The Chained Boy: Orc and Blake's Idea of Revolution

The Chained Boy: Orc and Blake's Idea of Revolution

The Chained Boy: Orc and Blake's Idea of Revolution

The Chained Boy: Orc and Blake's Idea of Revolution


The Chained Boy is the first full study of Blake's social commitments since David V. Erdman's Blake: Prophet Against Empire (1954), and proposes new readings of the verbal and visual symbolism in his prophetic works from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93) to Jerusalem (1804-20). The Chained Boy reconsiders dominant interpretations of nearly all these works and challenges basic paradigms of Blake and Romantic studies such as Northrop Frye's "Orc cycle" and M. H. Abram's "internalization of apocalypse." It incorporates recent revisions of the dating of Blake's production in considering the dates and contexts of major works.

The Chained Boy attacks both the classic view that "Blake's apocalypse" is mental rather than social and recent arguments that Blake's work deconstructs the very idea of apocalyptic change. The book shows that Blake's advocacy of social upheaval remained constant throughout his career, deepened and radicalized by spiritual concerns and a critique of the French and English revolutionary traditions. Fusing close reading of texts and designs with the historical specificity of newer studies in the English tradition of Blake interpretation, such as Jon Mee's Dangerous Enthusiasm and David Worrall's Radical Culture (both 1992), the book shows that Blake's early identification with Jacobinism was fuller than previously supposed, but that his break with Jacobinism was also earlier and more socially radical than other political interpretations have found. Tracing Blake's later attention to the labor-political struggles of 1810-20 for the first time, Hobson provides the first full investigation of Blake's late religious-social symbolism, showing that the poet's return to overt Christianity in later work, rather than supplanting his commitment to social upheaval, deepened and humanized it. In the first full reading of Blake's politics in Milton and Jerusalem, Hobson examines Blake's carefully qualified endorsements of forgiveness and nonviolence and shows that Blake's presentations of apocalypse - prospective in Milton, narrative in Jerusalem-incorporate his newly evolved symbolism to present apocalypse as a collective-democratic insurrection.

There has long been a need for such a book. Early accounts of Blake's politics as a whole, such as Erdman's Prophet and Mark Schorer's William Blake: The Politics of Vision (1946, 1959), are now out of date; newer historicist studies by Michael Ferber, Mee, E.P. Thompson, and others, have not traced the deepending of Blake's social views toward their final democratic-insurrectionary form. The Chained Boy restores and revises the political Blake-Christian and insurrectionary, subversive of linguistic and political authority, a social visionary and a bitter critic of radical orthodoxies-and shows his relevance to the larger politics of his and our times.


THE CHAINED BOY TRACES WILLIAM BLAKE’S CHANGING VIEW OF REVOLUTION through his character Orc, who embodies social, political, sexual, and other forms of rebellion. The Chained Boy is the first work since David V. Erdman’s Blake: Prophet Against Empire (1954) to consider Blake’s political development over the course of his career, from his first “prophetic” works in the 1790s to Jerusalem (1804–20).

Erdman’s and other germinal political studies, such as J. Bronowski’s William Blake 1757–1827: A Man Without a Mask (1943; reissued as William Blake and the Age of Revolution, 1965) and Mark Schorcr’s William Blake: The Politics of Vision (1946, reissued 1959), laid the basis for understanding Blake’s political and social loyalties. These early works, however, lacked the rich knowledge of the radical and artisan milieux of the 1790s, 1800s, and 1810s accumulated through three decades of historical and literary-cultural research since E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), which any study of Blake’s politics must now draw on. Erdman’s Prophet, deservedly still a foundational text, provides a magnificent view of the poet’s times and many of the political references in his works. But it emphasizes topical allegory rather than the social meaning of Blake’s large-scale narratives; it often secularizes Blake rather than dealing with his religious views, especially the deep social content of his central religious preoccupation, Christian apocalypse; it focuses on early and middle works and says too little about Milton (1804–21) and Jerusalem; and to some extent it misses the direction of Blake’s political development as a whole, including the religioushumanist insurrectionary radicalism of his last works. Finally, recent historicist studies, such as Jon Mee’s Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s (1992) and Thompson’s posthumous Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (1993), brilliantly illuminate aspects of Blake’s radicalism, but not the direction and full meaning of his development.

This book tries to fill in these gaps, and, at the same time, to limn the identity, multiple meanings, and changing fortunes of Orc. Appearing as the agent for a multiform transformation of human existence in Blake’s early work, Orc evolves to occupy a subordinate but vital place in Blake’s deepened, more spiritual, yet still socially radical late outlook. Blake’s view of Orc, though not identical to his view of social upheaval, is always . . .

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