A significant figure to the Romantic period, William Blake is best known for his poetry. His most well-known works include Songs of Innocence (1789), Songs of Experience (1794), and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). During his lifetime, Blake was existed in the margins of culture, usually denigrated as a madman for his visionary works. Blake detested institutional religion, though he was a highly spiritual man, claiming he experienced heavenly-inspired visions throughout his lifetime, which became the inspiration for many of his works. Highly important to Blake’s poetry are the artworks existing within each; he invented a new way of printing, involving a laborious process that caused only few copies of his work to be published.
In Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), one of his more difficult visionary works, Oothoon, a metaphoric persona for the enslaved British women of Blake’s society, is brutally raped by Bromion, and subsequently rejected by her would-be lover Theotormon. The plot involves contemplations of this situation from these three characters, as they work through the present sexual/gender politics. Visions, though not as widely read as Songs, is a highly crucial work to Blake’s conceptualization of gender and sexual liberation/freedoms.
Crucial to the overall message of Visions of the Daughters of Albion is the overarching metaphoric association of gender-based oppression with slavery. As discussed below, slavery was a hotly contested issue within the Romantic period, and appeared as a literary tool in a variety of works. In Visions, Blake associates slavery with the condition of contemporary British women, in announcing from the very beginning: “ENSLA’D, the Daughters of Albion weep” (Blake 218). From the outset of this work, the association of gender oppression with slavery is made. As the illustrations in Blake’s works are equally, if not sometimes more, important than the text presented, it is important to note that on the corresponding image, Plate 4 (see figure 1), “ENSLAV’D” is highly emphasized; besides “Visions,” it is the first thing you notice about this plate’s illustration, highlighting its importance to the narrative.
After Oothoon is brutally raped by Bromion (“Bromion rent her with his thunders”), he declares to Oothoon that: “Thy soft American plains are mine, and mine thy north & south: / Stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun:” (Blake 218; 219). The equation of America to the “plains” of Oothoon’s body is telling, for it embraces the revolutionary spirit of America in addition to calling upon their systems of slavery as well (Blake 219). Also, Bromion’s assertion that Oothoon is now “stampt with” his “signet” refers to the branding of slaves, thus establishing that Oothoon, after Bromion has raped her, is now his slave (Blake 219).
Though the emancipation of women from the hegemony of gender ideals is superficially obvious in Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion, some critics have argued that a deeper reading of the text illustrates that the slavery present in this world is actually, “as Oothoon makes clear, the psychological slavery of ‘subtil modesty’ – that very rational modesty advocate by [feminist Mary] Wollstonecraft [in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman] – from which Blake hoped to free British woman and British men” (Mellor “Sex” 366). Thus, as Anne K. Mellor argues, the emancipatory potential invoked within Blake’s text is actually counterproductive to the more “feminist” (by the contemporary culture’s society, not present society) agenda pushed forth by Mary Wollstonecraft (see below for more information on these contemporary texts interrelations).
Of course, Blake’s ignoring of intersectional oppression debilitates his argument. In referring to the middle-class, white British women as slaves, Blake is subsequently equating the doubling binding oppression faced by real enslaved African women, who face oppression along both axes of gender and race. Present day feminisms have largely challenged this universalizing of women as denigrating women who are not white, middle- or upper-class, heterosexual, cisgendered, or able-bodies. Gendered oppression for white women is not equivalent to the gendered oppression experienced by colored women.
Blake largely argues, that we are all enslaved to the socially constructed ideas of society, such as those related to gender norms, put forth by institutions in power. One reoccurring image throughout Visions is the existence of the virgin-whore dichotomy. Contemporary feminists have thoroughly examined this social construction and its power to enforce upon women “proper” sexual behavior. In sum, women exist as either pure virgins or sex-craved whores, and with no wiggle room in between these. Oothoon is confronted with this issue, like women today still are. In the image of Plate 3 (see figure 2), Blake even presents this idealized femininity, associating it pictorially with motherhood and nature. Women who have lost their virginity are largely metaphorically addressed as having lost their “flower,” an idiom for their “virginity” (virginity is largely a social construct and not a definable quantity within a human being). In Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Plate 1 states to Oothoon: “pluck thou my flower Oothoon the mild / Another flower shall spring, because the soul of sweet delight / Can never pass away” (Blake 218). In this passage the language constructs Oothoon’s virginity as a flower to be plucked away. Yet, in relation to Blake’s largely emancipatory image of social constructions, Oothoon is also told that if she decides to give up her “flower,” then another one can replace it because, as virginity is an outward quality and not inherent to who you are as a person, it does not alter your personal essence.
Though this message sounds like an empowering feminist address, the symbolic figures of patriarchal society, Bromion and Theotormon, have reactions that demonstrate how these aforementioned ideas do not only just not exist, but they are quite unchangeable in Blake’s society. After Bromion rapes Oothoon, he says to “behold this harlot,” thus marking Oothoon as an impure, sexually deviant female body (Blake 218). As already mentioned, Bromion also states that Oothoon is now his slave, but in light of this content I argue that Oothoon is being made into not just Bromion’s slave but the slave of patriarchal hegemonic gender norms as well. Furthermore, Oothoon becomes enslaved via heteropatriarchy violence, as she exists in a world in which male aggression is enshrined and female passivity is the ideal. Blake extrapolates this idea further by stating that, “The Daughters of Albion hear her woes, & eccho back her sighs,” three separate times throughout Visions, illustrating how all women are enslaved in this form of gender oppression, not just Oothoon (Blake 219).
Besides the socially constructed existence of gender ideology, Blake also critiques the ideologies put forth by the social institutions of his society, namely religion. Within societies, controlling beliefs about certain social groups are put forth by various social institutions, such as religion, government, and the medical community. These effectively serve to oppress these groups while simultaneously keeping the privileged groups in power (namely, in our current times and long before, white, heterosexual, upper-class, able-bodied, cisgendered males). To begin with, Oothoon remarks that, “They told me that night & day were all that I could see; / They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up. / And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle” (Blake 219). This is a highly telling passage to the overall theme of challenging social constructions, as those in power are referred to as “they,” who are enforcing upon Oothoon a specific ideological way of viewing the world. In this way, Blake is suggesting that institutions like religion are confining are potentially “infinity brain[s] into a narrow” version of what is possible in the human experience (Blake 219). Counter to religion’s claim to elevate the human condition, Blake claims it does quite the opposite in its push of sociopolitical values.
Further, Oothoon’s reflection, “Tell me what is a thought? & of what substance is it made?” can be read as a contemplation on society’s ability to influence us (Blake 220). Here, Oothoon asks what a thought might be in this patriarchal world that enforces meanings onto bodies like hers. Do thoughts exist outside of the socially constructed reality that societal institutions have created for us? Or is there an impenetrable essence, or “soul,” of each human that remains untarnished and unpenetrated from these ideologies? These questions frequently come up throughout Visions. At one point Oothoon even declares, “Father of Jealously [the patriarch Urizen], be thou accursed from the earth! / Why hast thou taught my Theotormon this accursed thing?” (Blake 222). This demonstrates that the patriarchal religious figure of Blake’s mythological world has literally “taught” this men (Theotormon and Bromion) how to act in relation to women and herself more specifically. This also ties the socially constructed knowledge to religion as a social institution, thus lending it to a larger critique of Blake’s contemporary society.
Towards the ending of the work, we still find “Theotormon sits / Upon the margind ocean conversing with shadows dire” (Blake 224). Examining this in relation to Plate 1 of Visions (figure 3), the relation between being trapped in the allegorical cave is apparent. Theotormon still cannot overcome the socially accumulated knowledge indoctrinated from society’s institutions; he is still “conversing with shadows” (Blake 224). Thus, the cave is the entrapping cultural ideologies of gender, keeping those who cannot emancipate themselves chained to their principles.
Revelance to Romanticism and RevolutionEdit
Crucial to the overall message of Visions of the Daughters of Albion is the overarching metaphoric association of gender-based oppression with slavery. At the time in which this work was published slavery was a hotly contested issue within England. Slave narratives (such as Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative) were a highly popular literature form during this time. It was not until 1807 that the slave trade was abolished by the British, but this left the colony-based slave plantations intact; the abolition of colonial-based slavery occurred later, in 1833. Literary instances of daring slave emancipating or challenging the plantation system, particularly William Earle’s novella Obi; or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack (1800), revolve around a revolutionary hero, one symbolically adopted from the overall revolutionary spirit of the Romantic period. In comparison to Blake’s Visions, one can view Oothoon as a revolutionary figure as well as she challenges gender norms and oppression. Yet, as discussed above, the equation of slavery with white women’s gender oppression is inherently problematic. Nonetheless, the idea of a revolutionary hero is unarguably linked to the overall spirit of rebellion and revolution, inspired by the French Revolution, of Romanticism.
Several scholars have acknowledged that relatedness of William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, (see figure 4) published a year earlier (Fox; Mellor, “Sex”). Due to the seemingly emancipatory nature of the vision presented by Blake, many readers have concluded an overall progressive gender portrayal. Yet, as Anne K. Mellor reminds us, it is important to take into context the illustrations Blake actually created for Wollstonecraft’s earlier work, Original Stories from Real Life (1791), as they portray a contrary image of gender and women’s progress in society as would be expected (“Sex”). As such, Mellor argues that Blake’s illustrations “offer a pervasive criticism of Wollstonecraft’s feminist doctrines,” which troubles the seemingly positive image offered in his Visions, published one year later (“Sex” 359).
The link between Wollstonecraft’s ideas and Blake’s is apparent in their metaphoric use of slavery as a tool in discussion of British women’s gender-based oppression, demonstrating the influence of Wollstonecraft on Blake, and further indicating how these texts should be analyzed as in conversation with one another. One of the most succinct arguments put forth in Mellor’s readings of these texts revolves around how “Wollstonecraft had argued that the free love of the kind here [in Visions] envisioned by Oothoon is a male fantasy that serves the interests only of the male libertine” (“Sex” 367). Subsequently, the concluding vision presented by Blake, one of unrestricted love for all, becomes somewhat problematic. As argued by Mellor, “[i]nsofar as the female body gratifies the sexual and psychological desires of the male body, she achieves her freedom” (“Sex 368). Significantly, this vision he puts forth only involves Oothoon watching and enabling Theotormon to be involved in this kind of free love, whereas she not only sits on the sidelines, but is left at the end of the work with the man she loves still unable to reconcile her “defiled” state.
Sources and Further ResearchEdit
- Blake, William. Visions of the Daughters of Albion. 1793. Relief etching. British Museum, London.
- Blake, William. “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Eds. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Vol. 2A: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. 5th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2012. 217-224. Print.
- Earle, William. Obi; or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack. Broadview Press, 2005. Print.
- Mellor, Anne K. “Sex, Violence, and Slavery: Blake and Wollstonecraft.” Huntington Library Quarterly 58.3 & 4 (1995): 345-370. Print.
- Opie, John. Mary Wollstonecraft. 1797. Oil on canvas. London, National Portrait Gallery.
- “William Blake.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <http://0-academic.eb.com.library.uark.edu/EBchecked/topic/68793/William-Blake>.
- Wollstonecraft, Mary. "from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Eds. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Vol. 2A: The Romantics and Their Contemproaries. 5th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc., 2012. 304-326. Print.
For Further Reference:Edit
Visions of the Daughters of Albion Criticsm:Edit
Aers, D. “William Blake and the Dialectics of Sex.” ELH 44 (1977): 500-514. Print.
Fox, Susan. "The Female as Metaphor in William Blake's Poetry." Critical Inquiry 3.3 (1977): 507-519. Print.
Mellor, Anne K. "Blake's Portrayal of Women." Blake: An Illustrated Quaterly 16.3 (1982-83): 148-155. Print.
Ostriker, Alicia. "Deisre Gratified and Ungratified: William Blake and Sexuality." Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly 16.3 (1983-83): 156-165. Print.
Welch, Denis M. "Essence, Gender, Race: William Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion." Studies in Romanticism 49.1 (2010): 105-131. Print.
- Ankarsjo, Magnus. William Blake and Gender. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006. Print.
- Mellor, Anne K. Romanticism and Gender. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Feminist Theory: Edit
- Balsamo, Anne. "Reading Cyborgs, Writing Feminism: Reading the Body in Contemporary Culture." Technologies of the Gendered Body. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. 17-40. Print.
- Donaldson, Mike. "What is Hegemonic Masculinity?" Theory & Society 22 (1993): 643-657. Print.
- Kimmel, Michael S., and Abby L. Ferber. Privilege: A Reader. 3rd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 2014. Print.
- Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2010. Print.