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William Blake and the Novel Space of Revolution

By Ron Broglio

It is something of a novelty to imagine a conversation between the works of William Blake and the contemporary graphic novel. It is exactly the initial improbability between the two sets of texts that offers us the opportunity to think along new lines. Because my own expertise is in the works of William Blake and not in the field of comics, I will limit my discussion of the latter to suggestive possibilities as found in the works of the Romantic poet. By linking Blake to comics, ImageTexT provides a forum in which to imagine novel relations across time between a 19th-century poet and contemporary authors and artists. I would like to use this opportunity to think of how Blake introduces novelty into his work. It is my hope that scholars, authors, and artists working in comics will find through this essay a kindred spirit in Blake and his ability to imagine the new. In Blake the birth of novelty is also the rise of revolutionary possibilities. I will be using his early prophecy America, written and self-published in 1793 in the wake of the French Revolution and unrest at home in Britain, as an illustration of the concept of novelty, change, and revolution.

The problem of change is more complex than may be assumed at first glance. How can the new arise from a system of relations that determines in advance the outcome of any production? That is to say, how can the new arise from the “same dull round,” the same day-to-day workings of the commercial and capitalist regimes? Authentic innovation would have to be absolutely different and unrecognizable within the current system of affairs. I suggest in the following pages that a notion of internal difference within ontological objects drives change in Blake’s work. Objects are self-differing in the Blakean world, causing unforeseeable transformations that have echoes with the past but also invoke dynamic futures.

William Blake is the poet of transformation. Beginning with There is No Natural Religion and continuing through later works such as Jerusalem, characters undergo radical ontological change. The earliest uses of the word “become” shows Blake working within the Christian tradition as when “God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is” and “He becomes an infant small./ He becomes a man of woe” (NNR E3; SoI E17).1 Later, the ontological change that takes place when Christ becomes human spreads to more diffuse transformations, as in Jerusalem “They become like what they behold!” and “All Things become One Great Satan” (J6 5.79 E218; M 39.1 E 140). Beginning in the early 1790s, Blake imagines radical transformations such as those that take place around the character Orc, first in America and then throughout the later prophetic works: “Orc began to Organize a Serpent body” (FZ 7a-80.44; E356). To any student of Blake’s work such changes in form and being come as no surprise. It is only the uninitiated who struggle to understand why characters change. Yet, when confronted with the question of exactly how change takes place (i.e., what authorizes change), the expert becomes novice once again.2 This is in no small part because Blake himself is undermining the Western tradition of ontology and the “expert thinking” which is invested in the stability of being. Certainly the comics tradition is full of examples of radical change where characters transform shape and identity. In this regard it is possible for comics to embrace Blake as a precursor.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Blake’s use of transformation is legion, echoing the ideas of possession, demonics, animality, and instability that the Biblical image invokes (Mark 5:9). Listing the proliferations of change remains outside the scope of this essay. Rather than contain the legion, I look simply to track its dynamics and will provide a powerful early example as called forth from America. This essay, then, serves as a preliminary sketch toward the how and why of Blakean becomings. Change is not a residual effect in Blake’s work but rather a fundamental operator in his poetry.

As the early use of the word “become” shows, Blake first restricts change to spiritual transformation and particularly the dual nature of the Son of God. Around 1793 with the publication of America, Blake substantially alters his idea of transformation in order to depict political revolution. The change in essence implied by transformation disrupts notions of object, personhood, and citizenship – fundamental concepts for state control of all that falls within its borders. Saree Makdisi explains how Blake works against fundamental concepts of what counts as personhood:

In the illuminated books, the supposed freedom of the sovereign individual is shown to be compromised by the extent to which selves and others exist in a dispersed and mutually dependent network that is not really compatible with a discourse of identity and difference. Thus, the world of the illuminated books never really coheres into – in fact it precludes altogether – the simple juxtaposition of self and other in an atomized social space, which was the presupposition, the ground, of both consumerism and liberal republicanism. (6)

The solidity of self-contained individuals and boundary lines of objects as property are fundamental necessities for state governance and control. If objects are not themselves or if citizens are more than themselves, they are open to a larger arena of circulation than the restricted economies which capitalism and governance allow. As Makdisi argues throughout William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s, even a democratic model of government runs contrary to the dynamics of Blake’s prophecies, in which “meanings are generated immanently rather than by reference to transcendent and transparent or ‘self-evident truths'” (Makdisi 6). Indeed, whether the government is a monarchy or democracy, its imposition from above restricts identity and action: “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression” (MHH 24, E 44).

After the French Revolution a fear of Jacobin rebellion increased in Britain throughout the 1790s and as a consequence British laws tightened control over individuals. The laws extended the reach of the government over people, making them increasingly objects under a state apparatus. So, for example, the sedition acts (the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1790 and again in 1794, the arrest and trial of radicals Thomas Hardy and Horne Tooke in 1794, the Treason and Sedition Acts of 1795 and 1799) transform people into individual subjects and citizens. Such legal actions abstract the minute particularity of individuals to serve the transcendent law and interest of the nation. As Blake witnessed in the streets of London and even at his own trial for treason, government has the power to transform language into speech acts by which laws have their consequences on physical bodies. Those who do not follow the Urizenic “secrets of dark contemplation” written in “books formed of me-tals” are imprisoned, such as John Thelwall, or must flee in exile, such as Thomas Paine (Urizen 4:25, 23; E 72). Others are kept from speaking, for fear that their words will break with sanctioned language and produce retribution from the government. Blake’s texts – both verbal and visual – are designed to work against such abstraction from the particularity of individuals. Indeed, Blake calls into question the boundary of individuality.

The power of governmental law gives Blake a model for the power of language to effect change; yet, it is not the only source for his understanding of speech acts. Biblical language from Mosaic law to visionary prophecies also instigates changes in bodies. Blake advocates breaking the Mosaic laws which, along with governmental law, he equates with the oppression of true vision: “I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments: Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules” (MHH 23-24 E 43). Conversely, he admires the language of Biblical prophets such as Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. These Old Testament prophets foresaw the overthrow of nations and the rise of God’s chosen people. As their language functions both to predict and enact change, Blake sees them as a model for his own prophecies, such as America. If government and religious institutions use the power of words to create abstract singular units (subjects and objects) to fit within the law, then Blake uses words to undo the nets and gins of abstraction. He employs the power of prophetic language to affect bodies over and against the power of interpellation found in the law and the “thou shalt not.”

William Blake’s countervailing language functions through immanence rather than transcendence by employing what contemporary theory calls “difference in itself.” Language typically works by subsuming similarities within the abstract meaning of a word. The differences between particulars drop off. Indeed, if we paid an infinite amount of attention to the minute particulars of every object, language itself would be impossible since each object and even each part of each object anywhere and of any size and at any time would need its own proper name. To avoid such a problem, language subsumes similarities while sloughing off difference. Blake recovers the remainder, the difference between particularity and objectification, and he sets this difference in motion as a force against homogeneity: “Alone Distinction of Merit – General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.” (AnnReyn-xvii; E641).

Difference in itself – a difference without recourse to similarity – undermines the language of institutional authority and becomes the infectious element to instigate transformation. Indeed, objects contain within themselves elements that do not cohere as a part of the object’s singular identity. Once let loose rather than overlooked, disparate elements enact local changes within Blake’s work. This sense of self-difference within objects is evident in Nelson Hilton’s Literal Imagination, where he traces the shifts in meaning of key words. So, for example, the grave is the place of death, a womb for new life, and the act of engraving itself. For Donald Ault in Narrative Unbound and “Blake’s De-Formation of Neo-Aristotelianism,” boundless forces such as arising, binding, and branching supersede characters. As agents of change, such “unbound” forces transform the univocity of characters, making them appear and act differently at various moments of the narrative. It is the difference of difference – a remnant outside of the restricted economy – that makes all the difference for Blake and which Blake uses to make a revolutionary difference. Difference in itself opens the space for novelty to arise rather than “the same dull round” (NNR, E 3). He actualizes such difference through what I am calling here a logic of transformation. This essay will examine fire in America as a force beyond character that opens up a space for the new – for revolutionary change – and as such, transforms character identity and the narrative as a whole. This is a preliminary investigation which I hope to extend in a future essay to encompass other forces in the poem, particularly wheat and other agricultural elements.

Small moments of transformation can be traced back to such verbal examples as in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell where “The Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend” and to visual examples such as For Children; The Gates of Paradise where a baby is depicted as a worm, turnip, and chick which “hatching ripe breaks the shell” (E 32). However, it is in America that Blake achieves his first sustained verbal and graphic syntax of transformation. He brings together historical, mythic, and biblical elements toward a prophetic future – one that differs from what was realizable in the present of Britain in 1793 under tight libel and sedition laws.

The Rise of Forces over Character

Fire acts as the fundamental agent of change in America. Blake is able to use the boundless and protean nature of fire to bring together a variety of forces: inhuman wrath, destruction through war, trials and purification, and Biblical apocalypse. Additionally, through fire Blake provides echoes to his earlier works on historical subjects such as Edward IIIPrologue to King John, and paintings such as War Unchained and The Ordeal of Queen Emma. Because fire appears to be without boundaries or form, it is a useful expression of Blake’s thinking, in which dynamic trajectories of forces supersede character as the motivating action of his poetry. Characters are momentary participants that function as markers in tracking larger, epic events. The Ordeal of Queen Emma – drawn just before America – illustrates the power of fire. When Edward took the throne he robbed his mother of possessions and covered his treachery by accusing her of adultery, for which she was made to undergo the trial by fire. Blake depicts the trial of the queen, in which she is made to walk across nine red hot plough-shares. The queen cleanly walks over the plough-shares and so bewilders the court and her accusers. Indeed, in The Ordeal fire transforms the power and language of Edward as king and accuser. The fires turn his power against him and change the court’s perception of the queen. As a prelude to AmericaThe Ordeal shows how Blake uses “testing” fires to transform political power.

By placing forces such as fire over the role of character in his poetry, Blake is able to overturn the metaphysical and political status quo. David Erdman finds the beginnings of force over character in Edward III:

Blake abandons his characters as human beings in order to plant ironies in their speeches – a tendency that will get so completely out of control in later prophecies that his warriors will become “mountains” too gigantic for any human stage and will express their delight in the pursuit of war in language that approaches the “fi-fo-fum” variety. The irony of vision is not the irony of satire. Satire would exclaim: These are human beings acting like beasts of prey. Vision insists: These really are Beasts! (69)

Characters in Blake’s work are moments of condensation or nodes and meeting points for a variety of diverse political, religious, and artistic powers. The characters become what they behold as a result of surrounding forces prodding and shaping them. Such a field of becoming undoes a stable ontology of the subject.

The use of nodes and vectors of force as a tool for reading is not new to Blake criticism. Drawing on Northrop Frye’s observation of patterned images and patterned words in Blake’s texts, Nelson Hilton considers words as “nodal point[s]” that work to condense “multidimensional” fields of meaning. He then suggests that “critics can, in effect, unravel individual threads passing through the point, stringing the text’s words in order along a line of thought” (11). Indeed, Hilton’s Literal Imagination is an extended look at some key nodal objects. His “stringing” and “threads passing through the point” are what I have called here and elsewhere vectors and vector relations.3 Saree Makdisi uses a similar language to describe the dynamism of Blake’s works: “The world of Blake’s books is characterized instead by a series of links and synapses in which selves and others are shown to be made up of common and shared elements, and in which meanings are generated immanently rather than by reference to transcendent and transparent or ‘self-evident truths'” (Makdisi 6). Tracing the appearances of fire in America will serve as an example of “meanings [which] are generated immanently.”

Fire appears first twice. It appears in the Prophecy of America in the poem’s very first lines where “The Guardian Prince of Albion burns his nightly tent/ Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America’s shore.” The verbal text is strengthened by the image of a man facing to the left or westward and spewing flames from his trumpet. Yet, fire already appears in the Preludium which precedes the poem “proper.” The first line describes a “red Orc” and later his “writs of fire” which encircle the loins of Urthona, who figures as the fledgling nation America. The Preludium scene describes either his copulation with her or his birth from her – as suggested in the image of a man emerging from the ground at the bottom of plate 2 of the Preludium. In these first instances and instances of firstness – where primacy battles with itself – fire seems under the dominion of competing armies in the war. In the Preludium, the rebellious fires of Orc and the Americans are evident but not fully unleashed. In its facing page, the beginning of the Prophecy, fire takes on a devastating power both in the verbal and visual text, as the flames appear to serve Britain and scorch the American shores.

Even in the issue of firstness and who controls fire, it becomes evident that the flames surpass the contraries of America and Britain. At a first look, fire appears to work as a sign of each side’s fury as both nations rage and turn red with a wrath metonymic of the fire’s heat and destructive force: there is the British “The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent” and Orc alongside America as “Intense! naked! a Human fire fierce glowing” (Am 3:1, 4:8, E 52, 53). Fire serves as a sign of contraries as Britain, monarchy, hierarchy, law and slavery battle against America, democracy, equality, and freedoms. Yet rather than being the exclusive symbol and right of either side, fire marks the difference between sides, a difference that cannot be assimilated. As such, fire has a power of its own as the force of inassimilable difference that instigates change.

Singular Examples of Visual and Verbal Transformation

The power of fire to initiate transformation in America stems from Blake’s ability to think difference in itself. There are several moments in America that illustrate Blake’s experimentation with transformation of an object. Perhaps the most powerful instance is the change that takes place between plates 14 and 15.4 These plates present a crucial turn in the narrative, as the fires ostensibly possessed by the king and ravaging the colonies suddenly turn against him, his forces, and the people of Britain. In the verbal text, the last line of plate 14 (the verso side) reads: “The red fires rag’d! the plagues recoil’d! then rolled they back with fury” and the following plate (recto side) begins “On Albions Angels.” The fires shift between the two pages in the moment of between-ness and as a space of difference between the two plates, between “rolled they back with fury” and “On Albions Angels.” In plate 14 fires engulf the Americans, “Washington Franklin Pain & Warren Allen Gates & Lee,” and then on the next plate “Pestilence began in streaks of red/ Across the limbs of Albions Guardian.” The space between these two plates and between the nations provides the pause and opportunity for change. This pause is similar to the minute space and time Blake calls attention to elsewhere as the “Moment in Day that Satan cannot find” and “a World in a Grain of Sand” (M 35:42, E 136; Auguries of Innocence 1, E 490).

Transformation in Blake often takes place at the margin between worlds. Between-ness – as belonging to neither one object nor another, one side or the other – is the space of difference and a place where novelty may arise. Fittingly, on plate 4 the rebellious character Orc emerges from the Atlantic, demarcated by Blake as the space between America and Albion. Orc is the product of the irresolvable conflict between the two:

Albion I sick. America faints! Enrag’d the Zenith grew.As human blood shooting its veins all round the orbed heaven,And in the red clouds rose a Wonder o’er the Atlantic sea (Am 4:4-7 E53)

Orc as Zenith creates a new orientation in the narrative. As a dark cloud, he hovers over Albion’s Angels on their Atlantean thrones and cuts off their passage from heavens to earth. The birth of Orc heralds a new space both vertically between heaven and earth and horizontally between America and England. Returning to plates 14 and 15, between-ness and transformation appear not only in the verbal but also in the visual text. At the bottom of plate 14 a dragon spits forked fire while emerging out of the roots of a tree. This dragon resonates with the snake/phallus protruding with forked tongue from a man’s (or perhaps it is a woman’s) legs, as drawn in the middle of the page, where a dutiful youth learns to pray at the feet of his mentor as both sit under a tree. A number of the tree’s leaves are drawn at the top of the page, where a bird is depicted flying around them. In copy M of America, one of the leaves, a forked leaf at the top far right of the page, is painted red.5 As such, the leaf appears to be a flame or aflame. The object hovers between its identity as leaf and as flame. The dragon’s fire at the bottom of plate 14 transforms the leaves of the tree but so subtly that the tree appears unthreatened. The rolling back of the fires as announced textually at the bottom of the plate is seen in the small red leaf at the top of the plate and becomes obvious on the very next page where flames engulf foliage and strip a tree bare. The power of law and religion, depicted in the middle of plate 14 as the scene of tutelage, will be undone by the fires of Orc’s wrath on plate 15.

What is significant about the red leaf of plate 14 is that there is a body, the leaf, separated from an attribute, the leaf’s color. This separation of body from attribute allows for the transformation of leaf to flame. As typical of Blakean objects, the leaf is not only itself but always already figured with the possibility of becoming something else. The internal self-differing of the leaf allows for the possibility of transformation in which the object is swept up by larger forces bearing upon the narrative.6 As the reader’s eyes shuttle from plate 14 to 15 and back again, the reader becomes aware of the transformation of leaf to flame. It is this sort of separation and transformation which W. J. T. Mitchell describes in Blake’s Composite Art: “The very subject of Blake’s art is this power to transform and reshape visual imagery, and, by implication, the ability of man to create his vision in general” (37). Otherwise, to see the leaf as only a leaf is to be stuck in “Single vision & Newtons sleep” (Letters 23.verse 88 Butts11 ’02; E722). While the redness of the leaf is an attribute of autumn, it also recalls the destruction by revolutionary or apocalyptic fire on plate 15. Thus the redness of the leaf/flame puns on the word “fall” as season of the year, temporal event, and metaphysical state. Transformation thus functions both as a philosophical inquiry into how novelty arises from “the same dull round” and as a political gesture, as change takes on revolutionary significance.

Virtuality and History

In apocalyptic fashion, plague follows the flames in America. As David Erdman in Blake: Prophet against Empire and more recently Morton Paley in Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry have noted, Blake draws on the medieval and Biblical coupling of conflagration and disease (57; 61). In Chapter 9 of the Book of Revelations, a plague accompanied by fire and brimstone kills one-third of the earth’s inhabitants. Later, in Chapters 15 and 16, seven plagues are unleashed from the cups of seven angels, again accompanied by fire and hailstones. As Erdman notes, Blake is not only borrowing from Revelations but also using a more immediate source, Joshua Barnes’s History of Edward III (56). Blake’s own unfinished King Edward the Third chastises the king’s moral poverty and lust for power as he invades France, inciting war and causing the death of tens of thousands. Blake considered the Black Death, which swept across Europe and into Britain just years after the victories at Crécy and Calais, to be a judgment on the king’s conduct. In Barnes’s telling of the events, the plague is accompanied by comets, meteors, and pillars of fire. A “Sulphurous Fire” and “Stink and Pestilential Fire” spread to kill millions (Barnes cited in Erdman 58). Blake illustrated these events in his Royal Academy exhibition painting War unchained by an Angel: Fire, Famine, and Pestilence following (1784). In America, he transfers the historical and mythic events of war and plague from the 14th to the 18th century. By doing so, he creates a resonance across time.

Blake furthers the political nature of fire by borrowing from Joel Barlow’s Vision of Columbus, in which towns and villages across the colonies are burned by the British in an attempt to beat back revolution and gain submission (Erdman 26). Both Barlow and Blake redistribute the chronology of the historical events as part of their epic narratives. By adding John of Patmos’s visionary future to Barnes and Barlow, Blake places moments of British history within a larger context, a future yet to come. Such a future is not imaginable in the present of 1793 with sedition acts in place to silence protest and with the bloody revolution of France dissuading Britons from regicide. Yet, the future that does not seem possible in 1793 London becomes something else, a visionary future, the future’s future, which remains unrealizable in the present but necessary for the poet and for readers with the powers of intellectual war and imagination.

In order to be able to imagine the future’s future as a radical break from the current state of affairs, it is helpful to think of what philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls the axis of the virtual-actual, where the virtual as genuinely new is unrecognizable and unforeseeable in the real world until it actualizes change. Deleuze pits the virtual-actual against the axis of the possible-real. In the realm of the possible, the real dictates the parameters of change. Deleuze summarizes this dynamic: “While the real is in the image and likeness of the possible that it realizes, the actual, on the other hand, does not resemble the virtuality it embodies. It is difference that is primary in the process of actualization – the difference between the virtual from which we begin and the actuals at which we arrive” (Bergsonism 97). Indeed, only by taking seriously the difference of difference – i.e., a difference not subsumed within the hegemony of the current state of affairs – is it possible to think of the authentically new. Only such novelty creates the space for revolution, particularly the political, religious, and ontological change imagined by Blake. Michael Speaks summarizes the problem of the possible-real as follows: “The realization of the possible operates by the principles of limitation and resemblance. . . . nothing new is created” (xv). Revolution is expressed by innovation or corruption, by mutation that takes place over time or as time itself. Indeed, it is never a good time for a revolution according to the hegemony of/within the present. Church and state advocate a gradualist change, one along the lines of the possible-real axis in which the real spawns and authenticates its progeny. This authoritative notion of time does not produce transformation.7

Authentic change means shifts in thinking about time and how novelty arises through transformation. As Morton Paley has argued, Blake’s America is filled with Biblical and political imagery that would “imply progress towards the millennium” (59). Yet, the revolution does not arrive for the millenarians expecting change in the year 1800. As Paley and other critics have pointed out, Blake’s later prophecies can be read as a retreat from the overtly political revolution toward a change within the individual. Yet as I am suggesting, the time of revolution is untimely in respect to the axis of the possible-real.8 The virtual and untimely haunt the here and now. Such haunting has been explored by Jacques Derrida:

First suggestion: haunting is historical, to be sure, but it is not dated, it is never docilely given a date in the chain of presents, day after day, according to the instituted order of a calendar. Untimely, it does not come to, it does not happen to, it does not befall, one day, Europe, as if the latter, at a certain moment of its history, had begun to suffer from a certain evil, to let itself be inhabited in its inside, that is, haunted by a foreign guest. . . . But there was no inside, there was nothing inside before it. (4)

The difference or différance that actualizes revolution is already virtually here and now. Orc arises on plate 4 of the Prophecy but has already been chained and broken free and disseminated seeds of revolution in the Preludium – seeds which are shown sprouting in the image of a man arising from below the earth on Plate 2. Orc as the figure of revolution is no one time, “it is not dated” nor would it be enough to say that he is a cyclical figure, as the Orc cycle first advanced by Northrop Frye suggests (Hobson 45-53). Rather there is a permanent revolution, one that occupies the axis of the virtual-actual. The possibility for transformational change is already “within” the subject and objects of Western metaphysics, and so precedes any closing off of the subject as a walled “inside” which the revolution will breach. In America we see that the king is already a dragon on plate 3 before he and his minions grow black scales on plate 15 and before the scales as doorways become unhinged on plate 16. It is this unhinging in the final plate of the poem which suggests architectural change of the cathedral where the nation’s leaders are walled up, as well as an unhinging of the nation which they lead, and a reconfiguration of the individual for whom the unhinged doors signify opening the senses or “doors of perception” (MMH 14, E 39).


Transformation – in this case instigated by fire – serves as a window onto the visionary future. Indeed, the seeming impossibility of Blakean “becomings” both facilitates and require the triumph of Inspiration over (historical) Memory – “The Daughters of Memory shall/ become the Daughters of Inspiration” (Milton preface, E 95).9 It appears unlikely, or perhaps impossible, for objects and characters to differ from themselves in such radical ways, for men not only to act like beasts but become beasts – as Erdman says of the poet’s Edward III. Thinking of such production of novelty defies the moral edict of good sense and reason’s demand for common sense; yet, while difficult, such imagining or “inspiration” is necessary for thinking outside of the current state of affairs. Transformation signals that there are forces larger than kings and governments. It places hope in alternative forces and aleatory trajectories that, like the mobs on America’s shore and the multitude of Britain, create new directions both for Blake’s narrative and for a visionary future. From small moments and points – a grain of sand or a moment in time that Satan cannot find – arises novelty, the possibility that things can be new and different from the “same dull round.” As Ronald Bogue explains, the aleatory point serves as “a self-differentiating (i.e. generative) differentiation (through divergent determinations) differing from itself (nowhere itself fixed, stable or possessed of a single identity)” (26). The small leaf aflame on plate 14 of copy M is enough to signal a turning of the tide in the multitude that throw down their weapons and stand naked – tested by the fires – on plate 15. As the fires roll back on Albion’s Angel: “The millions sent up a howl of anguish and threw off their hammerd mail/ And cast their swords & spears to earth, & stood a naked multitude” (Am 15:4-5 E 57). Blake may have in mind here the close of Prologue to King John where he imagines such a clamoring multitude re-forming society after war, blood, and death: “O yet may Albion smile again, and stretch her peaceful arms, and raise her golden head, exulting! Her citizens shall throng about her gates, her mariners shall sing upon the sea, and myriads shall to her temples crowd! Her sons shall joy as in the morning! Her daughters sing as to the rising year!” (E 339-40). The “O yet” and future tense keep Blake’s sketch in this prologue from carrying the direct visionary zeal he shows elsewhere. It is a future to come and only just glimpsed in the visual and verbal text of America.

In a brief conclusion, I would like to turn to the issues at stake in ImageTexT and the comics discussed in this journal. Comics promise the opportunity of exercising the virtual in ways similar to those enacted by William Blake and exemplified in America. There will always be comics that remain within the axis of the possible-real. Yet, the limitations of mimesis and representation call for prophetic works like those of Blake’s illuminated prophecies in which forces larger than character move from residual roles to primary agents of change. Blake selectively moves all of history with him. He rescues from the real – from already demarcated history – moments of revolution and fires of transformation as in the American Revolution, the fires in Edward III’s war with France, Queen Emma’s tests by fire and the flames of Biblical apocalypse. Blake turns these moments into actualizations of the virtual and an untold story of a future yet to come which haunts Blake’s and the reader’s present. The ontological shifts that seem impossible in traditional representational narratives become part of the fabric of Blake’s visionary poetry. Such work actualizes its virtuality for and in the reader who opens “the doors of perception,” and in the larger world to which the reader returns after closing the illuminated poems.


[1] All quotations of Blake’s work are taken from The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Anchor, 1982. I first provide the text name along with plate and, if applicable, line number followed by the page number in Erdman’s text.

[2] Because expert thinking sanctions established parameters of thought, it shuts down rather than opens up the conditions and possibilities for authentic novelty in thought and opportunities for change. Outside expert thinking, “the idea of human completeness disappears” (Baker 39, Phillips 7).

[3] See Broglio, Ron, “Becoming-Zoa,” Visible LanguageLanguage 33.2 (Fall 1999): 128-49 and Broglio, Ron, Marcel O’Gorman and William Ruegg, “Digging Transformation in Blake: What the Mole Knows about the New Millennium,” The Wordsworth Circle, Summer 1999, 30.3. 144-53.

[4] For examples of paired images, paired pages, and transformations, see W.J.T. Mitchell’s Blake’s Composite Art: a Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Mitchell describes several transformations. In plate 44 of Jerusalem, a serpent becomes a flame, a leaf, and then a tendril (37). In The Book of Urizen plate 17 copy B, hair becomes a waterfall and/or a network of veins (60). Oothoon is connected to a flame-like wave in plate 4 of Visions of the Daughter’s of Albion (66). While Mitchell points out such perceptual changes in images, his understanding of how transformations take place relies on a synthetic a priori template of four forms (circle as eye, spiral as ear, S-curve as tongue, and inverted U as nose) which serve “the schematic constituents of pervasive symbolic style” (63).

[5] For readers unfamiliar with Blake’s illuminated works, it should be explained that he printed different copies of a work at different times and he or his wife Catherine colored the plates differently in each copy, thus adding to the importance of minute particulars in his texts. In this instance, I am referring to copy M in the Yale Library. For further comparison between copies, The Blake Archive provides a feature on their website by which any copy of a plate can be compared with other copies.

[6] A focused example of such transformations is theorized in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. An orchid is becoming-wasp by tracing on the orchid the outline of the wasp and by functioning as part of the wasp’s alimentary system. At the same time, the wasp is becoming-orchid by transferring pollen and functioning as part of the orchid’s reproductive system (10). Deleuze first takes up the question of becoming in The Logic of Sense. For example, see the first series in Logic and later the becoming-grey of the butterfly (1-3, 71, 178-79).

[7] The speed of change is an issue in Romantic period geography as well where changes in the earth’s surface take on political meaning. Uniformitarians such as James Hutton believed that the earth changed gradually over time, the political corollary being the current balance of power between Parliament and the crown in Britain. Meanwhile Jacobins supported Georges Cuvier’s theory of Catastrophism in which the earth changed due to violent geological upheavals.

[8] For a counter-argument to Paley, see David Baulch’s “‘If the acts have been perform’d let the Bard himself witness’: William Blake’s Milton and MOO space.” Baulch explains that “The value of thinking of Milton through the trope of the possession of identities [is that it allows the reader as participant] to be immersed in an aesthetic experience of a potentially apocalyptic moment, but the apocalypse of Milton conceived of this way is not so much about the end of the world as it is about the potential for a kind of agency that can produce a critique of ideology.”

[9] While time and space have not allowed me to extend this notion of revolutionary novelty further, I would like to suggest possible directions. The question is well advanced philosophically by Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality while Antonio Negri takes up the new in relation to Marx and politics in Time for Revolution. I am drawing from part one of Negri’s “The Constitution of Time” in this text as well as the opening sections from Whitehead on concrescence.


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