Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

A Sublime Allegory: Blake, Blake Studies, and the Sublime

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

A Sublime Allegory: Blake, Blake Studies, and the Sublime

Article excerpt

[T]he feeling of the sublime is a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful, and so it is an emotion that seems to be no sport, but dead earnest in the affairs of the imagination. (1)

IN the sixth Night of The Four Zoas, in the course of his "dismal voyage" through the "pathless world of death" (70:2, E346), (2) Urizen ("your reason") comes across scenes that would normally be characterized as sublime: "women marching oer burning wastes / Of Sand in bands of hundreds & of fifties & of thousands strucken with / Lightnings" (70:21-3, E347); "rocky masses frowning in the abysses revolving erratic / Round Lakes of fire in the dark deep" (72:3-5, E349). Yet such sights precipitate no sublime transport or elevation. Instead, he remains closed within this endless world, where movement is obstructed by worms, scaly monsters, voids, abysses, and "rocky masses." Urizen's sublime blocks but does not transport or elevate. As he exclaims in astonishment:

Can I not leave this world of Cumbrous wheels
Circle oer Circle nor on high attain a void
Where self sustaining I may view all things beneath my feet
Or sinking thro these Elemental wonders swift to fall
I thought perhaps to find an End a world beneath of voidness
Whence I might travel round the outside of this Dark confusion (72:22-
7, E349)

Many eighteenth-century writers would have shared his surprise. Although a spectator's first response to a sublime object is likely to involve a sense of obstruction or blockage, this is usually followed by ecstasy, which transports the observers beyond themselves. As the sublime experience reaches its end, the spectators are returned to themselves, but with a heightened sense of their own power and importance. In Young's Night Thoughts, for example, a text with which The Four Zoas is deeply engaged, Death is a blocking power that brings us to a standstill and reveals the temporal world to be a dungeon, a "dark, incarcerating colony." (3) Blockage is quickly overcome, however, by dividing mind from body, the temporal from the absolute. Where the body is subject to death, the mind comes to believe that it has a supersensible destiny: the body's incarceration throws into relief Reason's kinship with the transcendental. This elevates the rational subject beyond the reach of time, change, and death into the compa ny of the divine:

I gaze, and as I gaze, my mounting Soul
Catches strange Fire, Eternity! at thee,
And drops the World--or rather, more enjoys:
How chang'd the Face of Nature? how improv'd?
What seem'd a Chaos, shines a glorious World,
Or, what a World, an Eden; heighten'd all!
It is another Scene! another Self!
And still another, as Time rolls along,
And that a Self far more illustrious still. (4)

Although Young tends to multiply entities, we can simplify things by saying that sublimity teaches the self to discriminate between two bodies: an incarcerated body that remains subject to death, and an ideal or spiritual body that resides in a transcendental realm. The former cannot be put off without embracing death; the latter can be glimpsed but not realized within the temporal world. In Young's Night Thoughts and, as I shall suggest, in each of the various discourses of sublimity, these bodies exist in a tense relation to each other. The incarcerated body becomes a source of embarrassment and disgust, an admonition that intensifies the subject's drive to embrace the ideal body. The ideal body becomes an absolute, realized in the temporal world as a categorical imperative, which is used to measure and discipline the incarcerated body.

We can therefore say that Urizen's dilemma in Night the Sixth is that, although driven by a dream of an ideal body, he is unable finally to divide mind (himself) from body and, consequently, unable to distinguish once and for all between incarcerated and ideal bodies. …

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