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“A Virgin of Twelve Years”: Ololon in Blake’s Milton
Morton D. Paley
abstract The climactic moment of Blake’s Milton is precipitated when the female figure named Ololon appears in Blake’s garden “as a Virgin of twelve years.” Scholars have wondered why her age is precisely twelve, and where the expression, with its suggestion of the young Virgin Mary, may originate. It appears nowhere in the Bible, but occurs in the apocryphal Protoevangelium Jacobi, or Infancy Gospel of James. Blake could easily have found it in a 1798 English translation published at Oxford. His choice of this phrase suggests that there may be other elements of the Protoevangelium in the garden that can help us understand its symbolism. keywords : influences on Blake’s early nineteenth-century poetry, female sexuality, Christian Apocrypha, apocalyptic imagery
in blake’s milton a poem, after the visionary moment in which Milton enters Blake’s left foot, Blake is invested with the spirit of prophetic poetry and enabled to see into the depths: I saw in the nether Regions of the Imagination; also all men on Earth, And all in Heaven, saw in the nether regions of the Imagination In Ulro beneath Beulah, the vast breach of Miltons descent.1 One of the things he sees is a female being who comprises Milton’s wives and daughters, as well as a place identified with that “mild & pleasant Rest” called Beulah (30 :14, E 129), and a river whose composition suggests both lactation and seminal fluid:
1. 21 :4–7, E 115. Blake references by plate, line, and page number are to The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (Berkeley, Calif., 1982), which is cited as “E.” Plate numbers in brackets signify an alternate numbering that includes the full-page designs.
Pp. 106–112. ©2009 by Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. issn 0018-7895 | e-issn 1544-399x. All rights reserved. For permission to photocopy or reproduce article content, consult the University of California Press Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/hlq.2009.72.1.106.
huntington library quarterly | vol. 72, no. 1
2008). Grant. rev.. 3rd ed. Blake’s “Milton”: A Study in the Selfhood (Rutherford. 2007). . (Hanover. to parallel Milton’s act: “And Ololon said. pub. being twelve years of age.’ suggests an actual visit. S.H. ‘twelve years. E 136) At a crucial point in Blake’s Milton this collective being appears “as a Virgin of twelve years” in Blake’s garden at Felpham asking for directions (see fig. Susan Fox. Mass. ed. in 1924 S. 1): Knowest thou of Milton who descended Driven from Eternity. E 115) They lament because of their responsibility for driving Milton into the Ulro—this lower world of ours—“for now they knew too late / That it was Milton the Awakener” (21 :32–33. Blake: The Complete Poems. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. 279. ed. H.notes & d o cuments | ololon in blake’s milton 107 There is in Eden a sweet River. in solemn sighs lamented. Foster Damon suggested that “Ololon. John E. Let us descend also. while W. Ololon resolves. Her act is also a female equivalent of the Incarnation: For Ololon step’d into the Polypus within the Mundane Shell They could not step into Vegetable Worlds without becoming The enemies of Humanity except in a Female Form (36 :13–15. E 115). Grant and Mary Lynn Johnson remark that Ololon is “hardly old enough to be called a ‘virgin. H. William Blake. N. Foster Damon. ed. orig. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Stevenson. (London.. N. Foster Damon.”4 and 2. despite the continued misunderstanding of the Divine Family (the community of beings in Blake’s Eden). (21 :15–19. (New York. E 137) A question so far unanswered is: why a Virgin of twelve years? Neither of the two monographs on Milton2 addresses this subject.”3 However. 4. W. N. 2nd ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. See also S. nor do the principal annotated editions of Blake’s complete works take us much further.. him I seek! terrified at my Act In Great Eternity which thou knowest! I come him to seek (37 : 1–3.J. and the rivers living banks The mountains waild! & every plant that grew. 3. E 115).J..’” and add that she “is shortly to give up her virginity”. is at last old enough to be fruitful. Stevenson proposes that “the specific age here. 585. 1988). on whose mild banks dwelt those who Milton drove Down into Ulro: and they wept in long resounding song For seven days of eternity. 1976) and John Howard. 1976). of milk & liquid pearl. 1958. 1924). William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols (Gloucester. 195. 426. Namd Ololon. William Blake. and let us give / Ourselves to death in Ulro among the Transgressors” (21 :45–46. Poetic Form in Blake’s “Milton” (Princeton.
. Milton A Poem. 54041.108 morton d. paley figure 1. Huntington Library. William Blake. plate 36.
William Blake was of course not a research scholar and was unlikely to have read the Protoevangelium in Latin.notes & d o cuments | ololon in blake’s milton 109 some other scholars have built upon this insight. for fear lest the holy place of the Lord should be defiled?” The priests are of course concerned about the arrival of Mary’s menarche. “And when she was twelve years of age. not long before he began writing Milton. but that girl is the object of a miracle rather than. here called Joachim and Anna.8 His use of “a Virgin of twelve years” is therefore likely to have come from reading Jones’s translation. for in 1798. Essick and Joseph Viscomi say: “The age may be significant as an indication that Ololon is about to enter a transformative experience like puberty. .6 The Virgin’s age is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. but also for its context and implications. This is important not only as a source for the expression itself.7 Blake’s interest in apocryphal literature is attested to by his undertaking at least five drawings of subjects from the Ethiopian Book of Enoch shortly after its publication in English. Essick and Joseph Viscomi (Princeton. like Mary. a new edition of Jones’s work was published..J. 1726–27). Leviticus 15:28–30 is vehement on this subject: 5. A New and Full Method of Settling the Canonical Authority of the New Testament. 3 vols. and the Final Illuminated Works. Nelson Hilton connects the latter with Ololon. Luke 8:43). Diana Hume George writes that Blake chooses twelve years “precisely because that is the age just before sexuality will begin to awaken. 1980). it had been translated into English by the nonconformist theologian Jeremiah Jones in A New and Full Method of Settling the Canonical Authority of the New Testament: Wherein All the Antient Testimonies Concerning this Argument Are Produced (London. However. Literal Imagination: Blake’s Vision of Words (Berkeley. 1798).”5 Such observations.” Her parents depart. while correct. Luke 8:42). The story of the Virgin Mary’s early childhood is told in part 3 of the 1798 edition of the Protoevangelium (2:108–10). 9:20. Furthermore. Robert N. (Oxford. The Book of Enoch. the Priests met in a council.” and in their edition of Milton. for women were not allowed in the Temple during menstruation. There the high priest. see Nelson Hilton. “But Mary continued in the Temple. and to the very end of time by thee will the Lord shew his redemption to the children of Israel. which are of considerable interpretive significance. Richard Laurence (Oxford. and said.Y. There are two important instances of “twelve years” conjoined with a girl or a woman in the New Testament. N. ed. 42. Robert N. Behold! Mary is twelve years of age.” The narrative then jumps ahead nine years.” with its Biblical resonance and its evocation of the Virgin Mary. what shall we do with her. At age three Mary is taken to the temple by her parents. Mark 5:25.. 6. or Infancy Gospel of James. Calif. Blake and Freud (Ithaca. and received her food from the hand of an Angel. called Zacharias. Matthew’s Gospel. 8. trans. says: “Mary the Lord God hath magnified thy names to all generations. The woman whom Jesus cured of her issue of blood had suffered from it for twelve years (Matt. 175. 196. Milton A Poem. Blake would not have had to look far for a more recent text. 7. N. 1993). but Blake could have found it among the Christian Apocrypha in the Protoevangelium Jacobi.. and the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue whom Jesus rescued from dying was twelve years old (Mark 5:42. Diana Hume George. To Which is Subjoined: A Vindication of the Former Part of St. 1983). do not fully account for “a Virgin of twelve years. the Prophet: An Apocryphal Production. as a dove educated there. a bearer of deliverance. 1821). William Blake.
Foskett. and after that she shall be clean. And on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtles. Blake need hardly have known these categories to have seen that in the Protoevangelium the twelve-year-old Mary is at a crucial point and is in effect expelled from the Temple because of her imminent and threatening sexuality. and bring them unto the priest. Tim Horner. (42 :4–7. E 143) 9.” Marked as the chosen widower. being resident in the Temple according to the Protoevangelium. but rather uses the former in his exposition of the latter. “Jewish Aspects of the Protoevangelium of James. to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. and the other [for] a burnt offering. She has to be expelled. then she shall number to herself seven days.9 The day after she turns twelve she becomes a naarath. And the priest shall offer the one [for] a sin offering. Horner does not argue that the Mishnah is necessarily as old as the Protoevangelium (2nd century c. 147.”10 The apocalypse that concludes Milton is immediately preceded by Ololon’s Virgin identity separating from her. Joseph (albeit reluctantly) takes the twelve-year-old Mary away with him.).110 morton d. and it is of course his that is chosen: “behold. paley But if she be cleansed of her issue. Mary. As one scholar of early Christian texts observes. and the priest shall make an atonement for her before the lord for the issue of her uncleanness. a pubescent girl. figures as the primary cause of anxiety” here. In an invaluable paper on the Protoevangelium.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 12 (2004): 313–35. A Virgin Conceived: Mary and Classical Representations of Virginity (Bloomington. or two young pigeons. Mary F. a dove proceeded out of the rod and flew upon the head of Joseph.. however. “Sexuality. not barred from entering. that she is bestowed upon a man who will preserve her virginity. Tim Horner points out that according to the rabbinical Mishnah a girl at the age of three is called a Ketannah.” each to bring a rod and await a holy sign. Joseph takes the last rod. and not religious observance. Zacharias is therefore commanded by the Lord to gather together as potential husbands “all the widowers among the people. as Mary’s was in the Temple. . 10. and “a more generalized anxiety over female sexual maturity also figures in this scene. 2002). Ind. presents a special problem. and her virginity is in need of protection. signifies a denial of that threat. Exactly six months later she is considered capable of assenting to marriage. 150. the Virgin divided Six-fold & with a shriek Dolorous that ran thro all Creation a Double Six-fold Wonder! Away from Ololon she divided & fled into the depths Of Miltons Shadow as a Dove upon the stormy Sea.e.
but a distinction is made between his Shadow (which “Like as a Polypus that vegetates beneath the deep!”) and “His real and immortal Self.”11 In plate 37  (E 137). Locke & Newton from Albions covering To take off his filthy garments. “hermaphroditic. in which Milton declares: I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration To cast off Bacon. whereas. neither this dove nor “the Spirit of God descending like a dove” in Matthew 3:16 is associated with a virgin. and at other times has an independent existence. The “Dove upon the stormy Sea” obviously evokes Noah’s dove in Genesis 8:9.”12 Had this 11.” reaching “to the depths of Direst Hell. 140). In this sense Blake’s Virgin is to Milton’s Shadow as Mary is to Joseph. and frequently his images and phrases have multiple associations. Milton’s Shadow has become Blake’s ultimate symbol of negativity. 141. E 108. and although Milton is not distinguished from his Shadow in the long passage that follows. for the waters [were] on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand. This is the doctrinal climax of the poem. Another connection is the “clouds of blood” and “streams of gore” in which “Ololon descended to Felphams Vale” (42 :7–8. The great speech beginning “Obey thou the words of the Inspired Man” (40 :29 ff. 11. E 109. in the Protoevangelium Mary is “as a dove” in the Temple. It is significant that it is not Milton but his Shadow into whose depths the Virgin flees. 14 :46–47. E 142) and continuing well into the following plate is addressed to Ololon by Milton himself. will achieve a sexual consummation—as. where “the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot. When Milton begins his descent. . E 143). and pulled her in unto him into the ark. E 142) After such a speech it is understandable for the reader to expect that Milton and Ololon. Poetic Form in Blake’s Milton. “Finally. as we have seen.” However.” and “he enterd into it”. for it was the priests’ fear of Mary’s impending issue of blood that led them to expel her from the Temple.. he “beheld his own Shadow. 15 :8. and took her. 12. when the Virgin asks Blake about Milton. in Fox’s words. Damon calls Milton’s Shadow his “unfulfilled desire” (Blake Dictionary. severe & silent” (38 :7–8. Essick and Viscomi say it “represents the errors of his mortal life” (Milton. and Joseph is designated as the widower who must take Mary when a dove flies out of his rod and lights upon his head. & clothe him with Imagination (41 :2–6.” which is his own manifestation in the natural world. Both females come under the protection of males who will not threaten their virginity. Milton’s Shadow at times is combined with Milton. E 138). he has entirely separated from it when he is described as “descending down into my Cottage / Garden: clothed in black. & thence to Albions land.notes & d o cuments | ololon in blake’s milton 111 Blake’s is a syncretic method. 208). both placed in Blake’s garden. and she returned unto him [Noah] into the ark. the Covering Cherub (line 44). we are permitted full vision of the divine Marriage.
. edited by Tim Fulford. and co-editor of Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. Romanticism and Millenarianism. He received the Distinguished Scholar Award of the Keats-Shelley Association of America in 2002. . she seeks not a consummation but a “refuge.112 morton d. paley been a work of the early 1790s. in streams of gore.”) It is because of the ambiguity of that identity that Ololon’s virgin form is of an age in itself ambiguous—why she is. morton paley is a professor emeritus at the University of California. (Note that “The Virgin divided . E 143). a Virgin of twelve years. as in the Protoevangelium. and his Traveller in the Evening: The Last Works of William Blake appeared in paperback in 2007.” It is only after this separation that Ololon can manifest her collective presence in apocalyptic form: Then as a Moony Ark Ololon descended to Felphams Vale In clouds of blood. His most recent book is Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Fine Arts (Oxford. When the Virgin flies into the depths of Milton’s Shadow “with a shriek / Dolorous” (42 :3–44. Away [emphasis mine] from Ololon. and in the same year a festschrift in his honor. with dreadful thunderings Into the Fires of Intellect that rejoic’d in Felphams Vale (42 :7–9. But by the end of Milton redemptive agency has been transferred to the inspired poet William Blake. 2008). E 143) Ololon must be divested of sexual identity before her apocalyptic identity can manifest itself. Blake might indeed have ended it with a sexual paradise regained. . was published by Palgrave. Berkeley.