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Monday, March 09, 2015
Blake's Bible 2
To understand the last book of the Bible the reader must have achieved a certain level of consciousness. He must have at least a rudimentary grasp of the eternal and a certain feel for symbols, especially those metaphors of time and space that point to eternal truth. Without this equipment the Apocalypse is commonly read either as a grotesque phantasmagoria or as a convenient coatrack upon which to hang a fabric of theological inanity.
John of Patmos, the writer of the Apocalypse, had been a bishop of the Church, a man of authority, a man of action, a man who had commited himself with a whole heart to actualizing the ideals of Jesus of Nazareth. John had seen his religious program overwhelmed by a heartless political structure, his congregation scattered, and himself exiled to a small island where he had little to do but reflect upon the past and gaze into the future.
In his reflections John was informed by an intimate knowledge of scripture. The vivid images of the Hebrew writers ignited his imagination. They took the place of the people and events which had formerly filled his mind. The seven eyes of God, the plagues, the beasts from the sea and from the land, the harlot, the Lamb, the bride, the new heaven and the new earth-- all these and many more of John's images originate in various books of the Old Testament.
Northrup Frye referred to Revelation as "a dense mosaic of allusions and quotations" from the Bible. The Apocalypse is an imaginative recreation of the entire Hebrew religious consciousness in an epic that carries us to the end of time and the return of man to the golden age.
Blake attempted to do the same thing with the English religious consciousness, which explains why Revelation meant so much to him. His epic can just as rightly be called a "dense mosaic of allusions and quotations" from the Bible. In particular he seized upon John's images and combined them into the stuff of his prophetic poems.
When Christ ascended into Heaven, he left his disciples with the expectation that he would soon return (See John 21.22). The writer of Revelation had lived through the years when this hope was increasingly deferred. It became more and more apparent that the return of Jesus was not within the time frame of their original expectations. John outlived his associates, and he differed from the other New Testament writers in that he was forced to look beyond the immediate events and their immediately expected outcome.
He was forced to look into a more complex future. The rigor of this necessity freed him from the limited time frame that characterizes most of the New Testament. He knew the Old Testament truth that "a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday". He of all the writers of the New Testament had been most significantly disappointed in his temporal hopes and forced to lift his mind from time to the eternal. That's why his is the most symbolic book, and that's why it most appealed to Blake.
Blake used all of the symbols we have just noted and many others as well. He had brooded over these images for a life time, and they were fraught with meaning to him. They conveyed to him not only John's meanings but the original meanings of the O.T. writers from whom John had borrowed them, plus untold accretions of additional meanings acquired in the two millenia since.
It's doubtful that John's images mean to anyone today exactly what they meant to him. That's the nature of the symbols of eternity: their temporal meanings change with the times. Our religious consciousness changes with the times; even our images of God change with the times--not just in the historical frame but in the personal frame of a man's lifetime.
Blake took the images of Revelation--and of the rest of the Bible as well--and recreated them so as to express the evolving spiritual consciousness of his day, and ours. The images link us to our heritage, the consciousness evolves, the Spirit is timeless.
Two of the primary images of Revelation are the "woman clothed with the sun" and the"great whore that sitteth upon many waters". Much of the interest of John's epic lies in the conflict between these two women; they respectively represent spiritual Jerusalem and spiritual Rome. The first woman is driven into the wilderness by the Great Red Dragon; the Whore sits upon his back. But in due time the Whore is burned (much to the satisfaction of the faithful) while the other woman becomes the Bride of the Lamb.
A minimal knowledge of this symbolism prepares one to appreciate Blake's use of the same images to tell the same story. 'The Four Zoas' was first called 'Vala': she is the woman with whom Blake began, and she originally included both of John's women. But the Moment of Grace released in Blake the vision of Jerusalem, and the long poem bearing her name recounts her suffering at the hands of the other, who gradually evolves into the Whore.
Like John's woman clothed with the sun Jerusalem is driven into the wilderness and continually oppressed and afflicted by the forces of the Beast and the Whore. Vala, eventually manifested as Rahab, is finally burned; the scene in 4Z at the end of Night viii, contains one of Blake's most explicit and extended quotations from Revelation.
Here as in all of Blake's work he takes the biblical material, and while remaining largely faithful to its accidents, shows us new essence. Part of the final essence of Jerusalem is that her name is Liberty (Jerusalem plate 26), another manifestation of Blake's most vital lesson for us.