Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Blake's Symbols

Several years ago I was bragging about Kathleen Raine in a Yahoo group, especially how she had shown how Blake was using the Greek myths. The leader of the group, a college professor, opined that Greek was Raine's template (the word seemed like Greek to me!). Browsers are more likely to call it Raine's theme.

Sitting in the waiting room of the West Wing of the National Gallery I idly picked up Blake and Tradition, a large two volume work by Kathleen Raine (it changed my life!), something you could really get your teeth into. Thankfully I have a copy because now they sell for $420, although I found one for sale for $100 with an unknown binding.

Blake and Tradition has a lot to say besides Greek myths. For example in Chapter One, called The Swedenborgian Songs Raine introduces us to some of the origins of Blake's symbols: eminently biblical, although Blake's early knowledge of Swedenborg helped him understand better some of the symbols that fill the pages of the Bible. After (and before) the Bible you may read where many of Blake's symbols appear in the intevening millenia.

Here is a homely little example of how he used a symbol, in this case: thistle:
In Milton, Plate 27; E124) you may read:
"There is the Nettle that stings with soft down; and there
The indignant Thistle: whose bitterness is bred in his milk:
Who feeds on contempt of his neighbour: there all the idle Weeds
That creep around the obscure places, shew their various limbs.
Naked in all their beauty dancing round the Wine-presses."

Now open your Bible concordance and look for thistles; I found this:
Job 31:
39 "If I have eaten the fruits thereof without money, or have caused the owners
thereof to lose their life
40 Let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley. The words of Job are ended."

Blake grew up on Swedenborg; later William and Catherine joined the Swedenborgian Society. From early childhood Blake virtually inherited a symbolic way of thought, and especially the symbols Swedenborg had used (in a very unpoetic way). (Young children generally think symbolically until it is educated out of them by the Schoolmaster.) Blake from the earliest possibility (and permanently) declined to sit under the tutelage of the Schoolmaster.

Blake unlike the nominalists and positivists who made up British society wrote symbolic poetry. Society was virtually ignorant of the past, the traditions going back into B.C. and beyond. He had learned symbols from S., but by the time he reached maturity he showed slight regard for the influence of S:

"Thus Swedenborgs writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further. Have another plain fact. Any man of mechanical talents may, from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, producd ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborgs's, and from those of Dante or Shakespear an infinite number." (MHH, Plate 22; Erdman 43)

This is a classic example of the Kill the father (within!) syndrome, but like we all do, Blake rehabilitated Swedenborg (forgiving the father) in Jerusalem, Plate 98, (E257):

"The Druid Spectre was Annihilate loud thundring rejoicing terrific vanishing
Fourfold Annihilation & at the clangor of the Arrows of Intellect
The innumerable Chariots of the Almighty appeard in Heaven
And Bacon & Newton & Locke, & Milton & Shakspear & Chaucer
A Sun of blood red wrath surrounding heaven on all sides around
Glorious incompreh[en]sible by Mortal Man & each Chariot was Sexual Threefold And every Man stood Fourfold,......"

If you're very color conscious and know how to access Blake's images,
look at the early plates of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Innocence and Experience. You may perceive that the first is light and the second dark. These are the two contraries of innocence/experience, good/evil, white/ black, etc. The last two stem from the third verse in the Bible, which says "God said, Let there be light: and there was light", and the fourth verse, "And he saw the light, that it was good...."
The first one innocence and experience stem from chapter three of Genesis where our first ancestors lived in innocent bliss until they came into experience inaugurating this shameful land of sorrow wherein we live.

These are the primary symbols, and the Bible (and Blake) go on from there in hundreds of amplifications of them through the extent of the two books.Blake has many, many, many divine particulars. But if you want to understand the Bible (or the meaning of Life) you can't do better than to learn a few of them.

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