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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IX. Blake

§ 10. The Urizen group

Blake’s antagonism to Milton’s theodicy led him to reinterpret the story of the fall, affirming that it was not Satan, but the God of this world, the author of the moral codes, or, in Blake’s mythology, Urizen, who fell. Hence, The Book of Urizen contains obvious inversions of Miltonic episodes. But here, as elsewhere in Blake, the root-idea is that existence is made up of two great bodies of contraries: on the one side, the eternals, the expression of the ideal ethic; on the other, Urizen. This latter daemon plots to impose his will upon the eternals, but fails, and is cast out into chaos, wherein is ultimately developed the world of time and space. This process of evolution is not directed to any discernible end, except that it gives extension and duration to the unreal forms begotten of Urizen’s perverted moral and intellectual sense, which become apparent as the phenomena of a physical universe, wherein man forgets “the wisdom and joy of eternity” and shrinks, spiritually and bodily, to mortal stature. But, since Urizen is the negation of all creative activity, Blake is constrained to introduce a formative agent in Los, the eternal prophet—though, as yet, there seems little to justify this title. Labouring at his furnaces and anvils, he gives permanence to the successive modifications of the Urizenic substance of which this new world is made, binding them in the chains of time. From him, also, derive two important developments, the “separation” of the first female, the manifestation of Los’s pity for the sterile universe, and the birth of Orc. But, apparently because The Book of Urizen is incomplete, nothing comes of these episodes, and the work concludes with the enslavement of all mortality beneath Urizen’s net of religion. In this myth, Blake’s main purpose is to demonstrate, by reference to their origins, the falsity of the ethical spirit and the unreality of the material universe. In The Book of Ahania, he further identifies Urizen, as the author of the Mosaic code, with Jehovah. He also emphasises, in new symbols, the antagonism of morality, first to “masculine” or positive energy, and, secondly, to physical desire, imaged in the female Ahania. In the remaining member of this trilogy, The Book of Los, the strangeness of the symbolism makes interpretation too much a matter of conjecture to warrant any conclusion as to its place in the development of Blake’s ideas.

In Europe and The Song of Los, Blake turns from universal history to consider the present portents of immediate emancipation through the French revolution. This change is reflected in the greater prominence given to Los and Enitharmon, who, as regents of this world, act as the ministers of Urizen to transmit to men his systems of religion and philosophy, from that of “Brama” to the Newtonian “Philosophy of the Five Senses.” But the most important point is that Blake here utters his plainest criticism of Christianity. According to his own statement in Africa, the first section of The Song of Los, the asceticism of Jesus’ gospel would have depopulated the earth, had not Mohammedanism, with its “loose Bible,” that is, apparently, its laxer moral code, been set to counteract it. And, in Europe, the Christian era is the period of the “Female dream,” the false ideal that makes passivity a virtue and the gratification of innate desire a sin. Thus, Enitharmon is the typical female, at once the source and the symbol of repressive morality.