Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Blake’s Poetic Insight into Splitting of the Ego in ‘The Four Zoas’

From a plate in Blake’s ‘Milton: A Poem’, depicting the relationship of the Four Zoas

Dr Emily Bilman

The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the precocious development of William Blake’s intuition which enabled him to anticipate and write about the conflicts that the unconscious processes of anxiety, melancholia, and splitting caused on his mythological characters of The Four Zoas, one of his uncompleted prophetic books, begun in 1797. Blake’s prescience is closely linked to his visionary imagination and remains inseparable from his poetic insight and his vision of the imagination as the synthetic faculty binding man to his divine essence and experience.

In The Four Zoas Blake alludes to the splitting process as one of the reasons of man’s Fall. When Tharmas who personifies the senses falls, he is divided from his own spectre and his sensitive body personified by Enion. In the first night of the dream, Tharmas says:

Yea, I know
That I have sinned & that my Emanations are become harlots
…& if I look
Upon them more Despair will bring self murder on my soul…

(William Blake: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, p. 289.
Further references will be cited in the text as FZ and the page numbers
will refer to FZ’s pages. The quote here refers to FZ, p.4).

Blake considers the zoas to be the energies emanating from bodily forms of humanity. When the body is divided from the senses, Blake creates a Spectre which I consider to be the manifestation of Blake’s repressed unconscious faculties which he can access through his preconscious. Blake’s personified characters are, in turn, split and must repress their emanations as shadows. Hence, Blake writes that the emanations are the distortions of Albion after the Fall.

The spectre, who has the characteristics of Satan, empoisons fallen Enion in her introspection, the process which ironically saves her. Hence, she is tortured by introspection instead of being enlightened by the process. Thus, Enion is taken by fear and trembles.

In “Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence” (1940), Freud, referring to the case of a four-year-old boy who was punished by his father for masturbation, writes:

He had been threatened with being castrated by his father, and … with the creation of his fetish (an imaginary penis), he developed an intense fear of his father punishing him… by the help of regression to an oral phase, (the boy’s fear)
assumed the form of a fear of being eaten by his father.

(SEPD, pp.5-6)

In the little boy’s mind, the fetish replaces the penis lacking in the woman representing the mother. The boy who had seen a woman’s genitals substituted an imaginary penis, the fetish, to maintain his pleasure and the fear of his father at the same time. According to Freud, these two opposing affects, one that accepts castration and one that disavows it, are dissociated in the mind and are characteristic of ego-splitting.

In the dream of the Second Night, we encounter the division of man into the masculine and feminine genders and the ambiguity of love and hate they have for each other causing jealousy and anger between them. Urizen, who personifies Reason, is split from Ahania who personifies Wisdom and whom he undermines. Through the personification of Urizen, Blake describes neurotic man, split by science and industry, who must defend himself against war and revolution, sin, and sexual violence.

In Envy and Gratitude (1957), Melanie Klein states that when the object is split during infancy, the ego is split consequently while the bad object is projected out and causes envy. Frustration, greed, and envy lead to further splitting. Attacks on the envied object destroy its positive aspects and condescend it. The barriers between the self and the non-self, good and bad are, thus, destroyed and the ego function is obliterated.

The “bad” mother (i.e “the bad breast” mother) is introjected and is experienced as a damaged and split-up retaliatory presence within … (that) can split the ego. The “bad” internal objects are in turn projected out, and a cycle of re-introjection and re-projection ensues.

(SEPD, p.48)

The Second Night is characterised by a counter movement in which Tharmas sinks into Hades whereas Urizen rises in the rational realm and tries to avoid suffering by abandoning the body represented by Tharmas and Enion. Blake, thus, alludes to the Fall that causes the split between the rational mind from the sensitive body and between an active masculine dominance and a passive feminine resistance.

From Albion’s initial split, the splits will continue indefinitely to separate man from Nature. Imagination, personified by Los and Enitharmon, the latter representing pleasure, will be split from the sexual energy personified by Luvah and Vala, the latter representing Nature with all its emanations.

From then on, Urizen’s “Furnaces of affliction” will be able to support conventional morality and transform Vala into a rigid body whereas Luvah, personifying desire, will become molten lava, symbolizing repression, which Urizen will use for intense industrial production.

The conflict between Urizen and Luvah, who personifies sexual power, is expressed by Luvah whom Blake subtly undermines in an oxymoron. For Blake, the human form is a self-deceptive illusion which Luvah fails to free because man is driven simultaneously by love and hate. The allusion is to the man’s transcendence through Love which is hindered by Urizen’s disintegration from Faith and Certainty to Doubt.

Discordant principles of Love & Hate I suffer affliction
Because I love. For I was love but hatred awakens in me
And Urizen who was Faith & Certainty is changed to Doubt
The hand of Urizen is upon me because I blotted out
That Human delusion to deliver all the sons of God
From bondage of the Human form…

(FZ, p.27)

In his essay, “Splitting and Trauma: their relationship with après-coup and historicization”, Professor Kancyper thinks that splitting is mainly caused by the lack of repression:

When repression is at work, the individual removes the less traumatic event from conscious life, but when, in contrast, the individual cannot forget horror, traumatic facts are more intolerable for the ego…They are similar to foreign bodies, isolated from the associative flow within the rest of the ego. They are unable to enter into the symbolic chain of meaning, they cannot be repressed and thus remain split off.

(SEPD, p.114)

William Blake, through his poetic intuition linked to his concept of the synthetic imagination, which binds man’s internalised divine creative energy to his creative self, could delve into his unconscious mind to dramatize Luvah’s struggle between desire and repression through personification. The poet’s intuition, in psychoanalytical terms, is defined as a projection. Blake’s personified characters, like Los and Luvah, project the poet’s creative feminine self set in a dynamic state of constant becoming. By contrast, the pejorative value Blake attributes to repression as oppression is set against the positive value this defence mechanism acquires in psychoanalysis which, I would argue, consist in the different approaches of poetry and psychoanalysis.

Through a paradox Ahania, Urizen’s feminine self, becomes a shadow repressed by Urizen, who disavows his body yet is revived by Ahania’s love which is another instance of disavowal. In the dream of the Third Night, Blake, through a series of oxymorons, implies that another cause of man’s Fall is his self-deluding self-righteousness that leads not only to narcissism but also to Thanatos absorbing all of mankind.

Then man ascended mourning into the splendors of his palace
Above him rose a shadow from his wearied intellect
Of living gold, pure, perfect, holy; in white linen pure he hover’d
A sweet entrancing self delusion, a watry vision of Man
Soft exulting in existence all the Man absorbing…

(FZ, p.40)

Anger and Pride are linked to destructive narcissism driven by an arrogant ego associated with Thanatos which severs man’s bond from his fellowmen. Blake’s poetic intuition evokes Thanatos as the “shadowy spirit” of Luvah and ironically, his semen descends from Heaven instead of Jesus:

In golden wreaths, the sorrows of Man & the balmy drops fell down
And Lo that Son of Man, that shadowy Spirit of the Fallen One
Luvah, descended from the cloud; In terror Albion rose-
Indignant rose the Awful Man & turned his back to Vala

… futurity is before me
Like a dark lamp. Eternal death haunts all my expectation
Rent from Eternal Brotherhood we die & are no more

(FZ, p.41)

At the end of the Third Night’s dream, Enion and Ahania wander aimlessly on the margins of Non Entity (FZ, p. 46). They have become repressed shadows, ghosts of themselves. The fall of both feminine emanations remind us of André Green’s dead mother, unresponsive to her child’s needs who, in turn, renders the child insensitive to the external world because the child has introjected and projected the dead mother.

During the Fourth Night’s dream, the struggle between Los personifying the imagination and Tharmas, the physical senses, shatters Urizen’s world. Tharmas’ victory and Los’ attempts at rebuilding Urizen’s world is accompanied by Blake’s leitmotif of “a state of dismal woe” implying a deep anxiety reminiscent of Klein’s description of deep anxiety during the paranoid-schizoid phase of the infant’s life.

According to Klein (1946), the primary objective of the ego is, from birth, to deal with the anxiety generated by the internal action of the death instinct. Consonant with its lack of initial cohesion, the early ego tends to go to pieces under the pressure of this paranoid anxiety. Klein (1946), however, postulates that from beginning, the ego also makes use of “active splitting processes” (p.5) to defend itself from this anxiety

(SEPD, p.144)

Freud’s concept of “disavowal” which causes ego-splitting is again illustrated in the Seventh Night’s dream when Los embraces Urthona’s spectre in all brotherhood; yet, he does so as another self, aware that unless the spectre finds its bodily counterpart, the separation will ultimately lead to death. Blake writes that the union of body and soul will be achieved only after the punishment and atonement of man’s sins and after years of self-denial. In a rhetorical plea with a Moravian allusion Blake also appeals to his brethren to actively unite in body and soul.

… But this Union
Was not to be effected without Cares & Sorrows & Troubles
Of six thousand Years of self denial and of bitter Contrition

Urthonas Spectre beheld the Spectres of the Dead
Each Male formd without a counterpart without a concentering
Let us Create them Counterparts
For without created body the Spectre is Eternal Death.

(FZ, p.95)

In the Ninth Night which brings us to the end of the dream sequence, Los, threatened by Non-Entity, destroys the world he had created and paves the way for the last judgement; yet, the world, in a circular thematic dialectic, relapses into the violence of the beginning until the soul is once more divided from the body in order to be preserved.

Kancyper’s (2006) description of the traumatized individual can be compared to Los and the Freudian pathology of repetition-compulsion again associated with Thanatos:

The individual who is obsessed with the memory of horror … “sur-dying” … (he) at the same time (believes) that he might … break free from the repetition of traumatic situations … he cherishes this secret … and takes refuge there… (to save himself from uncanny experiences – because the memory of horror is the memory of the enacted return of the past, which is ruled not by castration anxiety but, rather, by (the) death and helplessness … anxieties.

(SEPD, pp.115-116)

The closing of Blake’s dream contextualizes The Four Zoas, written during the Industrial Revolution, whose mechanization Blake opposed vehemently.

They build the Ovens of Urthrona Nature in darkness groans
Restless they turn on beds of sorrow. In their innermost brain
Feeling the crushing Wheels they rise they write the bitter words
Of stern Philosophy & kneads the bread of knowledge with tears & groans.

(FZ, p.138)

Blake’s epilogue to The Four Zoas as the splitting of fallen man from Nature under the discipline of science and industry, Urizen’s realms, emphasizes a contemporary existential problem which still remains unresolved today. On the 24th of January 1932, Ferenczi theorized about the splitting process in these terms:

What is the content of the split-off ego? The content … is always as follows: natural development and spontaneity, protest against violence and injustice, contemptuous, perhaps sarcastic and ironic obedience displayed in the face of domination, but inward knowledge that the violence has in fact achieved nothing; it has altered only something objective, the decision-making process, but not the ego as such.

(SEPD, p.106)

Ferenczi thinks that the splitting of the ego changes only man’s cognitive decision-making capacity but not the hierarchical contents of the ego which might become narcissistic to the point of megalomania.

According to Peter Otto (2018), the editor of Blake’s Selected Writings, with Los’ adoption of Urthona’s spectre Blake presents us with a paradox. Los, thus, acknowledges Urizen’s world; yet, this world has the potentiality of being changed through Los’ imagination since he recognizes the world as his own body which leaves us with a philosophical question. Can the synthetic Imagination and man’s consciousness be considered as the mediators between the body and the soul to bring about change in the world?

This paradox can be understood by the characteristics of his latent dream, in which he can change, abridge, substitute, distort, dilute, and condense time, space, and the world as he wishes just as he can, within his dream sequence, sublimate Orc’s sexual energy into the social order. Los’ acknowledgement of Urizen’s built world also gives rise not only to his bodily consciousness but also to his super-ego which builds his moral conscience as a consequence of the guilt and self-accusation brought about by the Fall and the crucifixion.

Los stood on the limit of Translucence weeping & trembling
Filled with doubts in self accusation beheld the fruit
Of Urizens Mysterious tree…

(FZ, p.95)

In the epilogue of The Four Zoas, Urthona reigns as a retentive disciplinary power in Urizen’s world, leaving Blake ambiguously inquisitive about the future. Yet, convinced that the ancient deities have departed, the poet thinks that sword-wars might have been replaced by mind-wars. Then, through the prelapsarian state of mind personified by Urthrona, Blake alludes to the creation of a new world order devoid of the delusion of the dark religions and dominated by “the golden armour of science.”

Where is the Spectre of Prophecy where the delusive Phantom
Departed & Urthona rises from the ruinous walls
In all his ancient strength to form the golden armour of science
For Intellectual War The war of swords departed now
The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns.

(FZ, p.139)

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud stated that dreaming is a thought process. He considered dreams to be child-like wish-fulfilments, allowing us to attain a state of post-satisfactory homeostasis.

… Thinking is indeed nothing but a substitute for the hallucinatory wish; … The dream, which fulfils its wishes by following the short regressive path, has thereby simply preserved for us a specimen of the primary method of operation of the psychic apparatus … abandoned as inappropriate … Dreaming is a fragment of the superseded psychic life of the child.

(SFC, p.373)

According to Freud, the suppressed wish is replaced by thoughts. Dreaming is like thinking on a regressive level because the hallucinatory wish must be substituted by thinking due to its inappropriateness in the adaptation process.

Blake considered The Four Zoas to be a latent dream which was unfinished. Could this fact be an unconscious allusion to the indefinite nature of the splitting process? Whether the poet actually dreamed parts of the dream sequence cannot be known. From the psychoanalytical point of view, we can assume that The Four Zoas was written through Blake’s ability to access his preconscious faculties where language is processed, creating his allegorical emanations through his imagination and elaborating them with his secondary intellectual faculties. According to Freud (1900), an unconscious excitation can either be left alone and be transformed into movement or may be bound by the preconscious which also occurs in the process of dreaming and in the primary manifestations of poetry.

According to Freudian theory, Blake’s poetic text can be considered as an “après-coup” and an historization of the remembered dream, an objectivization of the poet’s phantasized trauma concerning the fall and symbolic death of Albion. The poetic text also symbolizes a fetish serving as a compensation for the fear of castration suffered during childhood.

From his psychobiography, we know that Blake was constantly reprimanded by his parents when, as a child, he said he saw visions of angels and of the prophet Ezekiel. He also mourned the death of his beloved brother who died from tuberculosis in 1787 and said his brother inspired him with visions for his poetry and printing.

In “Regression” (1900), Freud states that the visions of mentally normal people are due to regressions and thoughts transformed to images. He states:

I would assert that only such thoughts undergo this transformation as are in intimate connection with suppressed memories, or with memories that have remained unconscious.

(SFC, p.357)

Blake could access his repressed memories and transform them into poetry through his preconscious and create latent or remembered dreams and transform his inner dramatizations into mythological allegories and personifications which Melanie Klein compared to children’s play. As a poet he was against ego-splitting and yearned for the integrity of ancient man. For Blake, the role of the poet is to allow man to regain what has been lost to mankind.

The ceaseless divisions of man into their warring emanations point to the contextualization of The Four Zoas. Blake wrote the dreams after the French Revolution (1789-1799) and during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). He had also participated to an uprising in a local prison and to the protest against the Peterloo Massacre on August 16, 1819 to manifest his support for parliamentary reform.

From his writings about Urizen and Urthona, we can suppose that Blake valued his Imagination and Albion, the ancient man in harmony with Nature, much more than the mechanical productivity of the industrial revolution. But according to the logic of dreams, we can also inquire whether the poet in The Four Zoas wished to consider himself as ancient man facing judgement?

Through his synthetic imagination, Blake could perceive the splitting of industrial man into different, at times, conflicting entities. In The Four Zoas, the division of the sexes and their jealous interactions for each other’s domination became major factors in causing man’s fall, the ceaseless splits, the destruction of ancient man, and the final judgement.

Psychoanalytical theory considers ego-splitting and all the defence mechanisms as ego-preserving, allowing individuation to occur. Rationally, Urizen’s built world was, indeed, enriched through the differentiation of science, trade, and industry. Yet, we have reason to believe in Blake’s paradoxical prescience into man’s indefinite splitting as we realize that the ethical questions raised by artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation, gender transformation, the depletion of our limited resources, and unaccounted wars cannot be answered single-sidedly without hard debate. In his epilogue to The Four Zoas (in a letter to Thomas Butts on November 22, 1802) Blake summed up his dialogic vision that resonates with the ever-changing reality of global man with these verses:

Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep.

(WBSW, p.396)


[WBSW] Blake, William. 2022. William Blake: Selected Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[SEPD] Bokanowski, Thierry & Sergio Lewkowicz, Sergio eds. On Freud’s “Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence”. 2009. London: Karnac Books.

[SFC] Freud, Sigmund. 2017. Sigmund Freud Collection. Volume 3. London: McAllister Editions.