Friday, January 16, 2015

Symbolism

       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)
       For this gem Blake drew upon Genesis and Plato.

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