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Aesthetics: Blake

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We continue our exploration of aesthetics, specifically of the sublime and the picturesque in the poetry of the English Romantic, 1798 to 1832. In the last session, we looked at William Wordsworth and his employment of these two aesthetics. Today we turn to William Blake. The distinguished Romanticism scholar, David Simpson has argued that the aesthetics of the sublime is related primarily to William Blake’s visionary images. But the smallness of scale and intimacy of the format in, for example, the prophetic books makes them a little difficult for us to see how it operates. Simpson argues that you can see the sublime primarily in paintings such as Turner’s and John Martin’s and Blake’s works do not seem to fit into the conventions typified by these two painters. However, the visionary poems are clearly rooted in an aesthetics of the sublime. Blake’s illustration to Dante’s hell Blake we know was an illustrator and his illustration of Dante’s hell shows the marks of the sublime. What’s the difference from Blake’s sublime and that of Edmund Burke? As you know Burke wrote a detailed essay on the origins, the range and the theory of the sublime and the beautiful. Vincent De Luca has written that instead of obscurity, indefinite vastness, and threatening power, there must be determinacy, concentration, intellectual play in Blake’s sublime. Let us begin with a small instance, an excerpt from Blake’s prophetic book, Jerusalem. Please read the given excerpt carefully. Terrified at the sublime Wonder, Los stood before his Furnaces. And they stood around, terrified with admiration at Erins Spaces For the Spaces reachd from the starry heighth, to the starry depth. Blake’s sublime here is very close to Burke’s and speaks of external sights that trigger a response of awe, terror and astonishment. As you know, it is the sight of incomprehensible length, breadth and dimensions that produce the sublime. As de Luca emphasises astonishment is the key emotion in this text and that’s central to how the sublime operates in William Blake. But there are other forms of the sublime. Blake’s characters, many of them, speak in very thundering tones. Here is an excerpt which illustrates this. Loud thundring, with broad flashes of flaming lightning & pillars Of fire, speaking the Words of Eternity in Human Forms. Another excerpt: Conversed together in Visionary forms dramatic which bright Redounded from their tongues in thunderous majesty. It’s not enough to say there is a sublimity of the visual or the image as we see in the excerpts we just looked at. The sublimity is also aural as in what based on what one is hearing. So, there are two components. Obviously this sublime is connected to the senses. So, you need to keep in mind that the sublime is not only a question of a specific kind of image or a specific kind of vision of the world around. But as we have seen in the case of Wordsworth and Shelley, a mountain can induce sublime imagination. If you recall what we have discussed, the sublime is what makes you scared, you are awestruck by what you are seeing. In many cases, the awe, the fear, immobilises you, keeps you stationary. For Blake, the astonishment and terror of the sublime cannot be simply immobilising. For him, to be stationary is death. He prefers dynamism, movement and action. So, for Blake, the sublime is not just staying in one place, it is moving forward with momentum rather than being held back in terror. He seeks a sublimity where there is replenishment, redemption, revelation and what de Luca identifies as the ‘exalted delight’. That is, for Blake, the sublime can be the magnitude of the expanded imagination, greater comprehension and moving forward with momentum rather than being held back in terror. It is not the Burkean obscurity of the sublime, but clarity and vision, that Blake’s sublime consists of. Then there is the catalogue-style expansion of items that appear borderless, like the sublime itself, in other Blake texts. Indicating an expanding universe of things, in his text Milton, Blake writes: Timbrels and violins sport round the Wine-presses; the little Seed, The sportive Root, the Earth-worm, the Gold-beetle, the wise Emmet Dance round the Wine-presses of Luvah; the Centipede is there, The Ground-spider with many eyes; the Mole clothèd in velvet, The ambitious Spider in his sullen web, the lucky Golden-spinner, The Earwig arm’d, the tender Maggot, emblem of immortality, The Flea, Louse, Bug, the Tape-worm; all the Armies of Disease, And note that there is a catalogue here. It is a catalogue of very different kinds of animals which make up the world. In The Four Zoas, Blake writes: The barked Oak, the long limbd Beech; the Ches’nut tree; the Pine. The Pear tree mild, the frowning Walnut, the sharp Crab, & Apple sweet, The rough bark opens; twittering peep forth like little beaks and wings The Nightingale, the Goldfinch, Robin, Lark, Linnet & Thrush. Fires, floods, thunderstorms, and the wild creatures of forest also signal the sublime. Once again, the sublime is about vitality, dynamism and energy in Blake, not the frozen-to-the-spot astonishment of Burke’s sublime. You will recall Loutherbourg’s An Avalanche in the Alps in which there is a group of people who are caught in the avalanche and are inclining away from it, huddling against the mountain side. They are frozen to the spot because the scope of nature is so large. In Blake, we do not see such a frozen-to-the-spot astonishment. Instead, it is dynamic and vital. We can see this energetic (rather than disabling) sublime in a famous description of Orc (chained to a rock) in The Four Zoas: His nostrils breathe a fiery flame. His locks are like the forests Of wild beasts there the lion glares the tyger & wolf howl there And there the Eagle hides her young in cliffs & precipices His bosom is like starry heaven expanded all the stars rings Flow into rivers of delight. We now turn to one more excerpt from Blake, this is from The Proverbs of Hell. The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. When he says “too great for the eye of man” it is a direct evocation of the sublime. As we have seen before, the sublime is something incomprehensible. The sublime is something that exceeds our line of vision. So, clearly Blake links sublimity to the human inability to comprehend. He would embody this in his most famous poem, “The Tyger”, in which we have an extended meditation on a sublime creature. In the course of the poem he would ask, “did he who make the lamb, make thee?” Meaning how could one create something as quiet and as docile as a lamb and with the same set of hands, in the same smithy, forge a tiger? Take a look at the poem and at Blake’s illustration of it. Image source: The British Museum Blake’s larger problem was: is there an empirical mind-set that can frame the fearful symmetries of imaginative vision? In Stephen Behrendt’s reading, he is asking whether there is an empirical mind-set that can frame, limit, restrict the imaginative vision. There may not be an adequate frame to ‘locate’ the tiger, and this requires a sublime imagination, is the point. This exceeds the limitations of the corporeal body. At one point Blake will announce: “The most sublime act is to set another before you”. Here is an excerpt from Matthew Green’s Visionary Materialism in the Early Works of William Blake. There is perhaps a twofold aspect to this act. Along with the act of preferment, of giving deference to the other, arises a certain question of visibility. On the one hand, setting the other, any other, before me would mean placing her or him in front of myself publicly, in the sight of every other. But, on the other hand, setting the other before me implies placing the other in front of me, bringing her or him into my own line of sight, opening the eyes and receiving the gifts of alterity – for beholding the other, the self runs the risk of becoming what it beholds, it subjects itself to infiltration to the potential of interpenetration, of love. Matthew Green writes that there is perhaps a twofold aspect to the act of carving and crafting a sublime: along with act of preferment, of giving defence to the other, arises a certain question of visibility. So is it something that is purely about the ocular? One of the things you notice about Blake, his illustration, his image making and of course his poetry, is the emphasis on energy, dynamism and movement. Blake, one suspects, would not have been happy with something as quiet and docile as the picturesque. The sublime is meant to communicate the energy of nature. Those of you who know Blake will be able to identify the fact that Blake’s interest lay almost entirely in energy, questions of energy, of dynamism, of creativity because energy for Blake is not destructive, in fact its sublimity is what drives your creativity. What we need to remember is that for Blake, the sublime is something positive and necessary. It is the sublime that energises the imagination which generates creative acts. For Blake, energy should not be restricted or limited. The key to Blake is to generate creative images out of restlessness. So, the sublime is actually a positive thing. In Blake, the sublime is not something to be afraid of. It is something one draws upon. For Blake, the key is to generate creative images out of a restlessness. So, the sublime is actually a positive thing, in Blake the sublime is not something to be afraid of, the sublime is something you draw upon.