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Spiritual History: A Reading of William Blake's Vala, or The Four Zoas.

The untidy, confusing, and, some would say, confused textual status of William Blake's long narrative poem Vala, or The Four Zoas has tempted several critics to interpret it as a deliberately disruptive epic which deploys a quasi-deconstructive indeterminancy in order to challenge the reader's more conventional poetic expectations. While such readings find support in certain aspects of Blake's own political and aesthetic radicalism, Andrew Lincoln's Spiritual History surely does more justice to the poet's artistic integrity by emphasizing the poem's sustaining narrative structures and its sense of intellectual coherence. Lincoln discovers the models for such coherence in the earlier work of writers such as Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Francois de Volney. While he does not claim that The Four Zoas is in any sense a 'finished' text, his persuasive and informed close reading of the poem enables us to reread it, at least in part, as 'the most extraordinary product of the eighteenth-century tradition of philosophical histories'.

Like the work of his eighteenth-century predecessors, Blake's poem can be read as an attempt to chart a 'universal history' which pays attention not simply to historical fact but also to the underlying patterns of historical process. In his interpretation of The Four Zoas, Lincoln detects three major stages in Blake's exploration of this subject, and each stage corresponds to a distinct phase of the poem's own textual history. The first such phase is the section written in Blake's copperplate hand which comprises the first three Nights of the poem. Lincoln argues that the primary narrative of these Nights is one which relates a movement from a world-view centred on a belief in a divinely ordered 'cosmos' towards what he terms a 'post-cosmic' world which is dominated by a sense of the 'natural' and where human beings discover meaning and significance only through their own experience and perception. Broadly speaking, this historical shift is analogous to that between the notion of a homocentric universe which existed up to the Renaissance and the seventeenth-century concept of a scientific universe which gradually replaced it. The second phase of Blake's poem, which corresponds to the main body of the text excluding major revisions and additions, is concerned, according to Lincoln's model, with the historical processes at play within the 'post-cosmic' universe. Lincoln delineates how Blake's mythic representation of the complex interplay of Reason, Passion, and Imagination can be seen both to cause the rise of an oppressive empire and yet also contain the potential for its liberating overthrow. The final phase of the poem's development is located in later major revisions which clarify and extend the role played by Jesus in the narrative. These additions complicate Blake's 'history' by their attempt to integrate a providential scheme into the existing progressive and developmental narrative structure that the poem has adapted from Enlightenment predecessors. Within the poem 'Jesus' is a complex figure, in that Blake is concerned to represent him as both a historically determined object of worship (and idolatry) and also as a divine entity who offers the possibility of a genuine redemption.

Spiritual History is a book which focuses upon many different aspects of 'history': it relates a textual history of Blake's poem, it locates the poem within the historical context of eighteenth-century social philosophy, and its presents the poem as centrally concerned with the subject of history and historical process. It will perhaps come as a surprise to some, then, that there is only limited reference to the lived history of the turbulent times which form the backdrop to the poem's composition. While Lincoln is surely right to reject the minute political allegorizing of studies such as those represented by the early work of David Erdman, I felt that the near absence of the contemporary political situation in this study seemed to reduce the sense of Blake as a politically engaged artist. Lincoln himself provides a response to my reservations by suggesting that The Four Zoas is a poem which views 'historical process from the outside' in an attempt to present its own version of a 'universal history', and that we should look not to The Four Zoas but to Milton and Jerusalem for history 'seen as from within'. This is a useful distinction to make and forces us to think more precisely about the distinctive qualities of The Four Zoas itself. All in all, Spiritual History represents a major contribution to our understanding of Blake's most neglected poem. It is well written and well researched and will inevitably become essential reading for anyone wishing to engage with the significant but rewarding challenges represented by The Four Zoas.

PHILIP COX Sheffield Hallam University
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Author:Cox, Philip
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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