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The University of Hong Kong
Selfish matter: William Blake and eighteenth-century sciences of the mind

What do we do with Blake's abandoned manuscript poem, The Four Zoas? Left unfinished with its various revisions, deletions, and insertions, assembled into a heterogenous bundle of nearly 150 sheets with two versions of chapter seven left extant, the manuscript poem has long confounded and intrigued scholars of Blake. In this paper, I argue that Blake's engagements with eighteenth century materialist understandings of the mind can illuminate this difficult manuscript. Blake was fascinated and troubled by the evolutionist idea that the human mind might have emerged from fluid matter imbued with the powers of self-organisation. Reading scenes of mental and verbal dissolution in the manuscript against early evolutionary accounts of the development of animal intelligence, I discuss the ways in which The Four Zoas's disorganised state formally registers how the nervous mind and the sinuous text collaborate in giving unreliable body to thought. Reading The Four Zoas against Erasmus Darwin's vibrant materialist poem The Temple of Nature (1803) on the one hand and Edward Young's important religious poem Night Thoughts (1742-45) on the other, I show how Blake uses motifs of fluidity and plasticity to uniquely mediate between biology and spirituality in what Northrop Frye called '[t]he greatest abortive masterpiece in English Literature.'


Tara Lee is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. She received her DPhil from the University of Oxford, and has articles related to Blake and biology in European Romantic Review, Studies in Romanticism, and Romanticism on the Net. She is preparing a monograph on Blake's preformationist aesthetics and his relationship with the rise of organicism and historicism in the eighteenth century. Alongside this, she is also developing a new project on how real and imaginary machines afforded visionary thinking about revolution, progress, and individual agency in the Romantic epic.

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