Night Dreams: The Four Zoas

  • Jeremy Tambling


To begin with the title. The first, VALA, The Death and Judgment of the Ancient Man a Dream of Nine Nights by William Blake 1797 was crossed through, with, written above: ‘The Four Zoas: The Torments of Love & Jealousy in The Death and Judgment of Albion the Ancient Man’. This was followed by the next page, ‘Rest before labour’ with a pencil-drawing of a male nude, and on page 3, a Biblical quotation (Ephesians 6.12), and the title, ‘VALA: Night the First’ with the text beneath. Below that comes a picture of a sexually provocative Vala, reclining in a posture analogous to Michelangelo’s awakening Adam, which she parodies.2 The idea of the dream, a night thought, remains as a palimpsest, while ‘night’ appears some hundred times, in a work called neither a book, or a prophecy; and because not engraved, remaining incomplete, non-centred renderings of thoughts whose lack of organization and incompleteness point to the melancholia in ‘torments of love & jealousy’.3 The term recalls Theotormon in Visions of the Daughters of Albion. The Four Zoas combines two things impossible to unite: narrative, which implies consistency of space and time, and night thoughts, moments in ‘an aweful pause’ which brings narrative to an end or else makes it exfoliate irreconcilably.


Human Form Moral Virtue Male Friendship Paradise Lost Pleasure Principle 
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  1. 3.
    For scholarship on The Four Zoas: Brian Wilkie and Mary Lynn Johnson, Blake’s Four Zoas: The Design of a Dream (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1978),CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Donald Ault, Narrative Unbound: Revisioning William Blake’s The Four Zoas (Barrytown: Station Hill 1987),Google Scholar
  3. Vincent De Luca, Words of Eternity: Blake and the Poetics of the Sublime (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1991),Google Scholar
  4. George Anthony Rosso Jr, Blake’s Prophetic Workshop: A Study of the Four Zoas (London: Associated University Press 1993),Google Scholar
  5. Andrew Lincoln, Spiritual History: A Reading of William Blake’s Vala or The Four Zoas (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1995),Google Scholar
  6. John B. Pierce, Flexible Design: Revisionary Poetics in Blake’s Vala or The Four Zoas (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press 1998),Google Scholar
  7. Peter Otto, Blake’s Critique of Transcendence: Love, Jealousy and the Sublime in The Four Zoas (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. For other work on the manuscript: H.M. Margoliouth, William Blake’s ‘Vala’: Blake’s Numbered Text (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1956);Google Scholar
  9. G.E. Bentley Jr, ‘Vala’ or ‘The Four Zoas’: A Facsimile of the Manuscript, a Transcript of the Poem and a Study of its Growth and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1963). The dominating difficulties are over the revisions: whether the poem begins with the First or Second Night (the second is never so named by Blake), and over the two versions of Night 7. Keynes prints these separately, whereas Erdman (regarding 7b as earlier, a point which has not achieved consensus) puts 7b inside 7a, at 7a.331, plate 85, line 22 (E. 360, K. 328). Blake had written ‘End of the Seventh Night’ at this point. S follows E, but prints 7b in reverse order, lines 124–301 before 1–122. These are only two of several possibilities. Another question rises over the designs, some of which were partially erased, at some stage in the nineteenth century (on account of their obscenity?).Google Scholar
  10. For an early attempt to relate the illustrations to Young, see John Beer, Blake’s Visionary Universe (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1969), pp. 343–452,Google Scholar
  11. about which John E. Grant is intemperate in his ‘Visions in Vala: A Consideration of Some Pictures in the Manuscript’, in Stuart Curran and Joseph Anthony Wittreich Jr, Blake’s Sublime Allegory: Essays on The Four Zoas, Milton, Jerusalem (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1973), pp. 141–202. The revisions mean that The Four Zoas contains material from the Lambeth books (much of it in pages 43–84) overlaid with material from Milton and Jerusalem imported at a later stage. Much criticism of the poem takes the form of distinguishing the revisions. I have worked with the poem as far as possible as if it was complete, continuous, even self-consistent, while recognizing it is none of these things. I have disregarded questions of chronology, which assume a narrative force to the events in the text; Ault could be cited as an ally for his reading of the text as ‘anti-Newtonian narrative’ — but I do not assume an agreement with Ault for leaving aside chronology, for I do not want to argue particularly that the breaks are modes of foiling linear narrative.Google Scholar
  12. 5.
    On stonework in London and the bricks and the brickfields that marked out suburban London, see James Ayres, Building the Georgian City (New Haven: Yale University Press 1998).Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Gregory Bateson, ‘Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia’ in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine Books 1972), pp. 201–27.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Jacques Derrida, The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1987), pp. 355, 389 for the reference to Bateson.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    Andrew Efelbein, Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (New York: Columbia University Press 1999), p. 152.Google Scholar
  16. For a critique of Efelbein see Christopher Z. Hobson, Blake and Homosexuality (London: Palgrave 2000), p. 219.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press 1982) discusses fear of the loss of boundaries defining the subject: ‘the places of joy and love’ are, of course, borders.Google Scholar

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© Jeremy Tambling 2005

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  • Jeremy Tambling

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