The Devouring and the Prolific:
The Confusion and Dynamics of Poetic Production surrounding Blake

Janet Bruesselbach
Orig. for "Blake and Hogarth"
With Alexander Gourlay


          Blake's system of the world derives from self-reflexivity, so that his concern with artistic production is a principal theme in his work, and one of the most confusing. The theme of the devouring and the prolific he introduces in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell structures a way to think about engraving and reading his words and images. The most interesting way of discussing a text is to follow its code. Blake's way of seeing the world encourages one to interpret in a Blakean manner, which really implies a struggle against the Blakean function of rhetorical confusion in order to contain him.

          It is important to recognize the fantastical nature of meta-theories. Blake's disorienting poetic style helps undermine the mythological structure of his meta-narrative. For the sake of productivity we must limit dualism's function to the self-referential subject of the creative process in Blake's poetry. In the metaphorical framework of the Prolific and the Devouring, creativity is independent from productivity. The poet organizes roles in the world according to states in which he finds himself: productive and creative, which is consumptive. The process of production is the only situation in which creativity is wholly productive, and we see more instances in Blake than others of creation in production, as in "filler" areas on lines. Obviously, some books communicate more creative thought than others despite representing the same amount of work. Simple ideas are often stated in complicated ways without the producer noticing; this is uncreative productivity. The role of originality is tied up in this non-recognition of the similarity of thoughts.

          Originality, which T.S. Eliot in his modernist critique of Blake takes as his principal concern and contempt, is a matter of unique combinations of consumed ideas, so we can say that Blake is unique in that he combines the surface arguments of many sources into newly named mythologies. The productive or imaginative qualities which begin as ideas of energy in the earlier works we will examine Blake ultimately gives the identity of Los (the fallen Urthona) that is outside the conflict of reason and feeling, and that Northrop Frye identifies as Blake's poetic ideal for whom the world of experience "is real only as the material cause of his work"(512). Frye assumes a difference between material and imaginative that Blake would see as a fallen division, but necessary for work to occur. A divisive structure is a function of the prolific, and requires collapse by the devouring to renew itself. Blake constructs with the assumption that his construction is deceptive, and in this he is inspired by seeing Milton's Satan as the poet, the constructor of persuasive words and perversely logical arguments. Confusion is deliberate and furthers the intent of dynamic cohesion. "When we say that two things are identical, we mean that they are very similar; in other words "identity is a meaningless word in ordinary experience"(Frye 516) and only means anything within poetry. If a character can pertain to whatever qualities are necessary of the poetry, the character (or symbol, or idea) both becomes infinitesimally unique and equivalent with all other ideas.

          Rather than by strict chronology, we can start identifying the Prolific/Devouring dichotomy by examining its only explicit appearance in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. We especially examine the context for the dichotomy, which re-emerges wherever the words are used in other works. Plates 15 and 16 of the Marriage are self-referential to the etching process, as they consist of "A Memorable Fancy" in which the narrator "was in a Printing House in Hell& saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation." Here follows a squiggle that becomes a spiraling line. The spiral figures often in Blake; like the human figure, it is particularly fun to draw, so that an inclination to draw these elements unites with their significance for Blake. The spiral appears again in the shape of the snake held by an eagle at the bottom of the page, and could signify the repetitive quality of time (time, in the Gnostic tradition, being an illusion and result of the fall), hence the association with "generation to generation" where it fills that line. The other places where a spiral appears are all connected with circular reasoning.

          The organization of stages in "printing by the infernal method by corrosives", as Plate 14 calls it, is strange, because up until the fifth or even sixth stage the description has very little to do with the printing metaphor and instead inflates Blake's often-used metaphor, Plato-derived, of the cave. The trans-physical synesthesia of the passage is hinted at by the first description indicating that "the notion than man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged" by printing in such a method, which is also a fantasy allegory of the engraving process Blake uses. The "corrosives" are to be used for "melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid. "When the corrosive burns away the copper, the words and images left in the resist not only could be infinite in variation but signify and are therefore the realm of infinite thought beyond what is perceived as physical.

          In the "first chamber" a "Dragon-Man" clears away "rubbish from a cave's mouth" and dragons hollow the cave. Already the metaphor is confused, because the same static geological place is being treated in different places in an industrialized process more than in different times. In the next "chamber", a Viper encircles it and "others" decorate it, then an eagle makes the cave infinite and "numbers of Eagle like men... built palaces in the immense cliffs", and fourthly "Lions of flaming Fire" "melt the metals into living fluids."

          The process is intended to be the creation of the mind, with elemental animals transforming their subject, and this process is a form of communication. What element they each represent gets progressively clearer (Earth? Water? Air, Fire.) before it is confused again by the fifth chamber, where "Unnamed'd forms...cast the metals into the expanse." The elemental categorization suggested by eagles, themselves occupiers of the infinite caverns of the cave/world/mind "like men" just as the cave is the mind of man, and by the fiery lions, disappears when the "metals", which have more connection to Blake's plate than to any narrative conveyed thereby, reappear after being transformed into bodily fluids (which were associated with elements in classical medical tradition) and are cast into the "expanse" of... the infinity the cave has become? The anti-sky of hell? The void of space through which Satan journeys in Paradise Lost? An absolute devouring? This is an expanse in meaning more than any previous setting to the metaphor.

          The "unnamed forms" are similar to the "unnamed women" which appear throughout Blake as emanations of male elementals. This fifth stage signifies the unexpected dimension, the outside or other to a subdivided system, and confuses it even further than the dreamlike disconnection of the printing process hallucination, creating a near complete vacuum of setting which is the mind itself. The final stage is even more interesting, as it is the stage of indexing, of organization itself, in which the context of human interaction finally conquers the abstraction of metaphor and returns the function of printing to Blake's infernal method. By bringing one back to the original metaphor, in fact, the confusion is absolute, because it eliminates even the standard of complete metonymy. "There they were receiv'd by Men who occupied the sixth chamber, and took the forms of books & were arranged into libraries." "There" is the "expanse", which is the infinity of the human mind, whereby a person is a universe. But somehow "there" is also "the sixth chamber", so that the idea of an infinity is itself enclosing and therefore represents another stage. The actual transfer and act of printing occurs somewhere between the fifth and sixth stages, so that the physicality of process represented by the paper from which one reads is beyond the context of its content which purports to use it as a metaphor. The reader is left to leap the gap of the expanse through which the constantly transformed matter - the subject matter, the pattern on the plate - goes from metal to meaning. In one interpretation of Blake's unstable grammar, it is the men who take the forms of books.

          The bottom of Plate 15 features two of the creatures referred to in the Fancy: an eagle carrying a twisting snake. It is not an illustration of anything literal in the text, but is a symbol that also appears in Blake's illustrations of the Book of Job, and refers, whether deliberately or not, to Aztec mythology, as well as to the "conflict of opposites" according to Jungian symbol analysis. It sets up an opposition between the contradictory second and third stages of enclosure and monistic expansion.

          Plate 16 is not so much a continuation of the Memorable Fancy but a semi-independent work. It opens with an illustration of five figures in five colors, with only the middle figure open-eyed and aware but curled up in the posture in which Blake's figure Urizen is found. These could in some sense be "the Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains", but there is no sign of chains on them. The (perhaps) female figures all face inward towards the orange-clothed male figure. This may be Dante's Ugolino and his children; because Ugolino begged his children to devour him (mixing cannibalistic sin and generous virtue), it fits the theme. We could try to categorize the younger figures as devouring and the male as prolific, or each of them as a sense, but there is little signification in any of them besides minutiae of appearance, relationship, and color.

          Color is an important element to consider regarding referentiality to process, because it was Catherine Blake's role in mass production. It adds a great deal of emotional impact, is often entirely different from one copy to the next, and represents a voice different from masculine-gendered lines of engraved print. In an illustration several pages earlier (Plate 10) in the Marriage, Blake depicts the artistic process as threefold, in which a demon dictates the Proverbs of Hell to an engraving man, and on the other side of the demon, a painting woman looks to the man. All members are productive, although the transcriber is devouring Infernal energy and the painter is devouring poetic energy. At the same time, they are all devouring cultural information (the Proverbs) that is attributable to the rest of the world but whose meaning depends entirely on the mind that thinks it. It is a complicated threefold dynamic like that Blake uses in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, although certainly not identical.

          Here is the whole of the page regarding the Devouring and the Prolific:

The Giants who formed this world into its
sensual existence and now seem to live in it
in chains are in truth, the causes of its life
& the sources of all activity, but the chains
are, the cunning of weak and tame minds, which
have power to resist energy, according to the pro-
verb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.
Thus one portion of being, is the Prolific, the other, the
Devouring: to the devourer it seems as
if the producer was in his chains but it is not so
He only takes portions of existence and fancies
that the whole. [wavy line with figure]
But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific
unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess
of his delights. [plantlike design]
Some will say, is not God alone the Prolific?
I answer, God only Acts & Is, in existing beings
Or Men. [leaf, two figures around two lines, plant]
These two classes of men are always upon
earth & they should be enemies; whoever tries
[Plate 17]
to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.

Blake reframes his dichotomy between Heaven and Hell with these terms, and treats them the same way as the Voice of the Devil treats Good and Evil. Either we can take them as simply another statement of the energy trade of yin and yang, we can also understand them as more specifically referring to artistic production. By saying that some men are prolific and others devouring Blake seems to be generating a Marxist structure of society. But Blake makes the most sense in Monist terms, in which people in the world are all part of Being, which is the individuality of perspective encompassing the entire universe. Thus the enigmatic statement that "to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains but it is not so; he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole" means that when the observer in one sees certain things and people as productive he isolates himself from his own responsibility as interpreter. False synecdoche is a persistent theme in Blake, but this passage in particular argues against demonizing it altogether, especially considering it's one of Blake's most used tropes. Just as in the free market, supply flourishes only in the face of greater demand, and poetic invention within censorship: "The Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights." Production and consumption, organization and destruction, argument and universal skepticism exist in the same mind, and it is less through direct statement and more through deliberate rhetorical confusion that Blake attempts to induce that self-recognition in his devourers.

          Songs of Innocence's confusion is in its crowded metaphors, in which everything is everything else. Shepherds remember when they were sheep. The old are young, the bird is a sheep, the animals are people, and the people are God.

          In Songs of Experience, the intent of the language is to induce loss and disorientation. One doesn't want to have anything in common with the world one perceives, and by lamenting it refuses to take responsibility for it. Creation is seen as more a curse than a gift; but curses can be gifts, and vice versa. No matter how good you think a situation is, the world is wrong if anyone suffers. In the sixth plate, "The Chimney Sweeper", the narrator is suddenly aware of another's dream. This is the way in which one person's mind encompasses the thoughts of everyone else; by perceiving the world the individual devourer is the universe, but a solipsistic, unreliable one.

          The Book of Thel discusses the unproductivity of the person for whom every poem means the same thing. The questions Thel finds in the pit could fall under the realm of why information is more powerful than matter. Or that may just be a presumed meaning, because Blake tries to mimic Jesus's habit of speaking in parables. Thel's problem is, firstly, thinking she has a problem; secondly, a resistance against the primacy of imagination in perceiving reality; confoundedly that Thel's ignorance prevents her imagination from working, and therefore Thel herself from working, in Frye's sense of the Prolific. Thel is closed to wisdom, because communication fails against stupidity. She is the epitome of error, reversing the value of all advice, infallible as her Arcadian world. Because the transmittal of ideas depends on the permeability of the receptor, ideas are never precisely the same. The conclusion of the book of Thel is a regression back into innocence (symbolized by children blithely riding the snake) rather than a progression through experience, and this regression traces a spiral, circling path that never transcends barely-understood dualism.

          While The Book of Thel demonstrates the incompletion of devouring without desire and production without dynamics, Visions of the Daughters of Albion embodies these ideas in different characters of the mind and brings the world into persistent dynamism through confused identities of the enslavement allegory. The introduction to Visions, unlike that in Marriage, is a kind of plot summary that omits all the most significant derivatives from its events: the inner life of the enslaved mind. The simile of a Devourer "as a sea" in Marriage flavors the significance of the sea in the poem: for example, Theotormon is a genius of the sea, perhaps specifically the Atlantic, and so acts as the enslaving and self-enslaving Devourer of Bromion's energies. Oothoon, however, frames herself not only as devourer but also as absorber or reflector, although she is the only relentlessly prolific character in the myth. Typically of Blake in this particular work, we can see the Devouring and the Prolific in their context within modern ideas of consumerism and the development of Capitalism with Atlantic trade. The idea of echoing ("Eccho back her sighs") and reflection pervade her questions, which feed on inequalities in society's dynamic system. Following a long series of spirals, Oothoon addresses the Yahweh-like Urizen, "how can one joy absorb another?"(Plate 5), confronting the situation of relationships between people who are each worlds, especially a relationship of control and limitation. "Can it be Love, that drinks another as a sponge drinks water?"(Plate 7) She asks of self-love she sees in Theotormon, who devours the sin he sees in her as his guilt and constructs his system without testing it with her part of the world - not producing, while she proclaims herself capable of giving all that she can out of love. Love then acts as the confuser because it "drinks another" or devours but is infinitely giving at the same time, and un-identifies the actions of the dichotomy.

          Dichotomies like love/strife are as old as philosophy itself, whether produced or assumed, and pervade the cultural landscape without identity. Blake's ideas appear nearly everywhere: they are manifest in Romanticism as a whole, especially Hegelian logic and also to Marxian, but also to a world that acknowledges that dialectic structure may be only one way of narrating experience. Blake's later works structure his four zoas and places or states as different perceptors of narrative, "our world, looked at in four different ways"(Frye 514) similar to four different logical arguments of history proposed by Hayden White (see Walker), which are connected to different political motivations. If we look at cosmological hypothesis for the different fates of the universe graphing scale (with a basis in the extremity of redshift) against time, the same narrative patterns arise (big bang Romance, big bounce Tragedy, expansive Comedy, loitering Satire), as if summaries of all categorizing sciences converge on approachable poetic tropes. The Aristotelian nature of such claims does have its balance in the uniqueness of sensory reality, which confuses categorization. Ultimately we can place Blake in the Radical framework, but find that this framework connects to many older and newer concepts of philosophy that are not necessarily biased towards that narrative. Additionally, when we connect any fourfold system like Metahistory or Cosmology to another, there is always some confusion that indicates the arbitrariness of separate identification. We must let some things be not understood; to restate them is like answering a rhetorical question. It perpetuates the illusion of unique thought. An individual only calls himself such because he takes the part as the whole: "the so-called undivided man is a battleground of conflicting forces"(Frye 521). Frye concludes that literature and both thinking and writing about it should continue to resist entropy and "make sense", because anything else would effectively be like religion seeking to destroy existence. This essay has been a failed experiment in forcing destruction by using poetic confusion in an attempt to escape Blake's lifelong narrative of self-organization. Like Blake, we have to ultimately rely on creative systemization or be rendered first incomprehensible then entirely unproductive by the devouring impulse whose existence within the world is its existence in the self.


Eliot, T.S. "William Blake" (from Selected Essays), in Johnson and Grant, p. 506-510.

Frye, Northrop. "Blake's Treatment of the Archetype" (from Downer, English Institute Essays, 1951). Johnson and Grant p. 510-525.

Grant, John E. and Johnson, Mary Lynn. Blake's Poetry and Designs. New York: Norton, 1979.

Walker, Joshua S. "Hayden White's Metahistory". 12/9/02

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