Sat 18 Sep 2010 05:00:46 PM EDT
Begin with a childhood innocence recapitulating the dawn of the race, the primeval Garden of Paradise. Every loved child has this experience. In Blake's life it was protracted by a strange set of circumstances pointing to a peculiar, almost unique quality of love. We socialize children through the painful laying down of the law, but Blake's parents seem to have reared him with an absolute minimum of fear, a minimum of law, of prohibitions. The young Blake was considerate, aware of the needs of others, but not coerced. We know little about his childhood, but the shape of his mind points compellingly to these circumstances. Throughout his childhood and adolescence his psyche was largely protected from the destructive influences of the world, although he was very much a part of it.
The inevitable fall, when it did occur, proved all the more traumatic. A youth with his head full of heaven came up against the sudden realization that earthly life is directed, ruled, and regulated by those at the other end of the cosmos. The rulers of this world are by and large the most devoted and loyal servants of the God of this World. The young, idealistic, sensitive poet and artist experienced this sinking realization suddenly and acutely. Thereafter the most gruesome visions of fallenness filled the pages of his creations. (The same could be said of Isaiah or Jeremiah.) Taking their cue from Blake's popular 'Songs' the critics have called this stage 'experience', but a more illuminating and descriptive term is 'fallenness'.
The third stage embodies struggle. He who lives in the fallen world without becoming a worldling learns to fight back in some way. He develops defense mechanisms; he learns to preserve his individuality short of martyrdom. To some extent he defies the God of this World, and he pays a price for that defiance. On the basis of his ironies in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake has been called a Satanist, but that evaluation reflects a shallow grasp of his true moral stance. With MHH Blake discovered new powers of expression which he used to fight the true satanic kingdom, the fallen order of society in which he lived.
For the fortunate few there comes a moment when grace reaches consciousness and glorifies the struggle. It's the moment when one realizes that truth is on the side of the angels, and he is one of them. He meets a God to whom he can give his allegiance. Once he was on the losing side with his defense mechanisms and his defiance; suddenly he realizes that the universe is basically okay, and he's in tune with it. Happy the person who makes that glad discovery. It came to Blake at 43 with a fundamental alteration of consciousness.
As a new man Blake became a gospel preacher and a Christian prophet. He had always possessed the most intense faith in his vision; now he gained the ability to make it good news, at least to himself and to a few devoted artists, themselves relatively unaffected by the downward drag. They caught the gleam in his eye and the lilt in his voice as he sang his songs. What more could a man hope for than a small group, perhaps twelve or so, tuned and attentive to the truth which he embodies with his life? That was the Saviour's lot, too.
How Did He Get That Way
FIRST of all he came into the world with a tremendous endowment; some people are simply born with unusual gifts.SECOND: Leaving school on the first day his mind was never subjected to the indoctrination most of us got from our teachers. "The primary object of primary education is to socialize the pupil to the conventions of the culture we belong to." That never happened to Blake. Instead he ....
THIRD read! and read! and read! He read the things that had fallen out of the national consciousness-- dominated by an extremely materialistic culture: the Bible, Behmen (Boehme) and hundreds of others, each in his own way representing the Perennial Philosophy. And he saw the Great Painters, not those favored by the Establishment.
FOURTH The population didn't read anything beyond the fourth grade level. When Paine asked Blake if people read him, he replied, "before the people can read it, they have to be able to read" (very much like today!). So there was a chasm between his mind and theirs (and ours).
The aforementioned video shows Tom Paine represented as the soul of rationality and Bill Blake the feeling, and above all the imagination. So Blake's relationships were with God: Meister Eckhart, Mohammed, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Boehme, Jesus, other men who had had similar visions. He honored God with the "severe contentions of friendship & the burning fire of thought." (Jerusalem 91:17; E251) His faith came up the hard way: Molech, Elohim, Nobodaddy, Urizen, and finally the Dear Saviour. How many of us good people can say we came to our faith like that?
Thank God we have the benefit of Blake's experience.
That decision meant that Blake missed the usual brainwashing, or call it social conditioning, that modern psychologists understand as the primary function of general education. It meant that he never learned to think society's way. Instead he thought, he saw, heard, tasted, and touched through his own doors of perception, and they retained their childlike clarity throughout his life. Child, youth, or old man he always knew whether or not the emperor had clothes on.
Instead of school he directed his own education, primarily centered in the Bible. In the place of ordinary social conditioning Blake was Bible soaked. The stories of Ezra and Ezekiel were as real to him as childhood games. He must have known large portions of the Bible word for word because line after line, digested, assimilated, and recreated, appear in the poetry he wrote throughout his life. You can bet that made a difference!
Although by no means wealthy Blake's father enrolled him at the age of ten in Pars Drawing School. He intended to give the boy first class training as an artist, but William with characteristic sensitivity declined to be favored this way at the expense of his brothers. Instead he proposed apprenticeship to an engraver, a more modest financial undertaking. His father took him to see William Ryland, the Royal engraver, and prepared to put down a princely sum for the apprenticeship, but the child objected on the basis of Ryland's looks; he told his father that he thought the man would live to be hanged. Once again the elder Blake respected the child's judgment, and sure enough, twelve years later Ryland was hanged for forgery.
At fourteen Blake began a seven year apprenticeship with James Basire, an old fashioned but respectable engraver. Blessed with understanding parents the young artist was equally fortunate in his choice of a master. Basire, too, carefully preserved the boy's individuality and sensitivity against the downward drag of the world. When he found his other apprentices exploiting Blake's innocence, he sent the child to Westminster Abbey to sketch the gothic art found there.
For the next five years Blake spent his days in this and other religious monuments communing with the images of legend and history. His imagination was nurtured and strengthened by the spiritual treasures of his country. One day he saw Jesus walking with the Twelve--and painted them. On another occasion he was present, the sole artist as it happened, when the embalmed body of a King Edward of the 15th Century was exhumed for inspection by the Antiquary Society.
Some of Blake's formative experiences he shared with his contemporaries but not with us. For example 18th Century measures against crime were rather repressive by modern standards; petty crimes such as picking pockets were punished by hanging. A few blocks from Blake's home was Tyburn, the public gallows. In all likelihood on at least one occasion the impressionable lad witnessed a ten year old child being hung for his crimes. Tyburn became one of the mature poet's continually recurring symbols; he often equated it with Calvary, and he conceived of Satan as Accuser and Avenger.
When Blake was nineteen, the American colonies declared their independence. His feelings, like those of many other Londoners, resembled the feelings of American liberals 190 years later about another war. At 23 he was swept along with a crowd that stormed Newgate Prison and set the prisoners free, eleven years before Bastille Day. Many in London devoutly hoped that the American revolution might spread to England. Blake saw this in his mind's eye because thirteen years later in his poem, America, he imaginatively described it.
Blake's religious world was dominated by the State Church. Bishops were civil servants, appointed by the Crown; the religious establishment existed to all intents and purposes as part of the oppressive bureaucracy. This yoke had been thrown off briefly in the Puritan Revolution of the 17th Century, but the Restoration once again fastened it upon the people. Many of the established religious leaders of the age were corrupt and venal. Blake knew this from childhood and set his pen and artist's vision against religious hypocrisy (See CHAPTER SEVEN).
In Blake's day a strong sense of religious expectancy filled the air, especially within the dissenting community to which he belonged. He and many of his contemporaries hoped that an oppressive tyranny would shortly be replaced by the New Age of freedom and creativity. Today that hope has dimmed, but perhaps even in this dark age a few might get from Blake's poetry a glimpse of radiant possibilities.
In 1782 the twenty five year old poet married Catherine Boucher, the illiterate but beautiful daughter of a gardener. Blake taught her to read, draw, and assist him in many of his artistic endeavours, and she provided a full measure of faithful emotional support to him over a long and often trying creative career.
In his younger days Blake often voiced the prevailing counter culture opinions about what was called free love. However all the evidence suggests that he was a devoted and faithful husband throughout the forty five years of their life together. Her only complaint was that he spent so much time in heaven. She made every effort to accompany him on those journeys. She frequently sat patiently with him through the long hours of the night while he pursued his rapturous visions. In a notebook poem, which he wrote after twenty five years of marriage he said, "I've a Wife I love and that loves me;/I've all but Riches Bodily." (Erdman, 481) ii
Fortunate in parents, employer and wife Blake embarked in his twenties upon perilous paths and times. He suffered a fate common to many artists: economic necessities loomed as a dark shadow over the creative impulse. Like most young idealists he still had hopes of making his way in the world, and he began to confront the painful tension between creative work as an artist and a comfortable income.
Some of Blake's students believe that a grim, traumatic event of some sort led to his disillusionment. If there was any one thing, we have lost sight of it. We do know that by 1784 his mind and thought had broadened beyond the pellucid innocence of his Poetical Sketches to include the satirical stories of 'An Island in the Moon'. In these he lampooned the polite society in which he moved. The work probably served a healthy outlet for the frustration of conventional conformities.
Interpreters most often use the 'Songs of Innocence' and 'Songs of Experience' to demonstrate the contrast between Blake's poetry before and after disillusionment. But the poem called 'Thel', written in 1789, illustrates that contrast in itself with startling abruptness. The first five plates of Thel express the transparent radiance of child like faith as vividly as has been done in English. In 'Thel' the Lilly, the Cloud and finally the Clod of Clay all witness with ethereal beauty and clarity the reality of a warm and loving universe and their transparent destiny to move into yet greater glory. Hear the Clod of Clay as she speaks to the maiden, Thel:
As a responsible husband Blake made a valiant effort to conform to the social exigencies and to make his way in the world. He won some success as an artist and was even ashamed of his versifying because he knew that it was against what he called the "main chance" . He tried to be worldly and sophisticated, but he was always coming up against compromises which he simply couldn't make.
For a while he and Catherine frequented the salon of a Rev. Mathews, an intellectual and artistic dilettante. This good man even brought out Blake's 'Poetical Sketches' in a small private printing. But Blake's ideas about organized religion were much too inflammatory to afford him the freedom of any parsonage for long. Soon he and Catherine drifted away.
Blake found a more congenial group gathering for weekly dinners with the publisher, Joseph Johnson, his employer. Here Blake met some of the most prominent radicals of the day, among them Tom Paine. Blake deeply admired the republican activism of Paine, and he liked Paine's general iconoclasm, although he and Paine disagreed about spirit and matter. In this piquant relationship Blake might have learned how to open infinity to the deist mind. Unfortunately before it could develop, Paine was hounded out of the country.
Blake enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art during the hegemony of Sir Joshua Reynolds. He even had several exhibits there, but he couldn't quite conform his aesthetic values to the prevailing taste as represented by Sir Joshua. As a consequence he found himself shut out of the lucrative popular market. In simplest terms the popular market was fallen, then as now; Blake refused to stoop to it, and he paid the price of poverty.
Blake's gifts were well recognized, and he developed quite a reputation as a teacher of drawing. One day an invitation came to teach the children of the royal family. That assignment would have established him in the world of fashion. But at that awesome crossroad he chose the lower path; he declined. He knew too well how he felt about royalty, and he also knew that he could never enjoy the royal bounty. At that critical point he was true to himself, and he definitively unmade the decision which had begun his troubles; he chose spiritual values and rejected the world. Afterward things got better spiritually, although for the moment they worsened financially.
Blake knew a secret. He was possessed by realities foreign to the general mind. He knew that trees were full of angels. He knew and vividly experienced an inner world so real that it made the external world by comparison a thing of shadows. He even had some support for his ideas. He discovered that the Gnostics , Plotinus, Paracelsus, Boehme, and a host of others had reported on those realities, not to mention Elijah, John, Stephen, and a few other such types. To the conditioned mind of his day (and ours) all these reports were just stories, but to Blake they were imaginative realities. Imagination was more real to him than any cold blooded materiality.
With such a psyche how could he possibly trust himself to the sense deadening compromises by which most of us make our way in the world? When the chips were down, he always chose principle, conviction, imagination, and never mind the cost. The surprising thing is not that he failed to make his way, but that he managed to survive in this world for almost seventy years. He did have a strong instinct for survival.
So Blake lived in the world without beoming a worldling, and he learned to fight back. His defense mechanism was telling about his own world. In fact he turned it into a counteroffensive, which he launched with a bang in 1789. He wrote a strange document called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which he stood the dominant consciousness on its head. (This work probably contains more famous Blake quotes than any other.)
"The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' embodies new communicative skills which Blake used to raise consciousness, not among his contemporaries, few of whom ever saw it, but among later generations. In MHH and in subsequent prophecies he describes a world of thought, imagination and reality foreign to the socially conditioned mind. He deconditions us and reprograms us, or in his language he attempts to raise us "into a perception of the infinite." (Cf Blake's conversation with Ezekiel in MHH: in the first of the Memorable Fancies)
MHH celebrates Blake's discovery of his identity as a prophet and of the use of irony, which he likely learned from Isaiah. He called himself a devil, but that does not have the satanic implications that simpletons have ascribed to it; all his life Blake showed implacable enmity to Satan. Still perhaps his greatest weapon was the ability to turn conventional ideas upside down and let us see another reality beside the prevailing group- think. "Without Contraries is no progression". (MHH Plate 3; Erdman p. 34)
For example laws are for the protection of society--or sometimes for the advantage of those who make them. Wealth is virtue--or sometimes thievery. Worship is life giving--unless it's idolatrous. War is terrible--but also profitable. These are called antinomies. Blake called them contraries, and the Proverbs of Hell in MHH express his realization that much of the world's thinking is illegitimately one sided. In a strange way Blake's vision showed him the other side of the coin. This is what he shared in the decades when he fought back.
In a letter written to William Hayley Blake indicated that he had lost his vision about 1783 and regained it exactly twenty years later. From this we may surmise that Blake had chosen the world (or attempted to) when vision left him, but he apparently had a large reservoir of visionary capital which he lived on during his twenty years in the wilderness.
He also had a Christian friend, Thomas Butts, a minor civil servant who saw something in Blake that most people had missed. (In this letter Blake explained to Butts, with great poetic brilliance his experience "on the sands at Felpham". Though Butts probably had no unusual visionary gifts himself, he did recognize them in his friend Blake. To encourage him he occasionally purchased Blake's pictures. As Butts became more aware of Blake's poverty, he commissioned him to paint fifty pictures at a guinea each and gave him complete freedom to choose his subjects. Butts' financial generosity made it possible for Blake and his wife to survive; in all likelihood his spiritual support was even more decisive.
A series of letters which Blake wrote Butts suggest a relationship of mutual warmth. Major Butts affirmed Blake in such a way that in these letters Blake dropped the cryptic and enigmatic style which had become almost a part of him and reverted to the limpid clarity seen in the 'Songs of Innocence'. Blake made every effort to explain himself to Butts, and we are rewarded in the Butts correspondence with some of the most revealing glimpses of his mind and being.
Blake tried to repay Butts for his kindness by offering him spiritual direction. However it seems likely that the relationship was the reverse, at least until the moment when Blake became confirmed in the Lordship of Christ. If Blake had a spiritual midwife, it must have been the humble customs officer.
As the century drew to a close, in spite of his friendship with Butts Blake's spirits began to sink. Cash and work were scarce. He began to suffer from melancholy, avoid his friends and shrink from social scenes.
Then in 1800 he received an invitation from a wealthy popular poetaster named William Hayley to move to Felpham, a village by the sea, and to collaborate in some artistic projects. Hayley in fact took Blake under his wing and set out to make a success of him. In particular he set him to painting miniature portraits and secured numbers of commissions for him. At the same time he strongly discouraged Blake's interest in writing.
This proved to be Blake's last temptation. Naturally he felt grateful for Hayley's interest and sponsorship, but as time went on it became increasingly clear that Hayley meant for him to become a man of the world (painting portraits) and to turn his back on the eternal (stop writing poetry). It was the climactic struggle between the two principles for possession of the artist's soul. We find the struggle aptly expressed in the extravagant words of a spiritual report which Blake wrote to Butts on January 10, 1803. (For the pertinent portion of this letter see Erdman at the bottom of 724 and top of 725.)
A more reasoned explanation of this archetypal problem came in a letter to George Cumberland in July 1800:
Once you know the man and his language, the poem takes on a fascinating personal dimension; it records the journey of a soul from darkness to light. Scholars tell us that Blake wrote, revised, cancelled, renewed, rewrote 4Z. The historical interpreters fancy that they can see the European military scene changing from line to line. But two centuries later the personal dimension, universalized into the metaphysical, is more gripping.
In the prophetic poems between MHH and 4Z (called the Lambeth Books) we see Blake's spiritual capital running out. Even his secular critics observed the flagging of his vision and his enthusiasm during the period. He was struggling with the forces of darkness; moreover he was aware of the nature of the struggle, and he used the Ephesian epigram accordingly at the beginning of the poem.
In 4Z Blake tells how the universal man lost Eden and fell into sleep and division and how his many selves struggled in the "torments of love and jealousy". But in the midst of these torments something happened, the selves worked through their trials, man awoke, and Eden returned. Here we have a personal adventure which is an expression of the history of mankind.
In the first six nights we see a spiritual genius grappling with the Fall. Blake reflected in excruciating detail on the nature of fallenness. Why and how is mankind and the individual psyche so horribly messed up? The question haunts every spiritual genius and afflicts us all in varying degrees. Then in the midst of this darkness we see something strange: there are sudden glimmerings of light for a line or two, and we begin to realize that this may not be hell but purgatory. Few writers have more magnificently described the light shining among the people who walked in darkness. The really fascinating thing about 4Z is that right in the middle of it the writer suddenly changes into a new man. The exact moment is recorded in the action, and then the poem becomes a testament of faith.
Blake had shared with mankind a consciousness fallen through a decision for the world and senses constricted through turning his back upon the Divine Vision. Less guilty than most of us, he had not reached the level of spiritual blindness which characterizes true worldliness; nevertheless he was guilty. But in his brokenness he opened himself to unmerited grace, with the inevitable gracious consequences.
In Night vii of 4Z Urizen, the ice man, the great opposer of change, effects the metamorphosis of fierce and fiery Orc, personification of change, into a serpent who crawls up the Tree of Mystery. An earlier prophet had written about a serpent and a tree at the dawn of history, and since that day the two figures have served as the basic symbols of the Fall. But Moses had used the same combined image to symbolize healing, and Jesus harked back to it in predicting his own impending exit from the world and its purpose.
Knowledge of the full weight of meaning carried by serpent and tree alerts us to an impending climax in Blake's story. Back in Night i Los, the spirit of prophecy, the personification of creativity, was estranged from his emanation, Enitharmon. In Night v she gave birth to Orc, but Los chained him to earth with the Chain of Jealousy, a sort of reverse Oedipus myth. This left the creative selves a sorry shambles. But now in Night vii Enitharmon's shadow meets and unites with Los' spectre, and their issue is twofold, the Whore and the Lamb. The Whore will burn, and the Lamb will find a spotless bride.
There's no way anyone can fully appreciate the joy of this moment without having participated deeply in the agony and travail which preceded it. This is but a way of saying that there's no way anyone can appreciate the salvation of the world without having first quenched the cup of the fallenness of the world. Long ago a book appeared entitled No Cross, No Crown, suggesting that we don't appreciate what God has done simply because we refuse the cup. Jesus accepted it on our behalf, and Blake did too in his way, as does every artist or prophet or saint who follows the narrow path.
At the Moment of Grace the narrow path opens out into the limitless expanse of eternity. The last half of Night vii marks that moment in Blake's life and describes his own personal experience of Easter. Once it happened, he went on to what Kathleen Raine called the Christianizing of his myth. In Night viii he told the old, old story in the old, old terms, but the new creation had taken place in Night vii.
If these paragraphs have sufficiently confused the reader, more enlightenment may be found in CHAPTER THREE, where Blake's myth is described at greater length. At this point I can only repeat what I said a couple of pages back: you have to read it three times.
In the first six nights of 4Z Blake had exhausted his vision and didn't know at first how to proceed. Then he was surprised by joy and enabled to construct a Christian conclusion to the myth. But he didn't bother to engrave 4Z because his interests had changed. In the next long poem, 'Milton', he worked through and meditated upon the Moment of Grace and savored the new spiritual world which he had inherited. 'Milton' is a record of Blake's Christian honeymoon.
In the first part of 'Milton', called the "Bard's Song', Blake deals with the dramatic years at Felpham. Here we find Blake's definitive and full bodied portrait of Satan. Blake had come full circle from his ironic identification with the Devil in MHH. Now he identified Hayley with Satan, which seems rather uncharitable. We need to bear in mind that there were two Hayleys in Blake's mind. The first Hayley was a corporeal friend who had lured him to Felpham and tried to do him in spiritually: "Corporeal friends are spiritual enemies". This Hayley served as tempter in what we may call Blake's last temptation. The other Hayley was a fellow sufferer with Blake, an artist whom Blake continued to encourage and nurture, as the letters attest.
In the remainder of 'Milton' Blake's hero, John Milton, after a hundred years in Eternity, reenacts the kenosis (self emptying) of Christ and descends to redeem his successor, Blake, and mankind. The poem is full of a beauty and joy which had been largely absent from Blake's pen since 'Songs of Innocence'. It contains some of his finest nature poetry. Between the end of SI and the Moment of Grace Blake had seen and described nature as corrupt, as groaning in travail. Now in 'Milton' he sees creation redeemed just as Paul had said that it would be:
Thou hearest the Nightingale begin the Song of Spring. The Lark sitting upon his earthy bed, just as the morn Appears, listens silent; then springing from the waving Cornfield, loud He leads the Choir of Day: trill, trill, trill, trill, Mounting upon the wings of light into the Great Expanse, Reecchoing against the lovely blue & shining heavenly Shell, His little throat labours with inspiration; every feather On throat & breast & wings vibrates with the effluence Divine. All Nature listens silent to him, & the awful Sun Stands still upon the Mountain looking on this little Bird With eyes of soft humility & wonder, love & awe. Then loud from their green covert all the Birds begin their Song: The Thrush, the Linnet & the Goldfinch, Robin & the Wren Awake the Sun from his sweet reverie upon the Mountain. The Nightingale again assays his song, & thro' the day And thro' the night warbles luxuriant, every Bird of Song Attending his loud harmony with admiration & love.The primary monument of Blake, the new man, is the epic poem, 'Jerusalem'. The old man wrote of fallenness; the new man continues to describe the world as it is, but the note of grace runs like a thread through all the hell of fallen life and leads us out in the last pages into heaven. "Jerusalem' is for the reader who knows Blake; he can rejoice. Others are well advised not to invest much in the poem until they have some grounding in Blake's myth and his symbolic language. However any reader acquainted with the book of Revelation may find joy in Blake's closing vision of the end of time and the moral principle upon which it rests.
Apocalyptic yearnings were the staple diet of the religious radical mind and school which Blake most nearly approached. After his awakening in 1800 his vision of apocalypse was fleshed out and glorified by his positive faith in Jesus, who died for our sins. He saw all the fallenness fall away like a cloud when, following Jesus' example of self giving love,
[Albion] threw himself into the Furnaces of affliction. All was a Vision, all a Dream: the Furnaces became Fountains of Living Waters flowing from the Humanity Divine.
No one has ever looked more deeply into the evil of the world and discovered so glorious an outcome. It has cheered all of the sorrowful who have known Blake, and it will cheer many more in the future. It's in this that he most vividly resembled his Lord, who suffered crucifixion and death and gave back life and love.
With the completion of 'Jerusalem' Blake's poetic work was done, but his crowning work of art came in a series of pictures created as illustrations of the book of Job. That work has mystified many through the ages, and many diverse interpretations of it have been offered. Blake seized upon it for one last telling of his story. A picture is worth a thousand words, and these 21 pictures speak with simple eloquence of the man who had the whole world, saw it turn to ashes, and saw a new and better world take its place. In the course of these events Job's vision of God turned to Satan, and a new and more real vision took its place. The most vivid image for me is the picture and moment when Job and his wife intently watch Satan falling from Heaven and by his side fall two small figures who may be identified as old Job and old wife; two new creatures have taken their place. These pictures merit much study, and they yield a simple but profound understanding of Blake's life and myth, and, if he is right, the life of every man and of the world.
In his last years a small group of liberal and progressive artists gathered around Blake, and he at last enjoyed a modest measure of that human acceptance which had eluded him for most of his life. John Linnell assumed the loving care supplied in earlier days by Thomas Butts; all but two of our last series of letters are addressed to this young artist and his wife. Illness overtook Blake in 1826, but he remained in high spirits and had a song of praise on his lips, an original of course, at the moment of his departure from this world.
Here is a more secular biography.)
For questions, comments, corrections write to Larry Clayton.