Madness and Blake's myth

Youngquist, Paul Bruce, Department of English, University of Virginia

Criticism has traditionally resisted confronting the troubling issue of madness and its relation to William Blake's myth. To a certain extent this issue originates in social conditions that squelch the very qualities that Blake wanted to celebrate: desire, innocence, enthusiasm, and above all vision. To illuminate this social mechanism, I draw upon the early work of Michel Foucault, whose Madness and Civilization interprets madness as an historical phenomenon. I lay as much stress, however, upon psychological as social explanations of madness. Blake's myth in fact demands this approach, for it dramatizes the dissociation of a unified mind and organizes this dynamic into a powerful symbol of breakdown and recovery. To interpret this highly psychological symbolism, I turn to contemporary clinical research, for it leads to the conclusion that Blake's myth is about madness. Over the course of his career, Blake displaces more and more of his own experience onto the drama of his myth, which thus acquires a therapeutic function as a defense against the madness it depicts.

As it develops, Blake's myth becomes, to apply his own phrase, a "refuge from unbelief," a structure that would legitimate vision while accounting for its disappearance from the world. The increasingly dramatic character of this poetry, which grows from lyric into myth, shows Blake using his mythology to defend against antagonists of vision. Because tragedy presents the greatest challenge to a poetry of vision, I investigate the influence of Shakespeare's King Lear upon Blake's unengraved poem Tiriel. In Tiriel Blake fails to overcome the challenge of the tragic and turns to myth in part to explain the madness central to Shakespeare's play. The Book of Urizen thus dramatizes the dissociation of a universal sensibility into the fragmented mentality that in Blake's view makes tragedy possible. Blake develops this psycho-drama on a grand scale in The Four Zoas, which I interpret as a comprehensive symbolism of schizophrenia in the Ancient Man, Blake's symbol for the originally collective identity that shatters with the Fall into multiple selfhoods. I also examine the compensatory function of this private mythology, a function that becomes even more conspicuous in Milton and Jerusalem. In his late poems Blake labors defensively, securing vision at the high price of quietism and avoiding madness with the therapeutics of his art.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Blake, William -- 1757-1827 -- Criticism and interpretation, Authors, English -- Mental health
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