By Joshua M. Patton
It’s a terrible vision William Blake sends to the daughters of Albion. Part myth, part fable, much of the space is taken up by the lamentations of Oothoon, the goddess of America or at least the physical representation of the newly-birthed country. She journeys to Theotormon, whom she chooses to take as a lover. Along the way she is raped by the villain Bromion, to whom she is bound by her envious suitor, presumably for all eternity, such is the language of fairy tales. Oothoon does not lament, however, at the unfortunate nature of her situation but instead she pleads with Theotormon to still accept her love which she freely gives to him. Yet, readers often speculate if Oothoon is not so much a prisoner of Theotormon, but of the limitations of the author’s interpretation of female empowerment. What remains unclear is if she really loves Theotormon or if she is she an over-sexualized male fantasy. Through the allegory of Theotormon and Oothoon, Blake has resigned himself to the fact that America had no choice but to accept the institutional authority it inherited from England.
Blake was inspired by the work of Mary Wollenstonecraft, which fit nicely with his own ideas that all living things are holy (Brylowe). Thus, it is no surprise that both the subjugation of women and the slave trade were both abhorrent to him. Oothoon is the soul of America, as stated in the text in the first few lines. However, the roles of the other character are more subtle. Theotormon represents the weak-willed institutional authority of the monarchy and the Church of England (Brylowe). In this allegory, he is the obvious choice for Oothoon as a lover, but that comes later. Bromion is the villain and he represents unabashed greed. He tells Oothoon and Theotormon that “Stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun (Blake, Plate 1, Line 21).” This lets us know that Bromion’s lust for profit extends to owning another human being, owning something holy. This attitude is also reinforced by the rape itself. Bromion is a character who takes what he wants with no regard for others.
Along with being an allegory, this tale is also a classic myth or fable. While the more familiar pantheons’ characters are also allegories—to the Sun, to war, to justice, and others—so are these characters. Oothoon, as the “goddess” of America, is pure and free at the beginning of the poem representative of America’s promise as both a land of freedom and for escaping from the tyranny of the Empire. In choosing to take Theotormon as a lover, one could reasonable expect that Theotormon and Oothoon would bear a child. This potential child is not mentioned, so it is difficult to know what Blake would think of that offspring. Yet, it is interesting to speculate about what the offspring of the “soul of America” and institutional authority would be like. To take it a step further, since it is Oothoon who chooses Theotormon perhaps Blake is suggesting that there must be some sort of institutional authority lest America descend into chaos.
The only other character in this myth is the also the villain, Bromion. Along with the prurient greed of slavery, Bromion also represents “natural” religion (Brylowe). On Plate 4, Bromion answers both Theotormon and Oothoon’s first lamentation by suggesting that the “unknown” plants and animals exist in the world and the implication is that he sees them as ripe for exploitation. Blake equates the slave trade with Bromion’s claim to own Oothoon’s “soft American plains,” both “north and south” (Blake, Plate 1, Line 20). He owns her body like the citizenry of America owned the bodies of the Africans who picked their crops and built their cities. Bromion’s suggestion that he has impregnated Oothoon and that her and Theotormon must both “raise and protect” the child (Blake, Plate 2 Lines 1-2) indicates that even though Bromion is not Oothoon’s choice, there will be lasting effects from America’s involvement with slavery.
Theotormon does not take this news well at all. In a fit of rage and jealousy, he binds Bromion and Oothoon together in a cave, then sits on the threshold and weeps. Myths often rely on these eternal moments of bound torture such Prometheus being eaten each day by carrion-birds only to be restored and fed upon again, Loki bound under the open mouth of a serpent until Ragnorok, and countless others. The stories stall here because the allegorical characters have not finished their stories. Theotormon’s weeping and hand-wringing represents the impotence of the institutional authority to effectively deal with the evil represented by Bromion.
Binding the two of them together was, in a sense, an over-reaction by a weak god. That the majority of the poem is comprised of Oothoon’s pleading for Theotormon’s love indicates that Oothoon has no other options for love. There are no other characters in the poem save for Bromion. Also, what choice did America have but to begin with the framework of institutional authority learned from England. Yet, because of the slave trade and the subjugation of women, the rhetoric of freedom fell shot for Blake. These characters are flawed, but only Bromion is wholly evil.
Thus, near the end of the poem Oothoon—after asserting that her own virtue remains intact—offers Theotormon a deal. While there is certainly something significant on the surface about her rejection of monogamy and willingness to forgo the idea of sexual ownership over Theotormon, we also have to look at the allegorical meaning. Blake could certainly see freedom and democracy spreading across the globe, and that these places might also consider emulating and improving upon the institutional authority represented by Theotormon. These other territories would shed the bonds of the Empire and other “Oothoons” could emerge. Oothoon’s complicity could perhaps even be a critique of America’s willingness to engage in relentless capitalism much like England. This is why Oothoon says she will “catch for thee girls of mild silver, or of furious gold” (Blake, Plate 7, Line 24), for these other territories will be rich in resources.
Some readers may think that instead of empowering his female protagonist, Blake is instead portraying an over-sexualized male fantasy. Perhaps he is, but instead of looking at it as Blake inhibited by the limits of male-dominated fantasy, instead look at it as a critique of the idea of “holy” matrimony. Theotormon, through his tears and anger, is not ready to move on to the next virtuous woman nor is he looking to get lost in lustful congress. Those in the institution he represents would marry virtuous women, but would also indulge in their desires in secret. By allowing him to couple with others openly, Oothoon inverts that paradigm of male, privileged power by dismissing jealousy and being “generous” with love (Blake, Plate 7, Line 29). Not only does she take ownership of her own sexuality when she plucked the nymph-flower (Blake, Plate 1, Line 11), she returned ownership of Theotormon’s sexuality to him. The promise of monogamy is that each partner is with each other for life as long as their partner is not with anyone else. Oothoon subverts this by suggesting that her love for Theotormon is not hampered by jealousy and that it will endure regardless of his actions or the actions of others.
Blake’s story remains unfinished. The cycle of lamentations falling on deaf ears continues. However, the image of Oothoon flying above the daughters suggests a hopeful resolution to the problem, that Oothoon is eventually unbound from Bromion, that America eventually frees itself from reckless capitalism that gives no consideration to the damage to the natural world or our fellow man—in other words, all things holy. Since Blake was inventing his own mythology to argue this point, perhaps The Visions of the Daughters of Albion is also a parable. Blake understood what it took the rest of the world much longer to learn—that freedom, democracy, what America represented must unchain itself from the relentless pursuit of profit, especially at the cost of life.
Each character has his or her distinct interpretations of reality. For Oothoon, she sees the world as a place where one should be generous with their joy and love. For Bromion, the world is a place to be exploited so that one can enjoy “riches and ease” (Blake, Plate 4, Line 21). However, Theotormon’s view is not as easy to define. In the poem, Theotormon asks both characters to define their realities, “night or day,” “a thought,” and the nature of joy and sorrow (Blake, Plate 3, Lines 22-25, Plate 4, Lines 1-11). Thus most of the ensuing lines are Oothoon’s answers to his questions, even though she is not sure he hears her.
Consider the last final image of the poem. “Thus every morning wails Oothoon, but Theotormon sits/Upon the magind ocean conversing with shadows dire” (Blake, Plate 8, Lines 11-12, emphasis mine). This phrasing hearkens back to another myth that attempts to define reality, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” In that myth, man first perceives reality as shadows on a wall. Shadows are dark reflections of real things, often exaggerated in size and always unable to provide a clear picture of what casts it. Also, shadows are not alive and therefore are unholy. All this reinforces the idea that Theotormon is unable to face a changing world. That Oothoon continues to wail even though ignored, indicates her unwillingness to give up on him. Until Theotormon turns from those shadows and faces reality—that all living things are holy—Oothoon’s plea will go unheard, but she has no other options.
Blake, William. “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” CourseWeb. University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved, March 2013.
Brylowe Thora. “Visions of the Daughters of Albion Lecture/Slideshow.” Presented at the University of Pittsburgh, March 25 2013.