Blake, William: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-20)

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The Independent Culture

Also possibly untrue, of course. Maybe the life of snakes isn't like that at all. But you can imagine it could be. When a snake is all wound up, the skin's sense of touch and the body's proprioception might well generate confusing signals about what was what, and where " all the more so, if the snake is sleepy. Even with humans, very low levels of consciousness lead to a vagueness about the difference between different body parts. Our sensory banks blur. We flow into ourselves. And when two humans are intertwined, that can breed further confusions about what's mine and what's yours.

There's an image by William Blake that holds one of the closest embraces in art. It comes from Chapter 2 of his illuminated poem, 'Jerusalem'. As with most of Blake's illustrations to his own and other people's writings, there's a considerable distance between the picture and the words. In the body of the text, the giant Albion is denouncing 'unnatural consanguinities and friendships horrid to think of', but at the top of the page there is this extravagant image of love, two bodies enfolded in the cup of a lily. You could try to make it fit with the poem in various ways. But it speaks so much more powerfully than the poem, that whatever the connection might be is a matter of secondary interest.

Blake's great artistic discovery was the potentialities of two-dimensional life. No artist before him understood so clearly the uses of the flat page to create a transcendental world, in which things are simultaneously material bodies and spiritual forces. In this image, he takes the idea of sexual/mental/physical union and gives it an irresistible shape. The two figures (they may both be women) are certainly distinguishable. You can see which limb belongs to which body. Yet, at almost every point, their forms are designed to slip into and pick up on one another. They are bonded together in a single, continuous, curvaceous shape. Their long, flowing streams of golden hair contain them, and in the arc over their heads, the edges of both these tresses, and of both raised forearms, converge and coincide as a single curving edge. The outline of an arm flows into that of a thigh. Their lips are sealed together to make a single mouth. There are other, almost subliminal joins and ambiguities. Curled up, curled round each other, they loose their banks and boundaries and fuse into one flesh. Only a 2D image could do this effect so strongly.

More alarmingly, there's a similar slippage between the undulating lines of their shared form, and the undulating shapes of the lily's petals. We're to feel that the humans are not just bedding down in the lily's cup, they are physically emerging from it, merging into it. Animal is fused with vegetable. They're an integral, organically growing part of this lily. This breaks a powerful taboo. Standard metamorphosis legends tell many stories about humans being turned into vegetables, but that's a different matter. These transformations always mean the end of the human life in question. Daphne becomes a laurel. She may be pictured at the moment of transition, with leaves growing from her arms and roots from her feet. But she doesn't continue to live in this halfway state. She rapidly becomes all tree.

Blake shows that these lovers are fused to the lily, alive. Animal and vegetable are symbiotic. One may agree with Albion about 'unnatural consanguinities' " it's like the mandrake, a humanoid that grows as a root in the ground and whose screams when uprooted are fatal to the hearer.

Or maybe there's really a more high-minded thought at work " that the union of lovers is at one with the union of all living things, that separation is the great evil, and that love is a great big merge, between individuals, across species barriers, everything " a thought that's here given an uncomfortably palpable realisation. Or maybe the picture is just about the homely feeling of snuggling up, and feeling the bedclothes as your safely cocooning nest. The petals do look a bit like sheets.


William Blake (1757-1827): painter, printmaker, visionary, myth- maker, religious and political radical, poet, but for all his accomplishments, no one ever calls him a 'Renaissance man'. He's not respectable enough. The shadow of eccentricity falls on his greatness. His visual work is an unresolvable blend of originality and limitation. As an engraver and illustrator he was influenced by Michelangelo and Gothic art, mixing text and image like a medieval manuscript. There's a sense in which he can't draw. His colour schemes are outré. His human figures are always spiritual symbols, his art an experiment with the human body.