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Stems of generation : the figure of the victim in the poetry of William Blake Mathews, Lawrence MacKay

Abstract

In the major prophecies, Blake has much to say about human sacrifice ("Druidism") and about the figure of Jesus as Lamb of God. My purpose is to investigate Blake's use of the motif of victimhood in order to determine how its presence affects the meanings of individual poems, and how it evolved during the course of his poetic career. In the poems of the earlier period, from Poetical Sketches to the later minor prophecies, Blake explores the moral and psychological dimensions of the experience of victimhood -- though not in the content of ritual sacrifice -- and constantly questions its value. His presentation of the figure of the victim is characterized by an irony which illuminates two basic dramatic situations, which foreshadow his later preoccupation with Druidism and with Jesus. In one group of poems (some of the Songs of Innocence and earlier minor prophecies), the victim's suffering is associated in some significant way with a vision of an unfallen world, but this vision never becomes realized. In a second group (some of the Songs of Experience and later minor prophecies), Blake focuses on the relation of the victim to the person or force responsible for causing him harm. In some of these poems, the victim is able to escape from his bondage, but finds that he can do this only by making some other character his victim. The central theme of the major prophecies is the bringing into existence of a world in which the role of victim need not exist. Some of the lyrics of the Pickering Manuscript provide evidence that Blake's attitude towards victimhood undergoes a fundamental change after the period of the earlier poems: for the first time we find cryptic assertions about the efficacy of sacrificial suffering. In The Four Zoas, Jesus, in Night VIII, is revealed as the efficacious sacrificial victim par excellence. But Blake does not make any facile repudiation of his earlier presentation of the figure of the victim. Luvah undergoes a number of ironic experiences of victimhood which establish him as a parody of a Christ-figure; but in the apocalypse of Night IX, he escapes from his role as perennial victim only to become the torturer of the "Human Grapes" in his wine-press. In this way, his story is consistent with the ironic vision of victimhood presented in the earlier poems. Yet Blake has clearly discovered a positive meaning for victimhood in the Crucifixion, as Jesus descends "to Give his vegetated body / To be cut off & separated that the Spiritual body may be Reveald." But he does not attempt to reconcile this new vision with the earlier one, and Luvah's story provides an ironic counterpoint to the Lamb of God's, despite the poem's optimistic conclusion. In Milton and Jerusalem, Blake presents his mature vision of Jesus as sacrificial victim. He also clarifies the relation of the Crucifixion to the multitudinous examples of Druid sacrifice which have parodied it throughout fallen history. In both Milton and Jerusalem, Jesus is the Lamb of God who voluntarily assumes the role of victim in a unique sacrificial act. The act is unique because it has the effect of bringing to an end the need for Druid sacrifice, understood not merely in terms of ritual slaughter but rather in terms of the psychology which prevents men from relating to each other in ways other than those of victim and tormentor. In both poems, the Crucifixion implies the restoration of the unfallen world for those men who respond to Jesus by acknowledging him as Saviour and Lord, and acting accordingly. The appropriate way. of acting is demonstrated by Milton, and Ololon in Milton, and by Los and, ultimately, Albion in Jerusalem. Blake's Jesus and the Jesus of the New Testament are precise counterparts. They transform their respective worlds by participating as victims in a ritual sacrifice. In so doing, they resolve the major thematic issue in the wider literary context in which they appear (the whole Bible, Blake's total oeuvre).

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