows not of this nor the telescope: they alter/ the ratio of the spectator's organ, but leave objects untouched./ for every space larger than a red globule of man's blood/ Is visionary, and is created by the hammer of Los. It is not the self that is changed by the world, it is for the self to impose its own world. That is why the process of an artist's growth is only a matter of access to a higher, enlightened vision: Milton, the national poet, is finally able to escape individualism, to discard the empirical rationalism of Bacon, Locke and Newton, to free himself from the “Greek and Latin slaves of the sword”, to cast aside from poetry all that is not inspiration. Augustan servile imitations (hirelings) are making room for the visionary spaces of the “new age”.

Traditional myths too undergo assimilation to the new sensibility. The Hermetic cosmogony in Vala, or the Four Zoas sets in polarity the vision of the Spirit who makes the descent (Tharmas), diving into the sea, and that of his earthly counterpart, Enion, who weaves the garments of his mortality. Their visions are mutually destructive. She is heavenly beautiful to draw me to destruction, yet his soul is to her incomprehensible, and that is even more horrifying than the loss of immortality. While she hides from his “searching eyes”, Tharmas, as the broader consciousness, is able to see his soul with her dim sight, as a collection of dry fibres, set under the microscopic lens, the severed, sapless vegetation, strongly suggestive of Dionysus being torn to pieces by the Titans:

   “Why wilt thou Examine every little fibre of my soul,

   Spreading them cut before the sun like stalks of flax to dry?

   The infant joy is beautiful, but its anatomy

   Horrible, Ghast & Deadly; nought shalt thou find in it.  

The Alchemical myth of captivation by a mirror or reflection in water is made into a myth of the captive artist of Romantic tradition, locked away from the thoroughfare of the trivial, everyday world. Whereas Jakob Boheme had derived, from the Alchemical tradition, an idea of “the glasss of the Abyss”, in which the source contemplates itself, Blake obviously transfers it to the textual nature of his poetry. The “Crystal Cabinet”, form'd of gold, the golden cage in which Apollo has shut him up to hear him sing (Song) are mises-en-abyme of the figure of the artist. Gold as lapis, or opus alchemicum, is cast into a structure, a shape („golden cage”, “silken net”, “Crystal cabinet”), which is at the same time a fresh perspective on the world: Another England there I saw,/ Another London with its tower etc. The poet can contemplate himself in his objectified image: the self-sufficient work of art.





[1]   British Romanticism, edited by Stuart Curran, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 29.

[2]   Brian McHale, Constructing Postmodernism, Routledge, 1992.

[3]   British Romanticism, Op. cit., p. 27.

[4]   Fred Botting, Frankenstein and the Language of Monstrosity in Reviewing Romanticism, edited by Philip W. Martin & Robin Jarvis, Macmillan, 1992, p. 5l.

[5]   George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge (17l0), Theory of Vision, (1733), Siris (1744).

[6]  British Romanticism, Op. cit., pp. 74–94.

[7]   Ibidem, p. 76.

[8]   Ibidem, p. 79.

[9]  Gary Kelley, Romantic Fiction, in British Romanticism, Op. cit., pp. 202-203.

[10] Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, Oxford University Press.

[11] A.J. Festugière, Hermétisme et mystique paienne, Editions Aubier-Mont-aigne, Paris, 1967, p. 56.

[12] Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie, Editions de Minuit, 1972, p. 27.

[13] Northrop Frye, The Stubborn Sructure, Essays on Culture and Society, Cornell University Press, 1970.




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