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"Immense Worlds": Blake's Infinite Human Form.

ACROSS WILLIAM BLAKE'S CORPUS, "the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite" remains foundational. (1) Since his writing on infinity evokes widely varying traditions of commentary, this feature of Blake's thought has fascinated and troubled many readers. Accordingly, the subject has yielded wide interpretive range, from explorations of Blake's mysticism to his attitude toward modern science. (2) Other studies, many of them prominent in the critical tradition on Blake, have remained silent on the issue of just what Blake means when he writes of the infinite, electing to treat this term as something less than a core concept of his poetics. But the infinite is an important category of Blake's thinking, as his recurrent focus on this topic suggests. If they give shape to diverse traditions of thought, then Blake's contexts for revealing the infinite appropriately reflect their subject, which in Blake's writing confronts the difficulties involved in totalitarian thinking in its many forms: in "bind[ing] the infinite," a project that assumes both philosophical and political expression in the work undertaken by Blake's system builders ("Europe a Prophecy," 2.13; "The [First] Book of Urizen," 25.23-25).

Through his writing on the infinite, Blake enacts a conversation across disciplines and thereby addresses modernizing scientific ideas about the material universe. As I explore below, the infinite was both foundational to, and a crucial problem for, long eighteenth-century natural philosophy For some commentators, the scientific infinite--that is, the infinite properties deduced in space, time, matter, and other categories of experimental science--could lend evidence for the plenitude and holism of the created universe. In other hands, however, the infinite presented a major challenge to the premise that the economy of nature could be known through observation or formulated through a universal body of laws. As speculation in this field advanced, many theorists--Locke and Newton among them--pushed the premise of an infinite universe to its starkest implications: that matter exceeds the quantifying powers of the mind, and that physical reality might comprise not one natural system, but many.

This article explores Blake's navigation of the problems addressed in these long-eighteenth-century discourses, focusing chiefly on Blake's reworking of the scientific infinite as a concept for envisaging his human form. Redeployed in poetic encounters across terrestrial and cultural frontiers, the Blakean infinite often registers the problems in knowledge and being accompanying new scientific representations of the natural world: in the texts I explore below--"Milton," "There Is No Natural Religion [b]," and "Visions of the Daughters of Albion"--the encounter with the infinite assumes form in the contact with other worlds whose laws, in nature as well as culture, appear wholly differentiated or uncertain. In Blake's handling, however, the problems diagnosed in earlier accounts of the infinite can represent transformative possibilities in the self's experience. Just as in Blake's writing, "selfhood" can denote a position of solipsism or worldly withdrawal from which figures like the tyrant Urizen martial power, infinity illustrates perceptive and interpersonal "cleans[ing]," a force that productively opens the world of the self to the worlds of others ("Marriage of Heaven and Hell," 14). In moments of contact between figures whose reality coordinates can vary immensely, Blake's writing reworks earlier anxieties about our existential isolation in an infinite universe into a mode of vision that affirms the fulfilling roles of other lives in our experience. The infinite thus provides Blake with a language for reconsidering problems in human experience by embracing, rather than resisting, new uncertainties about the forms and constitution of the natural world.


As commentators have long recognized, the infinite establishes one of the major contact zones between Blake's mythopoeia and the traditions of material science so integral to Blake's body of writing. Many scholars have recognized Blake's infinite as a sign for his enlivened, visionary movement toward imaginative or spiritual harmonization, a vision that, according to some, sets itself in strict opposition to the material universe newly theorized by Blake's "enemies," Bacon, Newton, and Locke. (3) Donald Ault, Leopold Damrosch, and Vincent De Luca have made influential claims that eighteenth-century science disclosed to Blake merely a "negative" infinity representing the chaos of fallen nature, against which Blake represents a more life-affirming infinite within imagination or spirit-life. (4) Drawing together Blake's political and metaphysical thought, critics such as Stuart Peterfreund and Matthew Green have added that within Blake's political prophecies, the Newtonian infinite actually buttresses the work of tyrants like Urizen by promulgating an obscure and terrifying worldview that stresses human limitations. (5) More recently, critics such as Kevin Hutchings and Mark Lussier have turned their attention to Blake's constructive points of engagement with the new science by stressing how his writing captures the symbiosis between the creative powers of the mind and the creative forces in nature as disclosed in post-Newtonian science. (6)

This study seeks to develop revisionary approaches to Blake's partially constructive (if ultimately equivocal) relationship with the new science of the infinite by advancing two claims. First, building on the work of Hutchings, Lussier, Ault, and others who have interrogated Blake's ambivalent attitude toward long-eighteenth-century physical science, I argue that new scientific models for understanding the natural world are not entirely mutually exclusive with Blake's poetics; rather, I claim that some of them--and the scientific concept of the infinite in particular--provide Blake with a groundwork for thinking through the problems in knowledge and experience addressed in his poetic dramas. Neither wholly dismissive nor affirmative of new materialist accounts of the universe, Blake's writing on the infinite demonstrates a willingness to engage meaningfully with scientific bodies of knowledge--Cartesian, Newtonian, and post-Newtonian--even as he explores their inability to present a complete picture of reality. To put it another way, Blake's poetic thought experiments often pick up precisely at instances in which new scientific bodies of knowledge leave off: with a cosmic plenum constituted by sophisticated systems whose laws and boundaries may not be fully clear.

Second, in addition to developing scholarship on Blake and the new science noted above, my study builds on the readings put forward by Leonard W. Deen, Peter Otto, and others who explore alterity--the question of other (human) lives--as a core consideration of Blake's thought. (7) I argue that in the backdrop of a long eighteenth-century tradition committed to bridging the sciences of nature and of society, (8) the scientific infinite furnished Blake with a vocabulary for reappraising the self's epistemological and social relationships with others--that is, with those differentiated culturally or by other variables of worldly experience. Many of Blake's contemporaries remained optimistic that understanding nature's organic unity, made available by new forms of experimental observation, could lead directly to improvements in the social and moral fiber of modern life--a "one human heart" drawn from the "one life" concretized in new studies of the natural world. (9) Blake's infinite evokes a competing Romantic view of nature--indefinite, protean, and lawless--one that, as Heidi Scott has recently demonstrated, prefigures the "chaotic nature" sketched out in recent ecological discourses. (10) If Blake's infinite can stand for an alterity in reality and across human experience, then, linking the strangeness of others with new scientific formulations of a disorganized natural world, it also evokes the transformative power of other lives in the self's experience. By drawing the subject toward a universe of infinitely varied forms, the encounter between self and other becomes crucial for combating the forms of closure endemic to Blake's understanding of worldly experience: solipsism, tyranny, stasis, and unnourished desire.

Below, I consult aphorisms ("There is No Natural Religion [b]," 1788), verse prophecy ("Visions of the Daughters of Albion," 1793), and epic ("Milton," ca. 1804-10), with hopes of illustrating how the infinite helps Blake to balance an exploratory praxis wary of stasis within a larger structure of aesthetic and critical priorities. Before turning to Blake, however, some familiarization with antecedent models for theorizing the infinite is necessary. Like Blake, a range of influential eighteenth-century voices across disciplines confronted the controversial impact of the infinite on the prevailing epistemologies and worldviews informing the new science. Investigating these contexts will allow us better to confront the "nature of infinity" as presented across Blake's body of writing.


Factoring prominently in cosmology, microscopy, time and space theory, and eventually studies of knowledge and cognition, the infinite played an integral role in the new knowledges that developed over the Scientific Revolution and into the eighteenth century. The theory of an infinite universe, which according to A. O. Lovejoy had become generally accepted in scientific circles by the end of the eighteenth century, gave rise to speculation about the nether reaches of the Earth's solar system, and from there, to questions about the possible existence of other galaxies, worlds, and extraterrestrial life-forms. (11) Meanwhile, microscopy gave evidence for a regress of infinitesimal worlds latent in matter. (12) As such, the scientific infinite had a significant bearing on eighteenth-century studies of life and on the knowledge theories that addressed the mind's capacity for confronting physical reality.

Historians of science have noted that over the long eighteenth century, the scientific observation of great and small worlds was part of a larger effort to reconcile new studies of the natural world with older theological axioms. (13) However, the infinite could also give rise to very daunting implications for its theorizers. Prominent seventeenth- and eighteenth-century men of science--Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and William Derham, among others--give expression to one of the chief problems accompanying a paradigm shift in which infinity becomes established as a constitutive feature of new scientific worldviews: the infinite characteristics newly ascribed to space, time, and other categories of experimental science brought with them a strong possibility for great ontological variance in the universe, thereby presenting a challenge to prevailing arguments that all matter partakes of a universal and mathematically cogent design. (14) Writing in 1715, for instance, Derham concedes based on the doctrine of infinite extendibility that the universe could just as easily be governed by "many systems" as "one," even if he thought that an infinite universe also gave evidence for creation by design. (15) Even Newton himself recognized the problems that the infinite posed to lawful conceptions of physical reality. As he writes in Opticks:
since Space is divisible in infinitum, and Matter is not necessarily in
all places, it may be also allow'd that God is able to create Particles
of Matter of several Sizes and Figures, and in several Proportions to
Space,... and thereby to vary the Laws of Nature, and make Worlds of
several sorts in several Parts of the Universe. (16)

As the idea of infinity entailed at the very least the possibility of great organic variance, it became for many commentators a privileged site for applying pressure to certain scientific axioms, including the universal laws doctrines that prevailed in eighteenth-century disciplines like astronomy and physics. In other discourses of natural philosophy, the scientific infinite created additional problems. Just as the multiplicity of worlds deduced within the new science of the skies suggested the possibility of great incongruity across the universes physical and organic forms, the infinite could disclose to the epistemologist the deceptive appearance of reality as gauged by the mind. John Locke, who dedicates a long chapter of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to this subject, gives expression to the dilemmas occasioned by the infinite in knowledge theory. Locke notes that thinking about the infinite extendibility of space and time are supremely disorienting activities, since these subjects force the individual to confront the flux that underlies the apparent fixity of the objects of perception. We "cause great confusion in our thoughts," Locke writes, "when we join infinity to any supposed idea of quantity the mind can be thought to have, and so discourse or reason about an infinite quantity, as an infinite space, or an infinite duration." (17) Just as the very principle of infinity outstrips the reasoning powers of the mind, which operate through quantification, the infinite exposes an impasse between the object and its apprehension in consciousness: "what lies beyond our positive idea towards infinity, lies in obscurity,... it being too large for a finite and narrow capacity," Locke acknowledges. (18) Just as the infinite could force questions about the cohesiveness and unity of the natural world, for Locke, the infinite marks a privileged site for interrogating the pitfalls of a knowledge theory premised upon perception and reflection. When contemplating the infinite, the mind comes to embody the confusion and contradictions of this "endless growing idea." (19)

Already in the eighteenth century, then, the infinite marked an important site for confronting the fault lines in prevailing studies of knowledge and being, considerations integral to more recent philosophical traditions that redeploy infinity as a concept in phenomenology and ethics. (20) Over the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the infinite and its related discourses (the plurality of habited worlds, the "multiverse," and the natural laws tradition) could be pressed into the service of numerous lines of scientific and theological argument, including those ascribing holism to the universe. But the infinite could also generate considerable pressure for these arguments. The "two infinites" explored by Newton--the one embodying a cohesive design in physical reality and the other foreclosing the possibility of multiple systems in nature--expose one site of an emergent tension in the natural sciences. The growing perception that the experimentalist might find irregularity or dissonance across nature's physical and living systems not only helps to shape the growing movement toward disciplinary specialization within the long-eighteenth-century sciences; it also helps to mount a challenge to the premise that the forms of nature partake of cogent, empirically discernible systems at all. (21) Addressing some of these transitions in long-eighteenth-century science, the above commentators give voice to the role of the infinite in shaping an assortment of challenges hinging on new paradigms for understanding the natural world.


As with eighteenth-century philosophical anthropologists who used studies of the natural world to speculate about human nature, the infinite becomes for Blake an important concept for reenvisaging human experience. As we see from the above examples, the philosophical challenges the infinite posed were of major interest to the eighteenth-century thinkers Blake routinely invokes, such as Newton, Locke, and Burke. If for these and other figures, the infinite could force questions about the holism of the universe and evoke the possibility of nature's estrangement from the mind, for Blake too the infinite often raises troubling questions about our ability to know and engage with others. However, this disclosure of the subject's alienation from other lives also factors as a site of the subject's transformation, as I hope to show in what follows.

In one of his most famous elucidations of the "nature of infinity," Blake brings together diverse theoretical traditions on the infinite as he integrates cosmic travel with his exploration of intersubjective experience. In book 1 of "Milton," an epic that explores the nature of poetic prophecy in relation to "the interplay of mind and matter" (22) and between self and other, Blake presents to his readers the following picture:
The nature of infinity is this: That every thing has its
Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro Eternity.
Has passd that Vortex, he percieves [sic] it roll backward behind
His path, into a globe itself infolding; like a sun:
Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty,
While he keeps onwards in his wondrous journey on the earth
Or like a human form, a friend with whom he livd benevolent.
As the eye of man views both the east & west encompassing
Its vortex; and the north & south, with all their starry host;
Also the rising sun & setting moon he views surrounding
His corn-fields and his valleys of five hundred acres square.
Thus is the earth one infinite plane, and not as apparent
To the weak traveller confin'd beneath the moony shade.
Thus is the heaven a vortex passd already, and the earth
A vortex not yet pass'd by the traveller thro' Eternity.

Blake draws on a range of ideas both scientific and mystic as he attempts to render the infinite through Milton's visionary and intersubjective levels of experience. Scholars from Northrop Frye to Mark Lussier have recovered the experimental science bearing on Milton's cosmic voyage. (23) According to Ault, for instance, "Milton" brings together a "complex of scientific ideas," including the Cartesian cosmic vortices and the competing Newtonian void, although Ault also states that the true nature of infinity (in imaginative perception) entails a transcendence of the views promulgated by Newton and Descartes. (24) Others have added that Milton's travel enables a radical visionary transformation of reality and self, a journey that requires at least a partial movement beyond the passage's material contexts. (25) More recently, Mark Lussier has called into question the stark boundaries earlier scholars propose between the passage's mental and material spaces. However, Lussier too concludes that Milton's vision entails an "imaginative overcoming of the mechanical operations of Newtonian cosmology and Cartesian/Lockean psychology." (26)

While critics recognize Blake's sense of the insufficiency of the Newtonian and Cartesian programs for offering a complete picture of reality, many tend to overstate the notion that Milton's vision amounts to a subordination of materiality Milton does not pass "through" but merely "passes" the vortex in question, one among many in the plenum of space. Moreover, the images presented to the traveler do not deliver him to a realm of pure spirit or imagination; if they reorient vision, they do so by drawing the traveler back to the material bodies (here, "vortices") that help to constitute Blake's nature of infinity As the appearance of one vortex encloses into a globe-like body as the object recedes from his vision, Milton proceeds to make a number of analogies, which link the objects of perception with terrestrial and human spaces already encountered: the "infolding" vortex, its appearance changing in the perceiver's mind in a way that invites association with past experience, now comes to the traveler "like a sun: / Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty,... / Or like a human form, a friend with whom he livd benevolent" (15.24-27).

Set in the nether reaches of astral space, a region whose relationship with the Earth's laws remained contested in eighteenth-century cosmology, Milton's experience with infinity reworks the scientific observation of other worlds into perceptive and affective contact with other human locales. First, Milton's perception--simultaneously liberated and limited--establishes one component of the "nature of infinity" here explored (15.21). While several commentators have noted that in this sequence Blake utilizes new optical theories espoused throughout the eighteenth century, (27) what has not been sufficiently explored is the degree to which the infinite reveals itself through Milton's limited powers of perception. Through this impressionistic sequence, which invites the reader to contemplate the task of perceiving in all directions simultaneously ("view[ing] both the east & west encompassing"; "Also the rising sun & setting moon"; 15.28, 15.30), Blake reveals the infinite through the traveler's curtailed powers of observation--that is, through his inability to totalize within his visionary experience the sum of the universe's discrete parts. Conceived partly through the eye's effort to reach "'beyond itself to grasp that which is ungraspable--the object in its full completeness,'" (28) infinity stands for a paradoxical perceptive experience: both excursive--continually moving, reorienting itself through new levels of experience, creating associations that yield ever-changing perspectives on the objects of perception--and limited. While the traveler has failed to envision totally, his envisioning infinitely gestures to the contingent powers of the eye as it moves dynamically and imperfectly across the objects of perception.

In "Milton," then, scientific discourses about the infinite provide Blake with a groundwork for reenvisioning the perceptive and epistemological engagement with environments that the eye cannot (as Blake's philosophical tyrants attempt) "Devour[]" ("The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," 16). This anatomy of vision also links to forms of human contact. Navigating the indefinite regions of deep space, Milton establishes patterns of outreach that resemble "friend[ship]" (15.27), which is often conceived in Blake's writing as a relationship between a subject and another that transforms both parties without erasing the important distinctions between them. (29) As the vortex recalls for Milton "a human form, a friend with whom he livd benevolent" (15.27), meaningful interpersonal contact assumes the form of an extraterrestrial encounter with natural bodies foreign to, and unassimilable in the consciousness of, the traveler. Several critics detect in the above passage just this kind of attempt at registering otherness "as a world with its own unique laws and form" (30) or as something that "cannot be reduced to our representation, or perception." (31) More than embodying pure otherness, however, these spaces conjoin the appearance of an estranging alterity in physical reality--in Hutching's language, a view of nature "unconstrained by the 'immutable ... laws'... of Newtonian cosmology" (32)--with meaningful, transformative experience through other human forms.

While in Blake's handling, the powers of vision that inhere in the eye's capacity for ever-changing forms of experience permit tentative engagement with the objects of perception, the latter also take shape as "worlds" (or "vortices") removed from the full understanding and participation of the former. Friendly and foreign at once, these worlds provide one example of how the new science of nature could provide Blake with a language for thinking through human relationships that begin with the self's contingencies, its limits. However, by appropriating the objects and terminology of the scientific infinite, "Milton" also provisionally qualifies anxieties about our isolation in reality: in the faraway, disorienting reaches of space, Blake's traveler encounters a plenum in which the self's mental and social bearings transform through an encounter with the wholly different worlds of others.

In the political aphorisms and prophecies, Blake redeploys the eighteenth-century infinity of worlds discourse into dramatic narratives that stage encounters across cultural and imperial frontiers. In "There Is No Natural Religion [b]" and "Visions of the Daughters of Albion," infinity comes to represent the energies in mind and history that Blake opposes to the tyranny of the closed system. Several critics have observed that Blake's tyrants commonly build from certain axioms inherited from the "closed" universe of eighteenth-century natural philosophy, whether from Lockean empiricism or Newton's universal laws. (33) In this way, Blake's writing takes stock of the growing optimism within experimental disciplines that new knowledge of the natural world could lend resources for the shaping of Britain's legal and governing institutions. (34) This view finds expression in the projects conceived by Blake's false gods like Urizen and Bromion, imperialistic figures who seek to recreate the laws of nature as political science. In this context, Blake's prophecies "against empire" (35) often begin with the initiative to rethink the human through the infinite, a concept that attested to the growing difficulty of ascribing fixed laws to the systems of nature.

In "There Is No Natural Religion [b]," Blake attributes the erection of the closed cosmic system to "Philosophic & Experimental" thinkers. (36) These figures embody an error Donald Ault ascribes to Blake's Satan, (37) who confuses one half of existence for its entirety by substituting for an infinite universe the closed, solipsistic world of the self: "He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only" (3). Moreover, as the experimenter's vision expands outward, his confusion of the self and the "Infinite" (or "God") becomes the basis of a crude power dynamic that presupposes the similitude of the "many" and "few" (2). Blake writes: "IV The bounded is loathed by its possessor. The same dull round even of a univer[s]e would soon become a mill with complicated wheels. V If the many become the same as the few, when possess'd, More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul, less than All cannot satisfy Man" (2). Through the restless, assimilationist mind-set of the "Philosophic & Experimental" thinker, Blake demonstrates how the pursuit of a spectral "All" paradoxically creates the terms for antagonism and division in human experience. As with Urizen, whose effort to achieve "a solid without fluctuation" introduces the abject distinctions that reverberate through human history ("[First] Book of Urizen," 4.11), the epistemology of the experimental thinker engenders a form of possessiveness with its roots in a model of privileged selfhood.

Against this pursuit of an "All," predicated upon a fundamental misidentification of the worlds of others with the world of the self, Blake presents the faculty of desire: "The desire of Man being Infinite the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite" (3). In "There Is No Natural Religion [b]" and later political prophecies, desire operates analogously with the outfolding perceptions of the traveler in "Milton": the dynamic movement of desire, like the movement of the eye, helps to open the closed world of the I to the infinite universe of God and others. With its ability thus to recalibrate perception, the principle of infinite desire exists in mutual antagonism with those "Philosophic & Experimental" thinkers who introduce stasis through their commitment to the closed system: "Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character, the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again[.] Application. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only" (3). Blake claims that without the work of poetry and prophecy, the philosopher's perceptions become egocentric and merely project onto reality the stasis of the philosopher's mind. The perceptions of the true Man, however, are infinite. Recalling scientific encounters with a universe that frustrates schematization, the infinite channels the immensities hidden in the discrete parts of reality and thereby draws the perceiver toward alternative possibilities of being. Finally, by linking the apprehension of the infinite with the apprehension of God, Blake reconciles his prophetic task with his perception of a universe of "minute particulars," (38) the discrete forms of experience whose interrelationships for Blake often remained unclear. (39)

In its account of the mutual implication of empirical and imperial outlooks--how the egoistic belief in the self-sufficiency of the eye (or "I") leads directly to the presumptuous effort to assimilate, occupy, and control the objects of perception--"There Is No Natural Religion [b]" illustrates Blake's attention to the symmetry between the laws described by natural philosophers and those prescribed by Albion's rulers. Mark Lussier has noted that "Blake... read empirical philosophy as an expression of empire, a colonizing and consuming ideology." (40) Equipped with the canons of natural philosophy, Blake's rulers give further shape to the tripartite relationship between studies of the natural world, studies in human science, and new political relationships, and their common denominator in the principle of a "one Law" binding all life into a total scheme (" [First] Book of Urizen," 4.40; "Visions of the Daughters of Albion," 4.22). In Blake's rewriting of these relationships, infinity challenges the closed ontology of the former tradition and its inscription in the emergent (geo)politics of Romantic Britain. Blake's effort to imagine alternative modes of being aligns with the equally crucial imperative to liberate human experience both from Urizenic rule and from the "bounded" view of nature at its foundations.

In "Visions of the Daughters of Albion," the erection of such a total ontology falls to Bromion, Albion's belligerent false god. An expanding, enfolding, and englobing presence, continually assimilating and recreating the Earth's parts, Bromion gives further shape to the "Philosophic & Experimental" thinker's fatal misidentification of worlds and its consequences for Albion's political, imperial, and gendered relationships: "Thy soft American plains are mine, and mine thy north & south. / Stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun" (1.20-21; my italics). In "Visions," this conflation of the world of the self and the worlds of others directs Bromion's mistaken conviction that there is "one law for both the lion and the ox" and his deployment of this universal law under the signet of King and God (4.22).

The enslaved Oothoon recognizes this problem, an expression of what Saree Makdisi labels the "ontology of empire" realized in Blake's corpus. (41) She laments:
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up.
And they inclos'd my infinite brain into a narrow circle.
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.

In Bromion's enveloping waters, Oothoon observes a number of philosophical assumptions. While signaling Locke's theory of knowledge in particular, her lament gestures to the work of enclosure more broadly, the enfolding of the "infinite brain" within a total law. This labor negates life: rather than enacting within his political science a principle that explains and affirms the universe's vitality, Bromion "obliterate[s]," quite like the "Philosophic & Experimental" thinker, whose enclosure of matter reduces the universe's dynamism to a "stand still" ("There Is No Natural Religion [b]," 3), or like Urizen, whose conception of life through the prism of "one Law" introduces death into the world ("[First] Book of Urizen," 4.40; 6.1-7.9).

Oothoon's and others' responses to Bromion's total vision are twofold, predicated upon the infinite plenitude and diversity of the Earth's life. Blake demonstrates both features in a nymph's account of how reproduction leads to the inexhaustible fecundity of matter, which continually overflows its prior sum of parts: "pluck thou my flower Oothoon the mild / Another flower shall spring, because the soul of sweet delight / Can never pass away" (1.8-10). The principle of infinite desire Blake establishes in "There Is No Natural Religion [b]" reemerges in the nymph's request as the thing that sustains the fecundity and diversity of nature's vital economies. Continually replenishing itself, modifying its base elements in dynamic processes of reproduction and transformation, the nymph's vision of the organic world as infinite potentiality defies Bromion's iron-fisted pursuit of lawful closure. Later, Oothoon echoes the nymph's stress on the dynamic vital cycles of metamorphosis by reflecting on the diversity of drives that sustain the life of organisms and preclude the total program represented by Bromion: "With what sense does the bee form cells? have not the mouse & frog / Eyes and ears and sense of touch? yet are their habitations. / And their pursuits, as different as their forms and as their joys" (3.4-6). For Oothoon, these forms attest to a plenitude in the collective life, constituted by vital forces that frustrate stable systems of classification. In a word, Oothoon gauges in the apparent lawlessness of vitality an energy that frustrates both the political ambition of Bromion and the scientific premises at its foundations.

While Bromion attempts to enclose the worlds immensities, Oothoon's perceptions cycle outward, connecting her to other systems without negating their distinctions:
O Urizen! Creator of men! mistaken Demon of heaven:
Thy joys are tears! thy labor vain, to form men to thine image.
How can one joy absorb another? are not different joys
Holy, eternal, infinite! and each joy is a Love.

The "night gone that clos'd" her mind (2.29), Oothoon experiences a form of awakened perception that she now recognizes as an antidote to Bromion's power. Oothoon voices an alternative vision of the Earth's life, in which "progress" draws not from the eventual synthesis of parts but from their sustained interaction--a qualified interaction, however, since Oothoon's vision is also one of minute particulars and firm dividing lines between things. This vision leads Oothoon to reimagine human life in the context of Albion's political and imperial ventures. Her mantra--"every thing that lives is holy" (8.10)--translates her apprehension of the infinite into a language for resisting an imperialism grounded in assumptions about nature's uniformity and knowability.


As Blake redeploys the infinite in his poetry, his writing confronts some of the major philosophical challenges accompanying a paradigm in which the infinite characteristics of time, space, and matter established themselves in the scientific consensus. Blake's narratives bring new accounts of the universe to bear on some of the most crucial issues at stake in his poetry of human experience: that reality, including its life-forms, might comprise not one system but many, mutually estranged ones; and that sense perception might present an insufficient or incomplete picture of things. In Blake's corpus, however, the problems diagnosed in earlier scientific confrontations with an infinite universe become reconstituted as sources of mental and interpersonal transformation. In the early axioms and political prophecies, Blake turns to life's infinite potentiality--the lawless energies and capricious movement of the Earth's forms--for its ability to frustrate the political-imperial work commenced by Albion's lawmakers, together with the vision of a unified nature at its foundations. In later writings, the Blakean infinite evolves into a perceptual-phenomenological paradigm centered in the movement of the eye: in "Milton," Blake's anatomy of vision situates the infinite as a feature of perception (in its ongoing capacity for new experience) and within reality (something that the mind cannot totalize and thus control). At these moments, in which the subject confronts a reality suddenly made strange to the reality apprehended in subjectivity, Blake's preoccupations as a writer of nature and of experience intersect. Conveyed at meeting places between different, localized systems of meaning or through the lens of those occupying middle, unfamiliar spaces between worlds, Blake's infinite evokes new uncertainties about the limits of human knowledge and experience spurred by new inquests in the science of nature. However, these meeting places also produce their own new forms of knowledge: in the enlarged, difficult view of the natural world it generates, Blake's writing produces spaces where others can be approached as others, even if this means confronting the difficulties as well as the possibilities involved in the engagement with those whose differences appear profound. (42) A category that established a range of controversies in modernizing approaches to the natural world, the infinite thus furnishes Blake with a language for reimagining human life in a way that acknowledges not only what is most irregular across our experience, but also what is most indefinite within our nature.

University of Toronto


(1) William Blake, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, rev. ed., ed. David Erdman (New York: Anchor, 1988), 13. All parenthetical citations reference plate and (where applicable) line numbers from this edition, unless otherwise noted.

(2) For theological readings of Blake's infinite, see M H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), 54-55; and Leopold Damrosch, Symbol and Truth in Blake's Myth (Princeton U. Press, 1980), 23. For influential studies of how Blake's infinite engages with the new science, see Donald Ault, Visionary Physics: Blake's Response to Newton (U. of Chicago Press, 1974), 165; Vincent De Luca, Words of Eternity: Blake and the Poetics of the Sublime (Princeton U. Press, 1991), 37; Kevin D. Hutchings, "William Blake and 'The Nature of Infinity': Milton's Environmental Poetics," Nineteenth-Century Contexts 25.1 (2003): 71; and others noted below.

(3) See James Twitchell, "'The Mental Traveller,' Infinity and the 'Arlington Court Picture,'" Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 71.1 (Winter 1975): 7; John Beer, Blake's Visionary Universe (U. of Manchester Press, 1969), 7; and Hutchings, "William Blake and 'The Nature of Infinity,'" 71.

(4) See Ault, Visionary Physics, 165; Damrosch, Symbol and Truth, 103; and De Luca, Words of Eternity, 38. Ault notes the superficial resemblances between Newtonian and Blakean universes but claims that Newton's science is, for Blake, "incompatible with 'life,' the active, dynamic side of Eternity" realized by the imagination. Damrosch claims that what "science regards as infinity, Blake abhors as chaos." Damrosch adds that not only are Blake's aesthetic and philosophical cornerstones in "minute particulars" anathema to the prevailing theories of the infinite extendibility and divisibility of matter; they also point to a confidence in the mind for engaging with, and even transforming, reality. Finally, De Luca claims that while the eighteenth-century infinite immobilizes, Blake's writings "make the case for a plainly accessible infinite. They all revolve around the principles of particularity, determinacy, and discrimination."

(5) De Luca, Words of Eternity, 19; Stuart Peterfreund, William Blake in a Newtonian World: Essays on Literature as Art and Science (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 171; and Matthew Green, Visionary Materialism in the Early Works of William Blake: The Intersection of Enthusiasm and Empiricism (New York: Palgrave, 2005), 45.

(6) Hutchings, "William Blake and 'The Nature of Infinity,'" 59; Mark Lussier, Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality (Houndmills, UK: Macmillan, 2000), 18

(7) Several commentators (Damrosch, Symbol and Truth, 179; Stephen Cox, Love and Logic: The Evolution of Blake's Thought (U. of Michigan Press, 1992), 22; and Jeanne Moskal, Blake, Ethics, and Forgiveness (U. of Alabama Press, 1994), 10, have questioned the degree to which Blake's writing permits a truly meaningful place for other voices. Meanwhile, others have argued that it is precisely the sustained interaction between self and other that sustains Blake's prophetic dramas, even if this interaction engenders conflict rather than friendship. For examples of this latter view, see Leonard W. Deen, Conversing in Paradise: Poetic Genius and Identity-as-Community in Blake's Los (U. of Missouri Press, 1983), 18; Lorraine Clark, Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic (Cambridge U. Press, 1991), 2-3; Peter Otto, Constructive Vision and Visionary Deconstruction: Los, Eternity, and the Productions of Time in the Later Poetry of William Blake (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 4; and Sarah Haggarty and Jon Mee, introduction to Blake and Conflict, ed. Haggarty and Mee (New York: Palgrave, 2009), 5.

(8) For studies on the emergence of a "strategic science" (in Peter Gay's language) that attempted to harness new findings about the natural world to discourses in moral philosophy, politics, economics, jurisprudence, education, empire, and other social organizations, see Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 2 vols. (New York: Norton, 1969), 2:167-68; Christopher Fox, Roy Porter, and Christopher Wokler, eds., Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains (U. of California Press, 1995); and Stephen Gaukroger, The Natural and the Human: Science and the Shaping of Modernity (Oxford U. Press, 2016), 2. Responsive to what Gaukroger labels "the naturalization of the human," many long-eighteenth-century experimentalists remained attracted to the possibility that the methodologies brought to bear on the study of natural bodies could provide foundations for a social and moral science.

(9) William Wordsworth, "The Old Cumberland Beggar," in The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford U. Press, 2000), 146; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Eolian Harp," in Selected Poetry, ed. H. J. Jackson (Oxford U. Press, 1994), 26.

(10) Heidi Scott, Chaos and Cosmos: Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Century (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 3.

(11) A. O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, 4th ed. (Harvard U. Press, 1950), 140; Steven J. Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge U. Press, 1982), 175.

(12) Lovejoy, Great Chain of Being, 236.

(13) See Lovejoy, Great Chain of Being, 108; Dick, Plurality of Worlds, 62; and Wolfgang Achtner, "Infinity as a Transformative Concept in Science and Theology," in Infinity: New Research Frontiers, ed. Michael Heller and W. Hugh Woodin (Cambridge U. Press, 2011), 19. These scholars have shown how the new cosmography developed over the Scientific Revolution, which included the view that the universe was infinite, derived less from new empirical knowledge than from much older theological premises.

(14) See Francis Bacon, "Description of the Intellectual Globe," in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 10 vols. (London: Longman and Co., 1858) 5:514; Galileo Galilei, "Galileo's Reply to Ingoli," in The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, ed. and trans. Maurice A. Finocchiaro (U. of California Press, 1989), 175; [Blaise] Pascal, Thoughts on Religion, and Other Curious Subjects, trans. Basil Kennet (London: D. Browne et al., 1749), 94, 212-13; [Bernard Le Bovier] De Fontenelle, A Conversation on the Plurality of Worlds (London: J. Dursley et al., [1777]), 105-6; and others cited below. The above commentators confront the philosophical challenges established as the infinite universe hypothesis gained traction in post-Copernican science. One of these problems is summed up by Galileo, who reminds his colleague Francesco Ingoli that an infinite universe entails a strong possibility that there "remain in the heavens various motions, changes, anomalies, and other occurrences which have not yet been discovered or observed and which are perhaps unobservable and inexplicable by their own nature. Who can guarantee to us that planetary motions are not all mutually incommensurable and hence liable, indeed bound, to eternal emendations... ?" For recent critical appraisals of the challenges created as the infinite established itself in the scientific consensus, see David Bentley Hart, "Notes on the Concept of the Infinite in the History of Western Metaphysics," in Heller and Woodin, Infinity: New Research Frontiers, 55; Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (U. of Chicago Press, 1996), 28; and others cited below.

(15) William Derham, Physico and Astro Theology, 2 vols. (London: J. Walter, 1786), 2:204.

(16) Isaac Newton, Opticks: or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light, 2nd ed. (London: W and J. Innys, 1718), 379-80.

(17) John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Alexander Campbell Frasier, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1959), 1:281.

(18) Ibid., 1:288.

(19) Ibid., 1:281, (italics original). This discussion in the Essay helped to shape later, eighteenth-century movements in epistemology by grounding the problem of knowledge in new scientific approaches to the physical world. For critical reactions to Locke, see David Hume, "Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," in Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, 3rd ed., ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 157-58; and David Berkeley, "Philosophical Commentaries, Notebook B," in The Works of George Berkeley, ed. A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop, 9 vols. (London: T Nelson and Sons, 1948), 1:11, 42. For a competing appraisal of Locke's discussion of infinite divisibility, see Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. James T. Boulton (London: Routledge, 2008), 72. For Burke, the fissure diagnosed by Locke between the mind and its infinitely divisible objects of perception forms a central component of sublime experience.

(20) See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne U. Press, 2005), 27; Gilles Deleuze, "The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy," in The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale, ed. Constantin V. Boundas (Columbia U. Press, 1990), 279; and Alain Badiou, "Philosophy and Mathematics: Infinity and the End of Romanticism," in Theoretical Writings, trans. and ed. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano (London: Continuum, 2004), 37. For Levinas, infinity represents the phenomenological overflow produced in the encounter between the self and other: "Infinity... is produced in the improbable feat whereby a separated being fixed in its identity, the same, the I, nonetheless contains in itself what it can neither contain nor receive solely by virtue of its own identity." In the wake of Levinas, Deleuze and Badiou have turned to the infinite further to explore the disruptive experience with unintelligibility, nonmeaning, or difference.

(21) For accounts of the disciplinary specialization of scientific culture in the early nineteenth century, see Gaukroger, Natural and the Human, 70. For studies of how the experimental sciences in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras prompted questions about the natural world's cohesiveness and unity, see Dick, Plurality of Worlds, 175; Alexandre Koyre, From the Closed Word to the Infinite Universe (New York: Harper, 1958), 274; Scott, Chaos and Cosmos, 3; and Denise Gigante, Life: Organic Form and Romanticism (Yale U. Press, 2009), 3.

(22) Lussier, Romantic Dynamics, 96.

(23) Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, 10th ed. (Princeton U. Press, 1990), 341; Lussier, Romantic Dynamics, 82.

(24) Ault, Visionary Physics, 156, 160.

(25) Peterfreund, William Blake in a Newtonian World, 54.

(26) Lussier, Romantic Dynamics, 84.

(27) Ault, Visionary Physics, 159; Lussier, Romantic Dynamics, 83.

(28) Ault, Visionary Physics, 175. Here I borrow from Ault, who quotes Marvin Farber's account of the phenomenology of perception to describe Blake's "perspective ontology."

(29) For more on this model of friendship in Blake's writing, see Otto, Constructive Vision, 9.

(30) W. J. T. Mitchell, Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry (Princeton U. Press, 1978), 71-72.

(31) Otto, Constructive Vision, 70.

(32) Hutchings, "William Blake and "The Nature of Infinity,'" 58.

(33) For the former view, see Anne Mellor, Blake's Human Form Divine (U. of California Press, 1974), 14-15; Michael Ferber, The Social Vision of William Blake (Princeton U. Press, 1985), 13-14; and Green, Visionary Materialism, 17-18. For the latter, see Ault, Visionary Physics, 63; and Peterfreund, William Blake in a Newtonian World, 8.

(34) See Gay, The Enlightenment, 2:167-68; Fox, Porter, and Wokler, Inventing Human Science; and Gaukroger, The Natural and the Human, 2.

(35) David Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire: A Poet's Interpretation of His Own Times, 3rd ed. (Princeton U Press, 1977), i.

(36) References to "There Is No Natural Religion [b]," "All Religions Are One," and Blake's "Marginalia" cite page numbers from The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, rev. ed., ed. David Erdman (New York: Anchor, 1988).

(37) Ault, Visionary Physics, 195.

(38) An important component of Blake's aesthetic, theological, and moral thinking, "minute particulars" comprise the forms that give variety and vitality to human life. These particulars play an integral role in Blakes vindication of experience and his resistance to the forms of neoclassical thinking that embraced the general over the singular. However, Blake's particulars can also evoke questions about our capacity to participate in a shared life with others: "What is General Nature is there Such a Thing [?] / What is General Knowledge is there such a Thing [?] All Knowledge is Particular" ("Marginalia," 648).

(39) See Stephen Cox, Love and Logic, 2, 6. Cox cautions against the growing perception that Blake's corpus celebrates '"nonlinear, counterlogical processes'" and privileges a '"plethora of referential possibilities'" over logical, argumentative, or visionary structure. This view, he continues, fits awkwardly with Blake's self-understanding as a prophet, a role that entails responsibility for separating "truth... from error with a strongly fortified boundary." If Blake's God exists amorphously, however, paradoxically living as "One" in the human form's "infinite variety" ("All Religions Are One," 2), then prophecy will not so much reflect an unchanging criterion of truth as align with the work of the anthropologist, providing an archaeology of human experience in time and space.

(40) Lussier, Romantic Dynamics, 57.

(41) Saree Makdisi, "Blake and the Ontology of Empire," in Haggarty and Mee, Blake and Conflict, 12. For other useful examinations of Blake's representations of empire, see Saree Makdisi, "William Blake and the Universal Empire," in Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge U. Press, 1998), 167; Steve Clark and David Worrall, eds., Blake, Nation and Empire (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2006); and Talissa J. Ford, '"Jerusalem is Scattered Abroad': Blake's Ottoman Geographies," Studies in Romanticism 47.4 (Winter 2008): 548.

(42) See Mee and Haggarty, introduction to Blake and Conflict, 5, who draw a very similar conclusion about a related category of Blake's thought: "Eternity seems to be the state in which contraries are allowed the freedom fully to engage and so to change and develop themselves, even if this encounter with difference involves conflict."
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Title Annotation:William Blake
Author:Kerr, Jonathan
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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