Wollstonecraft in Visions of the Daughters of Albion
There are some scholars who believe that Oothoon from Blake’s poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion is based on writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft and Blake spent time together during weekly meetings of the partisans of the French Revolution in 1790 (Wasser, 292). While it is unclear how well Blake and Wollstonecraft knew each other, there is no doubt that William Blake admired Mary Wollstonecraft at least to some degree.
Blake’s heroine, Oothoon, from Visions of the Daughters of Albion represents “Freedom from the Law,” according to Wasser (Wasser, 295). Oothoon is meant to personify Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideals and ideas about social issues, and her refusal to give in to social standards. Wollstonecraft’s independence and ideas about women’s rights were revolutionary at the time.
In the beginning of the poem, Oothoon talks to a nymph. The nymph tells Oothoon to “pluck” her flower (Blake, 218). Plucking the flower is a metaphor for giving up her virginity. Oothoon decides to have sex for the first time with the man that her “whole soul seeks,” Theotormon (Blake, 218). Like Oothoon, Wollstonecraft was often the one to pursue a sexual relationship with a man in the beginning of a relationship (Wasser, 295). Not only does the nymph tell Oothoon to pluck her flower, she also says that “anther flower shall spring” up in its place, and that “sweet delight/Can never pass away” (Blake, 218). The nymph is telling Oothoon that having sex with someone she loves will not make turn her into something broken. In a time when premarital sex would have deemed most women undesirable to men as prospective wives, the idea is radical. By saying that “another flower shall spring” up in its place, the nymph could also be talking about taking multiple sexual partners (Blake, 218). This would make sense especially if Oothoon was meant to represent Wollstonecraft. After Mary Wollstonecraft’s death, her husband William Godwin published a biography, which would make Wollstonecraft infamous because in it Godwin described her numerous love affairs with different men. Oothoon’s desire to take control of her sexuality of her own volition is a massive show of independence, independence that can be found mirrored in Mary Wollstonecraft (Wasser, 295).
Society’s standards did weigh heavily on Wollstonecraft, especially when she was younger (Wasser, 296). She certainly felt pressure and regret at times due to her defiance of societal norms (Wasser, 296). Oothoon also feels as though she has been tainted. She tells Theotormon’s eagles to “rend away this defiled bosom” (Blake, 219). Temporarily both Oothoon and Wollstonecraft were convinced that the “uninhibited expression of desire” is unclean and that “chastity is virtuous” (Wasser, 296). Oothoon, after being raped, is compared to a “clear spring muddled with feet of beasts” (Blake, 219).
Afterwards, Oothoon begins to question her willingness to submit to the expectations that she is held to. She compares herself to different animals, asking “what sense” there is in behaving as expected (Blake, 220). Oothoon, and Wollstonecraft, step away from society’s expectations and commit to do whatever they desire.
Blake ends the poem with an attack on marriage. Oothoon describes Theotormon’s love for her as “a creeping skeleton/With lamplike eyes watching around the frozen marriage bed,” “grey and hoary! dark!” (Blake, 223). She is talking about Theotormon’s possessiveness. Oothoon says, “I cry, Love! Love! Love! happy happy Love! Free as the mountain wind!” (Blake, 222). Oothoon is talking about free love. It is her solution to Theotormon’s selfish love. Oothoon’s love is selfless and free. She says that she will catch “girls of mild silver, or of furious gold” for Theotormon to have sex with (Blake, 223). She says that she will lie beside Theotormon and watch, enjoying his happiness without jealousy (Blake, 223). Wollstonecraft had a similar idea about love. Wollstonecraft herself had affairs and children out of wedlock. She viewed the institution of marriage as flawed in that in most cases it left men and women unequal (Wasser, 295).
Wollstonecraft’s views about women’s rights, sex, and marriage are evident in Blake’s Visions of the Daughter of Albion. Blake’s ending is viewed as radical by many, but if it is meant to represent a woman whose ideas and actions left many thinking of her as one of the most remarkable women of that age, it could be argued that Oothoon’s words only just measure up to Wollstonecraft’s legacy.
Blake, William. “Mary.” The Pickering Manuscript. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1972. Print.
Blake, William. “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 218-224. Print.
Opie, John. Mary Wollstonecraft. 1797. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Wasser, Henry H. “Notes On The Visions Of The Daughters of Albion By William Blake.” Modern Language Quarterly 9.3 (1948): 292. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.