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Zoamorphosis

A Moving Illustration of William Blake’s Mythology
Leslie Wilber presents an extraordinary visual response to Blake's mythology of the Four Zoas.

I came to this project with the idea that if I could literally illustrate pieces of Blake’s mythology—characters’ relationships, where things happened—I’d understand them clearly. That was an overly ambitious hope. The narrative is squirrelly, and it turns out, not easy to capture. This started as a simple way to keep characters straight in my head but as I worked, I found myself double checking, rereading and interpreting. And in that way, this project did help me gain greater understanding, if not clarity. My moving illustration shows the some of the relationships between characters and spaces described in Blake’s mythology, in particular Jerusalem. 

At least as I understand them

As it turns out, Blake’s legacy includes many contemporary art projects that attempt to map both him and his work to a physical space. Poet and multimedia artist Sophie Herxheimer discusses her own childhood in Lambeth, and how it influenced her to create what she calls ghost conversations with Blake in her work (Ritchie, “Ghost”).  Louisa Amelia Albani similarly plays with Blake’s relationship to space and time in her self-published pamphlet William Blake’s Mystic Map of London, in which she draws, prints and paints Blake into the streets of a timeless London (Ritchie, “Walking”).

Unlike Herxheimer and Albani, my work is not directly inspired by Blake’s connection to London. After all, it’s a city that I’ve traveled through only briefly, not somewhere that’s central to my identity. However, as a writer, I feel a kinship toward Blake. I’m fascinated by his approach to storytelling—in particular the frustrations and possibilities that iterative narratives create. This illustration allowed me time—or perhaps as Blake might write, space—to think deeply about the ways in which stories that fit together oddly or unevenly can engage and even satisfy readers. The moving parts in this piece reference my experience reading Blake: shifting meanings, changing orientations and cyclical narratives. Darren Howard notes that Blake’s use of many narrators and timelines destabilizes readers’ understanding of the narrative. At times, it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to determine who is speaking or whether an event comes before or after one that appeared in the passage before. 

This disorientation is especially present in Jerusalem. The text is paradoxical because, as Clint Stevens writes, Blake describes most things—including time—in spatial terms. But the physical spaces and relationships are unwieldy, and perhaps impossible to visualize in any meaningful sense. The truth is, I don’t know where Golgonooza is in relation to Lambeth; I imagine them existing somewhere parallel to each other, just outside gates to eternity (Jerusalem 39.1-2), which is how I’ve depicted them. I also wonder if that’s correct—after all, the Gates of Los are also just outside Satan’s Mills (Milton 39.42-44). Though I cannot say whether the characters and places in my illustration relate to each other in a way Blake imagined, I have taken care to include characters, symbols and concepts common to his work. For example, the clouds, mill and vegetation all appear in cyclical patterns or vortexes.

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This illustration is a combination of linoleum block printing and pen drawings. Because of practical constraints, I did not use printmaking for the majority of the piece. However, I used prints to highlight repetitions in the design—after all, replication is one of the reasons prints are useful! I drew the remainder of the illustration with pen. This technique served two purposes: first, it references the fact that Blake altered his prints with unique, painted embellishments after they were printed. Second, pen drawings can produce fine lines, similar to etching. 

Unlike Blake, I want to remove guesswork for people who view this moving illustration. Below is a key to some of the major figures pictured:

  1. As in Jerusalem, Albion and his emanations are central to this illustration. It also puts him atop the zoas—like an older generation in a family tree. The zoas are described in Jerusalem as “separating from the limbs of Albion” (Jerusalem32) and as the “Zoas of Albion” (Jerusalem 36.45). Even if Albion is not a father as humans imagine a parent, in some iterations of Blake’s mythology, the zoas are produced from Albion.
  2. On the disk outside Albion’s face are his Emanations, Jerusalem and Vala. While Jerusalem is explicitly named as Albion’s emanation in the title of the poem Jerusalem, Vala is split from Jerusalem, and Blake describes Vala as Jerusalem’s shadow (Jerusalem19). Thus, in this illustration, I’ve placed Jerusalem facing the viewer, while Vala is looking away, veiled by hair.
  3. The disk that surrounds Albion rotates. When the openings are in the top position, they show divine humanity, which Blake describes in both Milton and Jerusalem as humans in their godly, eternal form. I’ve drawn divine humanity as entwined—but recognizably human— beings.
  4. When turned, the disk reveals the zoas beneath Albion. Although the zoas may be oriented toward cardinal directions—as they are in the final passages of Jerusalem—I have failed to do so here. They appear, from left to right:
  • Of all the zoas, Urizen is the one whom I can picture most distinctly, and whom I most enjoyed drawing. I’ve given him the look of a severe bureaucrat or lawyer: a suit, clipped beard and harsh expression. He’s also directly above Satan, as he is associated with—or perhaps is—Satan (Milton 10.1).
  • I’ve depicted him with his loom, presumably before his emanation, Vala, casts him into the furnace (Jerusalem 7.30).
  • My notion of Tharmas was poorly formed and non-descript. S. Foster Damon notes that there are few illustrations thought to be Tharmas throughout Blake’s work (401).
  • Because he is both associated with Earth and is the keeper of the gates of heaven (Jerusalem 82.80), I drew him in a way that’s similar to the stereotypical Biblical characters as portrayed by Christians in the U.S.
  1. Each zoa’s disk turns, revealing the zoas’ emanations on the other side. Although Blake typically depicts the emanations as lesser forms, derived from the zoas, I’ve come to imagine them as the other side of the same coin, which inspired this design. From left to right, the emanations are:
  • She is described as “an evanescent shade” in Jerusalem, (14.12) and is not present throughout the text. However, in The Book of Ahania and The Four Zoas she is described as shadowy and as sin (Damon 8)—so I couldn’t resist drawing her in a dark corner, with a cigarette.
  • Although she is illustrated as an aspect of Albion’s emanation above, Vala also plays an important role as Luvah’s emanation, sacrificing him in the furnace (Jerusalem 7.30-38). Here, I’ve drawn her with a veil, as is suggested by her name.
  • As with Tharmas, I struggled with Enion, because she so seldom appears. Like Ahania, she is described as “an evanescent shade” in Jerusalem (14.12). I learned she repeatedly kills her own children out of jealousy in The Four Zoas (Damon 122), so I depicted her with a dagger.
  • She is likely the female subject in plate 21 of The Book of Urizen, which is an iconic illustration; it’s the one that appears on the front cover of the Norton edition of Blake’s works. I wanted to draw directly from this illustration, so I retained the long, wavy hair. It’s notable that she may be both Los’ wife and emanation (Jerusalem 14.13). Since Urthona and Los seem to be different forms of the same being (Jerusalem 39.8), I have depicted Enitharmon as Urthona’s emanation.
  1. Los is illustrated in the level beneath the zoas, under Urthona. He is laboring at his furnace with his specter, as described on plate 10.1-2 of Jerusalem. I used the same print for Los, his specter and Blake, to emphasize the parallels between them as craftsmen and artists.
  2. In the foreground, Blake works at his press. As Los is building the city of Golgonooza (a vast, impossible project), so is Blake creating a complex, difficult mythology.
  3. Satan working at his mill is an image Blake used frequently, and one of my favorites. It is depicted in the bottom left of my illustration. While the mill lacks any elements of inspiration, it echos the rotations of the printing press, thus Satan’s motions mirror Blake’s.
  4. Above Satan’s Mill is one of the representations of the Gate of Los. In Jerusalem, this gate is outside Satan’s Mill, yet he cannot see it (39.1-2). The description of the gate recalls the passage in Milton, “There is a moment in each day that Satan cannot find” (39.42-44). On plate 41 (15-17) of Jerusalem, Blake further describes a grain of sand that Satan cannot find. I have brought these elements together by illustrating hourglasses in the sand outside the Gate(s) of Los that frame the illustration.
  5. The foreground is filled in with vines, leaves and other vegetation. This is both because it illustrates the fallen, vegetable state and to mimic Blake’s habit of filling in empty spaces in texts with vines.
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Works Cited

Blake, William. Blake’s Poetry and Designs, edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant, 2nd ed., Norton, 2008.

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Dartmouth College Press, 2013.

Howard, Darren. “The Search for a Method: A Rhetorical Reading of Bake's Prophetic Symbolism.” European Romantic Review 17.5 (2006): 559–574.

Ritchie, Caroline Anjali. “Ghost-Conversations with William Blake: An Interview with Sophie Herxheimer.” Zoamorphosis. zoamorphosis.com/2021/06/ghost-conversations-with-william-blake-an-interview-with-sophie-herxheimer/.

---. “Walking in Blake’s Footsteps: An Interview with Louisa Amelia Albani.” Zoamorphosis. zoamorphosis.com/2021/04/walking-in-blakes-footsteps-an-interview-with-louisa-amelia-albani/.

Stevens, Clint. “William Blake's Golgonooza and Jerusalem: A Conversation in Visionary Forms Dramatic.” European Romantic Review 20.3 (2009): 289–307.