William Blake and the Urban Landscape of Apocalypse

This paper was presented at the 2009 International Conference on Romanticism in New York, NY.

William Blake and the Urban Landscape of Apocalypse

Throughout his illuminated works, William Blake utilizes the city as a complex symbol of urban apocalypse and millennium.  From the decidedly condemnatory “London” in the Songs of Experience to the fully developed Golgonooza in Jerusalem, Blake is constantly evolving his idea of the city and the role it plays in the renovation of imagination.  Though the goal of a temporal millennium was not reached in his lifetime through the American or French Revolution, Blake utilizes the image of the city in his poetry and art to affect a mental apocalypse and millennium in the minds of his readers – what cultural critic David Dark terms an “everyday apocalypse.”  In this way, the city becomes a space in which this everyday apocalypse can occur.  This, then, allows for the conception of the city that takes in both its positive and negative aspects.  It recognizes industrial London as a location of corruption, injustice, and oppression – a place in need of the purging of apocalypse and the peace of millennium.  However, it also allows for a positive conception of the city as Golgonooza, the “spiritually four-fold London” which possesses the power to renovate vision and bring about the millennium within individual hearts and minds.  Thus, throughout his poetry and art, but especially in Milton and Jerusalem, Blake is constantly locating apocalypse and millennium within a specifically urban space – the two poles of London, and its spiritual representation, Golgonooza.  Thus the city, for Blake, is a node, a fissure, through which the true nature of society can be glimpsed, along with a vision of the new, renovated millennial city of the New Jerusalem – a city that is established through a “mental fight” in the minds of “England’s green & pleasant Land.”

Blake, perhaps more than any of the other major British Romantics, was a decidedly urban poet.  Born and raised in London, Blake only left it once over the course of his life, during his three year sojourn at Felpham.  As such, he clearly understood and was attached to the city in all of its many facets.  He saw firsthand the rapid changes that occurred in London at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and was cognizant of the complex texture of 18th century urban life.  Because, in part, of this exposure to London life, Blake was also exposed to the multitude of apocalyptic and millenarian ideologies of the time which spread like wildfire among urban populations.

Because Blake was so familiar with the discourse of these millenarians (even associating with the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem for a short time) and their rhetoric, it should come as no surprise that such themes made its way into his work.  Though he never went so far as to join one of these movements for an extended period of time, nevertheless the rhetoric of apocalypse and millennium is integral to almost all of his illuminated works.  Much excellent criticism has been written on this aspect of Blake’s work.  Morton Paley’s Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry is, of course, foundational to understanding how these popular millennial movements influenced all of the major Romantic poets.  David Erdman’s still invaluable Blake: Prophet Against Empire brilliantly lays out the political landscape in which such movements occurred.  A more recent collection, edited by Tim Fulford titled, Romanticism and Millenarianism also provides excellent background on the confluences between the two movements.

Blake’s utilization of the city as an important symbol in his works has also been explored, though less extensively.  Once again, Erdman was foundational in establishing Blake’s London as the actual London of the 1790’s and Blake’s critique of it as a political critique.  Kenneth Johnston, in an article titled “Blake’s Cities: Romantic Forms of Urban Renewal,” takes Erdman as his starting point, but begins to complicate Blake’s conception of the city by arguing that Blake actually uses London to figure urban and imaginative renewal.  Jennifer Michael’s book Blake and the City, takes this one step further, recognizing that Blake, as a life-long city, dweller had a far more complicated relationship to the city than has been previously imagined.  She argues that, “The city for Blake is not the absence or the negation of nature, but rather an unstable synthesis of human artifact and organic environment, both imaginatively constructed” (19).

What I want to argue is that, in Blake, the discourses of urbanization and millenarianism collide; for the millennial movements of “prophets” like Richard Brothers, Joanna Southcott, and Emmanuel Swedenborg could not have occurred without the social networks that cities were uniquely suited to provide.  Made up of a populace of mostly poor, working class families who had relatively recently relocated to the city in search of work, the message of people like Brothers (and indeed even more conservative “mainstream” movements like Methodism), was ideally suited for an audience beaten down by the Industrial Revolution.  Not only did such ideologies envision the destruction of these systems of oppression, but also the establishment of a heavenly city in the millennium in which the power structures would be abolished and peace and justice reign.  The numbers of people who joined such movements were significant.  For example, by 1808 over 100,00 people had accepted the “seals of salvation” from Joanna Southcott (Fulford 7). Such and audience would have been difficult, if not impossible, to gain before the advent of the modern city.  Thus, the conception of the city, for the millenarians, is not as straightforward as some would have us believe.  The city is not simply or solely an unmitigated evil, but also a symbol of hope, a faint shadow of what the heavenly city will be – an equalizing bringing together of people of every nation and tribe into a centralized, uniquely urban setting.

This, then, is where the work of Blake explicitly connects with both the apocalyptic millenarian traditions and early industrial urbanization.  For, though loosely associated with Swedenborg for a short time, Blake soon became disenchanted and even explicitly refused to join the other millennial sects when invited.  Thus, though clearly attracted to the idea of the apocalyptic, it is clear that Blake viewed it much more as primarily an imaginative or mental apocalypse.  Much as Christ always spoke of a spiritual revolution to confused disciples who expected a political, temporal one, so Blake’s mental apocalypse stands apart from the purely political one prophesied by people like Brothers and Southcott.

If we follow this assumption, though, it becomes important to clarify what we mean by “apocalypse” and “millennium.”  In traditional Christian thought, “apocalypse” is connected to some future cataclysmic event that will bring time to an end and inaugurate a new millennium (Paley 2-3).  These were the types of millennial prophecies that people like Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott engaged in – literal predictions about the worlds end, usually linked to real events of the time (such as the French Revolution) which were meant to bring about a millennium of peace.  However, “apocalypse” as a key part of eschatology is only part of its meaning.  As Paley argues, “The apocalyptic mode, both in the Bible and in secular literature, involves a seer who communicates his visions, and these apocalyptic truths are conveyed not as pure spiritual transmission, but through images and words” (2-3).  Thus apocalypse and the resultant millennium become far more concerned with present day reality and modes of seeing this reality.

This interpretation of apocalypse is in concert with the Biblical tradition; for the great apocalyptic writers like Daniel and John also describe their apocalyptic visions in terms of “seeing” and “vision.”  For example, Daniel chapter 7 begins with an account of one of his apocalyptic visions:  “In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream, and told the sum of the matters” (7:1).  Likewise John begins his Revelation by describing it in terms of what he saw:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.

And John continues, throughout the book to use this seeing as a way of describing his revelation.  It is also important to note that both Daniel and John not only saw these visions, but they also wrote them down so that they could be transmitted – indicating that the renovation of their own vision was not enough, others needed to experience it.  Thus the apocalyptic is not simply concerned with what will come to pass at the end of time, but also with changing hearts and minds in anticipation of that millennial end, of bringing the future into the present.

In his book Everyday Apocalypse, cultural critic David Dark draws on this sense of the apocalyptic to argue that, “We apparently have the word “apocalypse” all wrong.  In its root meaning, its not about destruction or fortune-telling; its about revealing…. The real world, within which you’ve lived and moved and had your being, has unveiled itself” (10).  Thus the “everyday apocalypse” is the moment, the space within which we experience the infinite in the seemingly mundane.  It is the moment in which we “see” (if we are really looking) the true nature of reality and the status quo.  According Dark:

Apocalyptic changes everything.  Its intense attention to the minute particulars, to the infinity forever passing before our eyes, can leave us feeling ashamed of our ongoing impenetrability to the immediate.  It creates an unrest within our minds, and it can only be overcome by imagining differently, by giving in to its aesthetic authority, by letting it invigorate the lazy conscience. (10)

Thus the apocalyptic not only exposes us to the “minute particulars” of the truly, imaginatively real, it also motivates change – a renovation of imagination that contains within it the power to effect society.

Though the word “apocalypse” does carry with it, even for Blake, some of the connotations of destruction, fire, and brimstone – more often than not he uses it to describe this renovation of vision, this “everyday apocalypse” that Dark outlines, which inaugurates a new millennial age.  It is here that the apocalyptic intersects with Blake’s work most clearly, for he also describes his work in terms of visions that he sees and then, not only writes down, but also illustrates so that others might see as well.  In a letter to William Hayley dated May 6, 1800, Blake writes, “Thirteen years ago. I lost a brother [Robert] & with his spirit I converse daily & hourly in the Spirit. & I see him in my remembrance in the regions of my Imagination.  I hear his advice & even now write from his Dictate” (Erdman 705). Furthermore, in Jerusalem he claims that the verses were “dictated” to him, indicating that the source of this vision came from outside of himself.  These lines are explicitly addressed “To the Public,” indicating that all that is to come concerning Golgonooza, Jerusalem, and the apocalyptic renovation of imagination is intended to affect such an “everyday apocalypse,” in his readers.

To better understand how this dynamic of a specifically urban apocalypse operates in Blake, we must examine the way in which he frames the movement from the temporal London to the spiritual Golgonooza.  This is best understood by examining the poem “London” from the Songs of Experience, and the poem that most explicitly connects back to and expands the themes of “London” – Jerusalem.  Though Blake begins to develop his city of Golgonooza in The Four Zoas and Milton, it is in Jerusalem that this “spiritual fourfold London” comes to its fullest expression and connects most explicitly with both the temporal London and the millennial New Jerusalem.  Furthermore, by explicitly referencing his earlier poem on London, which depicted the brutal oppression possible in the modern city, Blake is intentionally calling readers attention to the renovation of mental vision represented in the renewal of the spiritual city.

“London” from the Songs of Experience is the poem most often linked to Blake’s representation of the city.  In it, he paints a vivid picture of 1790’s London, a place that had changed rapidly during Blake’s lifetime due to the events of the Industrial Revolution:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe, (Erdman 46)

The city is thus figured in terms of the people who inhabit it – people who, increasingly, were of the working class, victims of economic forces beyond their control.  This is further indicated in the illustration of the plate, which depicts a child leading and old man by the hand.  The old man, who represents London, is bent and careworn; he is moving from left to right across the plate towards a closed door.  The aesthetic of the whole is that of entrapment, entombment (similar to “Death’s Door) – of the woe possible in the modern city.

However, it is what causes such weakness and woe that truly interests Blake.  In the second stanza he identifies the primary cause of this desolation:

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice; in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear (italics mine, Erdman 46)

What is important in this stanza, for the purposes of this study, is that the manacles that cause men to cry and infants to fear are “mind-forg’d.”  In other words, the injustice in London is a result of mental and imaginative oppression.  In this conception of oppression and injustice, Blake gets right to the heart of the matter by recognizing that it is primarily a society and culture of mental stagnation that makes evil possible.

The final two stanzas of the poem bear this out by describing the types of evil that occur when human beings are held captive by mental chains:

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born Infants tear

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse (Erdman 46)

A social order in which the established church conspires with army and King is only possible in a society held captive by mind-forg’d manacles and the social ills of the fourth stanza are a further reflection upon this reality.

If the forces that of evil in 1790’s London are in fact mind-forg’d, are primarily mental oppressions, then the only way out is through a “mental fight,” like the one Blake describes in the preface to Milton.  This mental fight is also must occur within the landscape of the city for, once again, this lyric promises to not cease the mental fight “Till we have built Jerusalem / In Englands green & pleasant Land” (Erdman 1[i]).  By invoking the notion of building Jerusalem on England’s land, Blake is not only referring to Jerusalem as Albion’s emanation, but as the millennial city of the new Jerusalem which will come to earth, establishing a new order of justice and peace that will replace the old urban social order.

This theme of a specifically urban renovation of mental vision is further carried out in the poem Jerusalem.  In fact, the almost identical image utilized in London is brought back near the end of Jerusalem as the apocalypse is beginning to unfold.  Plate 84 once again depicts the elderly figure of London being led by a young child – however this time the old man is being led from right to left, from darkness to light, and towards an open space that depicts the spires of a city church and the rising sun.  The text that accompanies this scene echoes the miserable picture painted in the Songs of Experience:

I see London blind & age-bent begging thro the Streets

Of Babylon, led by a child. his tears run down his beard

The voice of Wandering Reuben ecchoes from street to street

In all the Cities of the Nations Paris Madrid Amsterdam

The Corner of Broad Street weeps; Poland Street languishes

To Great Queen Street & Lincolns Inn all is distress & woe. (Erdman 84)

Clearly, London is still in a slave to its mind-forg’d manacles, but the movement from darkness to light depicted in the illustration seems to indicate that there is a hope of positive movement, of urban renovation as a result of individual apocalyptic vision.

This is further born out by the contrast struck earlier on the same plate between the millennial city of Jerusalem and the human city of Babylon:

Highgates heights & Hampsteads, to Poplar Hackney & Bow:

To Islington & Paddington & the Brook of Albions River

We builded Jerusalem as a City & a Temple: from Lambeth

We began our Foundations; lovely Lambeth! O lovely Hills

Of Camberwell, we shall behold you no more in glory & pride

For Jerusalem lies in ruins & the Furnaces of Los are builded there

You are now shrunk up to a narrow Rock in the midst of the Sea

But here we build Babylon on Euphrates. (Erdman 84)

Note that once again the building or undoing of Jerusalem and Babylon is an ongoing process, once that occurs constantly depending on the state of human imagination and vision.  Furthermore, this building of symbolic cities explicitly occurs upon the geography of London.  It is on “Highgates heights & Hampsteads” etc, that Jerusalem is built “as a City & a Temple;” and the foundations are located in Lambeth – which is symbolic of such imaginative energy for Blake.  However, this image of Jerusalem is contrasted to that of Babylon, which destroys the vision of Jerusalem and enslaves its people, which forces, “our Little-ones to clothe in armour of the gold / Of Jerusalems Cherubims & to forge them swords of her Altars” (Erdman 85).  Thus London, imagined as the age-bent man being led by the child, has the potential to be both Jerusalem and Babylon depending on the extent to which its people engage in apocalyptic vision – and the imaginative city of Golgonooza provides the framework for this renovation of seeing.

Golgonooza is, of course, Blake’s city of imagination, built by Los as the center of creative energy in the human mind.  Not only this but, in Jerusalem, Golgonooza is constantly conflated with and contrasted against the earthly city of London.  A full exploration of the complex symbolism of Golgonooza is beyond the scope of this study, but plate 53 contains the most compact (and for our purposes useful) description of its connection to both the city and apocalyptic vision:

Here on the banks of the Thames. Los builded Golgonooza.

Outside of the Gates of the Human Heart, beneath Beulah

In the midst of the rocks of the Altars of Albion. In fears

He builded it. in rage & in fury. It is the Spiritual Fourfold

London: continually building & continually decaying desolate!

In eternal labours (Erdman 53).

In this passage it is the location and function of Golgonooza that is emphasized; and both are crucially connected to the city as location of “everyday apocalypse.”  Los builds Golgonooza “on the banks of the Thames… Outside the Gates of the Human Heart, beneath Beulah / In the midst of the rocks of the Altars of Albion” thus locating it within the temporal space of London, inside the individual human body, and upon the body of the fallen Albion.  Thus, in intentionally conflating Golgonooza with London, even describing it as the “Spiritual Fourfold London,” Blake is seeking to provide a contrast between the city of imagination and the city of oppression.  Nevertheless, by connecting the two so closely and by also locating Golgonooza “Outside the Gates of the Human Heart,” he also seems to be suggesting that the renovation of the London, and the corruption and oppression suggested by London, are only possible via the renovation of human hearts through the use of apocalyptic vision.

This imaginative renovation of individual minds is thus what inaugurates the millennium, not the dramatic fiery destruction of Revelation.  Thus, the millennium occurs most vividly within human hearts, bursting the “mind-forg’d manacles” and is then able to shine on, providing visions of apocalypse to society at large.  Here as well, though, Blake is always cognizant of the fact that this is a continual process.  Golgonooza is “continually building & continually decaying desolate! / In eternal labours.” On this point he clearly departs from the rhetoric of contemporary popular millenarians like Brothers and Southcott in that the millennium, for him, is something that is continually being built up or torn down depending upon the extent to which human beings embrace the apocalyptic new way of seeing that Blake is suggesting in Golgonooza.  Thus the city is both the location of decay and renovation.

This apocalyptic bursting of “mind-forg’d manacles” which inaugurates Golgonooza’s imaginative millennium is carried to completion at the end of the poem when Albion reawakes and is reunited with Jerusalem, now in the form of Brittania. This moment is the most “traditionally” millennial in the poem, with the arisen Albion finally standing before Jesus and the world about to be renewed.  Here the image that accompanies the poem is that of Albion arisen, embracing the naked figure of Brittania.  However, it is interesting to note that here Albion is portrayed as an old man; in fact the illustration is strikingly similar to the age-bent London in plate 84.  As is often the case with Blake’s illustrations, his images often bear a multiplicity of references and identities.  Thus, though this image most explicitly references Albion, there is an echo of the age-bent London, now erect and joyful. Furthermore, the embrace of Brittania (the united Vala and Jerusalem) further enhances the image; making it possible to read the embrace as a unification of the earthly city of London and the millennial city of Jerusalem.

Due to this unique utilization of Golgonooza as the urban location of an apocalyptic renovation of vision, Blake is thus able to use the symbol of the city in a holistic manner.  He is able to both brutally expose the injustices of industrial London and embrace the city as a symbol of hope through apocalypse and millennial restoration in which the city becomes a vision of a restored and equal society.  However, for Blake, this is a gradual process, which takes place continually and imaginatively in human hearts and minds.  For it is only when the mind has been freed and restored that the city can be renovated as well.  As David Dark puts it, “Apocalyptic maximizes the reality of human suffering and folly before daring a word of hope… The hope has nowhere else to happen but in the valley of the shadow of death” (10).  Thus the New Jerusalem is only possible on the backdrop of temporal London, the apocalypse can only peek through darkness of the status quo and shine its millennial light through imaginative fissures in the surface of the real.

Works Cited

Blake, William. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Dark, David. Everyday Apocalypse. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2002.

Erdman, David V., ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. New York: Anchor, 1988.

Fulford, Tim, ed. Romanticism and Millenarianism. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Michael, Jennifer Davis. Blake and the City. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2006.

Paley, Morton D. Apocalypse and Millenium in English Romantic Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon, 1999.

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