(From Chapter Ten of the Blake Primer)
Blake was a highly symbolic poet (and painter); to understand much of his thought requires acquaintance with a body of symbols that go back to the dawn of civilization, and up to the 19th century. In an age when only the material seemed to matter Blake was (and continues to be) highly opaque to the pure materialist. Such a person will find most of Blake's ideas meaningless.
But at the deepest level his ideas are the veritable stuff of life: love and hate, good and evil, life and death, and many ideas with urgent meaning. A high proportion of people prefer to turn aside from these questions, but you can be sure that their unconscious is full of them.
Above all Blake is about matter and spirit, at the great dividing line: do you see yourself primarily as a body or as spirit?
Begin with the conclusion, to be supported by an overwhelming body of evidence stretching from Heraclitus in the 6th century BC to the present:
Our mortal life is a vale of tears to which we have lapsed from Eternity and from which we will (may?) eventually escape back into the Higher Realm. This myth conforms very closely to the Gnostics, the Platonists, and of course most of Eastern Religion. In the Christian tradition one can find vestiges of it in many of the mystics, notably Meister Eckhart, in Mexican folk culture and in fact universally.
The western mind revolts from this "never-never land" at least on the conscious level, but Freud, Jung, and many other psychologists find strong evidence for it in the unconscious. At this point many readers may dismiss Blake's myth as not worth their attention.
The select few who remain may rightfully expect an entirely new world of grace and enchantment to open before their minds. The biblically oriented may perceive that all Blake's poetic and artistic work fits into a scheme of cosmic/psychic meaning; closely following the Bible it describes the pattern of Paradise, the Fall, a gradual redemption, and the final Rapture.
Understanding Blake's myth can be expedited by the study of Blake's women.
A most significant key to Blake's symbolism came to light only in 1947 when Arlington Court was bequeathed to the British National Trust. Among the furnishings there was a large tempera by Blake, called alternatively The Sea of Time and Space or The Cave of the Nymphs. This treasure had been hidden from public eyes for a century.
(Most of us are unlikely to see the original, but Blake and Antiquity by Kathleen Raine offers several glimpses of the picture with a detailed account of the symbols it contains. There is no better way to begin an understanding of Blake at the deeper level than to read carefully and study this small and accessible book.)
The picture contains the essential symbolism of Blake's myth; the theme goes back to Homer, then to Plato and Porphyry. (To understand Blake's myth one would be well advised to study this link with care--at least the first part of Taylor's article.)
Blake and Taylor were approximately the same age and as young men close friends. Many people think that Taylor introduced Blake to the Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions. It seems certain that Taylor's On the Homeric Cave of the Nymphs deeply influenced the painting of the Arlington Tempera. It also introduced a great number of the most common symbols used in Blake's myth; they were used over and over throughout Blake's work.
Another good introduction to Blake's myth is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It comes from an angry young man pouring his scorn on the conventions that cripple us; the language is pungent, the words are pointed, provocative, and outrageous.
A conventional person will find this whole work offensive and repulsive, but the young person at the stage of life where he's ready to kick over the traces, is quickly attracted-- if he has enough wit to understand irony and not take everything at face value.
We might call it an ironic satire. In 1789 Blake was 32, at the height of his physical (though perhaps not mental) powers. He had experienced the Divine Vision.
He knew it was meant for mankind, but so far limited to Jesus and a few others. But with the advent of the French Revolution he foresaw its spread throughout the world. (Of course in that he was soon doomed to disappointment-- with the appearance of Madame Guillotine.) Nevertheless with a peak of spiritual exuberance he proceeded to announce the coming New Age:
The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed
in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I
have heard from Hell. For the cherub with his flaming
sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the
tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation
will be consumed and appear infinite and holy whereas
it now appears finite & corrupt....
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing
would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has
closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow
chinks of his cavern. (Plate 14)
Pursuant to this aim:
How do you know but every bird that cuts the air
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses
five? (Plate 7; E35)
I then asked Ezekiel. why he eat dung, & lay so long on
his right & left side? he answered. the desire of
raising other men into a perception of the
Man's perceptions are not bounded by
organs of perception. He percieves more
than sense (tho' ever so acute) can discover.
"I assert for myself that I do not behold the Outward Creation and that to me it is hindrance and not Action it is as the Dirt upon my feet No part of Me.
"What it will be Question'd When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea? O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty." On MHH (Plate 16 Blake tells us about the prolific (prophetic types, creative people who grasp the Eternal) and the devouring (those who worship the created good). Of course he counted himself among the prolific. Middleton Murry has pointed out that in this moment of the everlasting 'good-and-evil' in which we live Blake may have projected the 'evil' upon the public who had uniformly ignored him. Murry suggested that it was a necessary "moment in his life".
If that be true, we have the record of the moment when Blake "came to himself" to the point where he confessed that his Selfhood continued to dominate him. He eventually came to realize that one cannot operate in the Sea of Time and Space without the Selfhood; thus he faced the necessity to continually annihilate and regenerate it with his alternation between Heaven and this vale of tears in which we live. (As Christians understand, the selfhood is brought into subjection and becomes the servant of the Self (Christ)).
In Plate 24 he promised to the world the Bible of Hell. John Middleton Murry described it as follows:
The first book of these, The Book of Urizen , is to a large degree a parody of Genesis. The Book of Ahania corresponds precisely to Exodus. The third book is The Book of Los (1795).
MHH was prior to Blake's myth proper, like a preamble or preface. It defines ideas and terms that are to be understood as the myth evolves, a special language you have to learn to get into the major works (The Four Zoas, Milton and Jerusalem. (A detailed treatment of Jerusalem concludes Chapter Eight.)
Blake considered the non-material to be the real; his art centered around the endeavour to express the reality of the non-material. The meaning of his entire artistic enterprise we may call his myth. His object was to fit all of experience into a total framework of meaning that will inform life and "to raise other people to a perception of the Infinite". Our object is to grasp that total framework; once we do that, we have a myth of meaning.
With his story of the Prodigal Son Jesus gave us a personal paradigm of the history of the Chosen People and of the Human Race. A striking modern analogy, although not Blakean per se, is provided by the career of alcoholism: progressive deterioration until the sufferer hits bottom, followed by recovery. Blake did use as a recurring motif the story of Lazarus found in the Gospel of John. But the primary paradigm of this myth is the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. However Blake did not express this, probably did not fully realize it, until 1800.
The application of this fundamental myth is illustrated in Blake's major poetic works. The development of his epic can be traced through the various stages of his spiritual journey. In essence it's the same journey we all take; you could call it the history of Man. Blake called it the Circle of Destiny in Night 1 of The Four Zoas.