Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 11. The crisis in Blake’s spiritual development

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

IX. Blake

§ 11. The crisis in Blake’s spiritual development

The next work, the manuscript originally called Vala, belongs to two distinct periods of Blake’s development. The earlier portion, dated 1797, extends and elaborates the symbolism of The Book of Urizen, with certain modifications, of which the most important is that man is conceived, ideally, as a harmony of four spiritual powers, Urizen, Luvah, Urthona—apparent in time as Los—and Tharmas. It may be that these, later known as the Zoas, have a psychological significance as the symbols of reason, emotion, energy and instinct or desire; but the indications are too vague and contradictory to admit of assured interpretation. Further difficulties arise with the four females joined with the male quaternion. But this elaborate symbolism, like most of Blake’s attempts in this kind, soon falls through, and may safely be ignored. As before, the real basis is a dualism of liberty and law. The first “Nights” of Vala repeat, under a bewildering variety of imagery, the now familiar criticism of the ethical spirit as a disruptive force, destructive of the ideal unity in man, and the cause of the difficulty and darkness of mortality, through the illusions of materialism and morality. The remaining sections develop the antithesis of authority and anarchy in Urizen and Orc, and, though the former triumphs at first, its manifold tyrannies are ultimately consumed beneath the cleansing fires of Orc’s rebel spirit of passion, so that, after the final “harvest and vintage of the Nations,” man reascends to his primal unity in a state of perfect liberty.

The arid symbolism and uncouth style of the later Lambeth books mark a zeal that has overridden inspiration, till the creative spirit flags beneath the continual stimulus of whip and spur, and almost founders in barren wastes of mere storm and splutter; and though, by sheer strength, Blake occasionally compels his stubborn matter into striking forms, the general effect is repellent in the extreme. Then came his visit to Felpham, at the invitation of William Hayley, and the three years (1800–1803) passed there influenced him most deeply, as his letters and later “prophecies” clearly show. Perhaps the shock of transition from the cramped London life to the comparative freedom of his new surroundings awakened him to consciousness of the extent of his divergence from the sounder and more human faith of his early manhood. But, whatever the cause, his old attitude changed, coming nearer to that of Songs of Innocence, as he himself writes to captain Butts:

  • And now let me finish with assuring you that, though I have been very unhappy, I am so no longer. I am again emerged into the light of day; I still and shall to eternity embrace Christianity, and adore Him who is the express image of God.