In the late 1790s, William Blake began work on an epic poem, originally titled Vala. It was a lengthy exposition of the mythology of eternal man, whose ‘Perfect Unity’ is divided after the ‘Fall’. Planned as nine books, or nights, it was reworked over a period of 10 years, each iteration more complex than the last.
In this work, Blake sets out an intricate view of the spiritual. The two states of the human soul, as seen in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, become four ways to consider eternal man: the heart, the head, the genitals, the whole being.
How does it relate to Blake’s earlier works?
Experience is again explored in the lines from the second section:
What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither'd field where the farmer ploughs for bread in vain.
The power of women, love and jealousy are strong themes in this work, emphasising the relationship between sensuality and spirituality in Blake’s writings. The poem analyses how mankind is imprisoned by the restrictions of the mind, but it offers no way of escape.
Was the work finished?
Blake abandoned Vala, and resumed it as The Four Zoas after a period of depression. While the early parts deal with intellectual judgement and spiritual despair, the later stages of the poem hold out more hope. The work was abandoned in its manuscript form by 1807, and only rediscovered and published by the poet William Yeats and writer Edwin Ellis in 1893.