Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Style 3

As we have seen, Blake like the biblical writers expressed 
the eternal by means of metaphors or symbols from sense 
experience. Logical positivists deny meaning either to 
the eternal per se or to value of any sort (other than 
quantitative); Blake of course stood at the opposite pole. 
He despised the mental world of the positivists whom he 
knew best: BaconNewton, and Locke. They had directed 
men's thoughts away from the spiritual and toward the 
natural world. In violent reaction Blake refused any 
significance to natural events aside from their eternal 

Jonathan Swift, with his Lilliputians and his talking 
horses, had developed irony into a fine art and a 
popular form of English writing. Irony among other things 
separates out the less bright. When Blake makes a 
statement like, "As I was walking among the fires of 
Hell, delighted....", whoever attempts to read this 
literally thereby excludes himself from understanding. 
But ask the question--what does Blake mean by the fires 
of Hell? A few lines before he had said that hell or 
evil is "the active springing from Energy". In this way 
he responds to the viewpoint of the pious. The knowledge 
of irony makes us aware that he disagrees with their 
value structure. Blake suggests that the 'religious' 
most likely would perceive his ideas as evil, so he 
ironically accepts their judgment as if to say, "Okay, 
I'm evil; if delighting in energy is evil, then I'm evil." 
He must have been in contact with some soul deadening 
religionists when he wrote this.

A real tail-twister, MHH has thrilled thousands of 
sophomores and helped them to endure frustrating 
experiences with "good people". Writing shortly 
before Hegel Blake, with his doctrine of contraries 
(reason and energy, innocence and experience, love 
and jealousy, heaven and hell), vividly displayed 
the obverse of every truth which he considered. 
He often simply assumed the obvious or conventional 
wisdom as a starting point, not bothering to state it 
explicitly. Instead he went directly to its opposite, 
calling our attention to the dimension of truth buried 
on the other side of the conventional. From this dialectic 
he finally arrived at a synthesis.

       He had a habit of inverting the meaning of the most 
sacred words, for example "holiness". For Blake, as for many 
others since his day, the holy most often seemed holier than 
thou. Sometimes he used the word with an alliterative 
adjective such as "hypocritic holiness":
"For then the Body of Death was perfected in hypocritic holiness, 
(Milton 13.25; Erdman 107
Holiness characterizes the self righteous pharisee, who is 
most insidious because he judges as non-holy all those who 
don't measure up to his standard: "God, I thank thee that 
I am not as other men." Holiness of course relates to the 
law, which Blake despised for its life denying power. 
Furthermore he thought holiness often rather stupid. In 
a climactic speech near the end of 'Jerusalem' Los cries:
"I care not whether a Man is Good or Evil; all that I care 
Is whether he is a Wise Man or a Fool. Go, put off Holiness 
And put on Intellect...."

       Having excoriated (false) holiness Blake also tells us
that the word really means with his sacred line, found at the 
end of MHH:
    "Everything that lives is holy".
Since he wrote it, only a few great souls in the west, like 
Albert Schweitzer with his "reverence for life", have risen 
to that level of vision.

    'Religion', like holiness, Blake almost always used as 
a pejorative. A deeply religious man, though he might have 
denied it at times, Blake keenly focused on the seedy side 
of religion: the greedy priest, the life denying marriage law, 
the blasphemous alliance between an established church and the military lust of an oppressive crown. "Religion" for Blake 
most often conveyed these dire meanings, the sort of thing 
that "good people" feel should be slurred over or ignored.

       "Elect" and "reprobate" are two words known today primarily by theologians. In Blake's day they were more common. They came into prominence with Calvin's Institutes. The two words basically differentiate the "good people", bound for heaven, from the others. The doctrine of election represented the core or key of Calvinism. Blake adopted the conventional meanings, but he related them, not to the conventional God, but to the God of this World. His elect are those fully conformed to the God of this World. His reprobate is Jesus and others like him who are despised and persecuted by the elect. The Bard's Song" (Plate 2, line 22), the first third of Blake's major poem, 'Milton', concerns the creation of the three classes of men: the Elect, the Redeemed and the Reprobate:
"Of the first class was Satan...."
       For more on The Bard's Song look at a file in the Yahoo Blake group called The Farm at Felpham.
       With such inversions Blake provokes his reader to think more deeply about these terms of value. As you go through the hundreds of pages of Blake's poetry, these and similar terms recur at frequent intervals. The reader who keeps in mind the ironic dimension has a good chance to get the full and vivid impact of Blake's meaning.

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