William Blake is possibly one of the most widely read and referenced poets from the Romantic Period. Some of his most famous works include The Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion just to name a few. Many of his poems offer some element of social criticism, and this includes The Visions of the Daughters of Albion which was published in 1793. At its most basic Visions of the Daughters is simply a poem detailing the life and abuse of Oothoon, specifically through her interactions with Bromion and Theotormon. More than this, however, many critics agree that Blake used Visions of the Daughters of Albion and Oothoon to highlight the oppressiveness of his time period, both socially and internally.
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In the poem most of the oppression is seen socially in the treatment of Oothoon by both Bromion and Theotormon. When readers first meet Oothoon, she is “[wandering] in woe,/Along the vales of Leutha seeking flowers to comfort her;” (Blake I. 4-5). She has discovered her womanhood and is at this point ready to share it with Theotormon. Before this can happen however she is intercepted by, Bromion, who the rapes her as evident in the following lines: “Bromion rent her with his thunders. On his stormy bed/ Lay the faint maid, and soon her woes appalled his thunders hoarse” (Blake I. 16-17). Bromion then proceeds to mock her and call her a “harlot,” throwing what he has done in both Theotormon’s and her face. Instead of rage at Bromion, Theotormon reacts with jealousy placing much of the blame on Oothoon as well as he “folded his black jealous waters round the adulterate pair;” (Blake II. 4-5). Not only is blame placed on Oothoon simply by Theotormon’s reaction, but “adulterate” would also lead readers to believe that she is simply unfaithful. Even though she tries to explain this to Theotormon, he will not listen and she is left in her own sadness because society has said she is partly to blame and Theotormon will not go against this idea. This attitude and oppressiveness- towards women especially- is likely what Blake was criticizing in this poem. Aside from what is obvious oppression in the poem, many critics have also found many different forms of social oppression being criticized in Visions of the Daughters of Albion.
One critical example of other views on this social oppression can be found in “Marriage: Visions of the Daughters of Albion” by Diane Hume George. George points out that Oothoon is characterized as “a virgin who awakens to sexual maturity and acts on her impulses instead of repressing them” as was typical of the time (George 125). Bromion, “a cruel representative of patriarchal rule” rapes Oothoon and through his treatment of her as an object instead of woman represents one type of oppression (George 126). He not only rapes her, but then his subsequent treatment of her is just as oppressive because he treats her as a possession to be toyed with and not as a human being as seen in the lines: “Now though maist marry Bromion’s harlot…” (Blake II.1). She also argues that Theotormon’s reaction to this rape is just as oppressive because he lays much of the blame at the victim’s-Oothoon- feet instead of with the aggressor-Bromion. As mentioned above his jealousy would indicate that he does not believe she was simply attacked, but instead welcomed Bromion’s advances. According to George, Oothoon represents the oppression of women because she was expected to hold onto her virginity and when it is-forcibly- taken from her she is to blame. George also explains that this oppression is tied into society’s idea of marriage in this time period. The reason Oothoon is expected to stay a virgin is because she is not married and women being pure before marriage was one of the most important social rules of the Eighteenth Century. It was this expectation that not only led to strangling oppression, but also many unhappy relationships because expectations which were set too high. Through her essay George shows that Blake recognized this oppression and believed that it was the cause of many damaged and broken relationships and used “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” to illustrate this issue to others of his time period.
A somewhat similar interpretation to Greorge’s argument about oppression is presented by Stanley Gardner in Infinity on the Anvil: A Critical Study of Blake’s Poetry. Gardener would likely agree with George about the oppressiveness of marriage, but he also presents many different ideas. One of the major differences is Gardener’s argument that religion is one of the many oppressive factors in this poem. He argues that “there is an iron fetter with a chain fastened around Bromion’s ankle, but not attached to Oothoon. The only bonds which hold Oothoon captive to religion are established by Theotormon himself” (Gardner 51). Instead of marriage being the main factor holding characters back, Gardner argues that religion is the biggest problem. Religion would also be another factor that would explain why Oothoon was expected to hold onto her virginity, making it another factor of oppression in society. Another difference in Gardner’s writing is that he advocates that all three are symbols of oppression in society. Gardner does not focus on Oothoon as many other critics do, but rather stretches the idea of oppression to the other characters in the poem:
Oothoon is…freedom and revolt against the repressive law of either religion or society. Theotormon is desire, but desire under the severe restraint of external compulsion and of its own limitations: Bromion is plainly a personification of the false righteousness which fetters the soul (Gardner 49-50).
Basically Oothoon represents the fight against oppression, Theotormon represents those who wish to be free, but also have a desire to continue following the rules, and Bromion represents oppression itself because he believes he is justified in his actions by society. When Oothoon declares her innocence she illustrates this fight against the social norm. While Theotormon loves Oothoon, part of him still has to agree with societies’ view because he is afraid of being turned away as well. This is why he is jealous and part of him still blames her. Bromion knows that society will not punish him for what he has done, so he feels justified in his treatment of Oothoon. Through his analysis of the characters Gardner illustrates another way in which Blake used this poem as a criticism of oppression in society.
A final example of societal oppression is presented in James Swearingen’s “The Enigma of Identity in Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” It is similar to the George’s work in that Swearingen also believes that Blake’s work breaks down gender differences of the time period. Instead of oppression in marriage, however, Swearingen’s essay focuses directly on the oppression of women by men and how society perpetuates this . He –Like George- begins by looking at the rape of Oothoon and Bromion’s subsequent treatment of her as an object, and Theotormon’s jealously and rage. Swearingen argues that “this poem boldly studies the socialization of gender in a way that reveals the social and moral origins of sexual violation” (Swearingen 204). His argument is that the oppression represented by Blake is seen in the fact that society has justified Bromion’s actions because there is no punishment. He argues that Oothoon’s guily feeling stems from Theotormon’s expectation that she feel worse about herself over what happened than she actually does. As the victim Oothoon should not have to feel guilty about what has occurred, but because society says that she should guard her virginity she should feel disgusted with herself. When she does not feel this, Theotormon reacts with jealousy, believing that Oothoon in fact welcomed Bromion’s advances. As Oothoon’s attitude gradually changes, she learns to “ask: what is man that he can be corrupted or woman that she can be defined by the events of one day?” (Swearingen 210). This change in attitude again characterizes Oothoon as a symbol against oppression and illustrates the central focus of the poem about oppression and the need to put an end to it.
Not only does Visions of the Daughters of Albion offer a critical view of societal oppression, some critics have even argued that it is an illustration of internal oppression. Instead of oppression directly from an outside force (i.e. society), this oppression stems from the individual and their own mind set. In many ways this idea is highly connected to societal oppression, because it is the desire to give into society that causes this internal oppression. People try too hard to become what society says they should, that they lose who they really are in the struggle. A person oppresses him or herself, by giving into the pressure of society and not staying to true to who they are and what they believe. While this oppression may not be completely obvious, in the text of the poem some critics are able to find it in there deeper reading of it.
One example of a critics view on this internal oppression is presented in Jane Peterson’s “The Visions of the Daughters of Albion: A Problem in Perception.” Peterson argues that the central focus and conflict of this poem is the discrepancy between the external and internal eyes, and believed that the motto of this poem was, “’The Eye sees more than the heart knows”’ (Peterson 252). Because of this, Peterson says that Oothoon loses her “true perception not her innocence after her rape” (Peterson 253). Peterson continues with her argument by saying that all of Blake’s characters only perceive with their “outward eyes” and that this is where much of the conflict lies. At first Oothoon is able to see with both eyes as is witnessed in the first lines of the poem when she is able to see both a flower and a nymph: “Oothoon sees the flower with her outward eye and the nymph with her inward eye” (Peterson 255). After being raped she can no longer get an accurate perception of her own innocence so she has lost true perception. Oothoon can -most likely- no longer get a proper perspective on her own innocence because she has convinced herself that she is not innocent. It is even more likely that she feels this way because society has told she is no longer innocent and when the people around her treat her as the problem she will believe it as well. Oothoon has given into the pressure of society and therefor feels sorrow and guilt for what has happened to her, which is why “the Daughters of Albion weep” (Blake I. 1). Oothoon’s struggle with perceiving her innocence illustrates the internal oppression of a person who has succumbed to the will of society and given up on themselves.
Another critical example of this internal oppression is offered by Howard Hinkel in “From Energy and Desire to Eternity: Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” In this essay Hinkel argues that Visions of the Daughters of Albion reflects Blake’s understandings and concepts of time and marks a shift in Blake’s writing. Hinkel argues that this poem illustrates a shift in “focus to an apocalypse that [he] will continue using in the decade following” the publication of Visions of the Daughters of Albion (Hinkel 278). Unlike many of Blake’s other poems, Hinkel argues the central conflict in this one is “internal and particular rather than external and universal” (Hinkel 285). Oothoon is a guiding point in Blake’s shift in thinking as her struggle is internal, as is her growth. Oothoon is oppressed by her own thoughts about herself and therefor it is only a shift in her thinking that can free her from this oppression. Oothoon must learn to accept and love herself no matter what society says or believes is right. Only she can choose what is right for her. Through her experiences and growth, Oothoon finds eternity and freedom because she has learned to love herself. Life now has new meaning for Oothoon and her story is a representation of a shift in Blake from “external apocalypses” to “internal apocalypses” (Hinkel 288). This shift from external to internal could demonstrate Blake’s desire to illustrate that oppression is not actually controlled by society, but rather people’s reactions to the oppression forced on them by society and that giving in to the pressures of society is the only way that people can really be oppressed.
Like many works of literature, Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion, can be interpreted in many different ways by different people. Even with these different interpretations, however, there is often a central theme underlying in all of the interpretations which connects them to each other and the poem. In the case of Visions of the Daughters of Albion, this theme is oppression by society and by oneself. Through his characterization of Oothoon, Theotormon, and Bromion Blake illustrates the oppressiveness of his times society and what the problems are with this kind of attitude. On the surface this oppression is centralized on Oothoon, and is the product of Theotormon’s and Bromion’s treatment of her, but when looking deeper it is also evident that the oppression goes much farther than that. Many critics have written on the different perspectives of oppression in Blake’s poem, and it is through these interpretations that the deeper levels of oppression can be seen. Even with these different interpretations, many critics still agree that this theme of oppression stems from Blake’s desire to educate the people of this time about this issue so that society could eventually put an end to it and is once again an example of Blake using his poetry as a social critique.
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