- Enlightening the Fibre-Woven Body:William Blake and Eighteenth-Century Fibre Medicine
William Blake is alone among the major Romantic poets in his extensive use of the word "fibre(s)," as well as related terms such as "nerve," "thread," "chain," "girdle," "web," "weave," "vibrate," and "tremble," and images of fibre-based bodies—the "woven" body, the "trembling" body, and the "sensitized" body. Such a deep engagement with the fibre signals Blake's unacknowledged involvement with eighteenth-century medical discourse. For at the heart of eighteenth-century medicine was the fibre: it ontologically constituted the animal body, and epistemologically as well as ontologically mediated mind and body; it was the physiological, pathological, and therapeutic underpinning of medical theories of the human body; and it served to substantiate the medicocultural concept of nervous sensibility. The aim of this essay is to demonstrate, by focusing on the fibre's three axiomatic functions both in Blake's poetry and in medical writings of the Enlightenment, that Blake's sustained engagement with the fibre is far from his own idiosyncratic activity but, rather, shares a great deal with the widespread concern in Enlightenment medicine about the fibre.
Even a cursory look at Blake's prophetic works evinces the enormous presence and salience of the fibre and the fibre-woven body. Indeed, both his visual and his verbal art abound not only with representations of the fibre-woven body, the fibrous body, enmeshed and entangled figures, and figures exuding fibrous threads or rooted in the fibrous earth but also with images of the reticulated patterns of the fibre, such as the "web" and the vibrating and trembling figure entrapped in the web, and "chain," "nerves," and "bow."1 How do we make sense of the overwhelming presence of "fibrous" and "woven" [End Page 72] representations in Blake's works? The hitherto almost unacknowledged medical history of the fibre that is so important but rarely examined by medical historians of the Enlightenment will provide an answer. This essay will propose the rather bold premise that Enlightenment medicine can be explained in terms of the fibre and fibre theory, rather than the nerve and the nervous system.2 The seemingly unusual melding of Blake's work with medicine adds to our understanding both of Blake's mythologized poetics and of a defining feature—that is, medical thinking—of the long eighteenth century, alternately called the Enlightenment. In order to show what Blake owes to fibre medicine, I shall first trace the emergence of the fibre-woven body in the discourse of the Enlightenment medical sciences.3
Fibre Theory and the Fibre-Woven Body
The word fibre first entered into English vocabulary at the end of the fourteenth century as "a lobe or portion of liver," with the plural, now obsolete, meaning "entrails."4 Although the Oxford English Dictionary registers 1607 for the first usage of the word in its new sense, it was not until the late seventeenth century that the fibre was clearly and schematically defined as a basic component of animal and plant life.5 In Thomas Blount's Glossographia (1659), "fibres" were simply defined as the "threads or strings of Muscles and Veins," along with another meaning: the small threads of roots.6 That the fibre was not yet considered a basic building unit of the body is apparent from the opening section of many seventeenth-century anatomical textbooks, which customarily begin by stating that the body is divided into two parts: the similar and the dissimilar (i.e., organic) parts. The similar parts, including the bones and the nerves, are the homogeneous parts, which, if further divided, remain the same. In its previous classification, the fibre was only one of these similar parts.
By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the critical presence of the fibre as the basic structural unit of anatomy was acknowledged by many anatomists. Not least, microscopic observations of the microstructure of the "solid" body led them to believe that the solids were ultimately composed of tiny elementary threads. Most likely, the shift of theoretical attention in medicine from the traditional humour theory—the view that the welfare of the human body depends on the four...