“The Soft Soul Of America”: Oothoon as Nature in Blake’s “Visions of the Daughters of Albion”
William Blake’s poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion presents the rape of young Oothoon and the responses to this violence from Oothoon, her love Theotormon, and her assailant Bromion. Many scholars see substantial evidence to link Oothoon’s plight with the African slaves in America, and argue that Blake used this poem to call for abolition (Goslee 104). This poem could also be seen as concerned with “the ethic of property” (Erdman 242). I will argue that Oothoon is representative of nature in America, while the male characters are representative of American society as it is concerned with nature. Bromion’s and Theotormon’s reactions are similar to the Western conception of nature in both perception and treatment.
This may seem a fanciful connection. Bromion and Theotormon agree that the rape has ruined Oothoon forever, while Oothoon insists that this does not affect her identity and that she is not lessened by this happening (Blake 220-221). It would seem strange to say that men are disgusted by the nature they destroyed, and we cannot anthropomorphize nature to the extent of accurately suggesting how nature would respond to such rigorous degradation and exploitation. It is perhaps important in this consideration to remember that Bromion, as the rapist, seems willing to absolve himself of any guilt by blaming his victim, as seen when he calls her a harlot, and Theotormon in a similar strain would argue that his complacency is not criminal (218). This does seem to uphold the general avoidance of responsibility for the upkeep of nature or the repair made necessary by human acts. Oothoon’s first speech is predominantly nature-based, mentioning birds, bees, and beasts (219-220).
This idea also does not explain why Blake’s illustration indicates that the men are in greater suffering than the abused Oothoon. To this objection, it could be argued that nature is adaptable enough to endure, while humankind suffers intensely when wreaking such short-sighted havoc upon the environment in which it must exist, but it would be an oversimplification. Based on outward appearances, anger and terror are far more apparent on the faces of the men depicted, but Oothoon seems more resigned. Heffernan argues that “Oothoon’s incapacity to shake her victimized status” is at least partially the cause of the men’s distress (4). Furthermore, the poem concludes with her inability to convince Theotormon, and her frustration at this, as well as remaining marginalized (Blake 224; Heffernan 5). This status is caused in part by the difficulty of classifying her, as she is both meek and terrifying, just as nature is considered to be (Heffernan 7).
The connection to America is not wholly contrived. Oothoon is initially described as “the soft soul of America” (Blake 218). Bromion speaks of “the swarthy children of the sun” that are compliant and obedient to violence, a reference to the African slaves in America. He also describes Oothoon’s body as “soft American plains” (219). In a less direct way, Theotormon possesses eagles, a well-known symbol for the nation, though they are admittedly associated with many entities.
The American consciousness concerning nature, and indeed much of the Western tradition, has been one of exploitation. The Biblical idea of “having dominion” could justify property ownership (Harrison 100). This concept of possession for a one-sided, parasitically beneficial relationship extends to Blake’s poem. Bromion claims that “[Oothoon’s] soft American plains are [his]” (Blake 219). He directly expresses that both women and landscapes are capable of being possessed, to be “exploited, owned and made fertile for … increased economic value” with the necessary implication that both are objects and thus not of a great moral consideration (Goslee 108). This line of thinking was used by Bromion’s character to justify his violence against Oothoon. Bromion declares that “trees and fruits flourish upon the earth/ To gratify senses unknown” (Blake 220). Blake himself thus draws this connection between the rape of a woman and the rape of a landscape. Indeed, rape has become a commonplace term in discussions of the environment, perhaps used to call forth negative emotions or disapproval when speaking of the exploitation of nature. Theotormon complies with this idea of ownership, as illustrated by his reaction of “frustrated possessiveness” when Bromion gives Oothoon over to him (Goslee 108).
Some scholars consider the possibility of a causal relationship between Genesis and the Western world’s treatment of nature (Harrison 102). Similarly, Oothoon wonders if Theotormon’s and Bromion’s judgmental speeches are caused or inspired by Urizen, “Creator of men”, thus making him “responsible for social evil” (Blake 221; Goslee 106). Thus, the potentially problematic perceptions of nature/Oothoon are caused by an otherwise uninvolved powerful being.
Bromion and Theotormon’s reactions are similar to America’s treatment of nature. The American consciousness of the landscape did not traditionally call for protection or preservation. From the sixteenth century onward, there was the belief, perhaps Biblically based, that humans should have an “actual exercise of power over the things of nature”, as opposed to things of nature being understood in a metaphorical sense (Harrison 97). This would be understood as a return to the dominion Adam had in Eden before the Fall (98). Theotormon’s eagles are an example of a direct exercise of power. When Oothoon is caught in despair of how her lover perceives her, she calls for Theotormon’s eagles “to prey upon her flesh”, and the eagles respond in satisfactory fashion, as demonstrated by Theotormon’s and Oothoon’s smiles (Blake 219). Their smiles appear to be caused by differing beliefs; Oothoon sees the act as having purified her, while Theotormon still is concerned with the “present sorrow” of the situation (220). Despite this disconnect, she is attempting to provide for Theotormon’s needs by operating within his framework (Swearingen 207). Because the eagles responded so readily, one could argue they are used to obeying commands, most likely Theotormon’s. Once a stretch of land has been thoroughly exploited, it is cast aside. So does Bromion cast aside Oothoon once she has “appalld his thunders hoarse” (Blake 218). He then absolves himself of responsibility by commanding Theotormon to “protect the child/ Of Bromions rage” (219). In accordance with the theory that Oothoon is representative of nature, the society responsible for such destruction of nature wants to avoid the legacy of their actions by passing the burden to someone else, a common attack of people complicit with environmentally unsound practices.
Blake’s characters of Bromion and Theotormon are active or complicit participants in the attack of Oothoon, as American society participates in the exploitation of nature.
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.
Blake, William. Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Plate I. 1793. Relief etching. Glasgow University Library, Glasgow.