Structure as a key to meaning in William Blake’s The Four Zoas

Cover of Shakespeare’s Heir: Blake’s Doors of Perception in Jerusalem and The Four ZoasDavid Whitmarsh’s huge Doctorate (531 pages) is the first full scale study of The Four Zoas.  His is the first virtually line-by-line analysis of Blake’s emendations, additions and deletions, and the several clear stages of the manuscript’s development: namely, two major stages in which are written Night VII(a) and Night VII(b) respectively, and one minor stage that unites the two which includes a final drift of penciled additions to fuse the earlier stages.  A major textual hypothesis is the multi-linear narrative reconciliation of the two versions of Night VII, for they are in a stereo-textual unity.  As different sounds from two speakers form a third unscripted sound in the imagination of the listener, so, too, Night VII(a) and VII(b) form a stereo-textual unity in the mind of the reader.  Neither of the Nights VII is a prequel, or sequel, to the other Night VII.  Blake’s multi-linear narrative throughout the other Nights, from Night I to Night IX, is thereby revealed; the ‘golden string’ of the plot is clearly defined, and the parts seen and understood in terms of the poem as an aesthetic whole.

Blake’s structure is presented here as analogous to the multi-linear structure and ruling systems of a multi-level game, and this game is Blake’s mythology.   At first sight, the levels of The Four Zoas may seem complicated, but, once the few ‘game rules’ of the mythology are understood the epic moves swiftly and clearly from beginning to end.  There are no shortcuts for some things need to be understood for there are poetic features unique to Blake.   Features like Blake’s narrative levels, the names of his characters and their psychic and material powers, and the names of the various places and buildings and cities need to be understood in textual context.  It is suggested, given its reputation for difficulty, that once the reader is confident with Blake’s landscapes and figures, perhaps by reading it through once, then, self-empowered, on a second reading, The Four Zoas should be appreciated as a beautifully crafted aesthetic whole. 

In the peer review of Dr Whitmarsh-Knight’s Doctorate scholarship on The Four Zoas, the major Canadian poet and literary critic Emeritus Professor Frederick Cogswell wrote his research was “brilliant”, “a remarkable contribution”, a “major breakthrough” that “challenges the views of … greats in the field” and a “significant contribution to knowledge”.  Because of our extraordinary very recent developments in fields like the mathematical sciences and cosmology, the computer and technology, understanding of the psycho-physical nature of mind, the economics of slavery, war, medicine and media, all in an age of apocalyptic global catastrophes and the racial elitism of religious hatreds, Blake’s The Four Zoas speaks to our times, for it engages such issues.

Thus, for the first time, The Four Zoas is shown to have a stable beginning, a clear, logically related mythology, active in a multi-linear causal narrative and plot, and a reasonable closure which draws together the poem’s major themes in an apocalypse.  David Whitmarsh’s unpublished Doctorate (1984) was unread by the writers of every later study till electronic publication in 2003 [e.g. Ault (1987) Freeman (1987) Lincoln (1995) Otto (1991, 2000) Pierce (1998, 2002) Rothenburg (1993) et al.] and he had resolved most of the problems raised by these writers before their later publications, such as the poem’s stages of composition, revisions, additions and deletions, textual architecture, plot and linear narrative, and its beginning, narrative coherence and closure.  In contrast, it is thus fresh to the field.  It was published as a virtual web publication 2003, the site receives some 100 visits and 1000 hits daily and in response to many requests for a hard copy, the study is now available in printed form.

In summary, The Four Zoas is proven to be a beautifully crafted aesthetic unity that can be grasped as a whole, as one can grasp those major writers of dramatic epic known to have strongly influenced Blake, like Milton, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, and, also, those moderns known to be strongly influenced by Blake, like Auden, Joyce, Tolkien and Whitman.  Since 1984, this study has meant that Blake’s The Four Zoas should be read as a consciously crafted and reasonably completed aesthetic masterpiece with most of the apparent textual difficulties resolved.  In other terms, The Four Zoas should not be seen as non-linear, structurally fractal, plotless and impenetrable, or as lacking in narrative linear causality, or as mythically, theologically, or psychologically confused.  It is most certainly shown to be none of these, but, rather, it should have been seen as a marvelous epic adventure into the psychology of hubris and trauma, love and sacrifice, war and slavery, catatonic withdrawal into madness, and healing through intervention of love within and without. 

Like spiral lines inside a vortex, the narrative traces Albion’s collapse within, from Albion’s circumference inwards in all directions to his centre and to a concentrated, compacted darkness that is Blake’s vision of one-fold death. After four-fold Divine intervention at the compacted centre a chiastic reversal to the circumference follows, that is the apocalypse.  The reverse vortex reunites Albion’s masculine and feminine energies.  The flow and counter flow of chiastic vortices show the intricate interlacement of the four levels of energy form and event.  Simply put, it is necessary, for example, for the dead, or the exhausted ‘minute particular’ unique space/times of all Albion’s energies who live and die in generation, to be awakened too, and, logically the dead parts of Albion are raised with him as a whole. The crucial chiastic event is Divine energy revealing infinite life to finite two-fold life.  Albion is healed of division and awakened to sanity, unity with nature, life, death and rebirth in four-fold life. 

“The grandest poem ever written” was Blake’s view of the years he spent writing, editing and sketching for The Four Zoas.  Perhaps he is not wrong for David Whitmarsh’s shows The Four Zoas to be a reasonably completed though not an etched or otherwise printed epic.  As a spiritual jewel from one of the greatest of poets and artists, its value is inestimable.