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


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.