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Christopher Z. Hobson, Blake and Homosexuality

Monday, January 7, 2002 - 08:58
Christopher Z. Hobson, Blake and Homosexuality. New York: St. Martin's Press/Palgrave, 2000. xxii + 249pp. Illus: 20 b&w line drawings. $55.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-23451-1).

Reviewed by
Kevin Hutchings
University of Northern British Columbia

When teaching William Blake's poetry and designs, I occasionally encounter student questions concerning a number of explicitly homoerotic representations in such works as Milton and Jerusalem.   Because Blake was not himself homosexual, I have tended to explain these representations as an aspect of the poet's iconoclastic propensity to "shock" his readers out of socially induced modes of complacency (as Blake clearly attempts to do, for example, in some of his more outrageous "Proverbs of Hell" in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).  Fortunately, Christopher Z. Hobson's Blake and Homosexuality has given me much food for thought, showing me how incomplete and problematic my understanding of Blake's homosexual representations has been.

I cannot overstate my admiration for Blake and Homosexuality, which is, in my view, one of the most interesting books of Blake criticism to have appeared in recent years.  As the book's title suggests, its focus is upon the politics and poetics of homosexual representation in Blake's oeuvre.  Combining a keen sensitivity to historical detail with a carefully nuanced approach to formal textual analysis, Hobson offers a new and original interpretation of Blake's work, one that is certain to make an important intervention in Blake studies, English romanticism, and the cultural history of homosexuality.  The book's inclusive treatment of both the visual and verbal representations comprising Blake's corpus is highly admirable: presupposing the importance of engaging with Blake's visual art in order to arrive at an adequate understanding of his poetry, Blake and Homosexuality incorporates twenty fine black-and-white reproductions of Blake's art and designs, each of which Hobson skillfully and extensively analyzes, deftly teasing out its homosexual and other cultural implications.  Hobson's consideration of Blake's work is at all times intellectually rigorous, deploying a well-balanced dialectical logic to support complex thesis arguments which are carefully and clearly delineated.  Hobson's book also stands out for its exemplary presentation: it is a pleasure to read such sensitively argued, elegantly written, and flawless prose.

At the risk of oversimplification, the book's outline may be summarized as follows. In the Preface, Hobson takes issue with Michel Foucault's influential thesis, briefly articulated in The History of Sexuality, that homosexuality was not seen as a distinctive mode of identity (with all-pervasive ramifications) until the later nineteenth century. By invoking early nineteenth-century discussions of homosexual practice as represented in hostile pamphlets and sensationalistic English journalism, Hobson brings Foucault's claim very much into question, thus opening a critical space in which to proceed with his own investigations. In Chapter 1, Hobson conducts a fascinating and informative historical sketch of eighteenth-century homosexual culture in England, delineating among other things the legal prohibitions, mob violence, and penal punishments facing London's homosexual populace. The chapter goes on to investigate a genteel Republican tradition, articulated in English literature from Milton to Cowper, of anti-homosexual thought and sentiment, speculating that Blake was keenly aware of and responsive to this tradition in his own writing and art. Subsequently, Chapter 2 undertakes a critical analysis of the aggressively masculinist heterosexism informing Blake's early views of sexuality and gender.  Invoking W. J. T. Mitchell's admonition that Blake scholars must eschew the respectable politeness of their traditional discourse in order to recover a more authentic, "dangerous Blake,"1 Hobson explores Blake's early responses to such traditional "obscenities" as masturbation and voyeurism (xii). The remaining chapters build upon the contexts delineated in the book's early discussions: Chapter 3 conducts historically sensitive examinations of the texts and designs comprising The Four Zoas; Chapters 4 and 5 outline Blake's poetic and artistic responses to his most influential precursor, John Milton; and Chapter 6 conducts a paradigm-shifting examination of key homosexual representations in Blake's great epic poem Jerusalem, including a fascinating revisionary discussion of Vala's lesbian relationship with Jerusalem, as well as a comprehensive investigation of Shiloh's status as the only masculine "Emanation" to be directly identified as such in Blake's poetic mythology.   Finally, by focusing on Blake's gradually developing advocation of a truly "Universal Toleration," Hobson's Conclusion makes a convincing argument concerning the crucial role homosexuality plays in the development and articulation of Blake's famous, lifelong critique of political and moral tyranny.

During the course of his narrative, Hobson necessarily engages in a fair amount of speculative historicism.  Because Blake did not write any straightforward, expository accounts of his response to contemporary heterosexism, Hobson is forced to formulate a number of careful, logical conjectures concerning Blake's likely awareness of anti-homosexual polemics in contemporary literature (polemics which were very often subtly rendered and of minor thematic importance to the works in which they appeared).  This speculative approach to history informs other areas of the book's argument as well.  For example, by marshaling the liberal insights articulated by Jeremy Bentham in his unpublished critiques of anti-homosexual prejudice in contemporary culture, Hobson reaches the reasonable and enabling conclusion that it was "intellectually possible to arrive at a relatively positive view of homosexuality within the framework of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century thought--and to do so without being homosexual oneself" (18-19). Thus, while acknowledging Blake's non-awareness of Bentham's discourse, such discussions pave the way for Hobson's subsequent analyses of Blake's developing tolerance for, and celebration of, homosexuality.

Among his productive historical speculations, Hobson proposes that Blake's revised presentation of the Moral Law in Copies C and D of Milton may have been inspired partly by the infamous Vere-street persecutions of 1810-11.  At this time, the London newspapers were full of sensationalistic stories concerning homosexual practice, stories which covered and likely helped to encourage violently hostile public reactions against alleged and convicted homosexual "criminals."   Although we cannot be absolutely certain that Blake followed these stories, it is highly likely, as Hobson argues, that Blake indeed noticed and responded to them in his contemporary art and writing.  While such historicism is frankly and openly speculative, it is consistently productive of new and provocative close readings of Blake's art and poetry.  Indeed, at times (as, for example, in Chapter 5's discussion of "'Calvary's foot': Vere-Street and Blake's revision of Milton"), Hobson's speculations make unprecedented sense out of esoteric passages which had not been adequately accounted for prior to the publication of his book.

One of the basic arguments of Blake and Homosexuality is that Blake's view of homosexuality evolved during the course of his artistic career from a relatively negative and stereotypical perspective toward a much more positive and open-minded one.  For Hobson, Visions of the Daughters of Albion is a pivotal text in this regard: although the poem and its illuminations hint at alternative modes of sexuality, they seem ultimately to suggest Blake's conformity to the sexual status quo.   This unfortunate and oft-indicted textual complicity does not, however, cause Hobson to join the chorus of commentators who have decried Visions as sexually and ideologically regressive.  Rather, he sees in Visions the productive (if ultimately unrealized) beginnings of Blake's emerging critique of heterosexism, a critique which, despite its ideological shortcomings, "raises the possibility of sexual gratification other than through heterosexual intercourse" (35).  Hobson's critical insight is an important one; for by evaluating Oothoon's discourse on sexual relations primarily in terms of its affirmation or negation of heterosexual equality between men and women, Blake's readers have in recent years often unwittingly produced hetero-normative interpretations of the poem, effacing a whole potential area of inquiry concerning the early development of Blake's sexual politics.

Given its focus on sexuality, Hobson's book has important implications for gender-based studies of Blake's thought.  Among other things, Blake and Homosexuality takes issue with the implicit thesis, articulated in the work of scholars like Marc Kaplan, Brenda S. Webster, and Margaret Storch, that Blake's depictions of homosexuality conform to the classical Freudian notion that "male homosexuality is based on unreadiness for mature [hetero]sexual relations and involves symbolic humiliation of women" (142).  Anticipating the present-day homosexual rejection of this Freudian dynamic, Blake, in Hobson's view, not only affirms same-sex desire as a mode of physical and ideological emancipation, but also in his later depictions of homosexuality Blake retrospectively criticizes his own earlier "poetics of masculinity," a discourse which, because it tended to affirm masculinist sexual aggression, has understandably led a number of prominent readers to charge Blake with misogynistic leanings.

Thus, in his Conclusion, Hobson responds to critical assessments articulated by Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak, whose introductory comments on Blake in their recent anthology British Literature 1780-1830 depict Blake as a writer whose philosophy of gender was ultimately in league with the sexist discourses of his day.  Hobson's contrary argument is that Blake's conceptions of gender and sexuality are much more fluid and complex than Mellor, Matlak, and others have tended to assume.  Since editorial assertions published in anthologies have the ability to exercise a disproportionate influence upon the minds of readers previously unfamiliar with anthologized material, Hobson's critical intervention will perhaps encourage students of Blake to adopt a more dialectical interpretive approach to Blake's writing, one that is sensitive to the manifold complexities informing the poet's representations of gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation.

The only aspect of Blake and Homosexuality that gives me brief pause for regret is the question of the book's position with regard to contemporary critical theory.  In the Preface, Hobson identifies his critical practice as "'constructionist' with 'essentialist' leanings" (xvi).  Certainly, such a critical positioning contributes to the impressively dialectical rigor informing the book's argument.  It is, nevertheless, unfortunate that, in a study of this caliber and importance, the author does not offer a more detailed description of the relationship between his sexual and textual philosophies, including his implicit critique of "constructionist" models of homosexuality (xvi-xvii).  In particular, I cannot help wishing that Hobson had briefly situated his criticism in relation to recent and relevant theoretical work done in the dynamic fields of gay, lesbian, and queer studies.  After the Preface's above-mentioned and all-too-brief critique of Foucault, which tantalizes one with the hope of a more protracted theoretical engagement, Hobson proceeds directly to his fine historical and formalist investigations, foregoing any engagement with groundbreaking work on homosexuality conducted by theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, and others.  This omission is regrettable simply because Hobson's work is every bit as astute as the work of these prominent thinkers, and one gets the feeling that by engaging at least briefly with their insights Hobson's book would take on added critical relevance and importance.  But this omission is far from disabling; indeed, a major attraction of Hobson's study is its intellectual accessibility: one need not be familiar with postmodern critical terminology and discourse to understand, appreciate, and engage with the book's many fine insights.  Thus, Blake and Homosexuality is certain to stand the test of time, being the product not so much of "cutting-edge" theoretical inquiry but rather of exhaustive archival research, thoughtful synthesis, and cogent argumentation.  All in all, I heartily recommend this book to anyone pursuing critical interests in William Blake, English romanticism, and homosexual studies.


1. See Mitchell, W. J. T. "Dangerous Blake." Symposium, "Inside the Blake Industry: Past, Present, and Future." Ed. Morris Eaves. Studies in Romanticism 21.3 (Fall 1983): 410-16. (Back)