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ICR 2019 Panel: William Blake. Reviewed by Hannah McAuliffe

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - 14:26

Romanticism Now and Then

International Conference on Romanticism

July 31-August 2, 2019


International Conference on Romanticism
Manchester 2019
Panel: "William Blake"

  • Chair: Colin Trodd (University of Manchester)
  • Jennifer Davis Michael (University of the South), “Silence and Secrecy in Blake’s Europe
  • Sharon Choe (University of York), “Dismembered and Disenchanted: The Seven Corporeal Ages in The Book of Urizen
  • Martina Zamparo (University of Udine), “’The Male is a Furnace of beryl; the Female is a Golden Loom’: The Energetic Rivalry Between Man and Woman in Blake’s Artistic System”
  • Sheila Spector (Independent Scholar), “Blake’s Aesthetic Treatment of Ugolino’s Political Imprisonment”

Reviewed by Hannah McAuliffe (Durham University)

As he is a lecturer in Art History at the University of Manchester, it was fitting that Colin Trodd should open the session on William Blake by drawing attention to Blake-related artwork available to view in Manchester. This included Patrick Procktor’s Lullaby for William Blake and Frederic Shields’s William Blake’s Workroom and Deathroom, which are housed in the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery, respectively. This led panel attendees to consider Blake’s legacy in line with the conference’s theme, “Romanticism: Then and Now.”

The first to speak was Jennifer Davis Michael from the University of the South. Her paper revolved around the role of silence and secrecy in Blake’s work, and she began by disputing the idea that these themes only appear in Blake’s work after the 1790s, when his poetry became considerably less political. Her main argument in this paper was that Blake’s prophetic books are built on secrecy, even though he decries such secrecy in government and religious institutions. Michael pointed to a conflict within Blake’s work, in which he advocated a mode of reading that discovers the truth. Although Blake wanted to dismantle secrets not create them, Michael argued that he must rely on them for his symbolism.

Michael opened her paper by discussing the tradition of the “secret history” in literature, as outlined in Rebecca Bullard’s Secret History in Literature, 1660-1820 (Cambridge UP, 2017). Although Blake is not included in Bullard’s study, Michael believes that his poetry shares several likenesses with this genre. She then traced the presence of secrecy through Blake’s work, including the “dark secret love” of “The Sick Rose,” the forbidden sexuality in the “Nurse’s Song” of Experience, the concealment of female sexuality in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, the unveiling of the secrets of history in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the secrecy between the Eternals in the Preludium to The First Book of Urizen. She even managed to link in a reference to the secrecy in U2”s Blakean song, “The Fly,” which chimed with Trodd’s earlier comments on Blake’s legacy. 

Finally, she addressed Europe, which became the main focus of her paper. She outlined how the fairy of the poem’s Preludium symbolises and possesses a secret knowledge, offered to the reader in a conspiratorial fashion because “bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Europe, pl. iii). She then posited that in the main body of the poem, the fairy-narrator becomes a spy as well as a conspirator. Michael read the opening of the poem as a parody of Milton’s Nativity. However, whereas the birth in Milton’s poem is secretive, she saw Blake’s birth as less secret and more sacred. 

This exemplifies the trope of sacred secrecy that she read in Europe and Blake’s earlier work, a trope that she insisted Blake had to rely on even whilst he was trying to overturn it. Her most compelling argument for this was the claim that Blake deploys a secret knowledge through his method of naming, which contains secret meanings and associations. Finally, she did not neglect to address Blake’s illustrations which, she posited, produce moments of silence within the poems by creating a break or pause in the narrative. She concluded that although Blake denounced silence and secrecy within religion and politics, in his own work he used it to his advantage.

Next, we heard from Sharon Choe, a PhD student at the University of York. Her paper focussed on The First Book of Urizen, which, she argued, revolves around the physical transformations, or births, of Urizen but does not conform to the genre of a creation myth. Despite the echo of the seven days of creation in Genesis, she argued that in The First Book of Urizen no ecosystem or civilisation is formed, thereby failing to adhere to the conventions of the creation myth. In fact, the recurrent acts of creation over what Choe calls the “Seven Corporeal Ages” produce only the body of Urizen. Her paper focussed on Urizen’s body and form which is recurrently constructed then dismembered. Her central argument was that each time Urizen’s body is formed, it is created as already broken, fragmented, and deformed.

Choe read the cyclical development and reshaping of Urizen’s form by Los as a cycle of unending disillusion: because the new form is created as already broken, the outcome is always disillusion. She argued that it is the passage of time that dictates the creation of the body. Under the influence of time, Los is motivated by the desire to create order and is compelled to create a physical form for Urizen, causing him pain and effectively imprisoning him. Choe contrasted the fragmented body of Urizen with the unity of the body of Christ depicted in The Book of Romans. Citing Romans 12:4-5 where there are “many members in one body,” she demonstrated that Christ’s body symbolises a community, whereas Urizen’s body fails to adhere to this unity. Instead, the presence of humanity is absent from The First Book of Urizen. Choe argued that there is no Edenic or perfect form and thus the poem cannot be called a creation myth.

Finally, Choe questioned whether the body in Urizen is ever finally developed. She related the restriction of Urizen’s body to the oppressive doctrines of organised church communities to convey the dangers and failures of institutionalism. Ultimately, Urizen is imprisoned in deformity to reveal the naivety of the orthodox Christian church.

Next to speak was Martina Zamparo, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Udine. The focus of Zamparo’s paper was Blake’s composite art and the ways in which it reflects the dynamic interaction between the male and the female in Blake’s work. Ultimately, she hoped to redefine the misogynistic attitude attributed to Blake’s work by earlier critics.

Zamparo began by pointing out that Blake’s art was a product of the partnership between himself and his wife, Catherine. She pertinently linked this with the upcoming Blake exhibition at the Tate Britain, which draws particular attention to Catherine. She demonstrated how Blake’s composite art is a product of masculine and feminine energy through his symbolism in the figures of the male Los and his female Emanation, Enitharmon. Los and Enitharmon have previously been read as symbols for, among other things, William and Catherine. Zamparo then traced the associations of Los and Enitharmon in Blake’s work. Reflecting the textual and visual elements of Blake’s work, the male is associated with the line, and thus with poetry, and time; while the female is associated with colour, painting, and space. The necessity of both the male and the female is also illustrated by Zamparo’s title quotation, in which Los’s furnaces and Enitharmon’s looms are both essential to the building of Golgonooza, Blake’s city of art.

Finally, Zamparo argued that the relationship between the masculine and feminine energy in Blake is not static but dialectic and is essential to the creation of art. She demonstrated that Blake’s seat of poetic inspiration, Beulah, is a place where contraries are not polarised, whereas in the fallen world of Ulro, they are posed as “negations.” In conclusion, Zamparo explained how the sexual garments rely on the world of Ulro and are non-existent in Blake’s Eternity and how it is Blake’s goal, as stated in the opening to Jerusalem, to recover the prelapsarian form in which sexuality is non-existent.

Sheila Spector delivered the final paper of the session, which focussed on Blake’s depiction of Ugolino, an eleventh-century Italian nobleman accused of treason and prominent feature in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Although Ugolino is never mentioned in Blake’s work by name, he appears in several of his images, and Spector insisted that Blake was fascinated by him. In Dante’s interpretation of the historical figure, Ugolino appears in the Inferno as the personification of treachery. As punishment for his treason, he must watch his children starve and eat their bodies. Spector went on to explain that it was Chaucer who introduced Ugolino to English culture and that in Blake’s time Ugolino was depicted by his friends John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli. She argued that the Ugolino story manifests in English history as the secularisation of Dante, but that Blake brings the story back to its roots, which would be the main thrust of her paper.

Spector then traced the Ugolino image in Blake’s work. She showed two of Blake’s early sketches of 1780-5, one in pencil and one in ink, which depict Ugolino in prison with his sons, followed by echoes of the Ugolino image in The Gates of Paradise, such as “Help! Help!” and “Aged Ignorance.” She then referenced Blake’s portrait of Dante in which Ugolino is also depicted, directly facing Dante, with his children around him and showing no signs of suffering. Spector read this as a repudiation of Dante’s depiction of Ugolino, suggesting that Blake thought Dante should be ashamed of his punitive theology. Spector also attributed this reading to others among Blake’s depictions of Ugolino, such as “Ugolino Relating His Death” and “Count Ugolino and his Sons in Prison,” in which Ugolino is portrayed with a halo around him. Spector demonstrated how this reflected Blake’s belief that ultimately all sins will be forgiven. In conclusion, Spector argued that Blake used the image of Ugolino as a means to portray his own beliefs about Christianity, suffering, institutional power, the forgiveness of sin; and that Blake’s aim is to ultimately correct Dante’s misinterpretation of Ugolino.

Trodd then opened up the discussion to further questions by expressing his interest in reconciling Blake’s texts and images. He posed the first question as to why Blake’s work is so body-centric in both text and image. Zamparo responded with the fact that, for Blake, the body represents divinity, the “Human Form Divine,” linking it back to her own paper by adding that the body is also the seat of the sexes. Choe added that Blake’s training as an artist and engraver often focussed on the human anatomy. She also recalled her own focus on the deformed body, which Blake uses as a symbol of the postlapsarian state. Michael responded that the body in Blake is a site of a dynamic dialectic of concealment and exposure, reflecting the themes of secrecy and revelation in her paper.

This turned the discussion towards the presence of a dialectic in Blake’s work, and the panel was asked if such a dialectic does exist and if so, what kind it is. Spector led the response to this question, restating the importance of contraries in Blake’s work. Yet, she drew attention to the idea that contraries in Blake can be seen either as opposing sides (“either/or”) or as parts of a whole (“and”). Michael added that contraries are fruitful for Blake, because “without contraries is no progression” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, pl. 3).

This concluded a brilliant panel to kick off a fascinating three days. Thank you to Emily Rohrbach and team for organising such a wonderful conference.