discussionbegin page 22 |
Mrs. Chayes and I have now each had a chance to defend our respective views of Blake’s art, and Mrs. Chayes in fact states the difference between us with some precision when she declares roundly that while a work of art may be created through memory and imagination acting upon each other with equal force, an imagination which was interpreting the images presented to it “could not have created a single drawing, painting or etched design.” What is for me the essence of “prophetic” art, as practiced by Blake, is for her a simple impossibility, and perhaps we ought to leave it at that.
While it might be tedious and repetitious to go over the same ground again, however, I should like to discuss briefly one or two of the new points that she makes. She is kind enough to regret begin page 23 | that I did not defend the organization of my illustrations and special commentary as a private miniature prophetic book of my own; but she does not explain why she thinks I should want to defend a conception which is entirely of her own devising. And she still shows little sign of recognizing that my main discussions of particular designs are usually in the text of the book itself and not in the more summarizing and thematic commentary. Thus, in discussing Jerusalem 75, she states that the entwining creatures are “less serpents proper than the ‘dragon forms’ referred to in [Blake’s] text”—as if I had been maintaining that they were serpents. I can only refer her despairingly to page 192 of my book, and to the statement, “Benevolent dragons of energy are depicted . . . .”
It is worth continuing the discussion of this plate for the sake of the light that may be thrown on a very crucial question—that of the relationship between text and illustration in Blake’s prophetic books. This question, which is topical in view of the welcome news of David Erdman’s forthcoming Doubleday edition, would seem to lie near the center of the controversy. If one could take it for granted that Blake is always concerned to illustrate, directly and in detail, a line or more of the text on his plate, there would be a firm basis for interpretation. But although it is a good point of scholarly discipline to look hard for such possibilities, the search often breaks down. Sometimes, for example, the relationship is better described as one of counterpoint, as in America 7, where the peaceful pastoral images can hardly be making anything but a satirical comment on the speech of Albion’s Angel. And this diversification of practice is not surprising when we recall that Blake called his designs not “illustrations” but “illuminations.”
So with Jerusalem 75. Certainly, the vegetative eye sees a possible connection between the women and dragons of the design and those in the lines above, ending
Thus Rahab is revealed—The eye of direct emotional response, on the other hand, if it is anything like mine, sees an immediacy of beauty in the design which is distinctly at variance with the sinister tone of the lines about Rahab and the Churches. When the connections made by the vegetative eye and the response of the human being behind that eye conflict so sharply it seems natural to call on the eye of interpreting imagination and to try to resolve the difficulty by arguing that Blake is here not illustrating but illuminating—penetrating further into the conflict described on the plate to suggest a state in which what is, in the text, a destructive interaction between fallen vision and tyrannical energy might yet become a productive alliance between vision and energy, once restored to their proper functions. If so, this is another of Blake’s counterpointing designs. While the early part of the text continues the conflicts recorded in the poem, the illumination, catching a moment of reconciliation—though still a reconciliation held in tension—looks forward to the restored alliance of vision and energy that will be more firmly prophesied in the last chapter of Jerusalem. While the motifs are taken from the harlot and dragon forms, in other words, the interpretation is dominated (or the illumination illuminated) by the next lines of the plate:
Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Abomination of Desolation,
Religion hid in war, a dragon red & hidden harlot . . .
But Jesus, breaking through the central zones of death & hell(These points may be found, amplified, on pages 190-91 of my book.)
Opens Eternity in time & space, triumphant in mercy.
It may be that modes of interpretation such as this offend the “public critic,” but the public critic will always have some difficulty in dealing with writers who, like Blake, regard the public language of their time (whether in art or poetry) as inadequate to express the vision by which they are possessed. In such circumstances it seems more profitable to look for the modes of interpretation which make the best total sense of what is there on the plates (both individually and as a sequence) and then leave theoretical criticism to account for any successes which are achieved. In Blake’s case (to put it another way) the purposes of scholarship would seem to be best served by the commentators who are willing to go along with him and look “through” as well as “with” the vegetable eye. It might be easier to apply more traditional methods if the two modes of seeing could be separated, but in many instances, I would maintain, such a separation makes nonsense of what he is attempting. So we return to the basic disagreement which I mentioned at the beginning. I believe that the imagination of an artist like Blake is capable of working towards the expression of new significances as well as of new forms, whereas Mrs. Chayes does not. No doubt the issue will continue to divide Blake scholars.
MRS. CHAYES WRITES:
I am sorry that by misrepresenting my position Mr. Beer makes it necessary for me to reply again, I hope for the last time.
“Impossible” was neither my word nor my meaning for the suggestion—with which I generally agree, as I pointed out—that Blake was likely to interpret in his own way the art themes and motifs he borrowed. What I did mean and believed I was saying clearly enough was that the allegorizing represented by Mr. Beer’s captions and descriptions would be inadequate to account for the complexity of the designs in question and inappropriate to a non-verbal art medium. I do not separate “significances” new or old from “forms” (again, we are talking about pictures), and I would not exempt Blake’s own intentions and predispositions from the process of mutual modification out of which, as I see it, the new significances stressed by Mr. Beer begin page 24 | (but not necessarily those found by Mr. Beer) would have arisen.
To me, the design on Jerusalem 75 is the product of such a process, involving the Laocoön motifs and resulting in a new significance which is bound up with the revelation of Rahab, the dragon-harlot. There is a great deal more that could be said about this plate, both text and design, and about Mr. Beer’s new comments, in which he will not allow Rahab to be both sinister and beautiful or error to wear an appearance of reconciliation. Much could be said, too, about Mr. Beer’s theory of “visionary” criticism, which disappointingly turns out to be affective criticism, long familiar. In the hope of putting an end to this debate, which actually began between Mr. Beer and John Grant, I will say only that it has been a reminder that by no means do Blakeists nearly always agree with each other, or differ only on matters that can be resolved in dialogue. A consideration of critical methodology as such has been too long neglected in Blake studies; perhaps space can be found in the Blake Newsletter someday for an exploratory discussion.