Monday, April 30, 2007



Ram Horn'd with Gold

The Spiritual Autobiography of William Blake

Edited by Larry Clayton
My Blake Blog

all interpreters of Blake have their own viewpoint about his work:
The graphically inclined of course tend to focus on that facet.
Politically conscious students of Blake may likely come up with something like
Prophet Against Empire.
A specialist in literature might write something in the vein of Fearful Symmetry.
Then we have biographers:
and encylopedists.

Spiritually minded folk may see something in Blake that the materially minded are apt to miss. John Middleton Murry's William Blake belongs to the first group; his book had a tremendous influence on the writing of Ram Horn'd with Gold.


Although most of us who are religious types may struggle our whole lives for those precious moments of God consciousness, William Blake had a direct pipeline to the Beyond. Heavenly visions dominated his mind in an overwhelming way. His wife had only one fault to find, "Mr. Blake spends too much time in Heaven."

And in spite of derogatory remarks made by critics as late as T.S.Eliot he probably knew more about human culture than any man since the Renaissance.

This book is an introduction to Blake's thought with primary emphasis on its spiritual dimension. Recent Blake literature has come largely from secular interpreters. The religious community for the most part have totally ignored Blake. Nevertheless he was a profoundly spiritual man.

This introduction to Blake focuses on his spiritual life as expressed in his aesthetics, politics, and psychology.

in a short biographical sketch recounts those events which largely determined the shape of his career. It also gives the first thumbnail outline of his work.

provides the reader with some of the basic equipment he will need to begin to read Blake with comprehension.

Some simpler Blake poetry (Simple only in the sense that some meaning readily emerges.)

interprets Blake's faith as it developed through the circumstances of his life. My distinctive view of that development includes a change of direction or attitude toward Christ in Blake's early forties.

traces Blake's struggle with God through the early images of Nobodaddy, Father of Jealousy, Urizen, and the God of this World, to his "first Vision of Light" and the resulting commitment to what he called (among other things) Jesus the Imagination.

explains Blake's understanding of the Bible, his primary source. Blake cast light on biblical ideas, and conversely the Bible explains Blake. Redemption history, the struggle between Jehovah and Astarte, the symbology of Ezekiel and Revelation are some of the topics dealt with. (If you want a quick introduction to the relationship between Blake poetry and the Bible go here.)

details Blake's relationship to the established church, his view of church history, his attitude as a dissenter against a state church and other forms of inauthentic authority, his relationship to Quakers, Methodists, and Deists as well as his personal associations, seen imaginatively as a religious community.

treats Blake's sexuality, his attitudes toward prevailing sexual mores, his incorporation of biblical viewpoints toward sex, especially in the symbology of the heterodox tradition.

describes the development of the mythology that forms the framework of Blake's major works.

The primary sources for this work were Blake's poetry and pictures and the Bible. The most significant secondary sources were Northrup Frye's Fearful Symmetry, Milton Percival's Circle of Destiny, Kathleen Raine's Blake and Tradition, John Middleton Murry's William Blake, and C.G. Jung's Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.

I have no special academic qualifications in this field. My real qualifications are a lifetime commitment both to the Christian faith in general and to William Blake's expression of it in particular. Judging from the literature those qualifications must be close to unique among writers.

(Written at google docs)


I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate
Built in Jerusalem's wall.
(Plate 77 of Jerusalem)

Late 18th Century Europe existed in a state of rapid transition from medievalism to modernity. The old arrangement of society, a divinely ordained king, a land owning aristocracy, and a marriage of Church and State came increasingly under the attacks of political, economic, and religious progressives. The American Revolution pointed toward the outcome of the struggle. In Europe the decisive event came with the French Revolution and its aftermath.

William Blake lived through those stirring times. His work has great significance as political commentary. Now two centuries later its spiritual dimension has assumed even greater moment. Blake participated passionately in the social and political debates of the day, although few contemporaries heard his voice. It is his place in the spiritual dialogue that exercises the greatest fascination and will probably endure when the other dimensions of his thought have passed into the dust of time. Blake radically redefined the Christian faith and offered to his own and later generations a religious perspective that takes fully into account the corruptions of the past and the psychological sophistication of the future.

It was during Blake's age that religious faith in Europe began to lose its grip upon the minds of men. His generation saw the final breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis and the triumphant emergence of the Age of Reason. He participated in a decisive battle of the eternal war between conservative religionists and liberal rationalists. Though without the bloodshed of earlier days, it was a conflict in which quarter was neither given nor expected. The battle pitted the community of faith, which in the 18th Century suffered an eclipse, against the rationalists, critical men of great brilliance. But none of the rationalists surpassed the brilliance of William Blake, a critical man of faith; their contribution to modern thought had its day; we are still far from catching up with his.

In the battle between faith and reason Blake occupied a unique middle ground. On one hand he constantly attacked an oppressive politico-religious establishment; on the other he just as steadfastly defended a spiritual orientation against the rationalists. This meant for Blake a lifetime engagement on two fronts.

This book describes and explores the various dimensions of Blake's vision of Christianity. One overriding consideration determined that vision: Blake saw freedom as the primary and ultimate value. The attitudes he expressed toward all institutions, his evaluation of them, the comments he made about them with his poetry and pictures, all these things were determined by the institution's relationship to that supreme value of freedom. He believed from the depths of his being that coercion in any form is the primary evil. It outweighs and in fact negates any benefit that an established religion may afford. Blake believed that regardless of his professed faith, the leader who uses coercion thereby shows himself to be a follower of the God of this World, the Tempter with whom Jesus dealt in the wilderness.

As a religious thinker Blake customarily receives the designation of radical Protestant. The seeds of his protest go back far beyond Luther. In his day a more common term was dissenter. Blake protested against and dissented from the authority of the orthodox Christian tradition. We can best understand Blake as a thinker, as a Christian, and as a man in terms of this dissent from orthodoxy. His intellectual life in many ways summarized the history of Christian dissent. His art evoked and drew upon the earlier occurrences of dissent through the centuries.

Blake defined God in terms of vision. Every man has his own vision of God, and no two are exactly alike. Blake spent much of his time and energy describing the superstitious images of God embraced by men in his day as in our own. With his usual extravagant language he was capable of saying something like 'their God is a devil'. He's referring to their vision, their image of God. Think for a moment about the vision of God of the Inquisitors, of for that matter of Bin Laden. Their God gloried in blood, but not my God, Blake's or yours!

Jesus was an obvious dissenter from the orthodox tradition into which he was born. He blithely ignored many of the requirements of respectable Judaism. He repeatedly violated the Sabbath. He felt perfectly free to initiate conversation with unfamiliar women, a gigantic taboo; in fact he spent hours with disreputable characters of both sexes. He ate without washing his hands. All these acts seriously violated the laws of his religious tradition. In 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' Blake claimed that Jesus broke all of the ten commandments and "was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules" (See Chapter Five ).

Going beyond mere dissent Jesus attacked the established religious leaders. He called them whited sepulchers, poked fun at them, and encouraged all sorts of insubordination among their followers. Worst of all he set himself up as an alternative authority. In all these ways he directly challenged the religious leaders and provoked them to bring about his execution as a revolutionist.

Jesus perceived death as the ultimate authority or power of the world. On behalf of his ideals and with spiritual power he challenged death, and according to the Christian faith he defeated it; he conquered death. In the words of Paul he "abolished death". Blake understood this in a more existential way than do most Christians. One of his primary themes, running from the very beginning of his poetry until the last day of his life, was the redefinition of death in accordance with the Christian gospel.

back to Contents

I'm entering this is google docs which supposedly put it on my website. I kind of doubt it.


Jon said...

Well, it IS on your website. I'm going to read it when I've got a little more time.

Question: Would you say that Blake is kind of a European Christian counterpart to Rumi?

Larry said...

I'm not very familiar with Rumi, Jon.

As a Christian Blake is unique in my experience, with a radical critique of the established church, and a conversion of Jesus in mature years.

There are basically two kinds: the O.T. type and the Jesus type. Jesus radically criticized everything about [his] church-- a synagogue and top heavy exploitative organization that mainly plundered the people.

In it's support of the war isn't our church just as corrupt?

For a quick intro to Blake's experience look at this excerpt from Chapter Five.