The Religion of Empire

Political Theology in Blake's Prophetic Symbolism

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G. A. Rosso
Literature, Religion, and Postsecular Studies
  • Columbus, OH: 
    Ohio State University Press
    , November
     2016.
     291 pages.
     $69.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780814213162.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Religion of Empire G. A. Rosso has written an impressive, in-depth analysis of Rahab, one of the most vexing figures in the longer poems of William Blake (1757-1827). Blake was an English pre-Romantic poet, painter, engraver, printer, and book-seller who liberated himself from the commercial print world by producing his own “illuminated” books: he composed his poems and designs, engraved or etched them onto copper plates—writing everything in reverse—printed them on his own press, water-colored each page individually, bound them into books, and marketed them himself. Today, Blake is probably best known for his Songs of Innocence and of Experience or the “Jerusalem” hymn, one of England’s national anthems since World War I.

Rosso has framed this project as a study of the integral intertwining of religion and politics in Blake’s later career. Rosso claims that Blake’s three epic poems—The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem—do not represent a retreat from the political offensives that we find in his illuminated works of the 1790’s, as many Blake scholars previously claimed. Rather, Rosso argues that Blake continued his prophetic critiques of both church and state in these later works, which were produced after the cataclysmic personal and political events at the turn of the nineteenth century, including Blake’s vocational crisis and sedition trial, and the Napoleonic wars. Rosso focuses his argument on the interrelated, biblically-informed Blakean symbols of Rahab, the Abomination of Desolation, Vala, the Shadowy Female, the hermaphroditic Shadow, Mystery Babylon, and the Covering Cherub. He finds that these characters are key to disclosing the political dimension of Blake’s meanings in these poems. Rosso developed different aspects of this project from various book chapters that he has written over the last twenty-four years. His 2002 essay, “The Religion of Empire: Blake’s Rahab in Its Biblical Contexts” (Prophetic Character: Essays on William Blake in Honor of John E. Grant, Locust Hill Press), stands as a promissory note to the full development of this research, now fulfilled in this book.

After a helpful introduction in which he outlines his arguments and methods, Rosso discusses the biblical contexts for Blake’s Rahab imagery (chap. 1), and the various forms of the Rahab symbol as they appear in Blake’s unfinished manuscript, The Four Zoas (chap. 2). Here, Rosso shows how Rahab is a critical figure in Blake’s attempted revisioning of that poem. In the next chapter, Rosso ventures an interpretation of the Bard’s Song—the first, and exceedingly cryptic, eleven plates in Milton—as “a mythic tale about the fate of apocalyptic tradition in Milton’s era, especially as it relates to the formation of England’s church-state imperium that endures into Blake’s era and beyond” (16). In the fourth chapter Rosso unpacks the complex dynamics of Milton’s narrative through the lens of the female figures of Rahab and the messianic Ololon. Rosso turns to Jerusalem in chapter 5, with analyses of the confluences of veiling and weaving images symbolizing systems of moral virtue, patriarchal ideologies, and repressive sexuality. He makes an intriguing case here for including elements of Rahab in the female figure usually identified as Enitharmon on the final plate of Jerusalem (195). In this chapter, Rosso focuses on the religious dimensions of the symbols, and then turns—in the following chapter—to the political dynamics of related images, including the Abomination of Desolation, the Bacon-Newton-Locke triumvirate, the Oak Groves of Albion, Brittannia, and the Covenant of Priam. Rosso shows Blake using these symbols apocalyptically to completely unravel the theo-political fabric of British imperialism. In his concluding chapter, he reflects briefly on some potential outcomes of this analysis, both within Blake studies and in relation to contemporary critical theory.

The Religion of Empire is an invaluable study, carefully researched and effectively argued. Rosso has done a marvelous job of dealing with the variant versions of Blake’s poems, and with integrating their verbal and visual imagery—the book provides six color plates and eight black-and-white illustrations. In my judgment, one of the greatest strengths of this investigation is Rosso’s careful attending to the actual names, voices, and characters as they appear in Blake’s poems, rather than trying to impose one overarching system onto these dramas by distilling all the speeches and narrations into neat conclusions about what Blake himself says or believes. This approach makes for a messier analytical style, but one much that is more accurate and adequate to the works before us.

 I find many of Rosso’s arguments persuasive, but I wish he would have anchored his analyses of these symbols in Blake’s actual theological contexts, as Rosso does for the political culture of the day. He continues the trend of labeling Blake a religious “antinomian” without grounding that conclusion in historical evidence, analyzing any of the antinomian theologies of that period, or acknowledging the problematic use of that term in Blake’s time. Throughout the book, Rosso’s references to various Christian factions are extremely vague—for example, referring to traditions as “dissenting” or “orthodox”—terms that were highly disputed and lacking any clear meaning in Blake’s religious environment. Rosso provides little-to-no substance on the contemporary theological systems that Blake was describing or targeting in his epics. Perhaps most significantly, Rosso does not engage the popular Arminian theology of John Wesley’s Methodism—the movement that became the lightning rod for so many theo-political debates in this period. In a project that endeavors to situate and interpret Blake’s political theology in relation to the political and theological concerns of the long eighteenth century, I find this a considerable problem that seriously diminishes the discoveries and impact of this study.

Nevertheless, Rosso has unearthed a wealth of treasure for Blake scholars, who will find much of enduring value in this book. The Religion of Empire will not open itself easily to general readers, however. Rosso assumes a basic but solid knowledge of the dramatis personae of Blake’s mythopoetic worlds; without it, readers will not be able to make much headway here.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer G. Jesse is professor of philosophy and religion at Truman State University.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

G. A. Rosso is Professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University.

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