Sunday, December 07, 2014
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
old Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. (Blake)
While we look not at the things which are seen,
But at the things which are not seen:
or the things which are seen are temporal;
but the things which are not seen are eternal. (Paul)
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (the 2nd Memorable Fancy) Blake placed in the mouth of Ezekiel a statement of his own primary purpose as an artist and as a man, "the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite". That basic aim pervades Blake's art; he was supremely interested in what he called the infinite or the eternal, and he believed that every man has access to it through his imagination.
In the majority culture people consider the material realm to be the real. This viewpoint is so dominant that in mathematics we speak of real and imaginary numbers as opposites. But Blake understood that our only experience of the material comes through our images of it. He saw reality as existing beyond the material. Like Plato he believed that the material lacks substance; it is only the shadow of the real. The real is the infinite or the eternal, accessible through the imagination.
All this does not mean that Blake was otherworldly in the conventional sense His heaven existed very much in the here and now; its reality was not geographical but psychic. His poetry reflects a vital interest in everything around him: personal relationships, the social scene, politics, all the works of art and literature that he encountered.
All these things became the raw material for the eternal vision that haunted his mind. No one of Blake's era recorded a more intense experience of life, a more gripping drama of the passing scene. The political events and military campaigns of Europe march through his poems and pictures. People have written lengthy and meaningful books on Blake as a political commentator.
However from the perspective of two centuries the political level of his thought pales beside the spiritual dimension which was always his deepest concern. The political events interested Blake primarily as expressions of the human spirit.
Poetry by its nature yields meaning at more than one level. Most of Blake's poetry has significance at three primary levels: political or historical, personal or psychological, and religious or metaphysical. Blake would have denied these distinctions because life to him was all one.
He saw the political spiritually, the historical metaphysically. This means that the reader may encounter an initial confusion, but if he perseveres in the face of the complexities of symbols and thought forms, he eventually discovers a wealth of meaning. Once again the guiding principle is that everything points to and converges upon the eternal reality underlying what Blake called the shadows of mortal life.
To think and speak eternally is no small achievement for him or for us. Pursuing this aim he floundered for many years (See Chapter One).
The words of Los in The Four Zoas record the moment when Blake got a firm grip on what he sought for himself and for us: ...I already feel a World within Opening its gates, & in it all the real substances Of which these in the outward World are shadows which pass away. |FZ7a-86.7; E368| After twenty years in the visionary wilderness that "World within" opened its gates into the mind of the mature artist and poet.
Then he began to exercise the greatest freedom in his artistic use of the shadows. They served him in every conceivable way to elucidate the real world within. All the shadows, all natural phenomena, all historical events, all works of art, his own included, he treated as fluctuating insubstantials which illustrate or point to the eternal reality.
Blake thought so much of Infinity that he learned to take great liberties with time and space. In this he followed the style of the most imaginative books of the Bible. As a young man sitting at the feet of Swedenborg he had learned the doctrine of correspondences which had come down from the Bible through the heterodox tradition. As Blake applied it, every material thing has a spiritual or eternal referrent. In the words of the alchemical tradition, "As above, so below".
In the Book of Revelation for example Babylon, a code word for Rome, more generally connotes the citadel of worldly power and evil. Blake of course used it in the same way. He used geographical locations of all sorts to point to spiritual realities. Africa symbolizes slavery in all its forms, particularly the "mind forg'd manacles" (from London) of the moral law. America symbolizes the hope of freedom. In the 16th plate of 'Jerusalem' (J16.36ff; E160) Blake went to extremes with this sort of symbolization; he superimposed the territorial tribes of Israel upon the map of England. The lapse into obscurantism was an unfortunate attempt to evoke spiritual values from a very prosaic material reality.
He more often succeeded in translating historical events and personages into spiritual realities. Constantine and Charlemayne symbolize war with religion as its handmaid. Albion is Blake's master symbol for Man, but sometimes Moses symbolizes Man; Michael and Satan then symbolize the forces of light and darkness in contest for Man. In Blake's last great work, Job became the archetypal man.
Some of his symbols (Orc, Urizen, Los) Blake elaborated into the dramatis personae of his complete myth. Their identities, not immediately apparent, grow and take on new and fuller meaning throughout a life time of reading Blake. The fascination of the prophecies lies in watching these strange symbols come forth from the mists of confusion and speak with ever increasing authority to the reader about himself and his world.
Beginning with the traditional language of symbolic discourse Blake learned to translate every facet of man's experience into a symbol of the ultimate:
...Each grain of Sand,
Every Stone on the Land,
Each rock & each hill,
Each fountain & rill,
Each herb & each tree,
Mountain, hill, earth & sea,
Cloud, Meteor & Star,
Are Men Seen Afar. (from Blake poem, To Thomas Butts)
And two years later, in another letter poem:
For double the vision my Eyes do see,
And a double vision is always with me.
With my inward Eye 'tis an old Man grey;
With my outward, a Thistle across my way.
Blake used earlier works of art as symbols which he put together to convey his thoughts about the eternal struggle and flux of values. He used the Bible, Milton, earlier Blake in the same way, all as a reservoir of ideational symbols combined into new forms to convey spiritual truth. This habit of mind can be described awkwardly at best. But it can be experienced vividly by the reader who will live into Blake's poetry. It's one of the ways in which he expressed his "desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite".