Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

William Blake and the World's Body of Science

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

William Blake and the World's Body of Science

Article excerpt

THE BOOK OF URIZEN, CONCEIVED AS THE "FIRST" BOOK OF THE DEVILISH "Bible of Hell" that William Blake announced in 1793 in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Plate 24), (1) satirizes theories of creation favored by the reason-bound and theoretical science of the Enlightenment. The abstraction and inhumanity of the prevailing science and philosophy had been a target of Blake as early as his burlesque of a fashionable salon of intellectuals in An Island in the Moon (1784), and The Book of Urizen (1794) follows as an intellectual satire of the familiar target in the Juvenalian tradition of the great Augustan writers Pope and Swift. In its text and visual designs, the poem depicts scientific versions of the creation of the world and of man as horrifying gothic imaginings. Allan Cunningham, Blake's first biographer and a reader educated in the conventions of satiric commentary, clearly recognized the poet's method and message. In 1830 he wrote of The Book of Urizen: "The spirit which dictated this strange work was undoubtedly a dark one.... There are ... designs, representing beings human, demoniac, and divine, in situations of pain and sorrow and suffering. One character--evidently an evil spirit--appears in most of the plates; the horrors of hell, and the terrors of darkness and divine wrath, seem his sort portion.... Something like the fall of Lucifer and the creation of Man is dimly visible ... ; it is not a little fearful to look upon; a powerful, dark, terrible, though undefined and indescribable, impression is left on the mind--and it is in no haste to be gone." (2) In these haunting images Cunningham clearly saw Blake's satiric artistry in depicting Enlightenment notions of creation--of the universe and of man--as the perverted imaginings of a Miltonic Satan seeking to create in exile and in spite, from a point farthest from the truth. Blake first provides allusions to moral counterpoints that reveal Urizen as a false creator of grotesque scientific work; and, as with most of his works, the poem is cast as parodic imitation in which the work selected for imitation immediately raises issues of value by which we are to evaluate the contents and meaning of its parody. In keeping with the poet's intention to write "The Bible of Hell," the whole of The Book of Urizen is conceived as a hellish parody of the King James translation of Genesis. Just as the title of Genesis in the translation is "The First Book of Moses," so too is the satire's title (in its earliest version) The First Book of Urizen; the text of Blake's parody, moreover, looks to the reader like the King James Genesis because it is comprised of short verses that are numbered and organized into chapters. The plot of the sacred parody also mirrors the accounts in Genesis of the creation of the world, of Adam of Eve, of the fall, of Abraham and Isaac, and of Moses' flight from Egypt in search of the Promised Land. In addition to its evocations of the King James style and the Biblical parallels of narrative, the poem also provides a blatant comparison of Urizen's rebellion with that of Satan in Paradise Lost as announced in its "Preludium" and then maintained by allusion through the satire:

   Of the primeval Priests assum'd power,
   When Eternals spurn'd back his religion;
   And gave him a place in the north,
   Obscure, shadowy, void, solitary.
   (Plate 2: 1-4)

The Biblical and Milton overtones leave no doubt but that we are examining Urizen's work of creation in mock-heroic prospect. If Pope in the Dunciad shows the literary dunces of his age establishing a kingdom ruled by Dulness, "coming," as the satirist says, "'in her Majesty, to destroy Order and Science, and to Substitute the Kingdom of the Dull upon earth," so also does Blake in The Book of Urizen show the scientific dunces of his age establishing a kingdom ruled by Urizen, coming in his majesty to destroy imaginative order and poetry, and to substitute the kingdom of unenlightened science upon earth. …

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