Monday, April 19, 2010

Gates of Paradise - Introduction

From 1947 to 1972 George Wingfield Digby was Keeper of the Department of Textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum; he was a man of very broad interests; one of them was Symbol and Image in William Blake. That is the name of a book he published at Oxford in 1957.

Digby was no professional literary critic; he wrote as an amateur and hence in a language easily understood by laymen like you and me. His descriptive material about the Gates of Paradise could easily be the subject of many posts.

In 1793 Blake came forth with For the Children, Gates of Paradise; 25 years later he produced For the Sexes, Gates of Paradise. The second production has additional textual material and two additional pictures.

What follows here will be primarily about Digby's explanatory notes:

The Frontispiece shows two figures on two leaves: a caterpillar is eating one, and a human like infant wrapped in a cocoon lies cradled in the other one. What is Blake saying?

The first figure represents  a worm of 60 winters creeping on the dusky ground (Tiriel, 8.11, E 285), which is to say a person who goes through life with no spiritual consciousness, a purely material animal living a natural life and eating only what he can get from nature.

Beneath the Picture:
"What is Man
The Suns Light when he unfolds it
Depends on the Organ that beholds it"

And this from Jerusalem (Plate 30 Lines 56-8 E177):
"If the Perceptive Organs close: their Objects seem to close also:
Consider this O mortal Man! O worm of sixty winters said Los
Consider Sexual Organization & hide thee in the dust."

The caterpillar represents this deadly dull man living without any spiritual consciousness.

The contrasting 'infant' figure in turn represents the endless possibilities of the new born.

We have a stark either-or: one has learned to eat the heavenly manna or not. Digby displayed two contrasting pictures: the first generally called Glad Day and the other "a worm seventy inches long" (not available except in Digby's book). It shows an old man with a long scraggly white beard looking at himself in a mirror.

That's the difference between people with a spiritual consciousness and others. (Could you perhaps see yourself as somewhere between these two extremes?)


Susan J. said...

mmm... the worm/caterpillar has the potential to cocoon and morph, even though at the moment he's munching leaves rather than manna or the Bread of Life... and part of my Friendly outlook is that we humans (sentient beings) are all between the extremes somewhere, with a God's eye view needed to say where, in general or in any moment for a particular individual...

I myself am often that "deadly dull man living without any spiritual consciousness" even though I claim to know better.... I suppose Blake partly means to inspire those who are savvy enough to read his stuff, to aspire to further enlightenment.... as Jesus means to inspire those who have tasted the Bread of Life, to partake further.

Question: What might this part mean? "Consider Sexual Organization & hide thee in the dust."


ellie said...

"Consider Sexual Organization & hide thee in the dust."

Going first to 'hide thee in the dust': this goes directly to Genesis, our being made from clay, and to 'from dust to we came and to dust we shall return.'

Blake has layers of existence of which the 'generated' world is just one: this is the sexual world but also the world of materiality. As does Genesis, Blake postulates a split into the male and female portions, as well as an act of creation which results in a world of time and space.

For Blake the fall precedes creation and generation. The division of the sexes is a major metaphor in Blake, so the meaning can't be conveyed in a few lines: it takes the whole body of his work.

Two significant facets of Blake's thought are that all of the difficult and convoluted paths through which we travel are God's mercy to restore the unity of Eternity, and that God set limits beyond which the fall cannot go. 'Sexual organization' is such a mercy (that 'regeneration' may take place through 'generation' with the help of Jesus.)


Susan J. said...

Thanks, Ellie -- this is helpful. I especially resonate with the idea that "all of the difficult and convoluted paths through which we travel are God's mercy to restore the unity of Eternity." :-)

All day long yesterday I had in mind the picture of the caterpillar and cocoon, each on its leaf. What an arresting image!

Larry said...

Yes, yes, Susan. Blake's poetry has many 'either-ors', but they do embrace 'both-ands' as well. Blake saw himself as the leaf eating catepillar as well as the infant with all conceivable possibilities.

He too was often 'deadly dull' and often lamented it.

Mrs. Blake complained that he sometimes spent too much time in Heaven. He probably did partly because he knew that Hell was right there waiting for him.

Blake was capable of rapidly moving from one State to another; to see that look at this video