During my archive work this past fall, I was asked to markup Copies D and L of Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). At the time, I had also recently reread Visions for other research, and it lead contemplating about what Blake attempted to convey through only illustration.
To readers who do not know, Visions explores Oothoon’s burgeoning realization of her sexuality, interrupted by Bromion raping her. Theotormon, her lover is horrified by the rape and both men look upon her in disgust. While Oothoon feels she deserves the beauties of sexual love because it was only her body that was violated, not her soul.
As with many of Blake’s Visions’ the goal is a revolutionary vision of the world; he undermines attitudes about sexual abstinence as an indicator moral purity. There is also an interesting parallel in the book’s illustrations between a figure that could be either Urizen, Blake’s god of law and conventions, or Bromion, or Oothoon herself.
As seen in the first image, an older male figure is hovering above a female figure attempting to flee from him. For the purposes of this discussion, we will identify the male as Urizen and Oothoon as the female.
What is unique about Urizen’s depiction on the title plate compared to other hovering or floating figures in Blake’s art is his posture: face forward, with only his head, part of his torso, and arms wrapped around his body. When I searched the Archive, the only other figure that has Urizen’s posture is a small male figure with bat wings on the “Preludium” plate of Europe: A Prophecy (1794). What first drew me to this gesture, however, is how similar Urizen’s pose is to Oothoon’s on the final plate of Visions, save for one important difference. Compared to the enclosed position of Urizen, Oothoon has her arms outstretched and open. While Urizen is trapped in self-enforced societal perceptions, Oothoon’s experience in Visions has allowed her to ascend above them.
Blake’s illustration reflects Oothoon’s new mindset, but also her loneliness. She has risen above the Daughters, who can only “hear her woes. & echo back her sighs,” there is no one that joins her in this greater knowledge (Pl. 11, Line 14). Oothoon comes to a similar realization in the text of Visions, but she physically remains in the cave with Bromion and Theotormon. Blake’s text and image offer two juxtaposing options: do we as readers believe what we see in the illustration, or what we read in the text?
As a project assistant, my aim is to read the text as “diplomatic”—to note variations, and describe designs, but to give no interpretation. But it is through such process I found another ending for Oothoon. Urizen wraps his arms around himself, but Oothoon’s arms are spread out wide. She is still opening herself to the world around her, while Urizen curls himself tighter against it. Blake may be showing that not all is as it always seems, and not everything returns to cycles of pain.