Blake: The Book of Urizen

January 30, 2023

The Book of Urizen
William Blake
(Random House, 1978) [1794]
102 p.

Twenty years ago I spent some time reading Blake’s prophetic writings, and could make nothing of them. To be more precise, they were lunatic. In them he described — though that word implies a certain clarity of presentation that I could not discover — a complex mythology peopled by mysterious beings of his own creation: Los, Thiriel, Orc, Urizen, and many others. The verse was, or appeared to be, heavily symbolic, so much so that the poems begged, to my mind, to be decoded into something more didactic, but, lacking the decryption key, I gave up in frustration.

I’ve tried again, with, I’m afraid, little better results. The Book of Urizen is one of his earliest works in this genre, and it tells, in verse of deep purple, how the world was created by an evil being called Urizen, who then dominated it, shackling up its denizens with chains of Science and Religion. According to the notes accompanying this edition, Urizen represents, in the mythology, opposition to spiritual awakening and progress, and the poem is about how such opposition came to control the world. Blake saw systematic reason, embodied in both Newtonian science and in organized religion, as an obstacle to spiritual progress.

Without some hand-holding, however, I’m not sure I would have been able to extract even that basic understanding of the poem. Perhaps it’s worth looking at some of the verse. After a brief invocation of the muses, it begins in this way:

Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific,
Self-clos’d, all repelling. What Demon
Hath form’d this abominable void,
This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? Some said,
“It is Urizen.” But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding secret, the dark power hid.

Sense can be made of it, but it has an ugly, crabbed sort of feel. Later we read about a sphere of blood:

Life in cataracts pour’d down his cliffs.
The Void shrunk the lymph into Nerves,
Wand’ring wide on the bosom of night,
And left a round globe of blood
Trembling upon the Void.
Thus the Eternal Prophet was divided
Before the death image of Urizen;
For in changeable clouds and darkness,
In a winterly night beneath,
The Abyss of Los stretch’d immense;
And now seen, now obscur’d, to the eyes
Of Eternals the visions remote
Of the dark separation appear’d:
As glasses discover Worlds
In the endless Abyss of space,
So the expanding eyes of Immortals
Beheld the dark visions of Los,
And the globe of life-blood trembling.

The globe of life-blood trembled,
Branching out into roots,
Fibrous, writhing upon the winds,
Fibres of blood, milk, and tears,
In pangs, Eternity on Eternity.

I have no idea what is going on here. A lot of the poem is like this. The words are syntactically correct but convey little meaning. I’m not saying there is no meaning — Blake laboriously traced each word onto bronze plates, and clearly meant each word to be there — but for most readers the effort to penetrate the meaning will be considerable. Most readers, in the intervening two centuries, have not bothered, and I can’t blame them. The verse itself is not very musical or memorable. I’m afraid this is as far as I’m inclined to go with Blake’s mythology. Twice bitten, thrice shy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: