Serpent Imagery in William Blake's Prophetic Works

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William Blake's prophetic works are made up almost entirely of a unique combination of symbols and imagery. To understand his books it is necessary to be aware that he used his prophetic symbols because he found them apt to what he was saying, and that he changed their meanings as the reasons for their aptness changed. An awareness of this manipulation of symbols will lead to a more perceptive understanding of Blake's work. This paper is concerned with three specific uses of serpent imagery by Blake. The first chapter deals with the serpent of selfhood. Blake uses the wingless Uraeon ... continued below

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65, [1] leaves

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Shasberger, Linda M. December 1975.

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  • Shasberger, Linda M.

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William Blake's prophetic works are made up almost entirely of a unique combination of symbols and imagery. To understand his books it is necessary to be aware that he used his prophetic symbols because he found them apt to what he was saying, and that he changed their meanings as the reasons for their aptness changed. An awareness of this manipulation of symbols will lead to a more perceptive understanding of Blake's work. This paper is concerned with three specific uses of serpent imagery by Blake.
The first chapter deals with the serpent of selfhood. Blake uses the wingless Uraeon to depict man destroying himself through his own constrictive analytic reasonings unenlightened with divine vision. Man had once possessed this divine vision, but as formal religions and a priestly class began to be formed, he lost it and worshipped only reason and cruelty. Blake also uses the image of the serpent crown to characterize priests or anyone in a position of authority. He usually mocks both religious and temporal rulers and identifies them as oppressors rather than leaders of the people. In addition to the Uraeon and the serpent crown, Blake also uses the narrow constricted body of the serpent and the encircled serpent to represent narrowmindedness and selfish possessiveness.
The second chapter deals with the serpent as a symbolic force of energy itself. Blake uses the serpent to represent birth, the life force, guardian of life forces, inner strength, resurrection, forces of destruction, and rebellion against tyranny. The Orc figure, a mythological creation of Blake, is the major representative of all phases of energy. He is a Promethean figure of rebellion and often described by Blake as having a "serpent body." His birth represents the awakening of a terrible, uncontrolled energy which will bring war, destruction, and death. He is an "eternal viper" with "ever-hissing jaws." Blake often uses this rebellious energy to deal with specific political issues in America, Ahania and Tiriel. The "serpent-formed transgressor of God's law" is also in rebellion against the binding, constricting laws of religion, and in a larger sense, against the visionless state into which mankind has fallen.
The third chapter considers Blake's use of the serpent and tree image. It is significant that he uses these familiar Christian symbols in various ways which suggest that occult lore and antiquarian mythologies must also be considered in their interpretation. The following five major types of serpent-tree symbolism and Blake's usages are discussed in this chapter: The divine serpent and the tree of life, the serpent as guardian of the tree of life, the serpent as destroyer of the tree of life, the serpent-tempter and the tree of death, and the serpent as an unfaithful messenger of God. It is possible to draw all of these interpretations from Blake's works. By the very diversity of its symbolic associations the serpent provides a unifying factor in Blake. It is in itself a symbol of unity in that it appears consistently in almost all of man's religions and mythologies.

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65, [1] leaves

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  • December 1975

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  • June 24, 2015, 9:39 a.m.

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  • Aug. 10, 2016, 10:20 p.m.

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Shasberger, Linda M. Serpent Imagery in William Blake's Prophetic Works, thesis, December 1975; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc663697/: accessed September 20, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .