Unlocking Language: Self-Similarity in Blake’s Jerusalem

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Romanticism and Complexity

Unlocking Language: Self-Similarity in Blake’s Jerusalem

R. Paul Yoder, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

  1. In his annotations to The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Blake writes, "Locke's Opinions of Words & their Fallaciousness are Artful Opinions & Fallacious also" (CPP 659).[1] John Locke’s artful and fallacious opinions about language are part of the reason that he repeatedly appears as one aspect of Albion’s Spectre in Blake’s last major poem, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, a poem so concerned with language that its concluding millennial vision explicitly includes a redeemed language which expands and contracts "according as the Organs of Perception vary," a language in which "every Word & Every Character / Was Human" (J 98:35-38). Robert Essick, in Blake and the Language of Adam, has examined how Blake’s pursuit of a "motivated" language differs from Locke’s "sensibilist" theory of an arbitrary language that "limits words to object-reference" (46). In response to Locke, Essick posits for Blake a theory of language "that celebrates the word capable of calling new thoughts, images—perhaps even worlds—into being" (46). In what follows I argue that a model based on fractal "self-similarity" can help us to understand how Blake’s language opens to these new worlds, and that it can even help us to understand the vexed issue of narrative in Jerusalem.

  2. In the Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke works along an expanding scale of analogous structures, from simple ideas to complex ideas, from simple modes to mixed modes. He repeatedly shapes his analysis of the senses, of ideas, perception, retention, discerning, understanding, reason and language around a system that expands from "simple" minute particulars to broader and more complex abstractions. This recurring structure is what accounts for much of the apparent repetitiveness of the Essay. But despite its ultimate basis on minute simple responses to the senses, Locke’s view of language does not finally accept a human standard. Instead, like Blake’s Urizen, who learned to his dismay that "no flesh nor spirit could keep / His iron laws one moment" (Urizen 23:25-26), Locke would "improve" human discourse with a plan that he readily admits has little chance of human success.

  3. It is in Book III of the Essay, that Locke considers language, an area he had not originally planned to examine. However, Locke says,

    when having passed over the Original and Composition of our Ideas, I began to examine the Extent and Certainty of our Knowledge, I found it had so near a connexion with Words, that unless their force and manner of Signification were first well observed, there could be very little said clearly and pertinently concerning Knowledge: which being conversant about Truth, had constantly to do with Propositions. And though it terminated in Things, yet it was for the most part so much by the intervention of Words, that they seem'd scarce separable from our general Knowledge. At least they interpose themselves so much between our Understandings, and the Truth, which it would contemplate and apprehend, that like the Medium through which visible Objects pass, their Obscurity and Disorder does not seldom cast a mist before our Eyes, and impose upon our Understandings. (III.ix.21, p. 488)

    This "Obscurity and Disorder" of words, Locke elsewhere describes as "the doubtfulness and uncertainty of their [words'] signification, which is the imperfection we are here speaking of" (III.ix.4, p. 477). Much of his discussion of language is a consideration of this imperfection and how it might be repaired; Locke's goal is the Royal Society's goal of a stable, perspicuous language, "subservient to Instruction and Knowledge" (III.i.6, p. 404).

  4. Locke’s understanding of language is finally not very different from Blake’s, but what difference is there is crucial. In the opening of Book III, Locke says,

    God having designed Man for a sociable Creature, made him not only with an inclination, and under a necessity to have fellowship with those of his own kind; but furnished him also with Language, which was to be the great Instrument and common Tye of Society. Man therefore had by Nature his Organs so fashioned, as to be fit to frame articulate Sounds, which we call Words. But this was not enough to produce Language; for Parrots, and several other Birds, will be taught to make articulate Sounds distinct enough, which yet, by no means, are capable of Language.

    Besides articulate Sounds therefore, it was farther necessary, that he should be able to use these Sounds, as Signs of internal Conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the Ideas within his own Mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the Thoughts of Men's Minds be conveyed from one to another. (III.i.1-2, p. 402)

    There seems to me little here to which Blake would object. Certainly he believed that language was a gift from God intended to promote human community. Blake would probably quarrel with the limitation of language to "articulate Sounds" fitted to natural organs, but he would agree that communication requires more than one party's simple mimicking of sounds.

  5. Locke and Blake part company when Locke turns to consider the "improvement" of language through the use of "General Terms":

    It is not enough for the perfection of Language, that Sounds can be made signs of Ideas, unless those signs can be so made use of, as to comprehend several particular Things: For the multiplication of Words would have perplexed their Use, had every particular thing need of a distinct name to be signified by. To remedy this inconvenience, Language had yet a farther improvement in the use of general Terms, whereby one word was made to mark a multitude of particular existences. (III.i.3, p. 402)

    Locke's implication that "every particular thing" does not require a "distinct name" must have galled Blake, who in Jerusalem repeatedly stresses the importance of "particulars." For example, Los says that "every / Particular is a Man" (91:29-30), and that "benevolence . . . protects minute particulars, every one in their own identity" (38:22-23), and we might note at this point that for Blake the standard for these particulars is the human form — "every / Particular is a Man." To avoid having to recognize every particular in its own identity, Locke says, we have general terms or words, and "Words become general by being made the signs of general Ideas: and Ideas become general, by separating from them the circumstances of Time, and Place, and any other Ideas, that may determine them to this or that particular Existence" (III.iii.6, p. 411). In other words, we create a general word by abstraction, by separating the particular, situated in time and space, from its individual — identifying — context.

  6. Beyond this fundamental disagreement in their attitudes toward particulars, Blake and Locke also differ in their attitudes toward the instability they both recognize in language. Blake’s love of puns and word play has been well-documented by Nelson Hilton and others, and requires no rehearsal here. Throughout Locke's discussion of language, however, discursive play is exactly the problem, as when Locke writes, "Though the Names Glory and Gratitude [for example] be the same in every Man's mouth . . . yet the complex collective Idea . . . is apparently very different in Men using the same language" (III.iii.8, p. 479). This shifting relationship between the word and the idea, between the signifier and the signified is the reason for the "doubtfulness and uncertainty of their [words'] signification" (III.ix.4, p. 479), and Locke is explicit as to what he thinks of those who exploit this shifting relationship: "'tis plain cheat and abuse, when I make them [words] stand sometimes for one thing and sometimes for another" (III.x.5, p. 492). Although Locke does distinguish between "civil" and "philosophical" uses of language, his position clearly leaves little room for the flexibility of daily human interaction, nor for what we traditionally think of as poetic language, metaphor, simile, or allegory. Though he does not explicitly discuss poetry, Locke does give his opinion on "figurative speeches, and allusion in language": "Such ornaments," he grants, "can scarce pass for Faults" in discourses "where we seek rather Pleasure and Delight, than Information and Improvement," but he adds,"if we speak of Things as they are, we must allow, that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheat" (III.x.34, p. 508). Blake, the poet who identifies himself as a "true Orator" in the opening Preface of Jerusalem, must have objected strongly both to the opposition between "Pleasure" and "Improvement," and to such a depiction of his divinely dictated mode of improving humanity. Moreover, in Blake's cosmology, the whole purpose of Christ's becoming human, of Christ’s acceptance of the human form, is to mitigate — what Locke calls "mislead" — Albion's judgment against himself and all of humanity. Blake agrees with Locke that there is a shifting relationship between the signifier and signified — indeed, Jerusalem's transformation of "Eternal Death" (4:2) into a "little Death" (96:27) depends on just such a shifting relationship — but where Locke sees this as an imperfection or curse, Blake sees it as a blessing and means of redemption.

  7. In Blake's cosmology Christ’s acceptance of the human form implies the divine acceptance as well of the "imperfection" and figurativeness of human language. Locke likewise recognizes this implication, and his remarks reveal much about the difference between his ideas and Blake's. When Locke turns to consider the impact on scripture of his theory of linguistic imperfection, he says,

    Though every thing said in the Text be infallibly true, yet the Reader may be, nay cannot chuse but be very fallible in the understanding of it. Nor is it to be wondred, that the Will of GOD, when cloathed in Words, should be liable to that doubt and uncertainty, which unavoidably attends that sort of Conveyance, when even his Son, whilst cloathed in Flesh, was subject to all the Frailties and Inconveniencies of humane Nature, Sin excepted (III.ix.23, pp. 489-90).

    For Locke and for Blake, part of Christ’s humanity was his use of a human language, shifting and figurative in its very nature. For Locke Christ’s use of human language does not in and of itself redeem that language; instead that is a problem which Reason must address. But for Blake, once Christ assumes the human form, everything about the human form becomes by definition Christ-like. This is what Blake means when he writes, years before Jerusalem, "God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is" (Nat. Religion [b]: prose). It is God’s becoming as we are that creates the Human Form Divine, and that authorizes a human standard of language, with all its figurativeness and shifting meanings.

  8. Locke does offer a plan by which the "imperfections" of language might be remedied, but he does not express much hope of success. He begins by saying that he is

    not so vain to think, that any one can pretend to attempt to perfect Reforming the Languages of the world, no not so much as that of his own Country, without rendering himself ridiculous. To require that Men should use their words constantly in the same sense, and for none but determined and uniform Ideas, would be to think, that all Men should have the same Notions, and should talk of nothing but what they had clear and distinct Ideas of. Which is not to be expected by any one, who hath not vanity enough to imagine he can prevail with Men, to be very knowing, or very silent (III.xi.2, p. 509).

    Locke’s disdain for everyday human interaction is clear here, as well as when he grants that the "Market and Exchange must be left to their own ways of Talking, and Gossippings must not be robb’d of their ancient Privilege" (III.xi.3, p. 509). But, he adds, those "who pretend seriously to search after, or maintain Truth, should think themselves obliged to study, how they might deliver themselves without Obscurity, Doubtfulness, or Equivocation, to which Men’s Words are naturally liable, if care be not taken" (III.xi.3, p. 509). Just as Locke’s system leads to progressive abstractions from minute human particulars, so his plan for perfecting language is intended not for the daily instances of human interaction, but only for the elite group of those "who pretend seriously to search after, or maintain Truth." Yet even among this group, Locke recognizes that language is "naturally liable" to "Obscurity, Doubtfulness, or Equivocation."

  9. Locke never questions the negative value he places on this natural tendency of language. From Blake’s perspective, however, Locke simply does not understand the relationship between the obscurity of language and the search for truth. Like Dr. Trusler, who complained that Blake "want[ed] somebody to Elucidate [his] Ideas" (CPP 702), Locke believes that the obscurity of language might be overcome if, among other things, people would "declare their [words] Meaning" (III.xi.12, p. 515). Blake’s response to Dr. Trusler makes his position on this issue clear:

    But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients considered what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouses the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato (CPP 702).

    Blake might sound here as elitist as Locke, except that later in this same letter he adds, "But I am happy to find a Great Majority of Fellow Mortals who can Elucidate my Visions & Particularly they have been Elucidated by Children" (CPP 703). The obscurity which Locke seeks to eradicate from language is, for Blake, redemptive for it rouses the human faculties, even of children, to act.

  10. Locke’s plan for perfecting language depends on limiting the play in language by confining language to a fixed set of definitions. His plan has five parts:

    1. "A Man should take care to use no word without a signification, no Name without an Idea for which he makes it stand" (III.xi.8, p. 512);

    2. "Those Ideas he annexes them to, if they be simple must be clear and distinct; if complex must be determinate" (III.xi.9, p. 512-3);

    3. Speakers "must also take care to apply their Words, as near as may be, to such Ideas as common use has annexed them to (III.xi.11, p. 514);

    4. In instances when a speaker must use new words or use old words in a new way, he or she should "declare their Meaning" (III.xi.12, pp. 514-15);

    5. "If Men will not be at pains to declare the meaning of their Words, and Definitions of their Terms are not to be had; yet this is the least that can be expected, that in all Discourses, wherein one Man pretends to instruct or convince another, he should use the same Word constantly in the same sense". (III.xi.26, p. 523)

    Locke’s scheme for perfecting language clearly assumes a system that "limits words to object-reference," as Essick puts it, but it also, except in the rare instances when new words are needed, limits words to the past. Locke’s language scheme weds words to what Blake would call the "Daughters of Memory," divorcing them from the Daughters of Inspiration. It is finally an atomistic system, a system in which Locke says, "Morality is capable of Demonstration, as well as Mathematicks" (III.xi.16, p. 516). Locke’s is the same system as that of the fallen Albion who seeks "A foundation and certainty and demonstrative truth" (J 28:11). In place of such a system, Essick says, Blake posits an open-ended language capable of "calling new thoughts, images — perhaps even worlds — into being" (46). How is such a view of language evident in Blake’s poetry? In order to answer that question, let us begin somewhat indirectly by considering the problem of narrative in Jerusalem.

  11. The problem of narrative in Blake’s Jerusalem has vexed readers from the beginning, but within the past 30 years a rather remarkable critical consensus has been reached. The consensus, evident in the work of critics ranging from Minna Doskow and Joanne Witke to Vincent de Luca and Morton Paley, holds that Jerusalem has no narrative per se spanning its 100 plates, but rather exhibits what Morton Paley calls a "synchronic" structure.[2] That is, the events of the poem, hardly events at all in synchronic readings, do not share any sort of cause-effect relationship and do not cohere into any sort of continuous, temporal structure. Like Locke who celebrates general terms that strip away from the particulars all the "circumstances of Time, and Place, and any other Ideas, that may determine them to this or that particular Existence" (III.iii.6, p. 411), Synchronists strip away the narrative — those circumstances of time and place — in order to argue that these abstract, disconnected fragments of the poem all occur at the same time in a spatial relation to each other. Thus Jerusalemdoes not tell a story, but instead represents the single moment of the Fall of Albion, and it keeps re-presenting that single moment from different perspectives or with different emphases until the awakening of Albion in the poem’s closing plates. This consensus has been questioned by such critics as Hazard Adams and Paul Youngquist, although few have followed up on their suggestions. I have argued elsewhere for the existence of a narrative in Blake’s final epic [3], but we cannot simply dismiss the insights of the synchronic readings. Instead we can use the relationships between these two opposed ways of reading Jerusalem in order to understand better Blake’s alternative to Locke’s theory of language and signification.

  12. We might begin to understand this relationship between synchronic and narrative readings by looking at the question of the "signifying unit" in Jerusalem. One problem with synchronic readings taken as a group is that the critics do not agree on what exactly defines one of the self-reflecting fragments of the poem. Some readers see the fragments as fairly large-scale, and argue that the separate chapters of Jerusalem, for example, replay the same occurrences, much as the synoptic gospels replay the events of Jesus’s life. Some readers approach the poem plate-by-plate, viewing the separate plates as separate visionary moments. Some readers, like Vincent de Luca, seem to pay almost no attention to the words of the poem at all, reading some of the most important narrative moments as "walls of words" intended to create sublime blockage and make the poem as a poem virtually unreadable. Other readers, like Morton Paley, see the poem overall as a city, and argue that the fragments of the poem each show a different aspect of this city, the fallen Jerusalem. However they define these fragments, and whatever their explanation, all of these readers agree that the fragments of Jerusalem all reflect each other, that they all, no matter what their specifics, signify the same thing, and that same thing is usually called "The Fall." What is hardly ever discussed, however, is what exactly defines these signifying fragments. What exactly counts as a significant textual event in Jerusalem? The chapter, the episode, the plate, something smaller?

  13. For Blake the unit of signification can be anything along a sliding analogical scale of the particulars of textual production: from the whole of a published, finished copy down to the smallest drops of ink and finest of etched marks, Blake's vision of signification is like a great chain of reading with every link forged as it is perceived by the reader. David Erdman was the first to note that around 1791 Blake began using an italic "g" with a "serif or topknot on the left side instead of the right," but that after 1805 Blake changed the serif on the letter "g" to the right. And not only did Blake write all of his new material with the rightward serif, but he even changed the serif on re-issues of earlier etched works ("Suppressed and Altered Passages" 52). We cannot be sure why Blake changed his letter "g," but we can see that for Blake the signifying unit was not simply the word, not even the letter, but even smaller and smaller marks. The minute end of the scale of signification is limited only by the limits of his perception, the minutest of graphic particulars that his graver could carve or his pen could write. The grand end of the scale is limited only by the poet's and reader's imagination. The serif signifies in and of itself, but it is also part of a letter, part of a word, phrase, line, plate, chapter, volume, oeuvre, tradition, history of traditions, all of which signify in their own right.

  14. The analogical continuity across a scale of signification, reaching from the serifs to the entirety of the book and beyond, is the same continuity as that between the grain of sand and the world it both contains and is contained by; hence those new worlds suggested by Essick. Chaos theory has given us a word for this sort of structure, "fractal," the characteristic trait of which is "self-similarity." As far as I can tell James Gleick, in his 1987 book Chaos, was the first to connect fractals to Blake, comparing fractal structure to Blake’s famous line from the Auguries of Innocence, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand" (115). Gleick describes fractal structures as displaying "symmetry across scale," implying "recursion, pattern inside of pattern." A fractal is an "infinite line in a finite space" (139), and Gleick says that the fractal patterns occurring along this infinite line are "dynamical processes jelled into physical forms" (Gleick 117); they are "forms in nature — not visible forms, but shapes embedded in the fabric of motion" (Gleick 118). In a fractal structure, a given pattern is evident regardless of the expansion or contraction of perspective. This scale in which parts signify as well as the whole might simply be an extreme form of synecdoche, but Blake makes it something different. In his remarks "On Homer," Blake writes, "But when a Work has Unity it is as much in a Part as in the Whole. the Torso is as much a Unity as the Laocoon" (CPP, 269). It is not that the part signifies the whole, but that the part is itself a separate whole: the torso, or serif, is as much a unity as the Laocoon or Jerusalem.

  15. Each of these levels, each of these self-unified fragments, is in fractal terms called an "iteration." An iteration, according to Michael McGuire, is the repetition of "an operation, generally using the last result of that operation as the input" (McGuire 14). Iterations are governed by the "replacement rule," which holds that "In going from one stage of construction of a fractal to the next, one graphical object is replaced with another, which is usually more complex, but which fits into the place of the original" (McGuire 14). As signification moves out from the part to the whole, from the torso to the Laocoon, from the serif on the letter "g" to the fully-colored 100 plates of copy E of Jerusalem, the same operation of ink marks signifying to readers recurs with increasing complexity. As the reader combines letters into words, words into lines and sentences and verse paragraphs and narrative or dramatic episodes, and then into chapters and finally into a complete illuminated poem, as the reader constructs the text, each level of construction uses the previous construction as its input. One might well argue that all reading operates this way, but Blake’s comments in "On Homer" and the changing serif on his letter "g" also reveal how acutely aware Blake was of how the system of signification operates by building on and repeating itself.

  16. So it is that in Jerusalem, the "great City of Golgonooza," the city of art built by Los, is structurally fractal:

    And every part of the City is fourfold; & every inhabitant, fourfold. And every pot & vessel & garment & utensil of the houses, And every house, fourfold; but the third Gate in every one Is closd as with a threefold curtain. (13:20-23)

    In this city, identified in both Milton and Jerusalem as the "spiritual fourfold London" (M6:1; J53:18-19), even the flaws are fractal, the third gates being closed in by threefold curtains.

  17. Long before chaos theory gave us the word "fractal," there was clear precedent for Blake's use of such a sliding scale. A fractal structure of symmetry across scale is the basis for the irony of the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnaggians of the first two books of Gulliver's Travels, and the same notion informs Swift's lines:

    So, Nat'ralists observe, a Flea Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey, And these have smaller Fleas to bite 'em, And so proceed ad infinitum.                        ("On Poetry: A Rapsody" 353-6)

    Blake ominously echoes Swift's image on the frontispiece of Jerusalem, where in one early pressing may be read in reverse writing on the left side of the archway of the "Door of Death," "Every Thing has its Vermin O Spectre of the Sleeping Dead!" (plate 1). This imagery of symmetrical scale is related to the classical rhetorical strategy of comparing great things to small, a strategy repeatedly invoked by Milton in Paradise Lost, and used ironically in works like The Rape of the Lock and Joseph Andrews to deflate epic seriousness. In eighteenth-century natural philosophy, this sort of sliding analogy provides the basis for the belief that the life of the individual recapitulates the life of the nation, the culture, the species; in the "savage" could be read the infancy of the human race[4], and in the developing infant the development of the entire system of language and socialization. The original man becomes conflated with the representative man; Adam becomes Everyman as everyone, afflicted with the sin of Adam, leaves pastoral innocence for the life of worldly experience. Albion is Blake's Everyman; his life recapitulates the life of everyone who ever lived, even while possessing its own individuality. Like his Saviour, Blake's Albion is, as Robert Essick puts it, the "extravagantly polyvalent signifier of all human experience" (202-203).

  18. In Milton Blake depicts movement across this scale as "pulsations." On plate 28 of that poem, we read an account of the building of time by some of the Sons of Los; they build "Moments & Minutes & Hours / And days & Months & Years & Ages & Periods" (28:44-45). Each moment we are told "equals a pulsation" and whatever structures may be apparent at a given level, "Each has its Guard. each Moment Minute Hour Day Month & Year. / All are the work of Fairy Hands" (28:59-60). Clearly Blake sees time as expanding fractally through iterations ranging from the moment all the way out to the "Flaming Fire" that encircles every Seven Ages. Moreover, like the center of the circle which opens into an expanse, the moment itself opens into vistas of time, for "Every time less than the pulsation of the artery / Is equal in its period & value to Six Thousand years" (28:62-63), and it is in this expansive pulsating moment that "the Poets Work is Done: and all the Great / Events of Time start forth & are concieved in such a Period / Within a Moment: a Pulsation of the Artery" (29:1-3).

  19. If pulsations of the artery define the iterations of time, the "globule of blood" defines the iterations of space. Immediately after the building of time by the Sons of Los we find that other Sons of Los build space and this space also expands outward and inward:

    For every Space larger than the red Globule of Mans blood Is visionary . . . And every Space smaller than a Globule of Mans blood opens Into Eternity. (29:19-22)

    Important here is not simply the fractal re-iteration of temporal and spatial structures, but also the human standard of those iterations. Space is measured by the globules of human blood, while time and the Poet’s work itself are measured by the human pulse.

  20. Blake also understood these pulsations, these expansions and contractions across scale as a function of perspective, and of the relative proximity of the viewer to the object, and again the standard of these iterations is the human form. In the Vision of the Last Judgement, for example, Blake says, "These various states I have seen in my Imagination when distant they appear as One Man but as you approach they appear Multitudes of Nations" (556-7). Later in the Vision he adapts this proximity of space to proximity of time: "The figures of Seth & his wife Comprehends [sic] the Fathers before the flood & their Generations when seen remote they appear as One Man" (560). In Jerusalem the Savior himself tells Albion:

    Mutual in one anothers love and wrath all renewing We live as One Man; for contracting our infinite senses We behold multitude; or expanding: we behold as one, As One Man all the Universal Family; and that One Man We call Jesus the Christ: and he in us and we in him (34:16-20). Later the Immortals say that they Contract or Expand Space at will; or if we raise ourselves Upon the chariots of the morning. Contracting or Expanding Time! Every one knows, we are One Family! One Man blessed for ever. (55:44-6)

    In this dynamic of perspective, closeness equals a contracting of vision in which we perceive multitudes, while distance equals an expanding of vision in which we perceive the multitude as "One Man."

  21. Blake’s system differs from Locke’s in significant ways. First, it accepts, indeed insists upon a human standard, the standard of the human form rendered divine by the incarnation. Blake does not seek to remedy the obscurity to which language is "naturally liable" as Locke puts it. Instead, he sees this obscurity as having been appropriated by the Savior for the work of redemption when he took on the human form. Second, Blake’s system is not based on an atomistic object-reference language in which one must always use the same word for the same idea. Sometimes that grain of sand is a whole world; sometimes that one man is a multitude. As is so often the case for Blake, it all depends on perspective, the expansion or contraction of the organs of perception. And third, Blake’s system respects the integrity of the minute particulars; it does not celebrate the general terms that Locke says are so essential to human thought. Indeed, in Jerusalem Blake repeatedly castigates the "Swelld & bloated General Forms" as "repugnant to the Divine- / Humanity, who is the only General and Universal Form" (38:19-20). The giant Sons of Albion "Generalize Art & Science till Art & Science is lost" (38:54). The Living Creatures assert that "He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars / . . . For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars / And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power" (55:60-63). And in Los’s thunderous speech late in the poem, he says that "he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole / Must see it in its Minute Particulars" for "every / Particular is a Man; a Divine Member of the Divine Jesus" (91:20-21, 29-30).

  22. In celebrating and defending the minute particulars, Blake returns to them the identifying "circumstances of Time and Place" that Locke would remove in order to create "General Terms" (III.iii.6, p. 411). Recognizing this, we are now in a position to understand the relationship between the synchronic readings of Jerusalem and the narrative they deny, for these synchronic readings similarly remove from the fragments of Jerusalem the "circumstances of Time and Place" that would identify their place in the narrative. In fractal terms each of these synchronic readings, from the most fragmented plate-by-plate readings to the relatively larger chapter-by-chapter readings, each of these synchronic readings presents a single "iteration" of the pattern of signification, and part of the problem with synchronic readings is that they do not go far enough in either direction of the scale. Each synchronic reading recognizes a single "iteration" of Blakean signification, but then it takes that iteration to be the whole. In looking at the "jelled" forms, sychronic readings disregard the "dynamical processes"; they see the "shapes embedded in the fabric of motion" without considering the implications of that "fabric of motion" in which they are embedded. And here is where narrative comes in. Narrative is the literary form of dynamical process; it is the fabric of motion within which scenes and episodes jell. If the most minute visible iteration in Jerusalem is the serif on the letter "g," then the largest visible iteration is the poem itself, pulsating with human life. The poem is not the static moment of "the Fall and the fallen world . . . depicted in different ways" as Edward Larrissy puts it (152), but it is the narrative of that fall, of Los’s efforts to keep the divine vision in time of trouble, and of Albion’s awakening to new life.

  23. Indeed, the climax of Jerusalem’s narrative depends on this issue of expanding and contracting across a fractal scale, and I want to look briefly at three iterations of that climax. The first to occur chronologically in the poem involves the plot, the existence of which has been the object of so much skepticism. Much of the action of the poem involves Los’s efforts to control his raging Spectre, and whatever the nature of those struggles, it is hard to say that Los experiences any outright victory in Jerusalem. His victory lies more in the fact that he endures Albion’s nightmare than that he defeats an enemy. Nevertheless, such victory over his Spectre as Los does have is depicted in terms of fractal scale. On plate 91, just prior to Albion’s awakening, as Los consolidates his perception of Albion’s error, he has one final confrontation with his own Spectre. We find that

         The Spectre builded his stupendous Works, taking the Starry Heavens Like to a curtain & folding them according to his will . . . among the arches of Albions Tomb sublime Rolling the Sea in rocky paths: forming Leviathan And Behemoth: the War by Sea enormous & the War By Land astounding: erecting pillars in the deepest Hell, To reach the heavenly arches (91:32-41).

    Undaunted by these giant forms, Los smites the Spectre, "In unpitying ruin driving down the pyramids of Pride / Smiting the Spectre on his Anvil" (91:42-43), so that "all his pyramids were grains / Of sand & his pillars: dust on the flys wing; & his starry / Heavens; a moth of gold & silver mocking his anxious grasp" (91:47-49). Victory in Jerusalem depends on the ability to expand and contract perspective across scale, and Los’s smiting of the Spectre constitutes a change in the fractal iteration of the images associated with him. When viewed from a distance in an expansion of vision, the Spectre seems to fold the starry heavens, but when we draw closer, contracting vision, what had seemed pyramids become grains of sand, pillars become specks of dust, and the starry heavens an elusive insect chased by a anxious child. As the narrator puts it, "Thus Los altered his Spectre & every Ratio of his reason" (91:50).

  24. The two other climactic fractal manifestations more directly concern language and the issue of signification. The text of plate 96 describes the wonderful encounter between Albion and the Saviour who appears to Albion "in the likeness & similitude" of Los, the friend who best loved Albion. As a scene between Albion and one who appears to be Los, this encounter recalls the confrontation between Albion and Los from plate 42 during which Albion accuses Los of conspiring against him and orders the Sons of Albion to bind him. In this later scene, however, the Saviour, disguised as Los, teaches Albion the true meaning of love and self-sacrifice, after which Albion throws himself into the furnaces of affliction which immediately transform into fountains of living water. It is a crucial scene in Albion’s apocalyptic awakening, but the most noticeable point about it is the Saviour’s appearance in the "likeness & similitude of Los," a phrase repeated twice on the plate. This plate is also unique because of the relationship between text and design, for the text is arranged into a large letter "L," the initial character of Los, whose appearance is so important to the scene. Blake’s designs elsewhere in Jerusalem (plate 23, for example), suggest fractal patterns, but the clearest instance is this large letter "L," which suggests how signification pulsates across scales of fractal iterations — here the text describing a climactic scene involving the appearance of Los actually appears as the first letter of his name.

  25. My final example is, of course, the famous concluding vision of Jerusalem, in which we find that

                                                                                every Word & Every Character Was Human according to the Expansion or Contraction, the Translucence or Opakeness of Nervous fibres such was the variation of Time & Space Which vary according as the Organs of Perception vary (98:35-38)

    Here redeemed language itself, the medium of divine conversation, exhibits the pulsations of expansion and contraction across scale, the variations of time and space that "vary as the organs of Perception vary." For Blake signification itself is a pulsating three-dimensional event. And the standard for interpreting these pulsations, these iterations of signifying structure is the human form — "every word & every character / Was Human" — the human form rendered divine by the incarnation of the Saviour.

  26. This infinitely expanding and contracting vision of redeemed language is markedly different from Locke’s five-point plan for remedying the imperfections of language. The obscurity of language, I think most readers of Jerusalem will agree, Blake not only embraces, but augments, in his efforts to rouse the reader’s faculties, to open the reader’s eyes into eternal worlds. Rather than trying to close off language into a system in which one should "use the same Word constantly in the same sense" (Locke, III.xi.26, p. 523), Blake envisions a language in which "every Man [standing] Fourfold"

    conversed together in Visionary forms dramatic which bright Redounded from their Tongues in thunderous majesty, in Visions In new Expanses, creating exemplars of Memory and of Intellect Creating Space, Creating Time according to the wonders Divine Of Human Imagination (J 98:12, 28-32).

    It is finally the regard for the Human Imagination that distinguishes Blake’s system from Locke’s. In Fearful Symmetry, outlining the "Case against Locke," Northrop Frye wrote that "In Blake the criterion or standard of reality is the genius; in Locke it is the mediocrity" (21-22). It is not so much that Blake embraces a human standard and Locke does not; rather it is that they have different understandings of what "human" means. For Blake the faults to which human language is "naturally liable" are not problems to be remedied, but possibilities to be embraced.

Works Cited

Adams, Hazard. "Jerusalem’s Didactic and Mimetic-Narrative Experiment." Studies in Romanticism. Vol. 32.4 (Winter 1993): 627-654.

Blake, William. Complete Poetry and Prose. Newly Revised Edition. Edited by David V. Erdman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1981.

Curran, Stuart. "The Structures of Jerusalem." Blake's Sublime Allegory: Essays on The Four Zoas, Milton, Jerusalem. Eds. Stuart Curran and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr., eds. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1973. 329-346

De Luca, Vincent A. Words of Eternity: Blake and the Poetics of the Sublime. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

---. "A Wall of Words: The Sublime as Text." in Unnam'd Forms: Blake and Textuality. Edited by Nelson Hilton and Thomas A. Vogler. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: U of California P, 1986.

Dortort, Fred. The Dialectic of Vision: A Contrary Reading of William Blake’s Jerusalem. Foreword by David Ault. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Arts/Barrytown, LTD. 1998.

Doskow, Minna. William Blake’s Jerusalem: Structure and Meaning in Poetry and Picture. 1982.

Erdman, David V. "The Suppressed and Altered Passages in Blake's Jerusalem. Studies in Bibliography 17 (1964): 1-54.

Essick, Robert N. William Blake and the Language of Adam. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947; paperback, 1969.

Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Hilton, Nelson. Literal Imagination: Blake's Vision of Words. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: U of California Press, 1983.

Larrissy, Edward. William Blake. New York and Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

McGuire, Michael. An Eye for Fractals: A Graphic and Photographic Essay. Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley. 1991.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

Paley, Morton D. The Continuing City: William Blake's Jerusalem. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.

Shelley, Percy. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York and London: W. W. Norton. 1977.

Swift, Jonathan. The Complete Poems. Edited by Pat Rogers. New Haven: Yale UP. 1983.

Witke, Joanne. "Jerusalem: A Synoptic Poem," Comparative Literature (Summer 1970): 265-78.

Yoder, Richard Paul. Significant Events: Language and Narrative in Blake’s Jerusalem. Unpublished dissertation. Directed by Robert F. Gleckner. Duke University. 1992.

---. "Not from Troy, But Jerusalem: Blake’s Canon Revision." Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 31:1 (Summer) 1997. 17-21

---. "Gouging Jerusalem: Reading Blake’s Revisions." Conference paper. NASSR/BARS, 1998. Strawberry Hill, England.

---. "Epigrams and Epics: Two Models for Reading Blake’s Jerusalem." Conference paper. NEMLA, 1996. Montreal, Canada.

Youngquist, Paul. "Reading and Apocalypse: The Narrativity of Blake’s Jerusalem." Studies in Romanticism. Vol. 32.4 (Winter 1993): 601-625


1 All references to Blake’s work are to David Erdman’s The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Newly Revised Edition, 1982. For poetry, an abbreviated title (where appropriate) and plate and line numbers are given in parenthesis; for letters, annotations and other writings, page numbers are given in parenthesis after the abbreviation "CB" (for Complete Blake), used to distinguish this text from other works by Erdman.

2 For a useful summary of these positions, see Paley, The Continuing City, pp. 279-294, and Fred Dortort, The Dialectic of Vision, pp. 421-448. Other critics whose approaches deny the poem’s narrative continuity include W. J. T. Mitchell, Blake’s Composite Art, and Stuart Curran, "The Structures of Jerusalem." To a degree, any reading that approaches the poem on a plate-by-plate basis, isolating the individual plates from each other and from the surrounding context, tends toward a synchronic position.

3 I made the case for narrative in Jerusalem at length in my unpublished dissertation, Significant Events: Language and Narrative in Blake’s Jerusalem, directed by Robert F. Gleckner, Duke University, 1992. The argument for narrative is implicit in my article "Not from Troy, But Jerusalem: Blake’s Canon Revision" (Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 31:1 [Summer] 1997), based on a 1994 NASSR conference paper, and in two other conference papers: "Gouging Jerusalem: Reading Blake’s Revisions." (NASSR, 1998) and "Epigrams and Epics: Two Models for Reading Blake’s Jerusalem." (NEMLA, 1996).

4 For a use of this analogy contemporary with Blake, one need look no farther than Percy Shelley’s "Defense of Poetry": "for the savage is to the ages what the child is to years" (481).

Published @ RC

March 2001