William Blake and the Language of Adam

Robert N. Essick


THE most important development in our understanding of William Blake, over the last twenty years or so, has been the emergence of Blake the Artist as an equal companion to Blake the Poet. The shift in interest has not been a simple matter of substitution or displacement, for our knowledge of Blake’s poetry has had a profound effect on our perception of his visual art. That influence has been both unavoidable and generally salutary, particularly in the iconographic study of Blake’s illuminated books as composite visual/verbal forms. One traditional area of art-historical scholarship, the study of an artist’s materials and techniques, might seem relatively safe from the incursions of the literary mind. Yet even here, at least in the study of Blake’s prints, the artist’s writings have provided guiding principles for investigators of his graphic processes. [1] The portrait of Blake generated by these media-oriented endeavours is not that of an other-worldly visionary, but rather of an artist fully conscious of his materials and methods of production, the ways they determine the images they convey, and the historical and quotidian engagements their use entails. This book is an attempt to complete the circle of influence by returning to Blake’s writings and bringing to the study of their language a perspective informed by what we have learned from the study of his graphics and the media-consciousness they have raised.

There is already a well-stocked shelf of books that deal, at least in part, with Blake’s techniques as a poet, the many voices in his tradition that shaped his poetry, and the way his style as a writer changed over the years. Although this book will touch on these topics, its main course will run in a different direction. The history of poetry and the study of stylistics will be less important to my purposes than the history of linguistics and the study of semiotics. Nor will specific sources and influences be as important as general intellectual affinities and the history of ideas. I begin with, and frequently return to, the nature of the linguistic sign as that was understood in Blake’s time and as I understand it as a theme in his writings. From that issue springs a host of others as the sign is perceived in relationship to what it signifies and to those engaged in its production and consumption. Such a study runs the risk of a double hermeticism: the special vocabulary of Blakean myth that can all too easily dominate the work of its expositors when attempting ventriloquism, and the technical arcana of modern semiotics and poststructuralist theories. Further difficulties can arise from the nature of language itself as a meta-medium from which it is impossible to escape (as we can from painting or engraving) and thereby deal with as an object distinct from the operations of our discourse about it. My awareness of these hazards has prompted the attempt in what follows to situate Blake within the history of language theory and to generate a hermeneutic on the basis of that history. This strategy in turn leads to a double perspective. Even within single paragraphs, I often move from general statements about ‘signs’ to more specific comments on ‘words’ or ‘language’. This shifting about between the semiotic and the linguistic is a response less to a modem critical agenda than to the eighteenth-century habit of placing the study of language origins within broader theories of signs—human, animal and divine. Similarly, I have not separated into distinct categories Blake’s concepts of language and his practices as a writer. To do so would be to disguise the reciprocal relationships between theory and practice, conception and execution, as each gives rise to the other within the daily labours of a poet self-consciously aware of the what and the how of his making. These intersections between language performance and language ideology are the interpretive nexus of this book.

A useful point of departure for a study of Blake’s linguistic concepts is Robert F. Gleckner’s essay, ‘Most Holy Forms of Thought: Some Observations on Blake and Language’, first published in 1974. [2] Midway through this brief but wide-ranging and spirited work, Gleckner poses three related questions that have prompted my own research:

(1)  What was Blake’s conception of the language of Eternity, the ur-linguistic condition so to speak?

(2)  What are the linguistic implications of the fall from this condition and how does Blake present ‘fallen’ language other than merely using it himself?

(3) How does he conceive of the redemption of language, the reassumption of the reality and primacy of the Word, the reintegration of Babel into    not merely one language but into that language that requires no temple, no building to signify it?      (p. 564)

My attempts to answer these questions, and to open to inquiry their implications about theories of language current in Blake’s time, have contributed much to the structuring of this book. In the first, preliminary chapter, I use four of Blake’s paintings to introduce my titular subject (or, more accurately, leitmotif) and several types of signs, both ideal and fallen. This anatomy of signs is followed by their history, from Plato to Wilhelm von Humboldt, organized around the ideal of a motivated sign as the origin and telos of language. The eighteenth-century linguistic concepts explored in the second chapter provide a context for understanding Blake’s use of natural signs, primarily in his earlier poetry, and his later rejection of them and of rationalist sign theory. In this third chapter, I begin to test the limits of Gleckner’s heuristic exaggeration that ‘everything Blake says about Man, the Universe, society, imagination and the senses—in fact, everything that he says about anything—is translatable into a comment upon language, words, the poet’s task, poetry’ (p. 563).

Gleckner’s second question shifts his emphasis from ‘Blake’s conception’ of language to modes of presentation. The fact that Gleckner had already addressed this issue in a separate essay may be symptomatic of a sense of conflict between idea and form, a theme put forward in some recent studies as a fundamental problematic in Blake’s work. [3] By grounding the linguistic features of this debate in Blake’s production practices, I have tried in the fourth chapter to reconceive the relationship of language ideal to language performance as symbiosis rather than disjunction. To do so requires some admittedly speculative excursions into Blake’s practices linking oral composition and graphic production, the spoken word and the printed book. In these discussions I am more than a little guilty of adopting Blake’s own beliefs as a self-justifying way of judging his art, but I have tempered this methodological romanticism by refusing to repress the inescapable materiality of communication that Blake himself stresses through the uncompromising physicality of his publications. [4]

Gleckner’s final question assumes that the perfection of language requires its annihilation—or at least the elimination of its physical side, its ‘temple’ or ‘building’. These architectural metaphors recall Blake’s reference to ‘English’ as the ‘rough basement’ for his building of Jerusalem ‘as a City & a Temple’ in Jerusalem, [5] but the thrust of Gleckner’s question saps these material foundations. His construction of a transcendentalizing perspective, one that finds the ideal of language in the utter otherness of silence, is buttressed by his observation that ‘any image (or set of images), any words, by their very nature, would compromise its [Eternity's] imaginative (or mental) reality’. [6] But a year before Gleckner published his essay, Hazard Adams had already pointed to a contrary view: ‘We can only make a world with a language, indeed in a language. There is nothing imaginable independent of a medium to imagine in. [7] My discussion, in the final chapter, of Blake’s imagining of a post-apocalyptic language traces its lineage to Adams’s comment and to Blake’s own observation, in his annotations of c. 1788 to Lavater’s Aphorisms, that ‘'it is impossible to think without images of somewhat on earth’ (E 600, K 88). Like several recent studies of particular features of Blake’s poetry, [8] I replace transcendence with incarnation, sublimation with immanence, and questions about how far even an ideal language can become a transparent medium of something other than itself with questions about how far that other is a reified projection of the medium. The phenomenological view of language I introduce in the fourth chapter finds its correlative in Blake’s own shift from the structuralisms of eighteenth-century linguistics to the power of language to create a community of speakers that, in its ideal expansions through the last plates of Jerusalem, includes all of being.

— But before approaching these epic complexities, we must begin like a good storyteller at the beginning, with Adam and the animals in Eden.


1 The relationships between Blake’s theories of art and the physical properties of graphic media are a central issue in M. Eaves’s prize-winning essay, ‘Blake and the Artistic Machine’, PMLA 92 (1977), 903-27; rept. in N. Hilton, ed., Essential Articles for the Study of Blake (1986), 175-209. These same relations are a less explicit, but no less important, presence in R. N. Essick, Blake Printmaker (1980). The literary influence on the study of Blake’s printmaking methods might be anticipated from the vocations of those who have written at any length on the subject: the poet Ruthven Todd and three English teachers—Eaves, J. Viscomi, and myself.

2 ELH 41 (1974), 555-77, rpt. in Hilton, Essential Articles, pp. 91-117.

3 Gleckner, ‘Blake’s Verbal Technique’, in A. H. Rosenfeld, ed., Blake: Essays for Damon (1969), 321-32. For some general thoughts on how ‘artistic form is both conveyor of and barrier to meaning’, see E. Larrissy, Blake (1985). Perhaps the first version of the content/form debate was the charge that Blake, as a pictorial artist, could conceive but could not execute, first raised during Blake’s lifetime and vigorously rebuffed by him in the Public Address of c. 1810 (see esp. E 582, K 601-2).

4 For a ‘materialist’ perspective on Blake’s relief etchings, see R. N. Essick, ‘Blake, Hamilton, and the Materials of Graphic Meaning’, ELH 52 (1985), 833-72; and Essick, ‘How Blake’s Body Means’, in N. Hilton and T. A. Vogler, eds., Unnam’d Forms (1986), 197-217.

5 Pls. 36, 84; E 183, 243, K 668, 729.

6 ‘Most Holy Forms of Thought’, p. 564. In ‘Blake’s Moving Words and the Dread of Embodiment’, Cithara, 15 (1976), 75-85, A. Taylor carries Gleckner’s view far beyond his formulations of it by arguing that ‘imagination is betrayed by language and form, as it is betrayed by the body’ (p. 83). Blake’s supposed attempts to escape his media find their most recent expression in L. Damrosch, Jr., Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth (1980); see esp. p. 73 (‘. . . . behind the words he [Blake] sees a divine vision to which they point, and has little interest in words for their own sake’) and p. 362 (‘The peculiarities of Blake’s language derive, then, from a determination to make us break through language, a refusal to accept it as the structure in which we think and exist.’).

7 ‘Blake and the Philosophy of Literary Symbolism’, New Literary History, 5 (1973), 146. See also E. Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics (1971), p. 56: ‘Linguistic form is not only the condition of transmissibility, but first of all the condition for the realization of thought. . . . that is to say that the question of whether thought can do without language or skirt it like an obstacle emerges as meaningless . . .’.

8 For example, A. Fogel, ‘Pictures of Speech: On Blake’s Poetic’, Studies in Romanticism, 21 (1982), 217-42; N. Hilton, Literal Imagination (1983); and many of the essays in Hilton and Vogler, Unnamd Forms.

Afterword: Romantic Languages
and Modern Methodologies

My concentration on Blake’s language practices and concepts has tended to suppress more general historical and methodological concerns. Let me raise a few of these wider issues by briefly making my text its own object.

As I indicated in the Introduction, interchanges between conception and execution have been both a subject for investigation and a procedural assumption in this book. We have all learned to be sceptical of organicist proposals about perfect articulation between concept and form or intention and production. Most models of unmediated symmetry, like concepts of motivated signification, imply a causal superiority of one member of the linked pair over the other. Historically, but by no means inevitably, the conceptual and intentional have been granted control over the substantial and the performative. One of the clearer manifestations of this tendency is the hegemony of linguistic structure over linguistic activity in philosophical grammar from Port-Royal to Saussure. Historical linguistics takes a very different bearing on its subject to assert the influence of performances on structures by their disruptions of those structures. Even if these disruptions are slight and trivial, when repeated over a long period of time their effect can be enormous—for example, the evolution of one language into another. This view of language was beginning to come into focus in the late eighteenth century. Accordingly, I have tried to invest my medium-oriented perspective with a similar consciousness of the temporality of language as it works its influence even within the production of a single text. Methods of production, in their multiple and even contentious intersections with the requirements of the medium, affect propositional structures, and hence the meanings, of the texts produced. If, for example, a poet employs a formulaic compositional technique, his poems will emphasize repeated patterns of motifs and the concepts they express. These interactions between conception and execution establish a ground for motivation even if the signs by which we apprehend both are arbitrary. It is for these reasons that I have extrapolated Blake’s proposals about the unity of conception and execution into a heuristically useful principle for the general study of how texts are shaped by and give shape to the medium of their being.

In the spirit of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutic, I have frequently identified my interpretive orientation with what I take to be Blake’s own linguistic suppositions. The failure of this approach to overcome an inherent circularity may be less dangerous than its apparent successes. The final chapter has occasionally treated Jerusalem as a dialectical subsumption of the problems of sign structure raised by The Book of Urizen. But a phenomenological theory does not so much solve as avoid structuralist perplexities. Blake’s confrontations with rationalist grammar and his development of a very different way of thinking about language delineate an historical debate, not a transcendental solution. That debate demonstrates, finally, the historicity of language itself. The understanding of how linguistic performances are shaped by ideas about their medium must be responsive to shifting ideas about language’s essential character. The modern interpreter of literary texts can gain the power of intellectual conviction by deciding (or simply assuming) that language has always been and will always be one particular conception of it. Those who believe, in the tradition of Locke, Saussure, and Derrida, that language is fundamentally differential can find evidence for that paradigm in Jerusalem as easily as in The Book of Urizen. But the universality of this method is its greatest limitation, for it fails to discriminate among the different ways texts respond to different conceptions of language. A deconstructive reading of Urizen is grounded in the same schema and its inherent ironies at issue in the poem, and thus tells us something about the text’s self-reflections on its medium as well as its historical relationship to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century grammatical theory. The same approach to Jerusalem obscures both, for the linguistic reflections in that text are grounded in the very different tradition nascent in Boehme, emergent in Humboldt, and continued by Heidegger. Like two other great works of the early nineteenth century that construct ontologies modelled on discourse, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Jerusalem asks its readers to abandon synchronic reductions and follow an apocalyptic quest through the diachronic activities of the linguistic mind. When such texts engage transcendence as a product of linguistic performance, they do so not to deconstruct the transcendental but to celebrate the engendering powers of language. Readers of these and other linguistic romances might take Adam Naming the Beasts as their emblem, for the silence of Blake’s painting speaks to the grammatical and the phenomenological, the differential and the constitutive, ways of making language conscious of itself and the historical struggles among them.

SOURCE: Essick, Robert N. William Blake and the Language of Adam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); Introduction, pp. 1-5; Afterword, pp. 237-239.

Note: Footnotes have been reformatted as endnotes. An extensive comparative treatment of Blake and the philosophical languages of John Wilkins et al can be found in chapter 2: ‘In Pursuit of the Motivated Sign’, pp. 28-103. See also excerpt from Chapter 3, pp. 133-135.

William Blake vs Rationalist Linguistics (Excerpt) by Robert N. Essick

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William Blake Study Guide

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