Uninhibited Sexuality: The Seduction and the Rape in Blake’s Seasons
29 August 1999

(The instructor's comments are in brown throughout this essay.)

The invocation of the four seasons in the early ballads of William Blake is demonstrative of a maturing adolescence in exploration of the passions and nightmares of its growing sexual awareness. Throughout each of the first three poems, representative of spring, summer and autumn, respectively, the reader is faced with a maiden moving from coquettish desire through the height of sexual fulfillment and into the soft tenderness of resting in her lover’s arms before he departs from her bed. The final poem, however, is dark in its intensity and spares no illusions of consensual desire, but, instead, shoves the beloved into the degradation of forced and painful submission. This dichotomy between the wanton and the unwilling is indicative of Blake’s penchant for balance in his works, through which he seems to reconcile the extremities of Passion—the requited and the unrequited—with the moderate predictability of Nature. The fusing of these extremes of desire into a quartet of revolving seasons, where the spring should expect to return from its long winter unscathed by the violence done upon it and anticipative of a fresh perennial lover—a lover who will take it as though it were still an unsullied maiden—exemplifies the grotesqueries of Blake’s imagination in that he cannot treat the subject of passion without a critical analysis of its dark side.

In his first ballad, entitled "To Spring," we are faced through an allegory of the land with the fantasy of a young maiden who wants to be caressed and petted. She calls out to her lover in the first stanza to "turn/ [his] angel eyes upon" (2-3) her as her entire body trembles in the anticipation described in the second stanza, where the contours of her body lay ready for his approach. [Possible misreading by not accounting for the 'our'-even the 'land' is somewhat objectified apart from its collective 'persona'/speaker--also, the counter imaging needs to be accounted for--the 'spiritual' identities that qualify the fertility ritualism--but apart from the 'fantasy' of sexual arousal, this is certainly a rendering of sexual preparation and arrangement--certainly 'grotesque' in elements normally viewed as irreconcilable.]  The third stanza beckons him to mount her and initiate her into the idealized passion she has yet to learn, as she calls out for him to "let [her] winds/ Kiss [his] perfumed garments; let [her] taste [his] morn and evening breath" (9-11), concluding with her desire for him to climax within her, to "scatter [his] pearls/ Upon [her] love-sick [body] that mourns for [him]" (11-12). Finally, the fourth stanza is a reminiscence of this fantasy, a replaying of her imagined submissiveness in an effort to live vicariously through her carnal desires. There is nothing demure in this poem. The maiden lays passive, wanton, submissive, and hungry for the touch of the fresh spring lover, with no pretense of playfulness, coyness, or bashfulness. The virgin countryside, to return the allusion to the land, so long unreceptive to the advances of warmth, wants to be overtaken, handled and conquered. While the maiden may feel this way as she lay in her bed at night between unsaturated sheets, the conventions of her society preclude her from entertaining such secret passions in the light of day. Her long winter has been her maidenhood, from which only the touch of her imagined lover can rescue her, can initiate her into the joys of connubial felicity, of her own ripe fertility that parallels the significance of the spring.

In contrast, we see in "To Summer" a seasoned lover, a woman two decades past her maidenhood, who not only knows how she likes her lover’s touch, but is intimately acquainted with the mechanics of its practice. [Why is the poem's 'voice' a 'woman'?] She calls upon him in the first two stanzas to be gentle and strong, precise and effective, invoking him as one "who passest thro’ our vallies in/ [His] strength" to "curb [his] fierce steeds, allay the heat/ That flames from their large nostrils!" (1-3). The double meaning here lies in her desire to be both gently wooed and passionately satisfied. The comfort she feels with this lover is exemplified in the patience she has as she awaits him, knowing where their love will take them, for her lover had "Oft pitched’st here [his] golden tent, and oft/ Beneath [her] oaks [arms] hast slept, while [she] [she??] beheld/ With joy, [his] ruddy limbs and flourishing hair" (3-5). [Note the romantic/chivalric images--a rather Arthurian passage of 'arms'.]  It is a love with experience behind it, one that is restful and secure. When they meet in some familiar locale, the heat of her desire has peaked, and, while they may have taken their time getting to it, she now entreats him to aggressively "throw [his]/ Silk draperies off, and rush into the stream" (11-12), into the valleys of her body. [imaginative rendering!] The return to summer, to the maturity of repeated affection and the custom of love’s expression, has emboldened her love-making and developed it into a matter of course, like the land that awaits such long moments of stability to embolden its people and their culture. This is a poem of experience, which balances the earlier poem of innocence seeking it. [This is a good conclusion, but one that reiterates the plural voice of the poem.]

Closure of this triptych comes in the slow progression of autumn, in which "To Autumn" signifies the resting, the holding, and the comforting consequent to the passing heat of passion. Blake alludes to the season as being "laden with fruit, and stained/ With the blood of the grape" (1-2), [Again, there is a problem identifying the voice of the poem--that of a piper.] with the seed of the intoxicating passion it has witnessed, as if to suggest that new life has been created which will achieve fruition in the spring, the season of creation and rebirth, or as "clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing" (11). The first stanza, then, is an invocation to the lover to stay awhile after the passion has subsided and allow for the caress of the impregnated beloved, who "opens her beauties to/ The sun, [while] love runs in her thrilling veins" (7-8). [As long as it recongizes that the fertility has first referent of the natural world.] It is a love act that is completed, shown in the "Blossoms [that] hang round the brows of morning, and/ Flourish down the bright cheek of modest eve" (9-10). It is not something, however, that can last forever, for autumn is the season of departure, and the lover, like the leaves on the trees or the migratory birds, must also depart. After the lover’s song to his beloved, in which he happily recounts the joys of that season, he "r[ises], gird[s] himself, and o’er the bleak/ Hills fl[ees] from [her] sight" (17-18), but, not without first having "left his golden load" (18), the seed that will one day immortalize him and guarantee his return. This is a poem of completion, of contentment and satisfaction, that ends the cycle of courtship, of fantasy, and of illusion, but also one that anticipates the renaissance of that affection in the new life accomplished by it.

Having achieved a chimerical and idealized passion, the young Blake turns to its antithesis in his rendering of the final season in "To Winter," where we come upon a poem not of reciprocated love, but of unsolicited rape. The woman demands in the first stanza that this impenetrable and impassive intruder depart from the harm he seems bent on doing. She cries out in the second stanza as her pleas go unheeded, "He hears me not…/…his storms are unchain’d…/…I dare not lift mine eyes" (5-7), and it is then he advances fully intent on his purpose, "For he hath rear’d his sceptre o’er the world" (8), and forces himself upon her. Again she screams, "Lo! now the direful monster…/…strides o’er the groaning rocks" (9-10), unwelcome into the recesses of her body, and petrifies her into silence as "his hand/ Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life" (11-12). After he finishes with her, he reigns against her, while she, "the mariner/ Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal’st/ With storms" (13-15), until heaven releases her from this torment and drives "the monster…/…yelling to his [volcanic] caves" (15-16), where even in salvation there lies despair. In contrast to the poems above, there is no act of love in this finale. It is a painful, torturous and unsatisfactory rape to both the victim, who gets violated, and the rapist, who has found no real pleasure in the violation.

This dichotomy between the solicited and the unsolicited branches even further into that between the innocent and the experienced, the desire to retain and the need to repulse, which are each ratified in the progressive movement of the spring maturing into summer and the autumn descending into winter. The great lie Blake seeks to expose is that of winter as solely a state of gestation, a period of dormancy during which Nature sleeps and the seeds of spring begin to ripen in their wombs—it is that, he concedes, but it is also a rape, an unwanted forceful thing that is grotesque in its unwelcome penetration of our comfort zones, a destroyer of innocence, not a prelude to it. [Perhaps a necessary accompaniment to other sexual representations??] In juxtaposing winter with spring, therefore, the promise it seems to offer is as illusory as it is unrealized, which is why, perhaps, Blake depicts spring as a fantasy world in contrast with the harsh reality of season which precedes it.

You certainly know how to argue intertextually and to interweave imaginative representations into a whole.  But, it might help to account for the particulars that complicate acceptance of your reading--such as narrative voice and images that speak of combinations of the spiritual/aesthetic entities with the physical.

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