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Monday, November 3, 2014

"And . . . they are named Jerusalem"

A facsimile edition (Florence, Italy: Giunti Gruppo Editoriale, 1994; original ed. by The Tate Gallery and the William Blake Trust, 1991) of William Blake's long poem Jerusalem. The handwritten marginal notes are the marks left by a study that has been carried on for a dozen years now. This poem, on which Blake worked throughout the first two decades of the 19th century, can be termed the last sacred long poem of Christianity, a genre that enjoyed its heyday in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance -- by a curious chance, Tasso's main poems were both titled Gierusalemme, the Liberata and the Conquistata. In Jerusalem, the great Briton offers his final, personal, brilliant, surprising version of:

* The Bible, Genesis to Revelation;
* Classical art, mythology, and literature;
* Fantasy lore;
* Gnosticism -- as a "mood," rather than any specific "school";
* Dante, but just in dribs and drabs;
* Traditional Catholic art, and even spirituality sometimes
* Milton;
* Swedenborg, willy-nilly;
* Modern philosophy, science, and history;
* The comparative history of religions, a field that fascinated 19th century scholars, though from a quite twisted point of view, at least according to our current criteria;
* His own previous works, both poetry and artwork; where it clearly emerges that Blake's now-commonplace ideas about religious ecumenism and free love are parts of a much more complex worldview;
* His own biography, but in such a hidden way that one needs to read some 'external' essays in order to be able to grasp the 'inside' hints.

As for the reading activity, probably the best thing is simply to relax, enjoying each gorgeous episode without caring about a search for Blake's "System" or a 100% consistency. All the more so as Blake himself, each time he mentions the many characters of his original mythopoiesis, makes it always clear whether they are to be seen as good or evil -- or both.

Just one detail. The subject matter of Plate 99 (see) is often captioned as the final embrace of God and Jerusalem, i.e. the Soul, or rather, true Humankind. On closer inspection however, especially comparing it with Plate 96 (see), the action shown here is clearly a rape in a hellish atmosphere. It might be based on the heathen god Zeus' 'adventures' (two references to the story of Leda can be found in Jerusalem) and/or on Eve's dream/nightmare in Milton's Paradise Lost, or even better, a hard-core version of Blake's Plate 11 (see) for The Book of Job. Anyway, the Plate 99 picture brings into question the whole text in the final section of the poem: Is it really meant as a happy ending?