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
Blake began work on The Four Zoas in 1797 and wrestled with it for ten years before abandoning it. Abandoned as it was, dissatisfied as he was, it remains, in my opinion, Blake’s most astonishing, majestic and towering achievement. The poem is divided into nine sections, each of them correlating to a night. The book starts in media res; things have already spiraled down significantly in Blake’s mythic universe. Albion has fallen. How layered and difficult is this poem? Albion is at once the nation of England, the mass of all humanity and a single human man. All of the characters are rendered in this way; they all stand in for a number of different elements. The Four Zoas are Urthona, Urizen, Luvah & Tharmas; they all have a female Emanation; most of them have children; they all have various forms and various resonances. The symbolism is deep and Blake’s numerology is on full display as well. But as the poem explores the tragedy of a universe fallen from what it could and should be, the visceral emotion of the poem is raw and passionate. It’s a confounding poem; I utilized the notes on this poem in order to go through the poem a couple of pages at a time and I still feel like I barely skimmed the surface of the meaning in this poem. The Four Zoas seems to me a work I could read every year for the rest of my life and never really find the bottom. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s one of the most mind-blowing, revelatory and intense things I’ve ever read. It’s gorgeous, visceral, powerful, stunning in every way. For a human mind to be capable of creating event the basic symbolism and framework of this poem is breathtaking; to consider that Blake then imbued basically every element of the poem with not just one extra meaning, but with often two or three or even four. And the interactions of these elements speaks at times to one meaning, at times to another, at times to a number of them at once. I don’t want to understate the difficulty of this poem. I’ve read a lot of the classics and this is absolutely as hard as I’ve worked at reading anything since college, harder than I worked to read even most things at college. But is it worth it? Absolutely. The Four Zoas is literature at its most extreme edge; could the written word contain more than this poem does? It seems that literature has found its outer margin, as if nothing could ever contain so much meaning and power again. Blake seems to have viewed this work as a failure; he left it incomplete and the only versions we currently have show heavy revisions and it was never published in any form during his lifetime. If this is a failure, the mind reels at considering what Blake might have believed was a success. Perhaps the “failure” of The Four Zoas is simply the mercy of God; this is a work that we can only even begin to understand as a failure. Like Moses seeing only the back of God because no man could look upon God’s face and live, we read the failed Four Zoas because no mind, no soul, no spirit could contain the successful version. 4 stars.
tl;dr – unfinished poem is Blake’s greatest work, a fiery, breathtaking, towering, tragic masterpiece; layered with meaning beyond human reason; one of the greatest literary works of all time. 4 stars.