Prophetic legislation : William Blake and the visionary poetry of the law
This dissertation examines the meaning of law in Blake's work. I argue that Blake's poetry intersects with contemporaneous challenges to the traditional model of the ancient constitution, a debate which I present as a conflict between custom and code. Blake's support for the French Revolution's overthrow of the customary systems of the ancien regime is countered by his nervousness about the rights-based discourse advanced by leading radical intellectuals such as Thomas Paine, a belief that the new systems which they proposed merely re-stated those which they sought to replace within an even narrower compass. Law is also a contested ground within radical political discourse of this period; although the dominant proposals advocated the enshrinement of fundamental rights and the codification of law, there was also a tendency towards a more enthusiastic radicalism These millenarian groups, emerging from antinomian heresy, rejected the notion of life being framed within a set of moral laws. I argue that Blake cannot easily be placed in either group; his work exhibits a fidelity to the redemptive potential of law, coupled with a real concern that to define freedoms in legal terms serves to limit rather than to liberate. Blake's work thus engages with a problem of the period: how to understand the new discourses of law. The customary account of the ancient English conunon law is predicated on the idea that it is codified, yet not written down; secular, though grounded in divine principle. These ambivalences are exploited by Blake in his poetic exploration of the law in the 1790s. In his nineteenth-century epics, Blake finds increasing help in dissenting religion's reconstruction of a radicalized Jesus. Through this radical prophetic voice, Blake is able to construct a redemptive legality founded on a deinstitutio-nalized Christianity, a constitutionalism that is also recovered from the conventional customary account.