William Blake Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion Essay - Critical Essays

Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, William Blake


Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion William Blake

The following entry presents criticism of William Blake's poem Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1820). See also, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Criticism.

The last of Blake's so-called prophetic works, Jerusalem has intrigued literary scholars for some 200 years. Blake conceived of and wrote the work as an epic poem and supplemented it with 100 illuminated engraved plates which illustrate the fall and subsequent salvation of Albion, the universal human. Yet despite this fundamental Christian premise, critics generally have been baffled by Blake's enigmatic themes, incoherent poetic structure, and obscure system of error which influences Albion's fallen state. While acknowledging the overall inscrutability of the poem, commentators also have considered Jerusalem to be a harrowing masterpiece that asserts Blake's radical concept of how Divine Vision inspires imagination which, in turn, becomes the key to the spiritual redemption of humankind.

Plot and Major Characters

Jerusalem is divided into four chapters, each of which features twenty-five engraved plates that illustrate the narrative progression. The poem traces the actions of three principal characters: Jesus Christ, the representation of humanity in its divine form; Albion, the universal human who initially denies that Christ is the source of the intellectual inspiration which will lead to his salvation; and Los, the poet-prophet who acts as Albion's agent of redemption through the regeneration of his artistic imagination. In the first chapter, addressed “To the Public,” Blake outlines his poetic objective and presents the main characters in his mythological milieu. He then dramatizes the principal conflict in which Albion mentally rejects Christ's invitation for union, dismissing Jesus as a “Phantom of the overheated brain.” In the ensuing chapters, Blake identifies three systems of error which prevent Albion from achieving spiritual redemption. In Chapter II, addressed “To the Jews,” the poet takes to task the physically repressive elements of Judaism in which an initial celebration of humanity gradually becomes replaced by an emphasis on the negation of one's physical being. This negation takes the form of emphasizing sin, retribution, and the defiled state of the human body. In Chapter III, addressed “To the Deists,” Blake focuses on the mental degeneration of his contemporaries who have turned their backs on the divinity of Christ to pursue a worldly code of scientific rationalization for the existence of God, the implementation of a system of strict moral conduct, and an emphasis on material possession in lieu of spiritual reward. In Chapter IV, addressed “To the Christians,” Blake vehemently criticizes this group for their corruption of the imagination by distorting a religion of love and forgiveness into one of sin and retribution. Further, this group replaces the Christian concept of brotherhood with an egotism and selfishness which diminishes their ability to imagine brotherly love and the divine union with Christ. Ultimately, though, Blake remains optimistic that all of these errors can be corrected. Indeed, Chapter IV concludes with an apocalypse in which Albion finally affirms the divinity of Christ. In the end, Albion is resurrected into the divine form of humanity in which all of his parts—body, mind, and imagination—are purified and reunited.

Major Themes

A principal theme in Jerusalem involves the universal human's mental struggle between embracing spiritual salvation through the unrestricted use of one's imagination and fragmenting one's identity through abject submission to various worldly influences. In his poem, Blake identifies a number of factors which serve to negate the human intellect: Selfhood, or pride, envy, and a lack of awareness beyond meeting one's own physical and material needs; the historical and cultural accretion of religious dogma, moral absolutes, and scientific analysis; and the Female Will, or sexual manipulation on the part of women. All of these divisive factors create systems of error which subvert the human intellect in its pursuit of spiritual divinity. Wholly embracing the power of the imagination releases the universal human from the corruptive temptation of the worldly realm and awakens his senses to the Divine Vision of spiritual regeneration. A complementary theme to Blake's emphasis on the imagination is the concept of the universal human's place in time and space. For Blake, both redemption and eternity are states of the mind. Time itself is nonlinear; instead it is a combination of simultaneous and chronological sequences of events. The acceptance of the limitless imagination awakens the universal human to the perspective that he has achieved eternal life. However, this mode of perception is more a mental and intellectual state than a physical resurrection. It involves a new awareness that one is a part of an infinity in which every moment in time occurs both simultaneously and continuously. Ultimately, one achieves an enlightened state of consciousness in which there is no concept of beginning and ending, only being. For Blake, this event is the apocalypse, or the Second Coming of Christ, in which Jesus bestows divinity upon the universal human. Blake considers the poet to be a crucial agent in the union of humankind with Christ. Indeed, the poet is the prophet who can foresee the apocalypse and salvation and who acts as a guide to lead the universal human to the Divine Vision.

Critical Reception

Many literary scholars have been fascinated by Jerusalem precisely because its incoherent poetic function, lack of structural unity, and abstruse apocalyptic themes offer a bold challenge to their powers of analysis and insight. Indeed, nearly every commentator has qualified their assessment of the poem by admitting that it is likely that no one will ever be able to explain fully the scope of Blake's poetic vision. Nevertheless, many critical inquiries have shed some light on the poet's enigmatic ideas and inspiration for composing the epic poem. Among the critics who have evaluated the poem's structure, Karl Kiralis has maintained that it represents the ages of man, tracing the progression through the stages of childhood, adulthood, and old age. E. J. Rose has considered how Blake highlighted his poetic theories in Jerusalem through his complex concept of eternal-historical time, contending that humanity discovers its place in infinity by finding its own identity in “the moment of creation.” Similarly, Anne K. Mellor has asserted that Blake is preoccupied with the poetic concept of the human form as it exists in infinity. For Mellor, the poem illustrates the paradoxical capacity of humanity to fall and become redeemed in the span of a mortal life. Mollyanne Marks has analyzed Blake's notion of self-sacrifice in Jerusalem, concluding that the universal human reverses his fall by sacrificing himself to imagination and restoring the Divine Vision. Mark Trevor Smith has assessed the “paradoxical combination of system-smashing and system-constructing” in the poem, pointing out that Blake considered the two acts to be an inseparable contradiction with which humanity must come to terms. Further, Douglas Thorpe has posited that Jerusalem can be seen as a paradigm for the concept of resurrection, identifying a perpetual tension between the contrary concepts of construction and destruction. Other critics have focused on the Bible as a principal source for Blake's poetic inspiration. Harold Bloom and Randel Helms have acknowledged Blake's debt to the Book of Ezekiel. While Bloom has observed that Blake fashioned himself as a prophet in the biblical tradition of Ezekiel, Helms has suggested that the poet recast key themes and images in the Book of Ezekiel to establish the narrative pattern and thematic framework of his epic. Jane McClellan has demonstrated how Blake's concept of time and the biblical structure of his word usage serve to underscore the rise to the climax of apocalypse in the poem. Still other critics have been drawn to the concept of how Blake might have expected his audience to respond to Jerusalem. Roger R. Easson has maintained that the motif of the fall and redemption in Blake's poem parallels the poet's initial disenchantment with readers who failed to grasp the significance of the spiritual allegory in his earlier works but who still invites them to participate in the imaginative process which leads to salvation. Molly Anne Rothenberg has focused on the abstract implications of reader response in the poem, contending that the narrative originates from the perspective of Jerusalem—Albion's emanation—who serves as a type of authorial “auto-citation” that influences the entire context of the work. According to the critic, the ingenious use of the meta-author as narrator in Jerusalem not only separates the narrative from any preconceived cultural and historical influences, but it also displaces Blake himself—with his own biases—as the author of the text.

Principal Works

Poetical Sketches (poetry) 1783

*All Religions are One (poetry) 1788?

*There is No Natural Religion (poetry) 1788?

The Book of Thel (poetry) 1789

Songs of Innocence (poetry) 1789; revised and enlarged as Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, 1794

America: A Prophecy (poetry) 1793

*The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (poetry) 1793?

Visions of the Daughters of Albion: The Eye Sees More than the Heart Knows (poetry) 1793

Europe: A Prophecy (poetry) 1794

The First Book of Urizen (poetry) 1794

The Book of Ahania (poetry) 1795

The Book of Los (poetry) 1795

The Song of Los (poetry) 1795

Milton (poetry) 1804

A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, poetical and historical inventions, painted by William Blake, in water colours, being the ancient method of fresco painting restored: and drawings for public inspection, etc. (handbook) 1809

Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (poetry) 1820

Illustrations of the Book of Job, in Twenty-One Plates, Invented and Engraved by William Blake (drawings) 1826

Blake's Illustrations of Dante. Seven Plates, designed and engraved by W. Blake (drawings) 1838

The Poetical Works of William Blake, lyrical and miscellaneous (essays, poetry, prose) 1874

The Works of William Blake, Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical. 3 vols. (essays, poetry, prose) 1893

The Letters of William Blake (letters) 1906

§The Note-Book of William Blake (notebook) 1935

*Dating the original publication of many of Blake's works is difficult, for he alternately printed and revised some of his individual writings over a long period of time and left few plates and copies of books for bibliographers to examine as evidence.

†The date on the title page of this work is 1804, but it was not distributed in its modern form until 1820. A few of the plates from Jerusalem may have been exhibited in 1812.

‡Contains the first published edition of The Four Zoas: The Torments of Love & Jealousy in the Death and Judgement of Albion the Ancient Man, originally created between 1796-1807. It was published with the title of Vala in this edition.

§The Note-Book is also referred to as the Rossetti Manuscript. It contains A Vision of the Last Judgment, composed around 1810, and which is thought to have been intended to be part of a second Descriptive Catalogue.


Karl Kiralis (essay date June 1956)

SOURCE: Kiralis, Karl. “The Theme and Structure of William Blake's Jerusalem.ELH 23 (June 1956): 127-43.

[In the following essay, Kiralis disagrees with the contention of most critics that Jerusalem has no coherent theme or structure and claims that Blake explains both within the work itself.]

Though Jerusalem is generally considered to be one of the most enigmatic if not chaotic works produced by a major figure in English literature, actually William Blake explains its theme and structure within the work itself. The very nature of the structure, one of interfolded growth as described on plate 98, seems to have caused critics to shy away from...

(The entire section is 6725 words.)

W. H. Stevenson (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: Stevenson, W. H. “Blake's Jerusalem.Essays in Criticism 9 (1959): 254-64.

[In the following essay, Stevenson explores the nature of Jerusalem in order to formulate a basic understanding of the work.]

Jerusalem is a tantalising work—like a money-box with no key. It promises much, but it has always proved difficult to get into. This article is not to be a new attempt to ‘explain’ Jerusalem so much as an attempt to find out what sort of a work it is. Blake seems to encourage his critics to venture into all sorts of other departments of learning, which would be a good thing, if it did not make them forget their own. I have...

(The entire section is 3881 words.)

E. J. Rose (essay date autumn 1965)

SOURCE: Rose, E. J. “The Symbolism of the Opened Center and Poetic Theory in Blake's Jerusalem.SEL: Studies in English Literature 5, no. 4 (autumn 1965): 587-606.

[In the following essay, Rose examines how Blake handles the concept of time in Jerusalem and how this helps explain the context of the work.]

Early in The Four Zoas, Blake describes metaphorically the way in which eternal time becomes historical time and, conversely, the way in which historical time becomes eternal. It is an especially important metaphor in Blake's work because it explains a great deal about the symbolic context of Jerusalem. It explains also his conception...

(The entire section is 6969 words.)

Harold Bloom (essay date fall 1970)

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “Blake's Jerusalem: The Bard of Sensibility and the Form of Prophecy.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 4, no. 1 (fall 1970): 6-20.

[In the following essay, Bloom discusses the similarities between Jerusalem and the book of Ezekiel and the perspectives of Blake and Ezekiel as writers.]

… also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

—Ezekiel 1: 5

“The midst thereof” refers to “a fire infolding itself,” in the Hebrew literally “a fire taking hold of...

(The entire section is 6008 words.)

Anne K. Mellor (essay date summer 1971)

SOURCE: Mellor, Anne K. “The Human Form Divine and the Structure of Blake's Jerusalem.SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 11, no. 3 (summer 1971): 595-620.

[In the following essay, Mellor analyzes how Blake's struggle with the concept of the potentially divine living within the finite is expressed in Jerusalem.]

Blake always believed that man is, at least potentially, infinite and divine; in 1788, he concluded There is No Natural Religion with a statement he never retracted: “Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is” (E-B.2).1 But Blake also recognized that man has fallen or can fall into finite forms;...

(The entire section is 6600 words.)

Roger R. Easson (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Easson, Roger R. “William Blake and His Reader in Jerusalem.” In Blake's Sublime Allegory, edited by Stuart Curran and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr., pp. 309-27. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.

[In the following essay, Easson examines Blake's understanding of the reader-writer relationship and his invitation in Jerusalem to readers to be participants in the creative process.]

Repeatedly, in his correspondence, in his marginalia, and in his poetry, William Blake expresses an abiding concern with his audience; and that concern becomes more evident as Blake's disenchantment with his audience—especially with his patrons—becomes...

(The entire section is 8807 words.)

Randel Helms (essay date spring 1974)

SOURCE: Helms, Randel. “Ezekiel and Blake's Jerusalem.Studies in Romanticism 13, no. 2 (spring 1974): 127-40.

[In the following essay, Helms considers Blake's use of the book of Ezekiel as a source for the narrative and themes in Jerusalem.]

The best way to begin a study of the relationship between Ezekiel and Jerusalem is with Harold Bloom's perception that the “continuity” of Blake's poem is “strikingly like the organization of the book of Ezekiel.1 I take up Professor Bloom's suggestion gratefully, but with a sense that there is more to that relationship than even he realizes.2 Truculent visionary that...

(The entire section is 5810 words.)

E. B. Murray (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Murray, E. B. “Jerusalem Reversed.” Blake Studies 7, no. 1 (1974): 11-25.

[In the following essay, Murray suggests that one method of understanding Blake's Jerusalem is to analyze the concepts and characters of the work as distorted mirror images of one another.]

We often need the assurances we sometimes get about the admirable clarity and order of Blake's greatest poem. Not only can the poem seem a maze to us as we enter into it, but commentators we successively turn to for directions about the best route through it may lead us instead into the byways of their own outside readings and imposed insights. We may be charmed into accepting their...

(The entire section is 6406 words.)

Mollyanne Marks (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Marks, Mollyanne. “Self-Sacrifice: Theme and Image in Jerusalem.Blake Studies 7, no. 1 (1974): 27-50.

[In the following essay, Marks considers the ideology of self-sacrifice and how it reveals itself in Blake's Jerusalem.]

Jerusalem represents a movement away from the more richly embroidered universe of Blake's earlier poetry to a starker myth, in which a few of Blake's giant forms are assimilated to figures, events, and concepts of Judaeo-Christian tradition. The elaborate structure of Jerusalem serves essentially to redefine the language of that tradition, and in particular the concept of self-sacrifice that to Blake was the meaning...

(The entire section is 9749 words.)

Irene H. Chayes (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Chayes, Irene H. “The Marginal Design on Jerusalem 12.” Blake Studies 7, no. 1 (1974): 51-76.

[In the following essay, Chayes analyzes the designs in the margins of Jerusalem as a way of understanding themes and structure in the work.]

Among the many lively, varied, and unjustly neglected minor designs in Jerusalem, those that occupy the vertical margins on a number of plates make up a distinct and consistent group. Typically, they form unified sequences of images, usually human figures, which may be related to similar designs elsewhere in Jerusalem, or by allusive borrowings may recall Blake's illuminated books from much earlier...

(The entire section is 12022 words.)

Harold Bloom (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “Blake's Apocalypse: Jerusalem.” In English Romantic Poets, edited by M. H. Abrams, pp. 98-111. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Bloom provides an overview of Blake's Jerusalem, including a discussion of the poem's themes and structure.]

The Strong Man represents the human sublime. The Beautiful Man represents the human pathetic, which was in the wars of Eden divided into male and female. The Ugly Man represents the human reason. They were originally one man, who was fourfold; he was self-divided, and his real humanity slain on the stems of generation, and the form of the fourth...

(The entire section is 5235 words.)

Jane McClellan (essay date September 1977)

SOURCE: McClellan, Jane. “Dramatic Movement as a Structuring Device in Blake's Jerusalem.Colby Literary Quarterly 13, no. 3 (September 1977): 195-208.

[In the following essay, McClellan considers the dramatic elements of Jerusalem and Blake's use of time to build toward the climax of a Last Judgment.]

The critical search for a single, clearcut structure in William Blake's Jerusalem has not yet brought to light one pattern that all or even most critics will agree upon. Part of the problem has been defined by Mollyanne Marks, who notes that the majority of structural analyses “detect consistent patterns of development through...

(The entire section is 7168 words.)

David E. Latané, Jr. (essay date summer 1983)

SOURCE: Latané, David, Jr. “The Door into Jerusalem.Romanticism Past and Present 7, no. 2 (summer 1983): 17-26.

[In the following essay, Latané argues that the first plate in Blake's Jerusalem is a critical one for the reader as it helps formulate the context within which to read and interpret the text.]

The Man who does not know The Beginning, never can know the End of Art.

(Blake's annotations to Reynolds.)

According to formula, epic poems begin with invocations, and Blake's Jerusalem is no exception—except in the fact that the reader first confronts not the...

(The entire section is 3311 words.)

Molly Anne Rothenberg (essay date summer 1987)

SOURCE: Rothenberg, Molly Anne. “Blake Reads ‘The Bard’: Contextual Displacement and Conditions of Readability in Jerusalem.SEL: Studies in English Literature 27, no. 3 (summer 1987): 489-502.

[In the following essay, Rothenberg argues that the key to understanding Blake's Jerusalem is to start with the premise that the poem produced itself and is its own context.]

The reader who seeks to unlock Jerusalem must devise a reading strategy to handle the poem's apparent incoherencies. At the outset of the poem, the reader's situation is complicated by assurances that the “origin” of the work guarantees its coherence; the much-quoted...

(The entire section is 5258 words.)

Mark Trevor Smith (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Smith, Mark Trevor. “Striving with Blake's Systems.” In Blake and His Bibles, edited by David V. Erdman, pp. 157-78. West Cornwall: Locust Hill Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Smith, in attempting to understand Blake as a writer, analyzes the concept of the system that Blake claimed he must create in Jerusalem and other works.]

“It's equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two.”1

Foster Damon with his dictionary definitions2 and Northrop Frye with his summarizing symmetries3 reveal tantalizing...

(The entire section is 9246 words.)

Douglas Thorpe (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Thorpe, Douglas. “Razing Jerusalem: Blake's Word as World.” In A New Earth: The Labor of Language in Pearl, Herbert's Temple, and Blake's Jerusalem, pp. 123-76. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Thorpe examines Blake's Jerusalem in terms of physical objects that mankind creates or builds and that are subsequently destroyed.]

What is the body? That shadow of a shadow
of your love, that somehow contains
the entire universe.
A man sleeps heavily,
though something blazes in him like the sun,
like a magnificent fringe sewn up under the hem.


(The entire section is 20384 words.)

Further Reading


Carr, Stephen Leo. “William Blake's Print-Making Process in Jerusalem.ELH 47, no. 3 (autumn 1980): 520-41.

Analyzes the impact Blake's method of print-making had on the integration of verbal and visual art in order to enhance his reader's understanding of Jerusalem.

Clark, John M. “Writing ‘Jerusalem’ Backwards: William Blake in ‘Exiles.’” James Joyce Quarterly 26, no. 2 (winter 1989): 183-97.

Discusses the many allusions to Blake found in Joyce's Exiles, with special attention focused on the parallels to Jerusalem.

Erdman, David V. “The...

(The entire section is 730 words.)