Friday, February 25, 2011

Blake's Faith - I

"...I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination."
(Jerusalem Plate 5: line 17ff)

    Seek love in the pity of another's woe,
    In the gentle relief of another's care,
    In the darkness of night and the winter's snow.
    In the naked and outcast, seek love there. (William Bond)

The most striking tenet of Blake's faith was his vision of the Eternal; it was also his primary gift to mankind. Blake lived in an age when the realm of spirit had virtually disappeared from the intellectual horizon. This single fact explains why he stood out like a sore thumb in late 18th Century England and why for most of his contemporaries he could never be more than an irritant, an eccentric, a madman; their most common term of depreciation was 'enthusiast'. His primary concern was a world whose existence they not only denied, but held in derision.

The task of the Enlightenment had been to emancipate man from superstition, and Voltaire, Gibbon, and their associates had done this with great distinction. Blake was born emancipated, but he knew that closed off from Vision, from the individuality of Genius, from the spontaneous spiritual dimension, from what Jesus had called the kingdom of God, mankind will regress to a level beneath the human. In his prophetic writings he predicted 1940 and its aftermath. "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:19).

Blake was blessed with vision from his earliest days; his visions were immediate and concrete. He found the eternal inward worlds of thought more real than the objective nature exalted by John Locke and Joshua Reynolds. Their depreciation of vision, genius, the Eternal never failed to infuriate Blake. This fury strongly colored his work and often threatened to overwhelm it. It also led to his deprecatory view of Nature, which was their God. He wrote, "There is no natural religion".

Blake perceived the five senses as "the chief inlets of Soul in this age" (MHH plate 4). The rationalists had imposed upon their world the view that life consists exclusively of the five senses. Blake knew better:

"How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?" (MHH plate 7)

Blake was keenly alive to another world, a world of Vision, of Imagination, of God, which he called the Eternal; it was a world that most of his contemporaries had deliberately closed their minds to. He spent his life furiously trying to strike off their mind forged manacles.

The man of faith believes some things; other things he knows by experience. Blake had experienced the Eternal from earliest childhood. At times the vision clouded, but its reality remained the one unshakeable tenet of his faith.

Every child begins in Eternity. Jesus said, "Except you become as little children...."

Blake knew this better than anyone since Jesus, or maybe anyone since Francis. He knew it because by a providential dispensation of grace the child in Blake remained alive throughout his life. At the age of 34 he wrote those beautiful 'Songs of Innocence', his "happy songs Every child may joy to hear". 'Songs of Innocence' hooked a great many people on Blake originally: transparent goodness transcribed into black type on white paper--somewhat beyond Locke's tabula rasa.

If life were only like that. If Blake were only like that, he'd have an assured place as one of England's best loved poets, a beloved impractical idealist and a threat to no one. But in 'Songs of Experience' he began to express a more complex reality. 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'
represents a healthy beginning in working out the complexities. They have to be worked out, every minute particular in the corrosive burning flame of thought, etching away the surfaces, getting down to bedrock.

Most of us have refused Blake and his Eternal because we don't want to be bothered with reality; we don't want to take the trouble. We're content with the little sub-realities that inform our lives and values, the simple half truths and prejudices which we call the real world.

Blake wrote, etched, painted, sang his visions of Eternity throughout a long life time. In order to learn we systematize his visions as they address and relate to the general constructs of Christian theology. That enterprise of course violates the spirit of his creative genius, which refused systematization. Nevertheless we systematize in the hope that a coherent picture of his faith may emerge and lead the faithful reader to an encounter with the original, organized in Blake's own inimitable style.


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