For centuries the Gnostic movement of the early Christian era was primarily known by critical statements written by those who were trying to eradicate it. In the twentieth century the reappearance of a group of Gnostic writings, which came to be known as the Nag Hammadi documents, have allowed us to learn directly what gnostics wrote and practiced.
Peter Sorensen has written a book entitled William Blake's Recreation of Gnostic Myth: Resolving the Apparent Incongruities, in which he "compare[s] Blake's work directly with the Nag Hammadi codices, discovered long after Blake's death." He believes that the new insights on Gnosticism, developed from the Nag Hammadi material can reveal insights into the patterns of gnostic thought in Blake's work.
Sorensen states: "I wish, then to use the Nag Hammadi codices as a touchstone to test the extent and specific features of Blake' gnosticism. Although I will mention again sources from Blake's own time that might have influenced him, I wish to insist that Blake was a gnostic, rather than merely a student of gnosticism." (Page 14)
In The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels says of the gnostics: "These Christians are now called gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, usually translated as "knowledge". For those who claim to know nothing about ultimate reality are called agnostic (literally, "not knowing"), the person who claims to know such things is called gnostic ("knowing")...As the gnostics use the term, we could translate it as "insight," for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. And to know oneself, they claimed, is to know human nature and human destiny...Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis."
The gnostic literature which would have been available for Blake to study would have been limited. Sorensen proposes that Blake would have found " 'confirmation' of his gnostic vision in the works [he has] cited, rather than to say that a genuinely gnostic vision can grow out of secondary reading alone."
I think Sorensen is projecting the idea that Blake's circumstances as well as his visions may have disposed him to think like the early Christian era gnostics. The sociological factors present for Blake which he may have shared with the gnostics would have included intellectual isolation, anxiety about possible persecution, and observing destructive conditions in his society. Speaking psychologically, archetypes which structure thought universally can be recognized by whoever is tuned to their presence. Blake and the gnostics were influenced by the same archetypal realities. Additionally we can conjecture that Blake and the early gnostics - sharing inward looking mindsets and focus on cosmological issues - may have processed some of their insights using the same images.
Jerusalem, Plate 57
As an example of the parallels which Sorensen sees between the gnostic myth and Blake's myth are Sophia and Vala, two females trapped in materiality. The difficulty both have in extracting themselves from materiality is represented in this passage from:Four Zoas, Page 126 (E 395)
"Come forth O Vala from the grass & from the silent Dew
Rise from the dews of death for the Eternal Man is Risen
She rises among flowers & looks toward the Eastern clearness
She walks yea runs her feet are wingd on the tops of the bending grass
Her garments rejoice in the vocal wind & her hair glistens with dew
She answerd thus Whose voice is this in the voice of the nourishing air
In the spirit of the morning awaking the Soul from its grassy bed
Where dost thou dwell for it is thee I seek & but for thee
I must have slept Eternally nor have felt the dew of thy morning
Look how the opening dawn advances with vocal harmony
Look how the beams foreshew the rising of some glorious power
The sun is thine he goeth forth in his majestic brightness
O thou creating voice that callest & who shall answer thee
Where dost thou flee O fair one where dost thou seek thy happy place
To yonder brightness there I haste for sure I came from thence
Or I must have slept eternally nor have felt the dew of morning
Eternally thou must have slept nor have felt the morning dew
But for yon nourishing sun tis that by which thou art arisen
The birds adore the sun the beasts rise up & play in his beams
And every flower & every leaf rejoices in his light
Then O thou fair one sit thee down for thou art as the grass
Thou risest in the dew of morning & at night art folded up
Alas am I but as a flower then will I sit me down
Then will I weep then Ill complain & sigh for immortality
And chide my maker thee O Sun that raisedst me to fall
So saying she sat down & wept beneath the apple trees"
Sorensen concludes, "the awakening here is to knowledge"; but the transition is difficult.