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Reinventing Allegory

by Theresa M. Kelley

Chapter 5: Romantic Ambivalences I

  For these reasons Blake's resistance to allegory warrants attention. Especially in early poems like the 1789 Tiriel, whose Hebrew names and puns parody the allegory of Holiness in book 1 of The Faerie Queene, Blake takes aim at the rigid allegorical schemas that Spenser's poem soon abandons.[14] Even his description of the now-lost painting Vision of Judgment seeks to divide the allegory that speaks to "Intellectual Powers" from that which addresses "Corporeal Understanding." This bifurcation discounts the visual and emblematic disposition of the major prophecies. At worst, the phrase "Corporeal Understanding" is an ironic "negation" - a comparison that cancels both terms. At best, it invites readers to go through, then beyond, what they see, although Blake hardly goes out of his way to announce this option. In part because his illuminated poems make sustained use of the emblematic tradition that supports and complicates allegory's modern survival, we can hardly be expected to read them without making use of our "Corporeal" eyes.

  This suspicion of the visual or corporeal aspect of allegory goes well beyond Blake's well-advertised quarrel with Neoclassicism. For although he expects readers to read his illuminated poems as Renaissance readers read emblems, he is wary of the hermeneutic pratfalls that lie in wait for readers of texts. The compelling hermeneutic invitation of the Jerusalem vignettes derives from an "iconic density" that seems very nearly material. So much so, De Luca argues, that readers try to figure out how to repair the narrative whole to which they imagine Blake's vignettes might correspond.[15] Los supplies a real warrant for this effort: "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans / I will not Reason Compare: my business is to Create" (Jerusalem 1:20-21, Blake 153). The coda to this celebrated statement is, however, chilling: "Obey my voice & never deviate from my will / And I will be merciful to thee" (1:29-30, Blake 153).

  What worries Blake about allegory is just this lethal mix of absolute control and magisterial pity. Because their suggestions of materiality and arcane mystery threaten to engulf allegory's appeal to the "Intellectual Powers," figures like Vala and Hand are material witnesses for this worry. As Mitchell has argued, Blake resorts to multiple schemas, "abstracts" in the sense that they reduce vast reaches of time and space to linear narrative form, then uses all the material resources of his engraving art to battle against his own creations (Los must needs do likewise). Thus, for example, Blake shuffles the plates in all copies of The Book of Urizen (Blake 804) such that different readers can align different figures with different fallen or creative tasks. More technical examples of this strategy may include pulls, coloring, or etching of the same plate for different copies. For even if Blake acquiesces to accidental variations in the engraving process, they may yet provide him with unsolicited opportunities for recognizing how hermeneutic differences are allied to material shapes and repeated (but not necessarily repetitive) labor.[16]

  These aspects of Blake's poetic activity make the question of form, even allegorical form, literal and immediate as well as abstract. Driven by the Romantic bias toward particularity, Blake works against Neoclassical abstraction by inventing words and images that grapple with the hermeneutic difficulty for which allegory is both a metafigure and a scapegoat in modern culture: how particular forms give shape to ideas beyond their boundaries. The labor required to produce illuminated poems may in this way assist Blake's sometime vision of a "Sublime Allegory." As he solicits a "Corporeal Understanding" of his labor and forms, he imagines an optical relay between the small images presented in his books and the gigantic beings those images represent - Albion, the four fallen Zoas, and the cast of larger-than-life characters who struggle to divide further or reunite.

  A vignette from Mary Shelley's The Last Man suggests how such inversions advertise an allegorical frame of reference. In Shelley's novel, the referent is the plague - insistently verisimilar, getting closer, but as yet conveyed in newsprint by "diminutive letters [that] grew gigantic to the bewildered eye of fear: they seemed graven with a pen of iron, impressed by fire, woven in the clouds, stamped on the very front of the universe" (Last Man 171). Goldsmith has suggested that the ballooning of these letters in the reader's eye witnesses "the material basis of language grotesquely and threateningly foregrounded."[17] This is surely so; it is also a surprisingly apt image of Blake's process of engraving plates with iron, acid, then (at least in principle and in a Printing House in Hell) broadcasting them across an expansive imagined universe.

  The material and iconic character of those letters is not however what makes them expand to that "bewildered eye of fear." Rather it is the referent for those newsprint letters - news of the plague on the Continent and the likelihood that it will soon reach England - that makes them suddenly grow huge. As Romantic allegorical figures often do, the ballooning size of these letters mimics the approach of the plague and point elsewhere - in this case just across the Channel to the plague itself. This moment in Shelley's text is doubly phantasmatic. The explosion in size occurs in a fantastic, not verisimilar, register; it also reduces the figure of the newspaper reader to an abstracted, condensed, and disembodied synecdoche - the "eye of fear" - whose figural reduction mirrors in reverse the effect of the as-yet-absent plague made "present" by newspaper headlines. This strange semiotic cross between iconicity and indexicality is as fundamental to allegory and emblem as it is to Blake's prophetic poems, where the iconic function of engraved images and texts defers to their indexical status as signs for future, imaginative restoration. Indeed, the imaginative sign of this restoration may be, David Clark has suggested, not universal harmony but minutely articulated differences that sheer off one from the next to manifest energies that lie buried or obscured after the Fall and even in Jerusalem.[18]

  In his earlier designs for the poems of Thomas Gray, Blake specifies the formal and semiotic nature of his allegorical practice. Like Los in the early plates of Jerusalem, Blake uses an inverted emblematic structure whose system "imposes" as surely on Gray as the Devil imposes his delighted vision of Hell-fire on the Angel's vision of a scene of perpetual torture in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In the designs for Gray's Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Blake reworks the format of the allegorical emblem to suggest a radically different view of the poem's subject.

  The implied premise of Gray's Ode - that cats and women are just alike (greedy, vain, impulsive, etc.) - makes short shrift of Dr. Johnson's querulous remark that some lines in this ode could only be suitably applied to the cat Selima and others only to a woman.[19] Even so, his designs for the poem graphically insist on just the difference Gray's casual misogyny elides. In the first few designs Blake offers quite literal interpretations of Gray's cat-woman figure. On the title page, Selima is a cat dressed in a blue vest with a white shawl over her head and shoulders. The goldfishes in the water below look like Fuseli's demons, with webbed wings, strongly masculine bodies, and fish scales. According to Blake's list of designs, these figures correspond to the "angel forms" of Gray's text - a good illustration of how the voice and hand of Blake's "Devil" in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell do their work. One of those demon angels welcomes or invites Selima with open arms. The lady is kittenish-coy. The fact that all three figures are at best weirdly verisimilar is made more emphatic by their size: the goldfish are as big as Selima (all the better to mate) and she is no kitten. Even the scale of Blake's setting exceeds that of Gray's poetic invention. This is no "Tub" of goldfish but a vast sea that defines most of the space around Gray's boxed text. Although the verses occupy a small box in the center of each design, they are made subservient to the visual argument that Blake's designs conduct around those boxes (fig. 1). This visual format wittily reverses the ideal relation between an emblematic image and its explanatory text or texts - motto, verse, and commentary. For Blake's "borders" control Gray as surely as extensive commentaries sometimes control the "base" text of Scripture or a Renaissance emblem. This formal irony establishes Blake's designs, not Gray's poem, as the fulcrum of hermeneutic activity.

  The second design features Blake's list of designs (identified by lines from Gray's poem) in the box otherwise reserved for Gray. Now Selima, "demurest of the Tabby kind" is a large, though not excessively large, cat with a very small human female sitting on her back. In the water below the goldfishes are just that, with even smaller human females riding on their backs (fig. 2). Tayler reads these piggyback figures as "a visual parody of the allegorical method in which the 'real subject' is made to 'ride' astride the ostensible one." The target of this parody is the piggyback logic of Gray's moral at the end of the poem, which makes the story of a cat and goldfish a cover for the real subject - women greedy for gold or, as Blake's designs suggest, narcissism.[20]

  Blake's visual argument gradually dissolves these hybrid forms. In the next design all three figures are mostly human. Selima has cat ears and a twitching cat tail that coils up behind Gray's boxed text of the opening one and a half stanzas of the poem. The "goldfishes" are naked human lovers with gold, fish-like wings. Between water and land, between life and death, between animal and human, these figures emphasize their weirdly unreal state. Between the goldfishes of this design and the gazing Selima are luxuriant flowering vines (fig. 3). These, together with the Narcissus echo of the design, suggest that Selima is blind to the lovers below because she is busy admiring her reflection. In the design that surrounds Gray's description of how the cat is tempted by the sight of goldfish, the lady is now cat fore and woman aft and the "angel" fish have the same human bodies and fish-like gold wings. Instead of Gray's "Malignant Fate," who stands by like the Greek Atropos, with scissors that will cut the thread of Selima's life short, in the next design "Fate" gives Selima a good push. In the water below, an armed human couple (the female does have scales) flee in horror. In the last design Selima, now fully a woman, ascends from the deep, as two large, but not human-sized, goldfish swim by. Blake's visual allegory asserts not only that Selima lives, whereas Gray's poem insists she loses all of her nine cat lives "drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes," but that she is transformed from a hybrid cat-woman into a woman.

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