If you have read this work and did not understand it, you're not alone.
It is a very esoteric, enigmatic, and complex retelling of Genesis—a different
view of the Creation, which, upon understanding Blake's meaning, seems much closer to reality than the version in the Bible, (at least to me). In addition to being a poet,
printmaker, and artist, Blake was also known as a visionary, perhaps even a prophet.
William Blake, 1757-1827, was born and died in London, and in fact spent nearly his entire life in that city. According to Wikipedia, he was ranked #38 in a 2002 BBC poll of the "100 Greatest Britons," yet received little recognition for his efforts during his lifetime. In fact, many thought he was mad. But, like Edgar Allan Poe, he was just ahead of his time, and not afraid to be different in his expression of existence. This poem, written in 1794, must have seemed shocking at the time, and yet here, now in 2016, much of it is quite pertinent to current thought. I am not a Gnostic, but I have read that the Gnostics believe that God is insane; (if I believed in God, I would certainly agree with that!). Blake's God, or Creator, Urizen, is not perhaps as insane as just plain evil. As Wikipedia states, Blake was "Reverent to the Bible but hostile to the Church of England (indeed, to almost all form of organized religion)." It is the chains of both religion and reason that bind his characters, and subsequently, all of humanity to pain and suffering.
As I read this, I searched for an analysis online that would enable me to understand and find meaning in this mysterious work. Even Wikipedia, which is usually my first choice, was confusing. Then I found a wonderful site, called DeliriumsRealm: Essays on Good & Evil, written by a Russian emigrant named Daniil Leiderman, who is also a practicing Pagan. His explanation makes so much sense, and after reading his essay, I was able to comprehend what Blake had written, (and understand Wikipedia better). He mentions a little about Blake, which includes the fact that he claimed to "see the dead, communicate with Biblical prophets and experience ecstatic visions." These of course would have contributed to people's opinion that he was mad!
Leiderman sees Urizen as a demiurge, (also a figure used in Gnosticism), which according to Wikipedia is a creator of the physical, material world, but not the creator (God). Wikipedia says:
In the arch-dualistic ideology of the various Gnostic systems, the material universe is evil, while the non-material world is good. Accordingly, the demiurge is malevolent, as linked to the material world.
Urizen is definitely evil. Leiderman points out that Blake has linked
Reason with Evil and suggests that Urizen may be a play on words (your reason).
Along with Reason, Religious Dogma is also a source of evil, and this poem was Blake's way to voice his contempt against the Church of England.
Again, from Wikipedia:
The book describes Urizen as the "Primeaval Priest" and tells how he became separated from the other Eternals to create his own alienated and enslaving realm of religious dogma. Los and Enitharmon create a space within Urizen's fallen universe to give birth to their son Orc, the spirit of revolution and freedom.
Sounds fairly appropriate for what's happening on the planet now.
Urizen intended to create his world to obey a strict set of laws with limited choices. To quote from the poem, Chapter II, Verse 8:
Laws of peace, of love, of unity,
Of pity, compassion, forgiveness.
Let each chuse one habitation,
His ancient infinite mansion.
One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure,
One King, one God, one Law.
The Eternals refuse to obey Urizen's laws and cast him out. Los is sent to watch over him, but he becomes bound to him, and, as Leiderman points out, loses access to eternity. When Urizen reawakens in the end, he sees that none of his creation can obey his laws. From Chapter VIII, Verse 4:
He in darkness clos'd, view'd all his race,
And his soul sicken'd! He curs'd
Both sons & daughters, for he saw
That no flesh nor spirit could keep
His iron laws one moment.
Leiderman sums it up excellently:
Blake's universe is ruined the moment his demiurge forces a single choice instead of a multitude of possibility—Urizen's either/or is the end of freedom. Blake is suggesting that the human condition is one where every choice is an either/or choice—science or faith, good or evil, life or death, but also that this is an illusory condition—the universe is infinite in possibility and variety that we are entirely blind to . . .
Again, from Urizen, Chapter VIII, Verses 8 and 9:
So twisted the cords, & so knotted
The meshes, twisted like to the human brain.
And all call'd it the Net of Religion.
In addition to this quite perplexing poem are Blake's wonderful (and perhaps equally perplexing) works of art which he created to illustrate this work. Most of them can be found online by Googling The Book of Urizen. Here are a couple:
Chapter IV [b], Verse 1 (first image)
Ages on ages roll'd over him!
In stony sleep ages roll'd over him!
Like a dark waste stretching, chang'able,
By earthquakes riv'n, belching sullen fires,
On ages roll'd ages in ghastly
Sick torment; around him in whirlwinds
Of darkness, the eternal Prophet howl'd,
Beating still on his rivets of iron,
Pouring sodor of iron, dividing
The horrible night into watches.
Los, Enitharmon, and Orc (second image)
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