In William Blake’s The First Book of Urizen, the primordial scream of the Romantic era reverberates in an awful shrill. The quality of “disengaged reason” characteristic of these times brought unforeseen consequences to the mental state of its inhabitants, coined so brilliantly by Blake himself as self-inflicted “mind-forg’d manacles” (Blake Songs of Experience, “London”, 8). The empiricist hierarchy of thought carved into stone tablets by such prominent figures as Sir Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton comes under intense scrutiny throughout Blake’s work. These systems rose to dominance following the Copernican revolution, which resulted in an increasingly anthropocentric world view that would change humanity from this point forward and echo into our modern day perceptions of the world-at-large. By interpreting the character Urizen as the anthropomorphic personification of this “enlightened” Age of Reason, we are able to decipher Blake’s deep and keen awareness, coupled with his fear of his times, made manifest as prophecy in The First Book of Urizen. It offers dire warning to the consequences of mental confinement.
In the beginning of this epic poem, Blake invokes the “Eternals” in the same fashion Homer once called to the Muses: “Eternals, I hear your call gladly, Dictate swift winged words, & fear not To unfold your dark visions of torment” (Blake The First Book of Urizen, “Preludium”, 5-7). Through this invocation, Blake immediately sets this poem at odds with the dominant thought of the day, requesting inspiration from beyond the “realm of the five senses,” but simultaneously acknowledging his existence as “a man of his times”, in true empiricist fashion, by refusing to shy away from the terror his deep examination will ultimately reveal. “Urizen” will dare stare into the void, Blake knowing full well that “when one gazes long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you” (Nietzsche 153).
In the opening of Chapter One, we immediately face this “Self-closd, all repelling” abyss named Urizen (1. 1. 3). Urizen, we find, is “a self-contemplating shadow” (1. 4. 4), who can no longer abide the “unquenchable burnings” of the Eternals (2. 4. 8). This reference to the “self-contemplating shadow” alludes to Plato’s cave. Our lives as “a walking shadow” (Shakespeare Macbeth 5. 5. 23) had been the dominant perception of pre-Copernican thought. This Platonic notion of “life as illusion” had been under attack for nearly 150 years from Cartesian skeptics to Voltaire, and Rousseau; finally this tradition won out in the French Revolution to bloody and devastating consequences. Blake’s choice to depict “Urizen” as this reflective shadow is fascinating, for in so doing he proclaims that “reason is the illusion”– an illusion that, in its pain, could no longer bear the intensity of the Eternals! Just as man, in his new-found knowledge of the Cosmos’ infinite vastness, could no longer live with the ultimate overhead.
So what is Urizen’s response? “Times on times he divided, & measur’d Space by space in his ninefold darkness” (1. 2. 1-2). In William Blake’s painting, The Ancient of Days, Blake shows Urizen extending a compass into the void. Reaching down from the eternities, he inscribes a circle to contain it. Now, the circle in connection to the number nine is of deep significance throughout ancient cultures and mythologies of the world. Most specifically when the circle is identified as being divided by nine additional concentric circles. In the Hebrew Qaballah, these concentric circles, collectively known as Ain Soph, represent the emanation of God through the ten spheres of the Sephiroth (ref. Figure 1).
As these emanations move outward through the spheres, aspects of God are lost until you arrive at the realm of humanity. God, often thought of as the chief-architect or grand mathematician, is now equated with Urizen. And the common perception of God controlling the forces of nature and rotation of the planets is thus subverted, changing this “divine order out of the chaos” into an act of violence against eternity. Keeping in mind that Urizen is symbolic for the Romantic, empiricist psyche, we are able to understand Blake’s observations of this new movement with his own “black winds of perturbation” (1. 2. 5).
Figure 1. Ain Soph
Following this first division of the void “vast clouds of blood roll’d Round the dim rocks of Urizen … Shrill the trumpet: & myriads of Eternity … that roll’d perplex’d labring & utter’d Words articulate” (2. 2.2- 3. 5). These trumpets bring forth “clouds of blood,” echoing The Book of Revelation. But now these trumpets go shrill. The music of the spheres is broken, and from out of the sweetest eternal harmonies, a dissonance rings out resulting in “words”– the birth of the Logos. And now Urizen is able to speak: “I have sought for joy without pain… Why live in unquenchable burnings? … Where nothing was: Nature’s wide womb And self balanc’d stretch’d o’er the void I alone, even I! … Here alone I in books formd of metals Have written the secrets of wisdom … of dark contemplation … which the bosoms of all inhabit: Seven deadly Sins of the soul” (2. 4. 5- 6. 7). Urizen explains the motivation for his actions. He seeks “joy without pain.” But how can one ever experience joy without pain? Pain is so intimately tied to pleasure that to distinguish one from the other is almost impossible. But Urizen attempts to hide it from himself, just as we in our modern society hide the elderly in “homes”, the sick in “hospitals” and the dead in “morgues.”
Urizen is seeking duality– to split himself. He “stretch’d” himself over the void and attempted to divide himself into two forces. Through so doing, he creates a prism, dividing the eternities into the “Seven deadly Sins of the soul.” As octaves are broken into seven notes and white light into seven colors, Urizen divides the eternities into “one habitation: His ancient infinite mansion” responsible for “One command, one joy, one desire … one Law” (2. 8. 3-7). Following the symbolic nature of Urizen, Blake must have observed these rifts separating the world around him. What once found unity under the title “philosophy” was split against itself with the emergence of science. Science would continue to divide itself and before the next century was finished would divide even scientists against each other, some adhering to the “hard sciences,” others to the “natural”, and others to the “social.” Within these categories would be subcategories, specializations and further divisions of authority, rendering consilience a close impossibility. The philosopher can no longer relate to the artist, to the biologist, to the psychologist, the anthropologist, etc. onwards to infinity.
This great Romantic God of “Disengaged Reason,” cast out as a net over the chaotic universe, has achieved little more than division. We have complex Calculus to approximate derivatives, physicists take their best guess at the nature of an electron, locating it ever more precisely within the enormous expanse of its cloud; neurologists can draw complex diagrams of the brain, but meet the sublime wall when faced with 160 trillion neural connections. We’ve cut open bodies and can list the very details of the skeletal, muscle, lymphatic, endocrine, cardiovascular, and neurological systems; and we’ve mapped the DNA genome. But can any of them tell you what a human being actually is? Somehow Shakespeare’s “walking shadow” connects much deeper to nearly everyone.
Blake continues, “The voice ended, they saw his pale visage Emerge from the darkness … Eternity roll’d wide apart … leaving ruinous fragments of life … An ocean of voidness unfathomable … On all sides he fram’d, like a womb: Where thousands of rivers in veins Of blood pour down the mountains to cool … The vast world of Urizen appear’d” (3. 1. 1-3. 7. 10). The smoking, igneous form of the world was created from the very lifeblood of the Eternal. Ripped from the side of the ultimate, Urizen lay famished “in a stony sleep Unorganized, rent from Eternity. The Eternals said: ‘What is this? Death! Urizen is a clod of clay’”(3. 10. 1-3. 11. 2). To the horrible anguish of the Eternals, Urizen, once God and now a “dark Demon,” a dragon with the seven heads of his deadly sins, sublimated himself into the world by means of his own cunning and self-mutilating action. The Great Work now complete, Urizen marks the “death of God.”
The anthropomorphic Urizen, representing “The Age of Enlightenment,” isolated himself from the cosmos and like the great prism of modern scientific thought, shattered the universal mirror into a vast sea of glass shards. Each individual in the cosmic web focused in on the ego boundary of the skin and narrowed their awareness to the immediate sensations of the five senses. Magic disappeared in exchange for data, miracles for statistical anomalies, and participation mystique for “ mind-forg’d manacles.” The Pantheon of the Gods rained their blood, running as split veins, upon the ground, pooling beneath the hunched, “pale visage” of Urizen, staring at his dark reflection below. “Despair!” became the war cry of the philosophers, “isolation” the weight of the common man. Humanity now finds itself drifting in the vastness of space, “an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star” (Hawking 1). Through Urizen, Blake testified of the life to come, pleading with us, “if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite” (Blake The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 44). Perhaps if this vision could be restored or merely preserved, we could save ourselves from the self-mutilation to come! But it was too late. In a darkened cypress forest, red roses hidden in its shadow, the new dark sage of modernity passed through the forest, laughing as he skipped to the unheard piper’s song. He looked down upon Blake reaching to the Heavens, “Please! Please in your mercy, don’t take what is beautiful! What is of power! What is Eternal!” And Zarathustra shook his head with a sly smile, all the while “He spoke thus to his heart: Could it then be possible! This old saint in his forest has not yet heard of it, that God is dead!” (Nietzsche 9).
Blake, William. Selected Poems. London: Penguin Classics, 2005.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Seventy-Five Aphorisms from Five Volumes”, Basic Writings of Nietzsche.
Translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York: The Modern Library Classic, 2000.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Clancy Martin, New York: Barnes and
Nobles Classics, 2005.
Hawking, Stephen. “Ted Talk”. TED. https://www.ted.com/speakers/stephen_hawking