Department of English
Notre Dame High School
Sherman Oaks, CA
NEH Seminar 2004
William Blake, as an artist, was well acquainted with the mechanics of production: he ground his own inks, inscribed his plates, burned his designs into the copper with “aqua fortis” (nitric acid), inked them, pressed the paper into the plates, and even (with his wife’s assistance) colored the plates and sewed the pages into books. He was not some dilettante who scorned mechanical labour. But his vision of art and his poetry, both early and late, delineate the gulf between labour that involved the imagination and vision and the “same dull round” endured by the vast army of English workers who had no say in conceiving the productions they endlessly (and mindlessly) reproduced in factories.
Blake, whose dates are 1757 to 1827,1 lived through the height of the Industrial Revolution and viewed first-hand many of its innovations, as well as
the great political and cultural changes that came with it, and he realised that something
profoundly new and disquieting was coming into the world, something with unlimited possibilities for good and evil, which would tax all his powers to interpret. And so his natural desire to make his living as an engraver and a figure in society collided with an overwhelming impulse to tell the whole poetic truth about what he saw. The latter force won, and dictated its terms accordingly. He was not allowed to worry about his audience . . . . He was not allowed the double talk of the sophisticated poet, who can address several levels of readers at once by using familiar conceptions ambiguously. Nothing was allowed him but a terrifying concentration of his powers of utterance. (Frye, “Blake’s Treatment of the Archetype” 522)
Right from the start, Blake seems to have been out of the mainstream, if that meant following the herd of conformist views held by most of his contemporaries. As a four-year old he had visions of an “immaterial life denied to most. . . . Even when a Child his mother beat him for running in & saying that he saw the Prophet Ezekiel under a Tree in the Fields” (Tatham 491). His wife revealed that Blake’s first vision of God occurred that same year: “He put his head to the window and set you ascreaming” (qtd. in Robinson 499). Blake clearly possessed a unique view of this world, and, more importantly, of the world that lay beyond the senses. To see the world as others did would have spoiled his art and aborted his mission: to help his readers replace their “single vision” with an apocalyptic view of the world—and to build Jerusalem (Blake’s ideal city) in England’s green and pleasant land. As Northrop Frye observes, Blake’s view of art “could almost be defined as the attempt to realise the religious vision in human society. Such religion has to be sharply distinguished from all forms of religion which have been kidnapped by the cycle of law and war, and have become capable only of reinforcing the social contract or of inspiring crusades” (“Blake’s Treatment of the Archetype” 513). In opening a new world and a new way of seeing to his readers, Blake hoped to lift the veil that restricted human vision: “Blake simply asked his readers to do more than merely understand: that, he said, is a ‘corporeal’ function. He wanted them to imagine as he imagined, to see as he saw, even to recreate as he created. Only then does his method make sense” (Gleckner 539). His vision was a spiritual perception that “transforms objects, . . . making them into symbolic forms which reveal the significance of those objects to the life of man, and thus shows their ‘real’ form. The real form of the sun to Blake, for instance, is not that of a ‘round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea,’ but ‘an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty”’” (Blake, qtd. in Nurmi, “On The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” 557).
I. Blake’s Early Creed: Criticising England and Contemporary London
Blake’s creed, even so early as Songs of Innocence and Experience (the first part printed in 1789; the second in 1794), envisions no gradual amelioration of the conditions created by capitalism or utopian reform, but essentially calls for apocalyptic regeneration. Blake seems to have little hope from the actions of parliament2 or from the Church of England. Instead, his view of the future is “based on a belief that significant change cannot occur through step-by-step improvements of the existing order. . . . Rather, significant change can occur only through the radical regeneration of each person’s own power to imagine” (Johnson and Grant xxiv). Thus, Blake’s method is not anger aimed mainly at the various dislocations of the Industrial Revolution, but outrage directed both at the industrialists and the people themselves, who have become complacent—if not eager—under the yoke of mechanistic production methods. Even if the Industrial Revolution had not occurred, the minds of humans could enslave themselves, and thus Blake’s mission is not to eliminate just one source of oppression—England’s dark Satanic mills—when a far greater form of oppression—human minds enslaved to the world—is left untouched. In Blake’s view, the English people need to achieve a “clear vision of the human community that ought to be built” (Johnson and Grant xxiv). And, once that occurs, regeneration in the mind of the worker will allow him to see the world in its infinite potential, rather than as an endless repetition of meaningless, mechanical actions. As he says in “There is No Natural Religion,” “if it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character, the Philosophic and Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again” (Blake 15). In other words, London, the city of exploitation and machinery, has to be replaced by a place of harmony and imagination, as represented by the holy city Jerusalem. And the inhabitants of England have to regenerate their minds in similar fashion, building Albion (the poetic name he gives to a regenerated England) in its stead.
How was it that Blake, sent to a drawing school at ten, and at fourteen apprenticed to an engraver for seven years, was—almost alone among the Romantics—able to see the evils of late-18th-century England? Not university educated, he nonetheless taught himself Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in order to read the Bible in its original languages. Where, then, did Blake’s early views come from? Partly they came from his voracious reading:
He studied the Bible and the major works of literature, especially Milton; he read widely
in philosophy, theology, and art history; he concerned himself deeply with the
revolutionary events of his time, their causes and effects. Like other great artists, he had
a profound intuitive grasp of human psychology. More explicitly than any English writer
before him, however, he pointed out the interrelationship of problems associated with
cruelty, self-righteousness, sexual disturbance, social inequality, repression of energy by
reason, and revolutionary violence. (Johnson and Grant xxiii-xxiv).
According to David Erdman, his philosophy also came from the American Revolution, “which made the golden sunlight on the Thames a cheat and shook to ruin Jerusalem’s arches over Primrose Hill and Marybone. . . . As soon as the war was over he printed poems and exhibited paintings full of the war’s dark horrors’” (Prophet 5). Erdman reminds us that
in English trading centres the war was never popular. Even during the middle years, when many merchants were enjoying large war contracts, the London Common Council persistently voted against recruiting volunteers to fight for the King. All the London members in the House of Commons between 1774 and 1784 consistently opposed the war policy and said they were speaking for their constituents. . . . Most of the satiric prints which served as the graphic editorials of the day were pro-American, representing America as the land of liberty and virtue, England as that of corruption and slavery, and King George as a cruel and obstinate tyrant. We should not be surprised to find that Blake shared the common view nor to find in some of his earliest work the germs of his later republicanism. (Prophet 6)
And the poem America, written in celebration of our revolt from England, itself leaves little doubt where Blake’s sympathies lay:
Washington spoke: “Friends of America, look over the Atlantic sea;
A bended bow is lifted in heaven, & a heavy chain
Descends link by link from Albion’s cliffs across the sea to bind
Brothers & sons of America, till our faces pale and yellow,
Heads deprest, voices weak, eyes downcast, hands work-bruis’d
Feet bleeding on the sultry sands. (America 3:6-11)
Since Albion is the poetic name for England (and in Blake’s mythology is meant to symbolise England’s unfallen nature), the implication is that the war has made true Englishmen horror-struck (“faces pale and yellow”) at the suffering imposed upon a brave people. Erdman even goes so far as to suggest that “Blake anticipates the modern historian in the belief that the American Revolution took place in the minds of men in the decades preceding the war” (Prophet 12). Moreover, since his revolutionary brain had great affinities with John Milton, who was a central figure in the English Civil War, serving as Latin Foreign Secretary to Cromwell, it is not hard to see the ultimate origin of Blake’s revolutionary ideals. In his early prophecies Blake thus warns “kings, nobles, and bishops: If you go on binding the nations, oppressing the poor, and ravaging the countryside with war, the result must be revolt. The people will . . . pull down the temples of tyranny and bring you to judgement” (Erdman, Prophet 29). This is an utterance that could well have been uttered in 1642, not 150 years later.
But it is important to know Blake’s religion as well as his politics to understand how inseparable they are and how they will move together as he begins his poetic career. Many writers have examined the strands that composed Blake’s theology, including Kathleen Raine, who, in Blake and Tradition, emphasises the Swedenborgian content of his writings. But more recently, E.P. Thompson, in Witness Against the Beast, extends Raine’s insights, demonstrating at length that in London during the 1780s there was an explosion of “anti-rationalism, taking the forms of illuminism, masonic rituals, animal magnetism, millenarian speculation, astrology, . . . and of mystic and Swedenborgian circles” (xix). These low-church, revolutionary doctrines hearken back to the 17th century at the time of Milton, one further piece of evidence that Blake’s philosophy is never very far removed from that of his spiritual predecessor. In this philosophic maelstrom of the 1780s and 1790s, “men and women did not only join the groups on offer, the Church of the New Jerusalem, the Universalists, the Muggletonians,3 . . . they argued amidst these groups, they fractured them, took a point from one and a point from another, conceived their own heresies, and all the time struggled to define their own sense of system” (Thompson xix). In the same way that these religious radicals questioned the beliefs of traditional religious groups, Blake was always willing to challenge the authors he read, weighing their arguments against his own experience: “This is at once apparent from his surviving annotations—to Lavater,4 Swedenborg,5 Berkeley, Bacon, Bishop Watson or Thornton. . . . For Blake, a neighbour, or a fellow-reader of a periodical, or his friend and patron, Thomas Butts, were quite as likely to hold opinions of central importance as was any man of recognised learning” (Thompson xx-xxi). Blake’s iconoclasm is well known, but the extent to which he was influenced by Christian sects that go all the way back to Milton and the radical sects of the English Civil War is not so well recognised. Thompson’s study, limited to the years 1788-1792, places Blake within the Church of the New Jerusalem,6 and the controversies surrounding its founding, demonstrating how many of Blake's ideas seem to arise from its tenets. For example, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is an antinomian squib thrown among Swedenborgians” (Thompson 19). At the same time, Thompson shows how other radical doctrines afloat in the 1780s appear to have influenced Blake as well. For example, the Antinomians,7 who bring “the gospel of Christ into direct antagonism to the moral law” (13), are represented in the “Memorable Fancy” of the Devil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, who questions Jesus’ adherence to the Ten Commandments:
Now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbaths God? murder those who were murderd because of him? turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? steal the labour of others to support him? bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? covet when he pray’d for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refuse to lodge them? I tell you no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. (Thompson 172)
The Devil here, seemingly echoing Blake, shows the radical nature of Christ’s ministry and His refusal to be restricted to any narrow interpretation of the Scriptures. In the same way, the leaders of the Civil War, throughout the 1640s, proclaimed “an utter repudiation of the outward forms of religion, . . . and a counterposing to these of the inner light of faith, inspiration or prophecy” (Thompson 22). Preachers of this period, such as William Walwyn, declared himself “’not a preacher of the law, but of the gospell,’ the gospel of love” (qtd. in Thompson 23).
For example, Blake’s repeated question to Tirzah in his poem of the same name, from about this time, “what have I to do with thee” (lines 4, 16), emphasises his belief that Jesus’ salvation moves humans beyond the world of generation, of sense impressions, of physicality—to faith, to love, to transcendence of the physical.
Whate'er is born of Mortal Birth,
Must be consumed with the Earth,
To rise from Generation free;
Then what have I to do with thee?
The Sexes sprung from Shame & Pride 5
Blow’d in the morn: in evening died.
But Mercy changed Death into Sleep;
The Sexes rose to work & weep.
Thou, Mother of my Mortal part
With cruelty didst mould my Heart, 10
And with false self-deceiving tears,
Didst bind my Nostrils, Eyes, & Ears.
Didst close my Tongue in senseless clay,
And me to Mortal Life betray:
The Death of Jesus set me free; 15
Then what have I to do with thee?
This poem, like Paradise Lost, outlines the trajectory of Adam and Eve, from being created, to eating the Apple, to being condemned to death. But Blake, like Milton, emphasises that God, in his mercy, “changed Death into Sleep” (line 7), allowing Adam and Eve a second chance through the eventual intercession of Christ. In consequence, the speaker of the poem disparages Tirzah for her cruelty in limiting his knowledge: “Didst bind my Nostrils, Eyes, & Ears./Didst close my Tongue in senseless clay,/And me to Mortal Life betray” (lines 12-14). Since Jesus, through his Death, “set me free;/Then what have I to do with thee?” (lines 15-16). According to this poem, the Earth no longer matters: it cannot imprison the soul because the “senseless clay” of creation is no more than a temporary bondage, soon to be overcome in death and resurrection. This distrust of the world sets Blake apart from other Romantics, especially William Wordsworth. In Blake’s mind, as his biographer Henry Crabb Robinson records, “the eloquent descriptions of Nature in Wordsworth’s poems were conclusive proof of Atheism, for whoever believes in Nature, said Blake, disbelieves in God—For Nature is the work of the Devil” (499).
The Age of Spiritual Liberty, according to the Levellers,9 parallels Blake’s view of the limitations of this world. In this new age, “the scriptures would appear in a wholly new light” (Thompson 24), and humans would dwell in a New Jerusalem. The Ranters,10 another group dating back to 1649-51, carried this gospel of love even further, finding expression in nakedness and sexual licence: “The Ranters did not conceive of themselves as a church or a congregation. . . . They were in fact the flesh within which dwelt the spirit of God, they were ‘fellow creatures’ in Christ” (Thompson 27). This Ranting ideology, according to Thompson, “leads directly into early Quakerism” (31): “For many early Quakers, God was ‘an infinite Spirit, that fills Heaven and Earth, and all places, and all things,’ whereas, ‘as touching Christ’s flesh, we are Bone of his Bone, and Flesh of his Flesh, and we have the mind of Christ’” (Thompson 32).
After his extensive survey of dissenting religions (I have merely hit a few of the high points), Thompson asks:
Could Blake have read in the various sources discussed so far? So far as I know, no scholar has identified any “public” or subscription library of which Blake was a member. But most of such libraries would have been unlikely to hold stocks of “mystic” writings. If we look, rather, at what was available in recent editions, and at the skimpy evidence as to what was to be found in private collections, the answer is remarkable. Blake could have found in London, in the 1790s, copies of almost every work that we have discussed. . . . And in whatever collections Blake found these (if he did) he would be likely to have found them cheek by jowl with the works of Antinomians, Ranters and Seekers, with the works of such men as Crisp, Everard, Erbery, Webster, Bauthumley or Pordage. (41)
But rather than finding eighteenth-century texts, Thompson demonstrates that it is the more radical seventeenth-century works that would have been most readily available in Blake’s time. The Muggletonian church preserved its own archives in the 1780s and 1790s; there was a revival of interest in Jane Lead, three of whose works, “now in the British Library, carry the stamp of Philip de Loutherbourg, the painter, an acquaintance of Blake” (Thompson 43). Thompson stresses that “if Blake read any of these works, he read them in his own way” (50). Though “the tradition behind Blake has become obscure by the 1790s, . . . there were men and women in London who would have instantly understood (and shared) Blake’s reference and stance” (Thompson 63).
One important final point: the Muggletonian Church can be seen as one of the fiercest opponents to the Enlightenment. In their view, education “was no less than re-enacting the Fall, by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” (Thompson 87). Similarly, Blake claimed to Crabb Robinson in 1825, “there is no use in education. I hold it wrong. It is the great sin. It is eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (qtd. in Robinson 87). Of course, Blake likely does not mean to reject all knowledge; rather he worries about earthly knowledge, the knowledge Enlightenment thinkers like Newton and Locke used to chart out the physical world. Blake’s image of Newton with his compass (ironically reproduced on the gates of the new British Library) represents exactly the sort of mechanical knowledge of the physical world that Blake felt circumscribed and limited true vision. Jean Hagstrum says much the same thing: Blake comes to regard “deism as an evil closely related to and fully as mischievous as established religion, the monarchy, Jewish legalism, and utilitarian ethics. . . . Blake was prepared to find in the deist all the Urizenic and Satanic traits he had always found in Locke, Bacon, and Newton” (“Blake Rejects the Enlightenment” 151). What Blake preferred to such knowledge, or reason, was intuition, understanding not physical laws and earthly wisdom, but grasping the eternity beyond earthly vision. Christ came to fulfill the Law by going beyond it, through his crucifixion replacing it with a gospel of Love: “In the vocabulary of Christian radicalism, the Law belongs to the priests and potentates of the earth . . . to fight against the Lord Jesus, and the remnant of the seed of faith, who are the saints” (Tompkinson, qtd. in Thompson 93). Against this is poised the image of the Law as a flaming sword, “the flaming sword . . . which is called the moral law, or the law of Moses” (A True Interpretation qtd. in Thompson 93).
Blake says as much in Jerusalem,
When Satan first the black bow bent
And the Moral Law from the Gospel rent
He forg’d the Law into a Sword
And spill’d the blood of mercy’s Lord (Plate 52: 17-20)
As Thompson notes, “the suggestion of a Muggletonian derivation for Blake’s vocabulary becomes more persuasive if we attend to . . . [the] repetitive identification of ‘Reason’ as the Satanic principle, the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” (94). Those who read Blake to any extent can quickly see how much he hates moral laws and the arguments (Reason) humans employ to justify these restrictions. Thompson’s point, then, is that Blake was writing “within a known tradition, using terms made familiar by seven or eight generations of London sectaries” (106), such as the Swedenborgians or the Muggletonians. His demonstration in the second half of his book rests primarily on his analyses of three poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience, “London” and two complementary poems: “’The Divine Image,’ the axle upon which the Songs of Innocence turns, just as ‘The Human Abstract’ is the axle for the Songs of Experience” (Thompson 146).
I propose to look at only one, “The Divine Image”:
To Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love 5
Is God, our Father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is man, His child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face, 10
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine, 15
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
For all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too. 20
The idea of Christ’s divine humanity comes from the notion that an omnipotent God assumed human form in Christ’s person. God infused his own life into Christ according to Swedenborgian doctrine. Like the Unitarians, Swedenborgians believe there is no real Trinity: God is both the transcendent father as well as the immanent Son, who walks among humanity on earth. The first stanza initially suggests that God’s qualities of Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love are removed from this world, for all believers “pray [to them] in their distress” (line 3). But when God, in return, bestows these virtues on his people, they respond with more prayer, in “delight,” “return[ing] their thankfulness” (line 4). Yet, if the first stanza suggests these virtues are transcendent, belonging to “God our father dear” (line 6), the second stanza expands these virtues to this world as well, for these virtues also define “man [God’s] child and care” (line 8).
In stanza 3 Blake begins to define the precise location for each of these earthly-heavenly virtues:
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress
The first two lines are readily accessible, for humans use their heart to extend their emotions (especially love) to others, and they use their eyes to empathise with the feelings of others. But what about “the human form divine”? Blake’s sense seems to define Jesus in this image, for he is the divine entity who assumed human form. Likewise, in assuming human dress, he proclaimed the gospel of love and peace, surrendering his life as the ultimate demonstration of his love for mankind (and for that selfless act he is called the Prince of Peace). With this demonstration of love, Christ thus becomes the focus of all human desire. Every man, every woman, every human in every clime prays to this “human form divine” in their distress. In his last stanza, Blake makes it clear, however, that this “human form divine” is no mere Christian deity, for he asserts that everyone, even “heathen, Turk, or Jew” must love the human form, both divine and incarnate, for wherever the human form exists, “There God is dwelling too” (line 20). Jean Hagstrum notes this line clearly recalls Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration: “What! Call a Turk, a Jew, and a Siamese, my brother? Yes, of course; for are we not all children of the same father, and the creatures of the same God?” (“William Blake Rejects the Enlightenment” 152). As Thompson wisely suggests, “if man worships . . . he must worship these qualities [Mercy, Pity, Peace & Love] as he finds them in himself” (153). And as Blake stresses, he must also worship them as he finds them in others, no matter how different the “cloud” (or body) in which these virtues are encased.
Thompson finds quite a similar statement about the importance of the body in Thomas Tomkinson’s A System of Religion: “That God ever was, is & will be, in the form of a Man”:
Can righteousness and holiness act forth themselves without a Body? Or do you ever read, that righteousness and holiness were ever acted for, in, or by any other form but the form of a man? When God said, Be ye holy as I am holy: what! must the souls run out of the bodies to be like him? If they did, they would be nothing. Where would mercy and justice, meekness and humility, be found? There could be no such virtues known, or have being, were they not found to center in a body. (qtd. in Thompson 160)
Blake says much the same thing in “There Is No Natural Religion”: “God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is” (15).
The divinity that we humans possess must therefore be acted out through our bodies, and these actions, then—if acted upon with no self-interest—will provide the delight we experience in this world. But if these virtues are altered from selflessness to selfishness, as they are in “The Human Abstract,” the companion poem from Songs of Experience, then they become the expressions of egotism: “Pity would be no more,/If we did not make somebody Poor:/And Mercy no more could be,/If all were as happy as we;” (lines 1-4). Here Blake never allows us to forget how easily good can be transformed into evil.
His earliest works (especially Songs of Innocence and Experience) seem primarily focused on the particular outrages committed against the people, perhaps because his non-religious poems are the most frequently anthologised—chimney sweeps pressed into servitude, young men forced to fight and die for monarchs who would never admit them within their palace walls, young women seduced into prostitution and disease to maintain the purity of upper-class virgins, and orphan children marched into an icy St. Paul’s on Holy Thursday when they would rather be outdoors, warm, well-fed, and free to play in the presence of God. But from the 1790s onward, Blake aims most of his satire on the English church and the ways it distorts Christianity. More and more Blake sees the reform of Christianity—and the reform of human imagination and compassion that would accompany it—as the best hope for England to become the life-giving society he believes its destiny compels it to be.