Rousseau, with his emphasis on interior consciousness, mounted a critique of the Enlightenment from the inside; at the end of the eighteenth century his heirs in the Romantic movement criticized the assumptions of the Enlightenment far more radically. William Blake, born in 1757, was the most profound of Romantic thinkers, using visual art and non-narrative symbolic poems to re-open the old questions in a highly original way. Whereas the Enlightenment strove for clarity of exposition, Blake uses riddling and allusive style to (in his own words) “rouse the faculties to act.” The short lyric Mock on Mock on Voltaire Rousseau sees both writers – who were opposites, in their own minds – as trapped in the same deist philosophy, blind to the psychic insights that religion ought to inspire.
Except for unpublished notebook poems such as Mock on, all of Blake’s work was engraved and hand-colored in “illuminated” editions, in which the pictures, rather than simply “illustrating” the text, complement it with a parallel symbolism or even contradict it.
The Songs of Innocence, which were intended to be read aloud (or sung) to small children, present a world of love and security in which children are watched over by mothers and nurses, and identify with Jesus the Lamb who was also a child. Sexuality leads to childbirth in a natural process of renewal.
The Songs of Experience don’t cancel out Innocence, but they give an unsentimental perspective on everything the child will learn in adult life, including a painful conflictedness that seems to be inseparable from sexuality and indeed from human experience itself. Two versions of a poem in Blake’s unpublished notebook suggest disturbingly incompatible alternatives:
What is it men in women do require In a wife I would desire
The lineaments of Gratified Desire What in whores is always found
What is it women do in men require The lineaments of Gratified Desire
The lineaments of Gratified Desire
In one of Blake’s grimmest poems, I saw a chapel all of gold represents desire as guilty and conflicted – maybe irrevocably so.
So the question is: can the fall into unhappiness of Infant Sorrow, and the internalized oppression of The Chimney Sweeper, be overcome? For Blake, psychology and politics are inseparable, since the sociopolitical world is a projection of fundamental psychic conflicts that cannot possibly be resolved by mere “reforms.”
The Tyger and London explore the psychic prison of “the mind-forg’d manacles,” with its corollary in sociopolitical oppression that is made more profound by being internalized by the oppressed.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, written in 1790 in response to the excitement of the French Revolution, uses a medley of genres to explore interrelated themes in psychology, politics, and religion. It totally resists summary and paraphrase, but one can at least say that Blake seeks to “marry” the contraries of Heaven and Hell and to rescue certain aspects of what is conventionally called “satanic” from conservative repression. Energy and conflict are fundamental to human existence, and imaginative renewal can transcend the old dualisms of body/soul and mind/body.
Whereas the Enlightenment sought to debunk religious belief, as in Hume’s Natural History of Religion, Blake accepts its anthropological critique of institutional religion but denounces its blindness to imaginative or spiritual vision (as proclaimed in his Vision of the Last Judgment). Traditional theology, in Blake’s view, has split up the idea of the divine into hopelessly incompatible fragments, but the imagination refuses to relinquish the central value of “energy” and rebels against repression. This is why Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost from a strict Calvinist perspective, was nonetheless “a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
The Proverbs of Hell, altogether different from ordinary proverbs that recycle conventional wisdom, are challengingly open-ended in their call for a new immediacy of insight. As Blake wrote in a poem called Auguries of Innocence,
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour