William Blake vs Rationalist Linguistics (Excerpt)

Robert N. Essick

As we have seen in Chapter 2, secular language theory in the eighteenth century recognized only two major varieties of signs, natural and conventional, the former a motivated response whether mimetic or expressive, and the latter an arbitrary social construct. ‘London’ presents the collapse of both types of sign system into disease, at once both social and biological. This semiotic crisis is one of the fundamental thematic issues in the poem and the vehicle for their dramatization in the language of the poem.

Sign theory is thematized by the first stanza of ‘London’. Recent interpreters of the poem have quite rightly pointed out the Biblical resonances of the thrice-repeated ‘mark[s]’ [38] but its context in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century semiotics is equally significant. To ‘mark’ an object or event is to apprehend its identifying characteristic, its ‘mark’, by which it can be distinguished from all other objects or events. The primary motivation of this process, beginning with the physical senses, leads to a kind of mental marking/recording that precedes, and establishes the ground for, any secondarily motivated or arbitrary linguistic act of naming, as well as subsequent acts of oral remarking or the visual marking of paper or copper to form letters. [39] The initial apprehension and marking begin the chain of consciously constructed signs. When these in turn become objects of an interpreter’s perceptions, he recapitulates, on a secondary level, the initial act of psychic marking, as Blake recognizes in his repeated injunction in Milton to ‘Mark well my words! they are of your eternal salvation’ (e.g., Pl. 2; E 96, K 482).

A host of linguistic theorists from Wilkins to Shelley used ‘mark’ to indicate all or some part of the fundamental process summarized above. [40] Herder once again provides the most useful explanation of semiotic marking, briefly in his claim that man’s original recognition of ‘the first distinguishing mark’ [41] was the beginning of language, and at greater length in his explanation of that process in the passage from his Essay on the Origin of Language quoted near the beginning of this chapter. Rousseau’s remark that oral poems such as Homer’s ‘were [originally] written only in men’s memories’ (On the Origin of Languages, p. 24) presupposes a similar form of mental inscription prior to speech. And much earlier in the century, George Berkeley had proposed a semiotic theory of vision, a system of arbitrary but natural marks that operates on the mind prior to, but in a manner analogous to, linguistic signs. As he writes near the end of his Essay toward a New Theory of Vision, ‘Upon the whole, I think we may conclude, that the proper Objects of Vision constitute the Universal Language of Nature, . . . And the manner wherein they signify, and mark out unto us the Objects which are at a distance, is the same with that of Languages and Signs of Human Appointment; which do not suggest the things signify’d, by any Likeness or Identity of Nature, but only by an Habitual Connexion, that Experience has made us to observe between ’em.’ [42] These observations by Herder, Rousseau, and Berkeley are the eighteenth-century precursors to Derrida’s ‘grammatology’, predecessors he ignores while setting his theory in opposition to Rousseau’s valorization of speech over writing. [43]

The marks at the beginning of ‘London’ evoke the eighteenth-century concept of pre-linguistic, psychic or grammatological, inscription. The repetition of the word as both verb and noun, an action on the part of the perceiving subject and a characteristic of the perceived object, indicates the reciprocal and even constitutive nature of meta-semiotic apprehension. Herder’s ‘distinguishing’ marks do not exist as ‘distinguishing’ until they are marked by human consciousness. [44] The marking in ‘London’ functions in this same cyclical fashion, yet fails to perform its essential task of separating out and recording that characteristic of an object differentiating it from all others since ‘every face’ bears the same physiognomic marks of ‘weakness’ and ‘woe’. This basic process lying at the heart of eighteenth-century sign theory thereby becomes reductive rather than usefully discriminate. The reciprocal nature of marking also insures that the speaker of the poem, as the subject who marks, will become implicated in weakness and woe as he transforms physical marks into their psychic inscriptions which are returned to visible presence in the words ‘weakness’ and ‘woe’. [45]

To ‘mark’ something can mean to delimit it or inscribe boundaries upon it. This semantic association between ‘mark’ and ‘charter’d’ draws the latter term into the semiotic theme. [46] The cartographic charting or legal and economic chartering of streets and rivers presuppose an applicable semiotic system embodying those same structures. Before the streets of London can be marked out, chartered, and differentiated each from each, language must be marked and charted by a differential logic. We have already encountered these linguistically ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ in the taxonomic grammar of ideal language projectors like Wilkins and, more pervasively if less rigidly, in the whole tradition of rationalist linguistics from Bacon and Locke to Saussure. Languages, including the words of ‘London’, have been chartered and delimited by the very processes of marking that brought them into being.


38 Particularly Genesis 4: 15 (the mark of Cain), Ezekiel 9: 4-6 (the ‘mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh’), and the apocalyptic markings of Revelation 3: 16-17, 14: 9-11, 16: 2, 19: 20, 20: 4. For a useful summary and critique of major interpretations of ‘London’, see M. Ferber, ‘‘London’ and its Politics’, ELH 48 (1981), 310-38.

39 Bacon, Advancement of Learning, bk. 2, fo. 50v, describes ‘Wordes’ as ‘but the Current Tokens or Markes of popular Notions of things’. Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding, writes that speakers must ‘suppose their Words to be Marks of the Ideas in the Minds also of other Men’ (3. 2. 4) and refers to ‘particles’ (i.e., conjunctions and prepositions) as ‘marks of some Action, or Intimation of the Mind’ (3. 7. 4). Warburton, Divine Legation of Moses, uses ‘marks’ to mean both ‘signs’ (2: 76) and the individual strokes of letters (2: 78). Hartley, Observations on Man (1791), 178, refers to written characters as ‘marks’.

40 See Wilkins, Essay towards a Real Character, p. 21 (quoted in ch. 2); Shelley, Defence of Poetry, in Poetry and Prose, p. 482 (quoted earlier in this chapter).

41 Herder, Essay on the Origin of Language, p. 116. See also p. 132: ‘From every sounding being echoed its name: The human soul impressed upon it its image, thought of it as a distinguishing mark.’

42 Berkeley, Essay toward a New Theory of Vision (1709), 172-3.

43 See Derrida, Of Grammatology, esp. the description of ‘arche-writing’, pp. 59-63, as the inscription of ‘difference’ (an elaboration of Herder’s ‘distinguishing’), and the critique of Rousseau, pt. 2, ch. 2. Foucault, Order of Things, p. 38, comments briefly on the theories of B. de Vigenère (Traité des chiffres, 1586) and C. Duret (Thresor de l'histoire des langues, 1613) that ‘before Babel, before the Flood, there had already existed a form of writing composed of the marks of nature itself’ which ‘had always preceded the spoken, certainly in nature, and perhaps even in the knowledge of men’.

44 This aspect of semiotic marking would seem to stand behind the identification of ‘mark’ in ‘London’ as a performative utterance in G. Edwards, ‘Repeating the Same Dull Round’, in Hilton and Vogler, Unnamd Forms, pp. 28-30. To do so requires such a broad definition of ‘performative’ as to include all acts of meta-semiotic apprehension while overlooking their dependence on the senses prior to any utterance. Both processes, however, are forms of primary motivation in all except Berkeley’s formulation of the semiotics of vision.

45 The speaker’s self-generated involvement in a restrictive process of marking has been noted in Glen, Vision & Disenchantment, p. 210, and Larrissy, Blake, pp. 45-6, but without reference to the larger semiotic issues and their l8th-century context. Larrissy comments interestingly on how the speaker cannot find ‘a point of pure perception’ outside an ideological construct. I am suggesting here that the inclusive construct is present at an even more fundamental meta-semiotic level.

46 As with ‘mark’, the semiotic implications of ‘charter’d’ underlie, but by no means exclude, the many other meanings of the word relevant to ‘London’. For an exploration of some of the historical resonances of ‘charter’d’, see E. P. Thompson, ‘London’, in M. Phillips, ed., Interpreting Blake (1978), 5-31.

SOURCE: Essick, Robert N. William Blake and the Language of Adam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), chapter 3: Natural Signs and the Fall of Language; excerpt, pp. 133-135.

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.

Introduction & Afterword to William Blake and the Language of Adam by Robert N. Essick

Maurice Cornforth on William Blake vs. the Fetishism of Language

An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668):
Part III: Philosophical Grammar: Chapter 9: Syntax

by John Wilkins (with additional links & bibliography)

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

William Blake Study Guide

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