William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s

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The well-taken skepticism here about the ideological basis of "individuality" in a hegemonic market economy which also haunts the difference between the neo-classical and the romantic Blake is shadowed by a contradiction, to which the author is less sensitive than he should be, which is that his vision of the orientation tends to be quite as "transcendental and transhistorical" as the idea he has Blake objecting to. This is doubly unfortunate in a study which claims to "contextualize" Blake as never before the book is heavily advertised to this effect.

How can one historicize if the history of England from Blake to Blair is one long hegemonic blur? This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Community Reviews. Showing Rating details. More filters. Sort order. Nov 30, James rated it really liked it Recommends it for: Blake students and scholars. Shelves: blake , english-romantics , literary-criticism.

William Blake and the Impossible History of the s, Makdisi

The main strength of this work is its development of Mee's renewed emphasis upon Blake's affinity with the culture of English radicalism in the s. Makidisi makes important distinctions between different types of London radicals and locates Blake in relationship to them. The book's weakness is its apparent insistence upon a radical anti-authoritarianism that I don't believe Blake even agreed with, an insistence which leads to wrong or bad readings of Blake's poems and some very silly philosop The main strength of this work is its development of Mee's renewed emphasis upon Blake's affinity with the culture of English radicalism in the s.

The book's weakness is its apparent insistence upon a radical anti-authoritarianism that I don't believe Blake even agreed with, an insistence which leads to wrong or bad readings of Blake's poems and some very silly philosophizing at the end. All in all, a useful study and certainly influential. Jennifer Drees rated it really liked it Jun 15, Noah Lyons rated it it was amazing Jul 24, Steph rated it it was amazing Jun 20, Lydia rated it really liked it Apr 26, Christian Haines rated it really liked it Aug 13, Rachel rated it liked it Dec 02, Roger Whitson rated it really liked it Sep 04, Thinkal Hansan rated it really liked it Apr 17, Adhem rated it liked it Sep 17, Matthew Wielgus rated it really liked it Mar 21, Bob Cat rated it it was amazing Sep 10, Kat idangerous rated it it was amazing Dec 03, Iranica added it Aug 13, Jerome marked it as to-read May 26, Kristabelle Darkley added it Jul 10, Paul Davis marked it as to-read Nov 15, Mark Words is currently reading it Oct 04, He brings together historical, mythic, and biblical elements toward a prophetic future — one that differs from what was realizable in the present of Britain in under tight libel and sedition laws.

Fire acts as the fundamental agent of change in America. Blake is able to use the boundless and protean nature of fire to bring together a variety of forces: inhuman wrath, destruction through war, trials and purification, and Biblical apocalypse. Because fire appears to be without boundaries or form, it is a useful expression of Blake's thinking, in which dynamic trajectories of forces supersede character as the motivating action of his poetry. Characters are momentary participants that function as markers in tracking larger, epic events.

The Ordeal of Queen Emma — drawn just before America — illustrates the power of fire. When Edward took the throne he robbed his mother of possessions and covered his treachery by accusing her of adultery, for which she was made to undergo the trial by fire.

William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s

Blake depicts the trial of the queen, in which she is made to walk across nine red hot plough-shares. The queen cleanly walks over the plough-shares and so bewilders the court and her accusers. Indeed, in The Ordeal fire transforms the power and language of Edward as king and accuser. The fires turn his power against him and change the court's perception of the queen.

As a prelude to America , The Ordeal shows how Blake uses "testing" fires to transform political power. By placing forces such as fire over the role of character in his poetry, Blake is able to overturn the metaphysical and political status quo. Characters in Blake's work are moments of condensation or nodes and meeting points for a variety of diverse political, religious, and artistic powers.


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The characters become what they behold as a result of surrounding forces prodding and shaping them. Such a field of becoming undoes a stable ontology of the subject. The use of nodes and vectors of force as a tool for reading is not new to Blake criticism. Drawing on Northrop Frye's observation of patterned images and patterned words in Blake's texts, Nelson Hilton considers words as "nodal point[s]" that work to condense "multidimensional" fields of meaning. He then suggests that "critics can, in effect, unravel individual threads passing through the point, stringing the text's words in order along a line of thought" Indeed, Hilton's Literal Imagination is an extended look at some key nodal objects.

His "stringing" and "threads passing through the point" are what I have called here and elsewhere vectors and vector relations. Tracing the appearances of fire in America will serve as an example of "meanings [which] are generated immanently. Fire appears first twice. Yet, fire already appears in the Preludium which precedes the poem "proper.

The Preludium scene describes either his copulation with her or his birth from her — as suggested in the image of a man emerging from the ground at the bottom of plate 2 of the Preludium. In these first instances and instances of firstness — where primacy battles with itself — fire seems under the dominion of competing armies in the war.

In the Preludium, the rebellious fires of Orc and the Americans are evident but not fully unleashed. In its facing page, the beginning of the Prophecy, fire takes on a devastating power both in the verbal and visual text, as the flames appear to serve Britain and scorch the American shores. Even in the issue of firstness and who controls fire, it becomes evident that the flames surpass the contraries of America and Britain. At a first look, fire appears to work as a sign of each side's fury as both nations rage and turn red with a wrath metonymic of the fire's heat and destructive force: there is the British "The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent" and Orc alongside America as "Intense!

Fire serves as a sign of contraries as Britain, monarchy, hierarchy, law and slavery battle against America, democracy, equality, and freedoms. Yet rather than being the exclusive symbol and right of either side, fire marks the difference between sides, a difference that cannot be assimilated.

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As such, fire has a power of its own as the force of inassimilable difference that instigates change. The power of fire to initiate transformation in America stems from Blake's ability to think difference in itself. There are several moments in America that illustrate Blake's experimentation with transformation of an object. Perhaps the most powerful instance is the change that takes place between plates 14 and In the verbal text, the last line of plate 14 the verso side reads: "The red fires rag'd!

Transformation in Blake often takes place at the margin between worlds. Between-ness — as belonging to neither one object nor another, one side or the other — is the space of difference and a place where novelty may arise. Fittingly, on plate 4 the rebellious character Orc emerges from the Atlantic, demarcated by Blake as the space between America and Albion.

Orc is the product of the irresolvable conflict between the two:.

William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s

Orc as Zenith creates a new orientation in the narrative. As a dark cloud, he hovers over Albion's Angels on their Atlantean thrones and cuts off their passage from heavens to earth. The birth of Orc heralds a new space both vertically between heaven and earth and horizontally between America and England. Returning to plates 14 and 15, between-ness and transformation appear not only in the verbal but also in the visual text. At the bottom of plate 14 a dragon spits forked fire while emerging out of the roots of a tree.

A number of the tree's leaves are drawn at the top of the page, where a bird is depicted flying around them. In copy M of America , one of the leaves, a forked leaf at the top far right of the page, is painted red. The object hovers between its identity as leaf and as flame. The dragon's fire at the bottom of plate 14 transforms the leaves of the tree but so subtly that the tree appears unthreatened. The rolling back of the fires as announced textually at the bottom of the plate is seen in the small red leaf at the top of the plate and becomes obvious on the very next page where flames engulf foliage and strip a tree bare.

The power of law and religion, depicted in the middle of plate 14 as the scene of tutelage, will be undone by the fires of Orc's wrath on plate What is significant about the red leaf of plate 14 is that there is a body, the leaf, separated from an attribute, the leaf's color. This separation of body from attribute allows for the transformation of leaf to flame.

As typical of Blakean objects, the leaf is not only itself but always already figured with the possibility of becoming something else.

William Blake

The internal self-differing of the leaf allows for the possibility of transformation in which the object is swept up by larger forces bearing upon the narrative. It is this sort of separation and transformation which W.


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Mitchell describes in Blake's Composite Art : "The very subject of Blake's art is this power to transform and reshape visual imagery, and, by implication, the ability of man to create his vision in general" While the redness of the leaf is an attribute of autumn, it also recalls the destruction by revolutionary or apocalyptic fire on plate Transformation thus functions both as a philosophical inquiry into how novelty arises from "the same dull round" and as a political gesture, as change takes on revolutionary significance. In apocalyptic fashion, plague follows the flames in America.

In Chapter 9 of the Book of Revelations, a plague accompanied by fire and brimstone kills one-third of the earth's inhabitants. Later, in Chapters 15 and 16, seven plagues are unleashed from the cups of seven angels, again accompanied by fire and hailstones. Blake's own unfinished King Edward the Third chastises the king's moral poverty and lust for power as he invades France, inciting war and causing the death of tens of thousands. In Barnes's telling of the events, the plague is accompanied by comets, meteors, and pillars of fire. Blake illustrated these events in his Royal Academy exhibition painting War unchained by an Angel: Fire, Famine, and Pestilence following In America , he transfers the historical and mythic events of war and plague from the 14th to the 18th century.

By doing so, he creates a resonance across time. Blake furthers the political nature of fire by borrowing from Joel Barlow's Vision of Columbus , in which towns and villages across the colonies are burned by the British in an attempt to beat back revolution and gain submission Erdman Both Barlow and Blake redistribute the chronology of the historical events as part of their epic narratives.

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By adding John of Patmos's visionary future to Barnes and Barlow, Blake places moments of British history within a larger context, a future yet to come. Such a future is not imaginable in the present of with sedition acts in place to silence protest and with the bloody revolution of France dissuading Britons from regicide. Yet, the future that does not seem possible in London becomes something else, a visionary future, the future's future, which remains unrealizable in the present but necessary for the poet and for readers with the powers of intellectual war and imagination.

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In order to be able to imagine the future's future as a radical break from the current state of affairs, it is helpful to think of what philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls the axis of the virtual-actual, where the virtual as genuinely new is unrecognizable and unforeseeable in the real world until it actualizes change. Deleuze pits the virtual-actual against the axis of the possible-real. In the realm of the possible, the real dictates the parameters of change. Deleuze summarizes this dynamic: "While the real is in the image and likeness of the possible that it realizes, the actual, on the other hand, does not resemble the virtuality it embodies.

It is difference that is primary in the process of actualization — the difference between the virtual from which we begin and the actuals at which we arrive" Bergsonism Indeed, only by taking seriously the difference of difference — i. Only such novelty creates the space for revolution, particularly the political, religious, and ontological change imagined by Blake. Michael Speaks summarizes the problem of the possible-real as follows: "The realization of the possible operates by the principles of limitation and resemblance.

Revolution is expressed by innovation or corruption, by mutation that takes place over time or as time itself. Church and state advocate a gradualist change, one along the lines of the possible-real axis in which the real spawns and authenticates its progeny. This authoritative notion of time does not produce transformation. Authentic change means shifts in thinking about time and how novelty arises through transformation. As Morton Paley has argued, Blake's America is filled with Biblical and political imagery that would "imply progress towards the millennium" Yet, the revolution does not arrive for the millenarians expecting change in the year As Paley and other critics have pointed out, Blake's later prophecies can be read as a retreat from the overtly political revolution toward a change within the individual.

Yet as I am suggesting, the time of revolution is untimely in respect to the axis of the possible-real. Such haunting has been explored by Jacques Derrida:. Orc arises on plate 4 of the Prophecy but has already been chained and broken free and disseminated seeds of revolution in the Preludium — seeds which are shown sprouting in the image of a man arising from below the earth on Plate 2.



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