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Vol. 45 no. 3: Winter 2011–12

Laura Quinney, William Blake on Self and Soul

11 January 2012
04 Sep. 2022


William Blake on Self and Soul discusses fundamentally interesting topics: Blake’s relation to empiricism and Gnosticism, and his struggle with existential alienation. But the book applies a preconceived framework to his poetry, and this has an unfortunate steamroller effect: it flattens out the texts in its path and moves straight ahead, passing by much that would be helpful, and even necessary, to its purpose.

To summarize the framework: “the essential uneasiness of consciousness” (85) is exacerbated by empiricism, a “Science [of] Despair” (Milton 41.15, E 142) that renders the self “intangible” and the world “real” (12). The soul’s intuition of its “transcendental provenance” (xiii), discounted by empiricism, is experientially true, for Blake and all human beings. For remedy, Blake pursues Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, but with a twist, rejecting the individual immortal soul in favor of “the Human Imagination” and the afterlife in favor of “the Eternal Now” (21). He describes the problem in the early illuminated books, then develops his solution, which leads from personal agency in The Four Zoas to individual reformation in Milton and ultimately to self-sacrifice in Jerusalem.