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The Sea of Time and Space

Author(s): Kathleen Raine

Source: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 20, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Dec., 1957),
pp. 318-337
Published by: The Warburg Institute
Stable URL:
Accessed: 13/12/2009 19:19

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By Kathleen Rairle
The temperapainting discoveredat Arlington Court irl I949, and pro-
visionallyentitled'The Sea of Time and Space' (P1.2 I a), is clearlydated,
under Blake'ssignature,I82 I . It is in fact a fine exampleof Blake'slate and
maturestyle, the style of the Dante illustrationsand the Job engravings. Its
allegoricalcharacterwas fromthe firstsurmised,but what is the allegory,who
are the figureswho play theirpartsin the energeticcyclic movementof descent
through cliff-hung caverns to a dark tumultuoussea, and reascendinto a
distant celestialworld, where innumerableradiantbeingssurroundthe sun's
chariot? Who are the centralfigures-the red-cladman with the darkclever
face who croucheson the edge of the sea, and the majesticwomanwho stands
behind him, and points his way upwardsto the shining world?
To those who supposethat Blakein his later years had quite turnedfrom
classicalto Biblicalthemes,it may well come as a surpriseto find him, in this
beautifuland elaboratecomposition,returningto myths that had formedhis
imaginativeworld thirty years before; for in 'The Sea of Time and Space'
we have his most complete and profollndlyconsideredrepresentationof the
essentialsof Neoplatonism,of the descent and returnof souls, of the crossing
of the sea of time and space. The paintingis based upon Porphyry'streatise
on Homer'sCave of the Nymphs, to which Blakehas added detailsfrom the
Odyssey,and from other Platonic sources. The figure on the sea-verge is
Odysseus,newly landed in Ithaca, in the cove of Phorcys,close to the cave of
the nymphs. In the distance,shelteredby trees,we see the tall classicalpillars
of his house. Behind him, and still unseerl by Odysseus, stands Athene,
depicted not with helmet and gorgon-shield,but as the Divine Wisdom, a
figure somewhat resembling the Beatrice of Blake's Dante illustrations.
Odysseus,though kneeling on the land, is silhouettedagainst the tempest-
tossedsea which has so long held him captive. He is in the act of throwing
somethingout to sea, but with his face averted. What has he thrown? Out
at sea, a nymphor goddesshas caughta scarf-likewreaththat spiralsupwards
above her head, dissolvinginto radiantcloud. She is Leucothea,or Ino, who
lent Odysseus her sea-girdle by which he came safe ashore-not, in this
instance,on the coastof Ithaca, but on the shoreof Phaeacia. Blakehas com-
bined the two accountsof the hero's coming safe to land; from the landing
on Ithaca (Odyssey, BookXIII) comesAthene, and Phorcys,and the Cave of
the Nymphs; fromthe Phaeacianlanding (BookV) the episodeof Leucothea's
girdle. Odysseushad been shipwrecked,and alone survivedin the tempest:
But Cadmus'beauteousdaughter(Ino once,
Now namedLeucothea)saw him....

Leucotheatakespity on the hero, and adviseshim to swim for the shore:

Thus do (for I accountthee not unwise)
Thy garmentsputtingoS, let drive thy raft
As the windswill, then, swimming,striveto reach
Phaeacia,where thy doom is to escape.
a-w llllamrlaxe, l ne rea ot l lme anclrpace, I 62 I, l empera, l ne lnatlonal l rust
(ArlingtonCourt) (pp. 3I8 .)

By (Lourtesy oJ the Flerpont Morgan Llbrary

b-William Blake, Drawingfor CTheSea of Time and Space,' Pierpont Morgan

Library,New York (p. 336!

lsake this. This ribbonbind beneaththy breast,

Gelestialtexture. Thenceforthev'ry fear
Of death dismiss,and, laying once thy hand
On the firm continent,unbind the zone
Which thou shalt cast far distantfromthe shore
Into the Deep, turningthy face away.l

It is this throwingwith avertedface that Blake has representedin Odysseus'

strangeposture; for when he was safe on land
. . . loosingfrom beneath
His breastthe zone divine, he cast it far
Into the brackishstream,and a huge wave
Returningbore it downwardto the sea,
WhereIno caught it....2

Guidedby Leucothea,and by two lessersea-spirits,are four dark-coloured

horsesbreastingthe waves out at sea. Here again Blake is literallyfollowing
Homer, who in a long simile comparesthe ship that carriedOdysseusfrom
Phaeaciato Ithaca to a team of fourstallions:
1 Gowper'stranslation. Blake possesseda Enionand Tharmas,"demonof the waters,"
copy of Chapman'sHomer, but Chapman's of allusionto Leucothea'ssea-girdle. It is in
translationmakesno mentionof the gesture fact Blake's Enion who weaves such a gar-
of throwing with avertedface, so clearly de- ment for the spectre(i.e. materialmanifesta-
pictedby Blake. Pope emphasizesthis detail, tion) of Tharmas:
even repeatingit in the accountof Odysseus'
obeying of Leucothea's instructions. My . . . he sunkdown into the sea, a pale white corse.
In tormenthe sunk down and flow'd among her
reason for believing that Blake was using filmy Woof.
Gowper's translation rather than Pope's In gnawing pain drawn out by her lov'd fingers,
(apartfromBlake'srecordeddislikeof Pope's every nerve
Homer- She counted,everyvein & lacteal, threadingthem
. . . Hayley upon his Toile He seeing the sope, Her woof of terror. Terrified& drinkingtears of
Cries,"Homeris very much improv'dby Pope") Shudd'ringshe wove nine days and nights,sleep-
less; her food was tears.
-is that another detail, discussedbelow, is Wond'ringshe saw her woof begin to animate
not to be found in Pope, although it is re-
tained both by Ghapmanand Cowper. This There are links between Blake'sEnion and
is the simile of the ship comparedto four Ino or Leucothea. In the passagequoted,the
stallions. Pope does not specifythe number. weaveris Enlon; but tn TheMentalTraveller
It is most likely that Blake comparedall it is "a woman old" whose "fingersnumber
thesetexts, and perhapseven the Greek. But every nerve"of a baby boy, whose nurseshe
if he usedone translationonly, it would seem is. This nurseis "Eno, aged mother,"in fact
to have been Cowper's. He could scarcely Ino, who when a mortal was the nurse of
have failed to read Cowper'sHomer, at the Dionysus. The storyof the boy child of The
time of his associationwith Hayley over MentalTraveller is recognizablydrawn from
Gowper'sportrait,if not before. Taylor'saccountofthe Mysteriesof Dionysus,
2 The garment that Odysseushas thrown and thus we find that Blake'seclectic mind
back into the sea is evidentlya sea-garment, had early established a link between the
or materialbody, forwhich he has no further Homeric account of Ino and her sea-girdle,
use, and mustreturn,forit was but lent. The and Ino as nurse of Bacchus. The "filmy
theme of the sea-garmentis one that he used woof" Blakeunderstandsas the mortalbody;
in Night the Firstof TheFourtoas, and while and it is that same filmy woof that in the
thereareothersources(theHermetica,notably) paintingwe see dissolvinginto cloud.
there are tracesin this episode,attributedto
She, as four harness'dstallionso'er the plain
Shootingtogetherat the scourge'sstroke,
Toss high their manes,and rapidscouralong,
So mountedshe the waves....3

These four horses doubtless had for Blake a symbolic significance not
intendedby Homer. The fourfoldvehicle is a symbolto which he had given
much thought; his own Four Zoas-the four living creatures are central to
his symbolic system. The Zoas doubtlessderive principallyfrom the four
living creaturesof Ezekiel'schariot,and the four beastsabout the Throrlein
Revelation. These he gives special place in his painting of the Vision of the
LastJudgement-'WTheseI supposeto have the chief agency in removingthe
old heavens & the old Earth to make way for the New Heaven & the New
Earth." They are, as he says of his own Zoas, the "fourmighty ones" that
are in every man, the mysteriouspowersof life.4 The chariot of the sun in
the heavens above the sea is, likewise,driven by four horses,but bright and
radiant. One may hazard the suggestionthat those above are the energies
of the spiritualhumanity, and the dark horses of the sea, their "vehicular
forms,"or manifestationin the physicalworld.
This is a speculativedigression;yet it is necessaryto point out that where
Homergivesbut an image,Blakemay readinto it a symbolicmeaningreached
by other ways. The significancein Greekmythologyof Leucothea'sgirdle I
do not know; and here it may well be that Blakeis not mistakenin takirlgit
to be the physicalbody. But he has no authorityfor makingthe girdledissolve
into cloud, as he here depictsit, otherthan his own habitualuse (derived,it is
true, from well-authenticatedtraditionalsources) of cloud as a symbol for
the physicalbody.
For theseblackbodiesand this sunburntface
Is but a cloud....

He depictsit as cloud becausehe took it to mean the body.

The three main figuresof the central group-Odysseus, Leucothea, and
Athene compose into what at first sight appears to be a single circling
rhythm, descendingthroughthe spiral of cloud that the sea-goddessholds in
her upraisedright hand, throughthe horizontalof her outstretchedleft arm,
repeatedin the seaward-thrustarms of Odysseus,and then caught into the
upward rhythmof the figure of Athene who stands behind him, pointing to
the heavenly world with a draped upraisedarm that seems to carry with it
the whole strong movementof the central group, counter-clockwise,against
the violent clockwisedownwardflow of the currentof movementthroughthe
cave and out to sea, on the right. But a closer examinationshows that the
apparentmovementis continuallyarrested,brokeninto a series of staccato
movementsthat seem to be centredin the figureof Odysseushimself,pulled
as it were in two directions. fIis outward-thrustarms suggest a clockwise
movementthat is checkedby the counter-clockwisetensing of his body, and
his avertedface. The spiralof cloudin the hand of Ino seemsto be ascending,
3 Gowper'stranslation.
4 Cf. Jung's four functions,reason,sensation,feeling,intuition.

clockwise,and, on the oppositeside of Odysseus'kneelingfigure, the move-

ment is reversed. Athene with her left hand points to the eternal world; with
her right, downwardsto the sea; but it is the upward sweep of her left arm
and hand that carriesthe eye, from the tips of the fingersof Odysseusas he
rids himself of his sea-garment,up in the direction that she seems to be
summoninghim to travel. Her hand reachesto the loweststepsof the staircase
that ascendsto the sun'sshiningrealm. Both goddessesare pointingthe way
to the eternalworld, though for the momentOdysseussees neitherof them-
Leucotheaby her own command,Athene becausehe has not yet recogrlized
Againstthis upwardmovementis balancedthe violent descendingenergy
expressedin the groups of figureson the right, who follow the courseof the
streamthat issuesfromthe Cave of the Nymphsand flowsdownwards,to enter
the sea with the forceof a riverin spate. But here, again, the apparentflow is
checked. The horsesof the sun-chariot,about to move forward,are restrained
by the group of women who are groomingthem with towel and curry-comb;
and at the mouth of the cave the descendingdownwardmovementto the sea
is, again, brakedand held by the commandingfigureof a woman carryinga
bucket, and advancingup the stairs. But here it is necessaryto give the text
of Homer'saccountof the strangecave near whose entranceOdysseusarrived
at last upon his native shore. r give Thomas Taylor's translation,because
this was the text upon which Blake was chiefly working) for it prefaces
Porphyry'streatiseon the Carreof the Nymphs.5
High at the head a branchingolive grows
And crownsthe pointedcliffswith shady boughs.
A cavernpleasant,thoughinvolv'din night,
Beneathit lies, the Naiades'delight:
Wherebowls and urnsof workmanshipdivine
And massybeamsin native marbleshine;
On which the Nymphsamazingwebs display,
Of purplehue and exquisitearray.
The busy bees within the urnssecure
Honey delicious,and like nectarpure.
Perpetualwatersthroughthe grottoglide
And lofty gates unfoldon eitherside;
That to the north is perviousto manliind;
The sacredsouth t'immortalsis consign'd.

We {ind each detail of this strange and beautifulimagerzrreproducedin

Blake's painting. The entrance of the cave stands high in a cliff-face, on
which grow tufted oliere-trees.Above are two groups of small figures a
recliningnymph pouringwaterfroman urn or water-pot;and a pair of lovers,
recliningin Arcadianease, turned towardsone another. In the deepest and
highest recessstand winged female figuresbearing on their heads "bowls or
6 This treatisewas first publishedin I788, separate work in I823; but Blake must
in the secondvolumeof Taylor'stranslations certainlyhave read Taylor'sPorphyryon its
of Proclus' MathematacalCommentaries.It first appearance,for there are unmistakable
formspart of an essay On theRestorationof the allusionsto its symbolismin The Bookof Ehel
Platonac Ehweology.It was republishedas a (I789).
urns." Below this group, other nymphsare weavingon a great loom. Three
hold shuttlesin their upraisedhands. On the left, a recliningnymph holds
up a coil of yarn upon her wrists,while a second, standing,winds it oK, to
pass to the weaversat the loom. On the right, two othersare measuringoff
the {inishedfabric.
From the recessesof the cave flows a streamthat tricklesdown over the
steps, but gathersforce as it rushesbelow the lowest steps of the cave to the
sea. In the very mouth of this rushingflood, a last group of figuresconsists
of Phorcys, the "old man of the sea," and the Three Fates, with spindle,
thread and shears. The Fates are mentioned neither by Homer nor by
Porphyry we shall presentlyconsideron what groundsBlakefeltjustifiedin
introducing them here but the cove where Odysseus was put ashore in
Ithaca is, accordingto the Homericstory, dedicatedto the sea-god.
On the left, high abovethe sea and the clouds,thereis yet anothersequence
of distant figures, very differentin characterfrom the groups of the cave.
Here we see the radiantworld of the immortalsthat opens from the cave by
its southerngate:
That to the northis perviousto mankind,
The sacredsouth t'immortalsis consigned.

Here the chariotof the sun is seen surroundedby radiantspirits,scarcely

distinguishablefrom the flamesof light that pulse from the creativefire. To
the chariotfour bright horsesare harnessed,groomedby female figureswho
seem to be restrainingthe horses,eager for theirjourney; but in the car the
god himselfis sunk in sleep, or deep contemplation. There are other signi-
ficant figures;but here it is necessaryto pass from descriptionto exposition.
For this painting is no mere illustrationto an episode in Homer, but a
pictorialstatementof a metaphysicaltheme.

Why, it may be askednshould Blake have chosen to illustratethis rather

than some other episode from the Odyssey? The answeris quite evident; he
was not primarilyconcernedto illustrateHomer, but ratherthe Neoplatonic
symbolicinterpretationof the story of Odysseus. With this symbolismBlake
had been long familiar indeed he may have read Porphyrzrbeforehe read
Homer, for the NorthernGate, in Porphyry'ssymbolicsense)firstappearsin
Blake'swork in the Bookof 7Chel in I78g. He would then have met Odysseus
first as a symbolic figure of man, somewhat like his own Albion. All the
symbolsof the ArlingtonCourtpainting must be familiarto Blakestudents-
urns, looms, cave, stream,sea, northernand southerngates, the sea-garment.
He had adoptedthem long beforeand made them so much his own that some
Blakescholarshavejudged the symbolsin this painting to be too personalto
derivefrom any sourcebut Blake'sown imagination. But they are his not by
invention,but by adoptionfromwritingsthat for severalyears were his chief
imaginative food. What is remarkableis that Blake returned so late to
mythologicalthemes that had been among the earliestformativeinfluences
on his work. Long after the excitementof discoverywas exhausted,the Neo-
platonic symbolism retained its hold upon him through its inexhaustible
depth of truth, its completeness,and its beauty. The date of this painting
serves to refute those who take over-literallyBlake's condemnationof the
classicalphilosophers(he meantin particularAristotle,Plato in some aspects,
and the Roman moralists)and suppose that he turned into so orthodox a
Christianin his later yearsas to renouncehis earlyrealizationthat All religions
areone. This workalone, paintedwith such evidentlove, such wealthof detail,
makes it clear that he had neither renouncednor forgottenthe Neoplatonic
Odysseus,for the Neoplatonists,symbolized man, whose progressfrom
birth to death, through material existence, is likened to the hero's perilous
sea-voyage. The sea was universallytaken in the ancient world as a symbol
of matter,on account of its mutableflux. Blake's"sea of time and space" is,
therefore,a traditionalpiece of Neoplatonic and Hermetic symbolism. The
sea is "Dire resounding Hyle's mighty flood,"6 or "stormy mire," and
Odysseusis man, who makes his perilousjourney of life across the stormy
and unstable sea of material existence. ". . . the person of Ulysses, in the
Odyssey,representsto us a man, who passesin a regularmanner, over the
dark and stormysea of generation;and thus at length, arrivesat that region
where tempestsand seas are unknown, and finds a nation who
Ne'er knew salt, or heard the billowsroar.

Indeed, he who is consciousof the delusionsof the presentlife, and the

enchantmentsof this materialhouse,in which his soul is detained,like Ulysses
in the irriguouscavern of Calypso,will, like himself, continuallybewail his
captivity, and inly pine to returnto his native country."7
In a note to the second edition of his Orphic Hymns, Taylor writesto the
same effect: "Let us build for ourselvesthe raft of virtue, and departingfrom
this regionof sense,like Ulyssesfromthe charmsof Calypso,directour course
by the light of ideas, those brightintellectualstars,throughthe darkocean of
materialnature,until we arriveat our father'sland. For therehavingdivested
ourselvesof the torn garmentsof mortality,as much as our union with body
will permit, we may resumeour natural appearance,and may each of us at
length, recoverthe ruined empireof his soul."
The strippingoff of the ragged garmentsof mortalityis an aspect of the
symbolthat Taylor often stressed,and the many instancesin Blake'swritings
in which the body is comparedto ragged or filthy garments,and that experi-
enced in the body to "the rotten rags of memory," seem to echo Taylor's
many allusionsto the beggar'srags of which Odysseusdivestedhimselfwhen
he returnedto Ithaca. ". . . a life in conjunctionwith body is contrarwr to
nature, and is an impedimentto intellectualenergy. Hence it is necessaryto
divest ourselvesof the fleshlygarmentswith which we are clothed,as Ulysses
did of his raggedvestments,and no longer like a ragged mendicant,together
with the indigence of body, put on our rags."8 But though Blake uses the
beggar'srags in this sense elsewhere,the discardingof the mortal rags is, in
6Proclus'Hymnto theSun,tr. Taylor. 8 T. Taylor; note to 2nd edition of the
7T. Taylor: Note to his translation of OrphicHymns.
Plotinuson the Beautiful,I 789.
this composition,merelyimplicit in the throwingout to sea of the sea-girdle,
whosesymbolicmeaningis the same.
This sea-voyage symbolism,with an implicit parallel with the Odyssey,
Blake would also have found in Taylor's translationof the Delphic Oracle
upon Plotinus; again, the author or transmitter-is Porphyry, Plotinus'
biographer;and the author of TheCaveof theJ>ymphs can hardly have failed
to have had in mind the Odysseusparallel.9 Here it is Plotinus who has
made the crossingof "Hyle'smightyflood":
Freedfromthose membersthat with deadlyweight
And stormywhirl enchain'dthy soul of late:
Oer life'sroughocean thou hast gain'd that shore
Wherestormsmolest,and changeimpairsno more;
And strugglingthroughits deepswith vig'rousmind,
Pass'dthe darkstream,and left base soulsbehind.
Plotinusthroughhis spiritualwisdomhas come in sight of the Islands of the
Blessed,as OdysseusreachedIthaca throughhis courage; and it may well be
that Blakehimself,in I82I, chose this theme becausehe, too, felt that for him
the buffietingsof the long voyage were almost over, and that, guided by the
Divine Wisdom,he had come within sight of the golden countrwr
Wherestreamsambrosialin immortalcourse
Irriguousflow, fromDeity their source.
No dark'ningcloudsthose happy skiesassail
And the calm aetherknowsno stormygale.
Supremelyblest thy lofty soul abides
WhereMinos and his brotherjudge presides;
Just Aeacus,and Plato the divine,
And fair Pythagorasthere exaltedshine,
With othersoulswho formthe generalchoir
Of love immortal,and of pure desire.
It is to "that sweet golden clime" that Athene points the way to travel-worn
But it is the cave itself whose symbolismformsthe subjectof Porphyrzrs
treatise and the essenceof Blake'spainting. Porphyryis doubtlessright in
saying that the Cave is not an invention of Homer's)and that long before
Homer's time such caves were sacred places, consecratedespecially to the
femalepowers,the nymphs. Indeed the mysteriesof the cave mustbe among
the most ancient, universal, and archetypal,concerned, as they are, with
man'sentryinto this life and his departurefromit. The secretof the Cave of
the Nymphs is related to the mysteriesof the identity of womb and tomb,
celebratedin so many formsin mysticalinitiationsfrom the most primitive
knownor surmised,to the highly philosophicrites of Eleusis.
The cave symbolized, long before Plato's famous parable) the world:
". . . the ancients,indeed,very properlyconsecrateda cave to the world. . . ."
And later, he says, men established';templesngrovesand altarsto the celestial
gods, but to the terrestrialgods, and to heroes, altars alone, and to the sub-
9 On the Restorationof the Platonic Theology,IQC.

terraneandeitiespits and cells; so to the worldthey dedicatedcaves and dens,

as likewiseto Nymphs, on account of the water which trickles,or is diffused,
in caverns,over which the Naiades preside." CereseducatedProserpineand
her nymphsin a cave; Temples of Mithrawere caves watered by springsor
fountains; and the Pythagoreans,and after them Plato "showed that the
world is a cavern and a den" and here Porphyryquotes from the Seventh
Book of TheRepublic,"Beholdmen as if dwelling in a subterraneouscavern,
and in a den-like habitation, whose entrance is widely expanded to the
admissionof light throughthe whole cave."
There are many instancesin Blake'sworksof the cave symbolused in this
traditionalsense. In fTheMarriage of HeavenandHell, "man has closedhimself
up, till he sees all things thro' narrowchinksof his cavern." "Five windows
light the cavernedman"; and the first stage of the Binding of Urizen is the
encaverningof "the immortal mind". While it is possible that Blake came
by so well-knowna symbolas the cave fromother sources,it seemslikely that
he came to know it first through Porphyry;for neither Plato nor any other
of his followersgives so full an expositionof its symbolism.
The Naiads presideover generation, and dwell near perpetuallyflowing
streamsof water; ';For we peculiarlycall the Naiades, and the powers that
presideover waters,Nymphs; and this term, also, is commonlyappliedto all
souls descendinginto generation." The cave is, in fact, the place of genera-
tion, where the mysteryof the descent of souls takes place in its womb-like
depths, where perpetuallyflowing waters are the sacred source of generated
existence. The river of life rises in the most secret depths of the world-cave,
and like "Alph, the sacredriver,"runsthrough"cavernsmeasurelessto man,
down to a sunlesssea"- the sea of hyle.l°
The river-sourcein the depths of a cave is mentionedalso in the Orphic
Hymn to the }Fates who are there describedas presidingover the issuing
flow; and also in the Hymn to the Furies, who seem to bear a mysterious
kinshipto the Fates. Blake'sThree Daughtersof Urizen are fontal-goddesses,
evidently based upon the Orphic interpretationof the Fates; and it seems
likely that it is by reason of this associationof the Fates with the flow of
watersfrom the world-cavethat Blakefelt it permissibleto representthem in
this composition,although Porphyrymakesno mention of them. According
to Orpheus,they are those
Who in the heavenlylake (whosewaterswhite
Burstfroma fountainhid in depthsof night
And thro' a darkand stony cavernglide,
A cave profound)invisible)abide....11
Taylor notes that "it is not wonderfulthat the water is called white, since
Hesiod . . . speaksof the Stygian waters as falling into the sea with silvery
whirls." This, I suggest,is the sourceof the imageryof the sequencein the
left-foregroundof Blake'scomposition,where the gentle tricklefromthe Cave
10There can be no doubt that Coleridge, throughcaverns,to a "sunlesssea"-sunless
familiaras he waswith the Neoplatonists,had becausethis is a world of spiritualdarkness.
this symbolismin mind when he wroteof hLs 11Tr. Taylor
river, descendingfrom a Paradisicalworld
of the Nymphs becomes the irresistibleand deadly swirl of generationinto
the terriblesea.
Water itself is a symbol of the greatest possible significance. "What's
water but the generatedsoul?" and Yeats' definitionsums up the teaching
of Porphyryand his masters; for "souls descendinginto generation fly to
moisture" for which reasonthe water-lovingNaiadesare not only the powers
presiding over generation, but the generated souls themselves. "On this
account a prophet asserts, that the Spirit of God moved on the waters."
Heraclitussays "that moistureappearsdelightfuland not deadly to souls,"
and that the lapse into generation (althoughthis is in reality a death from
eternity)is delightfulto them. "Hencethe poet calls those that are in genera-
tion humid,becausethey have soulswhich are profoundlysteepedin moisture.
On this accountsuch soulsdelight in blood and humid seed; but water is the
nutriment of souls and plants." "It is necessary," Porphyry concludes,
"therefore,that souls, whetherthey are corporealor incorporeal,while they
attract to themselvesbody, and especiallysuch as are about to be bound to
blood and moist bodies, should verge to humidity, and be corporealized,in
consequenceof being drenchedin moisture.. . . Souls that are loversof body,
by attractinga moistspirit,condensethis humidvehicle like a cloud. But the
pneumaticvehicle being condensedin thesesouls, becomesvisiblethroughan
excessof moisture.. . . But pure souls are aversefrom generation;so that as
Heraclitussays, 'a dry soul is the wisest.' Hence, here also, the spiritbecomes
moistand more aqueousthroughthe desireof coition, the soul thus attracting
a humid vapour throughverging to generation. Souls, therefore,proceeding
into generation,are the nymphscalled Naiades." Such a "moistsoul" is the
figure, half-immersedin the water, and sunk into a blissfulsleep of Lethean
forgetfulness,to be seen in the extremeright foreground.
"To the nymphs, likewise,who preside over waters, a cavern, in which
there are perpetuallyflowing streamsis adapted. Let, therefore,the present
cavern be consecratedto souls, and, among the more partial powers, to
nymphs that presideover streamsand fountains,and who, on this account,
are calledfontaland Naiades." So Porphyryconcludeshis expositionof the
world-cave. Porphyry'scave is the womb by which man enters life; but,
seen otherwise,it is the grave in which he dies to eternity. But for those who
leave it by the South Gate, it is, conversely,the grave of this world, that is
the re-birthinto the world of immortals.
There could be no fitter symbol of this identity of womb and tomb than
those "bowlsor urns of workmanshipdivine," that Blake has representedas
carriedon the heads, in the mannerof water-pots,of winged nymphs, in the
deepest recessof the cave. In these bowls, according to Homer's text, the
bees deposittheir honey. Now the bees are soulsproceedinginto generation;
and the winged souls, about to descendinto the cave, make their way firstto
these womb-like urns-"the funeral urns of Beulah," Blake names them,
signifyingthat the descent of souls into the wombs of this world is a death
from eternity. Porphyryquotes Sophocleswho says of souls:
In swarmswhile wandering,from the dead
A hummingsoundis heard.
Proserpineherself was called the honied,and the moon, who presides over
generation,called a bee. Bees were thought an apt symbolof the descent and
return of souls, because "this insect loves to returnto the place from whence
it firstcame," as soulsthat descendinto generationwill make their way home
to the eternal world. For this reason not all sollls are called bees, but only
those who, becausethey live justly, will find their way back to the place from
whence they descended.
Are Blake'swingedfiguresintendedto suggestthese bees? Blakeis sparing
in his use of wings, for his spiritualbeings are well able to fly without their
assistance. Whetheror not these nymphs are the bees, it is plain that Blake
has given them wings to indicate their spiritual nature. They have newly
come to the cave, "not in entireforgetfulness"of theirheavenlyorigin. Blake,
as was ever his way, has not interpretedthe accident of the symbol, but its
essence; the symbolic meaning of the bees, as Porphyryexpoundsit, is that
of winged i.e. spiritual beings,descendinginto generation. Blake'swinged
urn-bearingnymphshave the same significance. Porphyryis not (like Virgil
in his Fourth Georgic)discussingreal bees, but human souls so symbolized;
and what betterrepresentationcould there be of the symbolicessenceof bees,
than winged female figuresbearingurns of honey?
Descending from the highest recess, we come to a group of wingless
nymphsat work about a loom. The looms of generationupon which Blake's
Daughtersof Albion, directedby Vala, and his Daughtersof Beulah,directed
by Enitharmon,weave the bodies of mankind, are to be found in many
passagesboth in EheFourgoas and in jKerusalem; and Blake's"everyfemaleis
a golden loom" seems to derive directlyfrom Porphyry. Painting this com-
positionin I82I, Blake had his own work behind him, and in these nymphs
at their loom we can recognize the Daughtersof Albion whose shuttles are
plied in cruel delight to weave Blake'sown Worldof Generation. The three
women who throw the shuttleshave faces bealltiful,but intent with passion,
difEerentindeed from the calm nymphsof the urns, thoughless savagelycruel
than the Three Fatesin the Stygianwatersbelow. Blake'sloomsof generation
correspondexactly to Porphyry'sdescription:
". . . to souls that descend into generation, and are occupied with
corporeal energies, what symbol can be more appropriatethan those
instrumentspertainingto weaving? Hence also the poet [Homer]ventures
to say 'That on these the Nymphs weave purple webs, admirableto the
view'. For the formationof the flesh is on and about the bones, which in
the bodiesof animalsresemblestones. Hence theseinstrumentsof weaving
consist of stone, and not of any other matter. But the purple webs will
evidentlybe the flesh which is woven from the blood.... Add, too, that
the body is a garment with which the soul is invested,a thing wonderful
to the sight."
The figure of the little girl on the right of the loom seems to be becoming
enmeshedin what the threenymphsare weavitlg. PerhapsBlakehere intends
to representthe process of generation. Thus it is, Porphyryexplains, that
Proserpine"who is the inspectiveguardianof everythingproducedfromseed,
is representedby Orpheusas weaving a web; and the heavensare called by
the ancients a veil, in consequenceof being, as it were, the vesture of the
celestial Gods." Blake has his famous Veil of Vala, "the outside surfaceof
. . . the Daughtersof Albion Weave the Web
Of Ages & Generations,folding& unfoldingit like a veil of Cherubim.
This symbol of the loom of life is widespreadin mythology. Penelope's
web, woven by day and undone by night, is the fit symbol of the never-
completedpatternof life. PorphyryquotesProclus'explanationthat the rape
of Proserpinewas the consequenceof her leaving her webs unJinished. In
eternityall is perfect; but "the unfinishedstate of her webs indicates,I think,
that the universeis imperfect,or unfinished."
Grayfoundthe same powerfulsymbolof weavingnymphsin a cave in the
Orkneysaga. A man from Caithnesssaw twelveweirdwomen enter a hollow
hill: "curiosityled him to follow them; till looking through an opening in
the rocks, he saw twelve gigantic figuresresemblingwomen; they were all
employedabout a loom, and as they wove, they sang the followingdreadful
song" and this, as Gray'sOde TheFatalSisters, Blakehad illustratedas long
ago as the year I 793-4.
See the grislytexturegrow
('Tis of humanentrailsmade,)
And the weightsthat ply below
Each a gapingwarrior'shead.
Shaftsfor shuttles,dipt in gore
Shoot the tremblingcordsalong,
Sword,that once a monarchbore,
Keep the tissueclose and strong!
There is little similaritybetweenBlake'searlyillustrationof Gray'spoem and
his later interpretationof Porphyry;unlessthere be a recollectionof the early
group of three figures (Mista, Sangrida, and Hilda) in the group of three
who ply the shuttlesin the later composition. In this triplegroup,Blakemay,
besides, be signifying that the bodies woven on the looms may be single,
double, or threefold,as he describesthem in TheFourtoas.
There are instancesin Blake'swritingsof weaving in a cave,that can only
derivefromthe HomericCave of the Nymphs. In TheGatesof Paradise much
that is obscureis illuminatedin the light of this source. Male and Female
stand together and
Round me flew the FlamingSword;
Round her snowywhirlwindsroar'd,
Freezingher Veil, the MundaneSteel.
I rent the Veil where the Dead dwell:
When weary Man entershis Cave
He meetshis Saviourin the Grave.
Some find a FemaleGarmentthere,
And some a Male, woven with care,
Lest the SexualGarmentssweet
Shouldgrow a devouringWindingsheet.

Here the world-caveis the grave "wherethe dead dwell," and where man
finds his woven garments. This is pure Porphyry. The Saviour himself
descendedinto this Cave, the earth, and here in the "grave" of souls dead
to eternity, Man meets his Saviour,who also puts on a "body of death."
Blake has used the image of the stone looms for purposesof his own:
. . . and they drew out fromthe Rocky Stones
Fibresof Life to Weave, for every Femaleis a GoldenLoom.
The Rocksare opakehardnessescoveringall vegetatedthings;
As they Wove & Cut from the Looms,in variousdivisions
They dividedinto many lovely Daughters,to be counterparts
To those they Wove; for when they wove a Male, they divided
Into a Female, to the Woven Male: in opakehardness
They cut the Fibresfrom the Rocks; groaningin pain they Weave,
Callingthe RocksAtomic Originsof Existence,denyingEternity12
The drawingout of fibresfrom the rockystonesseemsto be a recollection
of Homer'sstone loom upon which the purple garmentsare woven.
The looms of generationpassed,we reach the fourth,and lowest, stage of
the descendingseries,the Stygianwatersof the river'smouth,wherethe Fates
control the entry upon "the sea of time and space." With faces of savage
cruelty and joy one unwindsthe threadfrom a great distaff-likecoil held by
Phorcys; a second measuresthe yarn with her fingers, and the third cuts it
with her shears. Sir GeoffreyKeynes has drawn attentionl3 to the phallic
appearanceof this coil; and this would be consistentwith the symbolicsigni-
ficance that Porphyryattributesto Phorcys,as the god of generation.
". . . accordingto Plato, the deep, the sea, and a tempest, are images
of a material nature. And on this account, I think, the poet [Homer]
called the port by the name of Phorcys. For he says 'It is the port of the
ancient marine Phorcys'."
Plato in the Timaeus names Phorcysamong the ennead of gods who fabricate
generation,and Taylor quotesProclus'commentary:
". . . as the Jupiter in this ennead causesthe unapparentdivisionsand
separationof forms made by Saturn to become apparent, and as Rhea
calls them forth into motion and generation;so Phorcysinsertsthem into
matter, producessensiblenatures,and adornsthe visible essence."
Thereis somethingof Phorcysin Blake'sTharmas,"demonofthe waters''l4
who is, besides,the "parentpower." The sea, likewise,is
. . . the Worldof Tharmas,where in ceaselesstorrents
Its billowsroll, wheremonsterswanderin the foamypaths.
12J. III. 67. sistentwith his marinekingdom. Was he like
13 Note in the Arts C:ouncilC:atalogue of the "old man of the sea," the shepherdnot of
the I95I Exhibitionof Blake'stemperapaint- sheep but of the seals? This is pure specula-
ings. tion. Phorcysis, in this sense,describedas a
14 Tharmasis describedas a "shepherd," shepherd.
an occupation that seems strangely incon-
It may be objected that Phorcys, as the Old Man of the Sea, ought to be
beardedand old. But Blakeis interpretingthe symbolaccordingto Porphyry's
definition as thegod of generation.Blake never followed the accidents of a
symbolictradition at the expense of the essentialmeaning-';not because I
think the Ancientswrong, but they will be pleas'dto rememberthat mine is
Vision & not Fable." The Furies,for example,he representsas "threeMen &
not by three Women"; again, "the GreeksrepresentChronosor Time as a
very Aged Man; this is Fable, but the Real Vision of Time is in Eternal
Youth.''l5 So it seemsthat Blakehas depictedthe god of generationas young.
The "vision"had been with him for many years, and Blake'sown Sgure of
Tharmas,who may himselfhave derivedin part from the classicalPhorcys,
had in the courseof years assllmeda characterthat in its turn had influenced
his representationof the Homericgod. But it is curiousto noticethat Tharmas
himselfwas at one moment a bearded figure, emergingfrom the sea in the
traditionalmannerof the Old Man of the Sea. WhenVala's eyes
. . . were open'dto the world of waters
She saw Tharmassittingupon the rocksbesidethe wavy sea.
He strok'dthe waterfromhis

This is the Phorcysof tradition,as Homer describeshim, and Virgil in the

Fourth Georgic.
We may discover,in the descendingseriesof groups,a diagramof Blake's
Four Worldsof Eden, Beulah, Generation,and Ulro. The bright world of
the sun is the golden countrzrof Eden. The women with the urns are the
"daughtersof Beulah"with their "funeralurns"into which souls descendin
sleep from the eternal world. Blake'sBeulah is a lunar- "moony"-world.
DescendingfromBeulahwe Snd the loomsof Generation,Blake'sthirdworld;
and below roll the waters of Ulro, material existence,the world that opens
below "the bottoms of the graves",or "leads from the gates of the tomb."
The tomb is the cave, and this is the grave of immortals;Ulro is the world of
those dead to immortality.
It is not strange that Blake should introduce these four worlds into a
Platonic composition;for the four worldsderive, originally,from Platonism.
Highestis Plato'sIntelligibleworld,the worldof the gods; lowestis the world
of ignoranceand opinion, the cave. Some criticshave surmiseda Cabbalistic
source for this painting, doubtless-and rightly- because of this evident
depiction of the Four Worlds. But the CabbalisticFour (Aziluth, Briah,
Yetzirah,and Assiah)which Blakealso knew, are commonto the Jewish and
the Platonic traditions, and their significance is the same.l7 Blake was
certainlyfamiliarwith both traditions,which, in any case, are united in the
worksof such authorsas Agrippaand Fludd. They correspond,Blakewould
no doubt have argued, to the real rlatureof things there are these four
worlds,and both traditionsrest upon the unchangeablenatureof the human
imagination. We must rememberthat Blakeknew the late Platonistsbefore
he knew Plato. In Plato's own writingsthe Cave is the lowest world of the
of theLastjrudgment.
15 A Vision 17 It is possiblethat the CabbalisticFour
16 Ehe FourZoas Night the Ninth. WorldsderivefromPlatonlcsources.
Four,the worldof materialism,of ignorance,and of opinion. Thereis nothing
in Plato to associatethe Cave with the femininemysteriesof the cult of the
Nymphs,with generationand death. In the treatiseof Porphyry,the cave is,
above all, sacred to the nymphs, and to generation; and every group in
Blake'scompositionfollowsthis account,from the figureof the fontal nymph
pouringwater from her urn, and the two lovers (signifyingthe marriedstate
of all nymphs) at the top of the hillside, to the weaversat the looms below.
In Plato's Cave the prisonerssit bound, watching the shadowsof things cast
upon the walls; but Porphyrystressesthe beauty of the Cave of the Nymphs,
and this beauty, as of an arbour,or grotto, Blake has retained:
"Through matter . . . the world is obscure and dark; but through the
connectingpower, and orderlydistributionof form from which also it is
called world,it is beautifuland delightful. Hence it may very properlybe
denominateda cave; as very lovely, indeed, to him who first entersinto
it . . . but obscure to him who surveysits foundation,and examinesit
with an intellectualeye. So that its exteriorand superficialparts,indeed,
are pleasant,but its interiorand profoundparts are obscure,and its very
bottom is darknessitself."
Porphyry describesthe great beauty of the flowery caves of Mithra; and
stressesthat the Cave is not only a symbolof this world,but, also, holy ground
-a shrine sacred to the mysteriesof the Naiads; and so Blake has shown it.
Homer speaksof the northernand southernentrancesof the Cave of the
Nymphs; and in explainingthese, Porphyrypassesto astronomicalsymbolism.
For a caverniS an image or symbolof the world and
"thereare two extremitiesirlthe heavens,viz.the wintertropic,than which
nothing is more southern,and the summertropic, than which nothing is
more northern. But the summer tropic is Cancer and the winter tropic
is Capricorn. And since Canceris nearestto us, it is very properlyattri-
buted to the Moon, which is the nearest of the heavenly bodies to the
earth. But as the southernpole, by its great distance, is invisible to us,
hence Capricornis attributedto Saturn, the highest and most remote of
all the planets. Theologists therefore assert, that these two gates are
Cancerand Capricorn."
By the logic of astrologicalsymbolism,it followsthat soulsentergeneration
by the moon-governedgate of Cancer,since the moon is the ruler of genera-
tion, and also of the waters. Conversely,soulsleaving this world throughthe
gate of Capricorn,enter Saturn'sgolden countryof eternity.
"The northernparts . . . pertain to souls descendinginto generation.
And the gates of the cavernwhich are turnedto the north,are rightlysaid
to be perviousto the descentof men; but the Southerngates are not the
avenuesof the Gods, but of souls ascendingto the Gods. On this account
the poet does not say that they are the avenuesof the Gods, but of im-
mortals; this appellationbeing also common to our souls, which are, per
se, or essentially,immortal. It is said that Parmenidesmentionsthese two
gates in his treatise OntheJEature of Things;as likewise,that they are not
unknown to the Romans and Egyptians."
These two entrancesBlake has faithfullydepicted, in the vital downward
current of generation, and in the radiant staircase,rising from the distant
extremity of the cave, into a golden world. Blake himself had long ago
assimilatedthe Northernand SouthernGatesinto his own system,attributing
the NorthernGate, throughwhich souls descend into generation,to Los, or
Urthona. The firstmentionof the NorthernGate occursin TheBookof Thel,
from which we must conclude that Blake read Taylor's Porphyryvery soon
after its publicationin X788:
The eternalgates'terrificporterlifted the northernbar:
Thel enter'din & saw the secretsof the land unknown.
She saw the couchesof the dead, & wherethe fibrousroots
Of everyheart on earth infixesdeep its restlesstwists.
A land of sorrows& of tearswhereneversmilewas seen.

Thel's "land unknown"is the world of the cave, as seen by a spirithovering

on the verge of descentinto incarnation.
This passagefrom Thelthrowslight upon the four trees that stand about
the loom of generation. They occupy the whole height of the picture, their
twistedrootsin the water, their crownsreachingto the golden countryabove
the cave. They clearlysuggestthat the rootsof life are in the lowerworld,its
leaves in eternity. One is reminded Blake perhapshad in mind the tree
Yggdrasilwhose roots were in the watersof deepesthell, and its branchesin
the heavens. These trees are the only non-Platonicelement in this composi-
tion. It may be that Blake has borrowedthem from another composition,
which, while mainly Christianin inspiration,statesalmostthe same symbolic
theme, 'The River of Life'. Here the treesof lifegrowby the river,as they are
describedin the last chapterof the Bookof Revelation:
"And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal,
proceedingout of the throne of God, and of the Lamb. In the midst of
the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life,
which bore twelve mannerof fruits.. . ."
There are many similaritiesbetween these two paintings,and it seems that
here Blake has introducedinto his classical allegory this element from the
Of the SouthernGate that leads upwardsout of the cave into the world
of immortalsPorphyry'sdescriptionis necessarilyless detailed than that of
the cave. Those who pass through the SouthernGate pass into the galaxy,
outside the seven spheresof the planets that govern this world. "Capricorn
and Cancerare situatedabout the galaxy. . . . Accordingto Pythagoras,also,
are the soulswhich are said to be collectedin the galaxy,
the peopleof dreams18
18 GorneliusAgrippa also writes of these, of Pluto cannot be unlocked: within is a
quotingOrpheusas his authority:"The gates people of dreams."
this circle being so called from the milk with which souls are nourishedwhen
they fall into generation." Thesepeopleof dreams are the spiritsdepartedfrom,
or awaiting, incarnation;and we see a multitudeof them, about the chariot
of the Sun. They are scarcely distinguishablefrom the bright flames that
emanate from the sun as it rests on its golden chariot.
Criticshave not agreed as to whetherBlake sharedthe Platonic belief in
the reincarnationof souls, the cycle of descent and return. Ellis and Yeats
assumedthat he did so; and this painting, an expressionof this theme, con-
taining as it does so much else that Blakehad made his own, seemsto confirm
their belief; there are passagesthat it is possibleto read as confirmationof
this view. The Sons of Albion upon the "starrywheels''l9
. . . revolveinto the FurnacesSouthward& are drivenforthNorthward,
Divided into Male and FemaleFormstime aftertime.
This makesit at least allowableto concludethat the same souls return.
The presenceof the sun as the heart of light in the eternalworld seemsto
need no justification;but in fact it is consistentwith Porphyry'sthesis,for he
says that "the Sun and Moon are the gates of souls,which ascendthroughthe
Sun, and descend throughthe Moon." It is, therefore,understandablethat
the bright ascendingsouls should be clusteredabout the sun's chariot.
It is of these disincarnatespiritsthat Heraclitussays "We live their death,
and we die their life." And in these words,we have the heart of the myth of
the CDave of the Nymphs, the descentand returnof souls in a ceaselessround
of death and rebirth,suggestedby Blakein the very compositionof the paint-
ing, with its circling or spirallingrhythms. These words are of the essence
of Neoplatonism, and of Porphyry'stheme. Taylor gives from the Gorgias
Plato's quotation of Euripides'variant on the same paradox, "who knows
whether to live is not to die, and to die is not to live"- for, says Socrates,
perhapsin realitywe are the dead. One may say that this is the heart, also,
of Blake'sphilosophy;generatedman is sunkin "deadlysleep,)'and he enters
his cave, or grave,when he is born into this world. Somethingof this alterna-
tion of life and death is, it seems to me, suggestedby Blakein the difference
of characterin the people of the two worlds. In strange contrastwith the
fiercevitality of the descendingspiralof generation,the sun-godin his chariot
is sunk in profoundsleep. Blakeis suggestingthe contrastingstates, of life in
this world as death in the other; or, in this case, the wakingof the one as the
sleep of the other. Modernpsychologistswould say that the waking of con-
sciousnessis the sleep of the unconscious and indeed this whole theme would
as readily lend itself to a psychologicalas to a metaphysicalinterpretation.
Below, all is wakefulenergyand action; in the world of the immortals,there
is profoundsleep.
Yet the four horsesof the sun'schariotseem impatientto run their course,
and fourfemalefiguresare groomingthem with towelsand curry-combs.The
divine world will presentlyawake and move into life, and then the world of
generationwill sink into the sleep of death; or does Blake intend to suggest
that the sun's horseswill presentlylead forth the divine chariot, descend the
l9J. I. 5.
steps, and bring the light of immortalityinto the Cave? There can, in any
case, be no doubt that, as the centralfigureof the celestialgroup,the sleeping
figure of the sun-god is intended to convey the Heracliteanparadox that is
the central mystery of the myth. Whetherwe adopt a metaphysicalor a
psychologicalexplanation,this is an amazing representationof the human
To Blake, the sun as the symbol of deity is one that unites his Christian
with his classicalsymbols. Swedenborg'sangelssaw the Lord as the Sun, in
the midstof innumerablebrightspirits;and so alwaysdid Blakehimself. The
painting of 'The River of Life',predominantlyChristianin inspiration,shows
that river flowingtowardsjust such a spirit-encompassed sun as this, and is,
indeed, communicatingthe same truth in other terms, the return of all
souls to
. . . that sweet goldenclime
Wherethe traveller'sjourneyis done.

The god in the chariot of the sun is indeed a strange figure. He does not
appearto be intendedto resemblethe traditionalApollo he has no "bow of
burninggold" and there is a strangeand strikingresemblanceto the figure
of God in the fifth plate of the jkobengravings, "Then went Satan forth
from the presence of the Lord," though there the drowsy God is not yet
actually sleeping, as he appearsto be here. Yet the symbolicevent, though
statedin other terms,is strangelyparallel. The separationof Satan (the Self-
hood, as Blake invariablydefineshim) from God (the Divine Humanity) is
about to initiatejust such a cycle of Experience,of descentand return,in the
sufferingsof Job, as is here symbolizedby the voyage of Odysseusacrossthe
stormysea of time and space, and his final home-coming. One thinks,also, of
the opening lines of fhe Gatesof Paradise,
My EternalMan set in Repose,
The Femalefromhis darknessrose.
Again, the sleep of the EternalMan-who is, for Blake,the divine in man
- initiatesa descentinto the "grave"or "cave"of this world, the putting on
of a bodily garment in the cave, and a final return of the Travellerto his
native country:
But when once I did descry
The ImmortalMan that cannotDie,
Thro' eveningshadesI haste away
To close the Laboursof my Day.

Now this cycle of descentand return,the journey of the Travellerwho leaves

his native countryto returnto it again, is not Christian:it is Platonic. And
even into his interpretationof Job, I conjecturethat Blake is carrying that
grand conception that re-echoesfrom Heraclitusdown through the Greek
philosophersand poets, "we live theirdeath, and we die theirlife." Whenthe
Satan or Selfhoodor Travellerof Experienceawakes,or comes into being as
a separateentity, the divine in man sleeps or dies; when the Lost Traveller
returns,the God awakes. How deeply Blake was influencedby this concept,
I can here only suggest.
The fable of the gyres of historytold by Plato in his Politicsspeaksof the
god Saturn, who now guides the world, now relinquishesit and allows it to
run down in revolutionsin a direction contraryto those in which the god
turnsthe world. When Saturnguides the cycle, all creaturesgrow from age
to youth; when he falls asleep and leaves the world to guide itself, all moves
fromyouth to age, as now. Saturnis the rulerof the GoldenAge, and of the
"sweet golden clime," the Galaxy where the People of Dreams returnfrom
one cycle of incarnation,or await their descent. The god in the chariothere,
I would suggest,has affinitieswith this Platonic figure of Saturn.
In such a context,the humanfigureof Odysseus,travel-wornby the shore,
becomes profoundlymoving. Unlike the other figures who play their part
about him, he acts and suffersthe jollrney, bllt knows neither its beginning
nor its end. He is guided by the goddesses,but is not himselfwise as the gods
are wise, but wise only as men grow wise, from long and bitter experience.
Yet we see that he has come safely throughthe tempestsand dangersof the
sea, and we see, as he does not, that his futurepath leadsup the golden stairs.
Yet his wary crouchingfigurehas, rather,the air of a braveman readyto face
danger,than of other-worldlyself-assurance.He is the man who has travelled
the hard way, whose heroismhas been made possibleonly by his temporary
ignoranceof the whole in which he enacts his part.
Two figures in the right foregroundprovide concrete proof if that be
needed- that Blakewas workingnot merelyfromHomer,but fromPorphyry;
for of these figures there is no mention in Homer's text. They illustrate
Socrates'parableof the tubs, from the Gorgias:
". . . that part of the Soul in which the desireis contained,is of such
a nature that it can be persuaded,and hurled upwardsand downwards.
Hence a certain elegant man . . . denominated,mythologizing,this part
of the soul as a tub . . . he farthersaid, that the intemperatenatureof that
part of the soul in which the desiresare contained,was like a piercedtub,
throughits insatiablegreediness."
In Hesiod, too, Porphyrysays, "we find one tub closed, but the other opened
by Pleasure, who scattersits contents everywhere." Taylor further quotes
from Olympiodorus'commentaryon Plato,
. . . the tubs are the desires. . . the initiated,therefore i.e. those that
have a perfectknowledge,pour into the entire tub; for these have their
tub full, or, in other words, have perfectvirtue. But the uninitiated,viz.
those that possessnothing perfect, have perforatedtubs. For those that
are in a state of servitudeto desire always wish to fill it and are more
inflamed,and on this account, they have perforatedtubs, as never being

There is more to the same purpose,in which the image is changed from a
piercedtub to a sieve, and elaboratedbeyond our presentpurpose.
These two conditions,Blake has representedby two women. One whose
aspect is sober and resolute,has turned her back upon the swirlingwaters,
and begun to climb the steps of the cave, against the currentof generation.
In her right hand she carriesa full bucket; and her left hand, in a gesture
mirroringthat of Athene, is raised towards the celestial world. She is the
initiatedsoul, who is beginningherjourneyof re-ascent. Her upwardprogress
is opposed, as Sir GeoffreyKeynes observes,by the nymphsof the cave; for
she is a "dry soul," and her progressis contraryto their nature and function.
Close to her, in the extremeright of the foreground,the uninitiatedsoul
dominatedby desirelies, deeply sunkin "deadlysleep", half immersedin the
water, and recliningover her tub (or sieve) which lies on its side, the water
lapping into it, for ever unfilled. Her expressionis one of bliss and uncon-
sciousness,for the lapse into generationis delightfulto the soul attractedby
moisture. She is a "moistsoul" proceedingon her downwardjourney to the
sea. She has summoned,like Lyca in A LittleGirlLost,the "sweetsleep" of
generation,and she is on the descendingpath: ". . . by the sieve Plato signifies
the rational in subjectionto the irrationalsoul. But the water is the flux of
nature: for, as Heraclitussays, moisture
is thedeathof thesoMl."20
These two figures are related very directly to the spiritual situation of
Odysseushimself;for he has reachedthe point of returnfrom the sea. He is
no longer on the descendingpath, but about to take the upwardway of the
"dry soul," pointed for him by Athene the divine Wisdom.
Such is the wealth of meaning that Blake has workedinto this beautiful
composition,with its inexhaustiblevitalityof the everlastingcycle of death and
rebirth. He has given us the essence of Neoplatonism, and, incidentally,
made incontrovertiblyclear how much of his own system comes from that
source. So many of Blake'smost frequentsymbolsare here that some critics
have thought this painting too personalto be an illustrationof any allegory
but Blake'sown.21 But Blake was not an inventor of symbols. He was un-
20 Olympiodorus,Op. Cit. MorganLibrary(publishedin PencilDrawings
21 Such an interpretationis given by Sir by WilliamBlake,Second Series,ed. Keynes,
GeoffreyKeynesin his notes to the painting Nonesuch I957) was made at a time when
in the Arts Councilcatalogueof the exhibi- Blakewas more closelyfollowingPorphyry's
tion of Blake'stemperapaintings,arranged symbolsthan he was when the finishedpaint-
in I95 I by the WilliamBlakeTrust; and also ing was elaborated. The date of the pencil
in a publicationof the PrincetonUniversity drawing is not certainly known, and Mr.
Press (I954) entitledStudiesin ArtandLitera- Prestonsuggeststhe possibilitythat it may
ture,for Belle da Costa Greene (edited by have been made much earlier than the
Dorothy bliner). Much that is true and Snishedwork. I feel it rightto give this view
valuable can be discoveredby this method. of a distinguishedBlake scholar, although I
Anotherdistinguishedauthoritywho hasheld cannot accept it. There seems to me to be
a similarview is Mr. KerrisonPreston,who more, rather than less, detail that is speci-
haskindlyallowedme to readan unpublished fically related to the classicalsourcesin the
essayon the ArlingtonCourtpainting,which later work. In the drawing, Odysseusis in
in many respectsdiffiersfrom Sir Geoffrey the act of throwing,but the sea girdle is not
Keynes' exposition, but is no less true to shown. The figures of the horses are not
Blake's symbolic system as a whole. Mr. there, nor morethan the barestindicationof
Preston is preparedto grant that Blake is the group about the sun. The Fates are
illustratingPorphyry,but suggeststhat the recognizable in the foreground, but not
pencil drawing (P1. 2 I b) in the Pierpoint Phorcys;and in the laterversion,the charac-
restrainedlyeclectic but was so because he believed in a universalsymbolic
language; but no artist was ever more scrupulousin his observanceof tradi-
tional meanings. This workis a most scrupulous,and deeply pondered,study
of a theme of classicalmythology. Blake has studied Porphyry,the Orphic
Hymns, and Homer in at least one translationand probably several. The
compositionsuggeststhe most careful study of the text itself, and the com-
mentaries. To be a visionary,as Blakecertainlywas, is not to be an innovator
of symbols;it is, rather,to possessthe imaginativeinsightby which alone the
age-old symbols of the world's myths can be rightly understood. Visionary
imaginationis a naturalinitiationinto the secretlanguage secretbecauseit
only becomes comprehensibleto those minds capable of graspingits subject-
matter-handed down from antiquity, in all art and poetry whose theme is
imaginative knowledge. There is nothing personal in this painting except
the style of the draughtsmanshipand composition,that is inimitablyBlake's
own. Any initiate of the traditional symbolic language could not fail to
receive its communication. From all others, it withholds its secret, and
presentsonly those over-valuedaestheticqualitiesthat in a secularage usurp
the place, in art-criticism,of the communicationof meaning, which is the
purposeof all religiousart.
I rememberseeing this painting for the first time at the Art Council's
exhibition of Blake'stempera paintings,in I95I. It was at that time closed
to me; it reminded me though none of the figurescorrespond of Joyce's
Finnegan'sWake,throughthe commontheme of a cycle of descentand return,
fromsea to cloud, and riverto sea. Yeats'use of riverand sea symbolismmight
equally have come to mind, though the cycle is peculiarlyJoyce's theme.
The similaritiesare not accidental;for these three great artistsin myth are all
scrupulouslyexact in their use of traditional symbols, though each has a
different statement to make, within those terms. It is to be deplored that
when a painter or a poet adheresstrictlyto the traditionalsymbolscommon
to all great religiousart of the Westerntraditionand beyond, both beforeand
after Christ,that he is likely, in this age of ignorance and, in Plato's sense,
opinion,to be accusedof a use of symbolstoo privateand personalto be under-
stood, if not of madness. He is fortunateif he escapeswith nothingworsethan
referencesto the Collective Unconscious. Blake ceases to be obscure when
we discover his sources, which are traditional. In this respect no poet or
painter has been more gravely misunderstood,even by some of his most
sincere admirers.

terizationof Odysseusis more studied; it is chapter "Of Worship paid in Caverns"in

surelynot possibleto studythe face of Blake's which he stressesthe practiceof fire-worship,
central figure and not to feel that he has especiallyin the cult of Alithras;Blakehad,
exactly captured the characterof Homer's ofcourse,readBryant,andasBasire'sappren-
"wary-wise,"intelligent,eloquent,and above tice may even have workedon some of the
all guilefulGreek. engravingsof Persiancave-temples,severalof
What of the flames that pour out of the whichindicatesymbolsof fire-worship;in any
cave, on the right of the painting,beside the case, he would have seen these being pre-
looms? Neither Porphyrynor Homer men- pared. What, then, could be more natural
tions fires in connection with worship in than for Blake to add, on the authority of
caves, and here I think Blake is using a dif- Bryant, a detail of the symbolismof cave
ferent source. Bryant'sMythology containsa templesthat he did not find in Porphyry?