The [First] Book of Urizen is an unorthodox version of the Creation and the Fall, written to satirize the traditional accounts in Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). In The [First] Book of Urizen, the creator, Urizen, is neither all-powerful nor benevolent; his creation is not “good” as in Genesis, but flawed from the beginning. As a product solely of the unenlightened rational intellect, his world is incomplete. Cut off from the creative power of the imagination, which is personified in the poem by Los, Urizen can only create a world full of suffering and death.

The [First] Book of Urizen begins with a preludium, in which Blake gladly accepts the call of the Eternals to dictate their story. The poem is then divided, like Genesis, into chapter and verse. Chapter 1 describes Urizen’s activity in wholly negative terms. He is “unknown, unprolific,” and “unseen”; he broods introspectively; he is “self-clos’d” and a “self-contemplating shadow.” That is exactly the withdrawn, abstract type of mental activity that, in Blake’s view, was responsible for many of the ills that he saw in contemporary society. By retreating into a void within himself, Urizen is beginning to close himself off from the primal joy of existence.

In chapter 2, it transpires that Urizen’s activity is taking place before the creation of the world, before the existence of death, and before there are any material restrictions placed around the fiery delights of eternal existence. Urizen now reveals himself as the lawgiver, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, whom Blake associated with tyranny. Because Urizen cannot enjoy the free-flowing and joyful clash of opposite values in eternity, he attempts to create for himself “a joy without pain,/ . . . a solid without fluctuation.” To his eyes, the Eternals live in “unquenchable burnings,” when in fact these are the fires of the creative imagination as it constantly fulfills its desires. Failing to understand this, Urizen tries to fight with the fire and sets himself up as lord over all the...

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