Steven Vine, Blake’s Poetry: Spectral Visions. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. xv + 194 pp., 16 pls. $45.
We’ve had the Visionary Blake, the Dangerous Blake, and now the Ambiguous Blake. Steven Vine states at the outset that his book examines Blake as a poet of contradiction and contrariety, and focuses on the elusive spectre, its shadowy ironies, and “the divided energies of Blake’s poetics.” Vine criticizes the idealist approaches to Blake of Frye and Erdman, who insist on the integrity of Blake’s prophetic voice. He sees instead a Blake who relentlessly confronts the failure of visionary power, whose poetics are “ever building, ever falling.”
In Vine’s words, “. . . a spectral rhythm of continual building and falling is installed at the heart of Blake’s account of visionary poetry, and it is the argument of this book that the poetic dramatisation of such inquiet energies is the measure of Blake’s poetic daring and his rigour.” This is nicely put; however, what emerges is a book emphasizing Blake’s failure and the paradoxes of his doctrine. Vine gives illuminating close readings of selected passages of Blake’s major poems, quite often for the purpose of pointing out the ambiguities and contradictions and presumable failures. Yet paradox works both ways, and often the critic is undermined by the energy and mystery of his poet.
Vine’s book charts a chronological path through Blake’s work, and the second chapter considers Blake’s critique of Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime by exploring Blake’s revolutionary poems of the 1790s. Vine argues that Blake’s “aesthetic of vision” fails to escape the paradoxes that bedevil it, essentially because in spite of his criticism of Burkian obscurity, Blake’s is itself the language of mystification. Most importantly, there are “spectres” in these poems who are both kingly and revolutionary, and a general mistiness prevails which clouds the imagination in spite of Blake’s avowed aim to the contrary.
Vine thinks Burke is successfully criticized in certain designs in Job, particularly the design “Behemoth and Leviathan” (1805-06; the design appears in plate XV of Blake’s engraved collection). Because Burke used Eliphaz’s vision as an example of sublime obscurity, Vine contends that the clarity of Blake’s line renders these beasts less terrible than laughable and that Burke’s vision of the sublime is being overturned by mockery. He then asks the key questions which the rest of the book examines: “. . . if these designs expose the collapse of a certain kind of sublimity, what of Blake’s sublime of ‘vision?’ Is the Blakean sublime free of the blindness which darkens the visions of Burke, Eliphaz, and the God of Job?” Ambivalence is the answer here, as it is for vine’s reading of the Lambeth Prophecies, with their conjunction of the sublime and satiric modes.
When Vine carries his study of ambiguity into a consideration of the idea of form in The Four Zoas he becomes really interesting, though I think it is here that he goes astray, for he suggests that the veil of Enion (“Hide me some shadowy semblance” [FZ 1, 4: 24]) becomes in Beulah a “metaphor of redemptive form.” This idea can only be valid if one rather willfully misreads the veils of Beulah as positive. By insisting upon ambiguity in Blake’s idea of form, Vine misses the distinction in Blake between Eternal Form and Fallen Form. (Critical discussions of veils and form are not mentioned in Vine’s references.)
Of course, Vine’s point of view would not allow an idealist concept like Eternal Form, so I was interested to see what he would do to the idea of the Spectre in Milton and Jerusalem. Somehow the approach that seemed confusing in The Four Zoas works brilliantly in Vine’s concise discussions of Milton and Jerusalem. There is creative ambiguity in these poems and Vine’s close readings of key sections are illuminating. His chapter on Jerusalem focuses on language, and also takes up the theme of the garment to argue that the ambiguous nature of apocalyptic language dissolves into a kind of chaos. As he writes at one point, “The language here makes and unmakes its revelations . . . .” Although the Spectre is annihilated, he is still in the play, so to speak. The energy of Jerusalem belongs to the Spectre, and Blake is of the Spectre’s party without knowing it.