Tuesday, May 01, 2018

How Blake Read the Gospel

First posted by Larry Nov 2010.

All his life Blake read the Bible, loved it, and engaged in dialogue with its immortal authors. Virtually every line of his poetry and every picture he painted had direct reference to some biblical idea that Blake had meditated upon.

In vivid contrast many of the orthodox don't read the Bible at all; they just wave it! Little wonder they dislike Blake. His early ironic description of his work as the Bible of Hell certainly helped to confirm their prejudice.

"Thou read'st black where I read white."
Everlasting Gospel (E 524)

There are essentially two ways to read the Bible; Blake referred to them as black and white. What did he mean? We might look at Urizen's Book of Brass as the black book. It's a book of rules, a book of law. It tells people what to do, and more poignantly, what not to do.

Even today ordinary people see the Bible in this way, which helps to explain why hardly anyone reads it today. The few who do read it dutifully and dully. Such a reading constrains consciousness; it makes the reader obedient and unimaginative. The faithful few who feel that they should read their Bible often approach it in a child like way bordering on the childish. Reading the black book inhibits the imagination, deadens the mind and prevents spiritual development. At its worst it has led to many instances of religious persecution and mass murder.

Wikimedia Commons
There Is No Natural Religion
But Blake read it white. The white book is not a book of rules, but a book of visions, a book of wonders. It provokes thought, causes the imagination to soar. Blake must have learned to read at about the age of four, when he had his first vision-- the frightful face at the window. Perhaps we've all been frightened by the Bible in one way or another; most people have had a sufficiently negative experience to leave it strictly alone. But little William overcame his fright and kept reading, and the next vision we hear of was more positive--a tree full of angels.

All the evidence suggests that for the next sixty five years Blake's Bible reading and his visions went hand in hand; his art is the record of it all. Whoever becomes really interested in Blake's visions will find himself reading the Bible because that's where most of them begin. In spite of this his secular critics have looked all over the world for his sources.

One of the greatest things that Blake has to offer the reader is that he makes you see and read the Bible in a new and better way. Not for nothing did the youthful circle of admirers of Blake's last years refer to him as the Interpreter.

The black book has most often been read as law, as history, in a restricted, literal interpretation. If the priest can get people to see it this way, and only this way, then he has secure control over his flock of sheep. In contrast Blake suggests that it's symbolic. Although written in categories of time and space, the temporal dimension is only instrumental; it points to the Beyond, the Eternal, the Real.

Too often people reading 'black' concern themselves with foolish questions such as "Did it really happen? Was Jonah really swallowed by the whale, or rather by the big fish?" But in Blake's vision that isn't the important thing. The important thing is "What does it mean?" The reader of the black book gets himself tied up in knots about the veracity or historicity of Jonah and his aquatic friend.

Blake shows you the Jonah in your psyche and helps you get some grasp of what the turbulent sea means to you personally. It's experiential, exciting! it puts you in touch with reality!, which is not material at all but spiritual. Literal or symbolic is black or white, and probably the two minds will never meet. At this point I simply urge you to join Blake and read white:
    "Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book? Is it not because [it is] addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation, and but mediately to the Understanding or Reason?"
    (Letter To Trusler; Erdman 702-3)


Vincent said...

This is one of the best pieces I’ve read on how to read the Bible, & by implication how to be a Christian. Thank you for republishing. We’ve just returned from ten days in Jamaica, where religion is still the glue holding community together in many areas and strata of society. I’ve written a couple of pieces on it, for friends & family only, “There and Back” and “More People we came to See". Had an interesting conversation with Karleen’s old English teacher, who has hopes for my late conversion to avoid hell fire; a fate which, when I expressed scepticism, she readily justified by referring me to Luke 16:19 &ff. “... the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments . . . ‘I am tormented in this flame’”.

So she felt I was ripe for return to the fold. And it saddened me for a bit, that she should hold fast to such a cruel belief, and feel thus burdened by evangelical obligation. But I soon forgot it, seeing how she and her husband (now afflicted with dementia) have a blessed life as do Karleen and I; and that some belief or other, literal or metaphorical, is one of those human things that befalls each one of us
I do admire you for continuing steadfastly to proclaim this vision.

ellie Clayton said...

As always your comment is valued.

I just watched a couple of hours of a video called God in America. It was showing some of the historical influences on the practice of religion since Europeans first settled on this continent. Most memorable is that Jefferson first became interested in religious liberty when Baptists circulated a petition allowing them to gather and preach outside of the Established church. The irony was that Jefferson was a deist who deleted from his bible passages which smacked of any miraculous or emotional flavor. His view was “In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the power of the general government….” Each individual is at liberty to become aware of the way that his inmost spirit responds to the universal spirit. However, if we wish not to be imposed upon by other's practice of religion we should avoid appearing to impose our own approach on others. Not so easy to accomplish!