But when once I did descry
The Immortal Man that cannot die,
Thro' evening shades I haste away
To close the labours of my day.
(From Gates of Paradise)
The artist, Samuel Palmer, who knew our poet well,
called him a man without a mask. With an acquaintance based only
upon Blake's href="http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/BlaSong.html" target="-blank">Songs of Innocence the reader may well agree. His
later mythological poems in contrast appear cryptic and enigmatic.
Nevertheless at the deepest level Blake was utterly transparent.
The myth which he created faithfully reflects his life. Like a
symphony or a quartet, myth and life had four movements.
Begin with a childhood innocence recapitulating the dawn
of the race, the primeval Garden of Paradise. Every loved child
has this experience. In Blake's life it was protracted by a
strange set of circumstances pointing to a peculiar, almost unique
quality of love. We socialize children through the painful laying
down of the law, but Blake's parents seem to have reared him with
an absolute minimum of fear, a minimum of law, of prohibitions.
The young Blake was considerate, aware of the needs of others,
but not coerced. We know little about his childhood, but the
shape of his mind points compellingly to these circumstances.
Throughout his childhood and adolescence his psyche was largely
protected from the destructive influences of the world, although
he was very much a part of it.
The inevitable fall, when it did occur, proved all the
more traumatic. A youth with his head full of heaven came up against the sudden realization that earthly life is directed,
ruled, and regulated by those at the other end of the cosmos.
The rulers of this world are by and large the most devoted and
loyal servants of the href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2%20cor%204:4;&version=9;"
target="-blank">God of this World. The young, idealistic,
sensitive poet and artist experienced this sinking realization
suddenly and acutely. Thereafter the most gruesome visions of
fallenness filled the pages of his creations. (The same could be
said of Isaiah or Jeremiah.) Taking their cue from Blake's popular
'Songs' the critics have called this stage href="http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/blake/collections/songs_of_experience.html"
a more illuminating and descriptive term is 'fallenness'.
The third stage embodies struggle. He who lives in the
fallen world without becoming a worldling learns to fight back in
some way. He develops defense mechanisms; he learns to preserve
his individuality short of martyrdom. To some extent he defies
the God of this World, and he pays a price for that defiance. On
the basis of his ironies in
target="-blank">The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Blake has been called a Satanist, but that evaluation reflects a
shallow grasp of his true moral stance. With MHH Blake discovered
new powers of expression which he used to fight the true satanic
kingdom, the fallen order of society in which he lived.
For the fortunate few
there comes a moment when grace
reaches consciousness and glorifies the struggle. It's
the moment when one realizes that truth is on the side
of the angels, and
he is one of them. He meets a God to whom he can give
his allegance. Once he was on the losing side with his
and his defiance; suddenly he realizes that the universe is basically okay, and he's in tune with it. Happy the person who makes
that glad discovery. It came to Blake at 43 with a fundamental
alteration of consciousness.
As a new man Blake became a gospel preacher and a Christian prophet. He had always possessed the most intense faith in
his vision; now he gained the ability to make it good news, at
least to himself and to a few devoted artists, themselves relatively unaffected by the downward drag. They caught the gleam in
his eye and the lilt in his voice as he sang his songs. What more
could a man hope for than a small group, perhaps twelve or so,
tuned and attentive to the truth which he embodies with his life?
That was the Saviour's lot, too.
(from the poem, Mary, in The Pickering Manuscript]
Erdman p. 487)
Blake was different from earliest times, and he knew it
well. Partly it was innate: his sheer intellectual quotient had to
be awesome. The concept of a spiritual quotient (in a child!) is
problematic, but in this case it should be looked at. A unique upbringing removed him further from his contemporaries. And finally
he inhabited a social environment very different from anything we
How Did He Get That Way
FIRST of all he came into the world with a tremendous endowment; some people are simply born with unusual gifts.
SECOND: Leaving school on the first day his mind was never subjected to the indoctrination most of us got from our teachers. "The primary object of primary education is to socialize the pupil to the conventions of the culture we belong to." That never happened to Blake. Instead he ....
THIRD read! and read! and read! He read the things that had fallen out of the national consciousness-- dominated by an extremely materialistic culture: the Bible, Behmen (Boehme) and hundreds of others, each in his own way representing the Perennial Philosophy. And he saw the Great Painters, not those favored by the Establishment.
FOURTH The population didn't read anything beyond the fourth grade level. When Paine asked Blake if people read him, he replied, "before the people can read it, they have to be able to read" (very much like today!). So there was a chasm between his mind and theirs (and ours).
The aforementioned video shows Tom Paine represented as the soul of rationality and Bill Blake the feeling, and above all the imagination.
So Blake's relationships were with God: Meister Eckhart, Mohammed, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Boehme, Jesus, other men who had had similar visions. He honored God with the "severe contentions of friendship & the burning fire of thought." (Jerusalem 91:17; E251)
His faith came up the hard way: Molech, Elohim, Nobodaddy, Urizen, and finally the Dear Saviour. How many of us good people can say we came to our faith like that?
Thank God we have the benefit of Blake's experience.
At the age of four young William ran screaming from his
nursery to report to his mother that he had seen God looking in
the window. That was the first of many such bizarre confrontations.
(They went on for forty years before he satisfactorily and definitively identified God.) A happier event occurred at the age of
eight when he sighted a tree full of angels. Eagerly he reported
this vision as well; this would have earned him paternal chastisement except for the intercession of a compassionate mother. No
doubt he learned from the experience that in social intercourse one
must take into account differences of perceptibility.
Thank God I never was sent to school
To be Flogd into following the Style of a Fool
(Satiric Verses Erdman 510)
We know little about Blake's parents, but their care of
him proves unusual understanding; they must have been fully aware
that they had a genius on their hands. Perhaps their most important
decision came on
William's first day in school. In accordance
with prevailing pedagogical custom the schoolmaster severely
birched a student. Young Blake, acting upon his keen sense of
moral outrage, rose from his desk and made an immediate exit. It
was his first and last experience with formal education. His
father showed amazing respect for the child's judgment.
That decision meant that Blake missed the usual brainwashing, or call it social conditioning, that modern psychologists
understand as the primary function of general education. It
meant that he never learned to think society's way. Instead he
thought, he saw, heard, tasted, and touched through his own doors
of perception, and they retained their childlike clarity
throughout his life. Child, youth, or old man he always knew
whether or not the emperor had clothes on.
Instead of school he directed his own education, primarily centered in the Bible. In the place of ordinary social
conditioning Blake was Bible soaked. The stories of Ezra and
Ezekiel were as real to him as childhood games. He must have
known large portions of the Bible word for word because line after
line, digested, assimilated, and recreated, appear in the poetry
he wrote throughout his life. You can bet that made a difference!
Although by no means wealthy Blake's father enrolled him
at the age of ten in Pars Drawing School. He intended to give the
boy first class training as an artist, but William with characteristic sensitivity declined to be favored this way at the expense
of his brothers. Instead he proposed apprenticeship to an engraver,
a more modest financial undertaking. His father took him to see
William Ryland, the Royal engraver, and prepared to put down a
princely sum for the apprenticeship, but the child objected on the
basis of Ryland's looks; he told his father that he thought the man
would live to be hanged. Once again the elder Blake respected the
child's judgment, and sure enough, twelve years later Ryland was
hanged for forgery.
At fourteen Blake began a seven year apprenticeship with
James Basire, an old fashioned but respectable engraver. Blessed
with understanding parents the young artist was equally fortunate
in his choice of a master. Basire, too, carefully preserved the
boy's individuality and sensitivity against the downward drag of
the world. When he found his other apprentices exploiting Blake's
innocence, he sent the child to Westminster Abbey to sketch the
gothic art found there.
For the next five years Blake spent his days in this and
other religious monuments communing with the images of legend and
history. His imagination was nurtured and strengthened by the
spiritual treasures of his country. One day he saw Jesus walking
with the Twelve--and painted them. On another occasion he was
present, the sole artist as it happened, when the embalmed body
of a King Edward of the 15th Century was exhumed for inspection
by the Antiquary Society.
Some of Blake's formative experiences he shared with
his contemporaries but not with us. For example 18th Century
measures against crime were rather repressive by modern standards;
petty crimes such as picking pockets were punished by hanging. A
few blocks from Blake's home was Tyburn, the public gallows. In
all likelihood on at least one occasion the impressionable lad witnessed a ten year old child being hung for his crimes. Tyburn became one of the mature poet's continually recurring symbols; he
often equated it with Calvary, and he conceived of Satan as Accuser
When Blake was nineteen, the American colonies declared
their independence. His feelings, like those of many other Londoners, resembled the feelings of American liberals 190 years later
about another war. At 23 he was swept along with a crowd that
stormed Newgate Prison and set the prisoners free, eleven years
before Bastille Day. Many in London devoutly hoped that the American revolution might spread to England. Blake saw this in his
mind's eye because thirteen years later in his poem, America,
he imaginatively described it.
Blake's religious world was dominated by the State
Church. Bishops were civil servants, appointed by the Crown; the
religious establishment existed to all intents and purposes as part
of the oppressive bureaucracy. This yoke had been thrown off briefly in the Puritan Revolution of the 17th Century, but the Restoration once again fastened it upon the people. Many of the established religious leaders of the age were corrupt and venal. Blake knew
this from childhood and set his pen and artist's vision against
religious hypocrisy (See CHAPTER SEVEN).
In Blake's day a strong sense of religious expectancy
filled the air, especially within the dissenting community to which
he belonged. He and many of his contemporaries hoped that an oppressive tyranny would shortly be replaced by the New Age of freedom and creativity. Today that hope has dimmed, but perhaps even
in this dark age a few might get from Blake's poetry a glimpse of
In 1782 the twenty five year old poet married Catherine
Boucher, the illiterate but beautiful daughter of a gardener.
Blake taught her to read, draw, and assist him in many of his artistic endeavours, and she provided a full measure of faithful emotional support to him over a long and often trying creative career.
In his younger days Blake often voiced the prevailing
counter culture opinions about what was called free love. However
all the evidence suggests that he was a devoted and faithful husband throughout the forty five years of their life together. Her
only complaint was that he spent so much time in heaven. She made
every effort to accompany him on those journeys. She frequently
sat patiently with him through the long hours of the night while
he pursued his rapturous visions. In a notebook poem, which he
wrote after twenty five years of marriage he said, "I've a Wife I
love and that loves me;/I've all but Riches Bodily." (Erdman, 481)
Fortunate in parents, employer and wife Blake embarked
in his twenties upon perilous paths and times. He suffered a
fate common to many artists: economic necessities loomed as a dark
shadow over the creative impulse. Like most young idealists he
still had hopes of making his way in the world, and he began to
confront the painful tension between creative work as an artist
and a comfortable income.
Some of Blake's students believe that a grim, traumatic
event of some sort led to his disillusionment. If there was any
one thing, we have lost sight of it. We do know that by 1784 his
mind and thought had broadened beyond the pellucid innocence of
his Poetical Sketches to include the satirical stories of 'An
Island in the Moon'. In these he lampooned the polite society in
which he moved. The work probably served a healthy outlet for the
frustration of conventional conformities.
Interpreters most often use the 'Songs of Innocence' and
'Songs of Experience' to demonstrate the contrast between Blake's
poetry before and after disillusionment. But the poem called
'Thel', written in 1789, illustrates that contrast in itself with
startling abruptness. The first five plates of Thel express the
transparent radiance of child like faith as vividly as has been done
in English. In 'Thel' the Lilly, the Cloud and finally the Clod of
Clay all witness with ethereal beauty and clarity the reality of a
warm and loving universe and their transparent destiny to move into
yet greater glory. Hear the Clod of Clay as she speaks to the maiden, Thel:
Plate Six (Sec 4) is a shrieking,
although its symbolism is too complex to deal with
here. It does appear that Blake wants us in 'Thel' to
experience the full shock of the contrast between the
Garden and the Fall. And we must conclude that he
himself experienced it in personal trauma, although we
can't pinpoint it. Henceforth for the next twenty
years fallenness was to be his major theme.
A good case can be made for the idea that Blake's personal fall came after a conscious decision for the world; it led
to two decades of trouble-economic and spiritual. Luckily for
us it was the one decision he couldn't make stick. With his very
best efforts he could never quite become a worldling; there were
too many angels knocking on his door. But for twenty years he
proceeded to "kick against the pricks" (Acts 9.5).
As a responsible husband Blake made a valiant effort to
conform to the social exigencies and to make his way in
the world. He won some success as an artist and was
even ashamed of his versifying because he knew that it
was against what he called the
He tried to be worldly and sophisticated, but he
was always coming up against compromises which he
simply couldn't make.
For a while he and Catherine frequented the salon of a
Rev. Mathews, an intellectual and artistic dilettante. This good
man even brought out Blake's 'Poetical Sketches' in a small private
printing. But Blake's ideas about organized religion were much
too inflammatory to afford him the freedom of any parsonage for
long. Soon he and Catherine drifted away.
Blake found a more congenial group gathering for weekly
dinners with the publisher, Joseph Johnson, his employer. Here
Blake met some of the most prominent radicals of the day, among
them Tom Paine. Blake deeply admired the republican activism of
Paine, and he liked Paine's general iconoclasm, although he and
Paine disagreed about spirit and matter. In this piquant relationship Blake might have learned how to open infinity to the
deist mind. Unfortunately before it could develop, Paine was
hounded out of the country.
Blake enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art during the
hegemony of Sir Joshua Reynolds. He even had several exhibits
there, but he couldn't quite conform his aesthetic values to the
prevailing taste as represented by Sir Joshua. As a consequence
he found himself shut out of the lucrative popular market. In
simplest terms the popular market was fallen, then as now; Blake
refused to stoop to it, and he paid the price of poverty.
Blake's gifts were well recognized, and he developed
quite a reputation as a teacher of drawing. One day an invitation
came to teach the children of the royal family. That assignment
would have established him in the world of fashion. But at that
awesome crossroad he chose the lower path; he declined. He knew
too well how he felt about royalty, and he also knew that he could
never enjoy the royal bounty. At that critical point he was true
to himself, and he definitively unmade the decision which had begun
his troubles; he chose spiritual values and rejected the world.
Afterward things got better spiritually, although for the moment they
These pages may suggest that Blake was something of a
nonconformist with his decisions not to go to school, not to accept his father's generous offer of expensive artistic training,
not to pursue the rewards of friendship with Rev. Mathews or Sir
Joshua Reynolds, and finally not to teach drawing to the royal
children. All these decisions taken together forced a man of out-
standing artistic ability into a drab livelihood engraving other
men's designs. They reduced him to a life of penury. He might look
like a misanthrope except that the decisions were all based on something positive.
Blake knew a secret. He was possessed by realities
foreign to the general mind. He knew that trees were full of angels. He knew and vividly experienced an inner world so real that
it made the external world by comparison a thing of shadows. He
even had some support for his ideas. He discovered
Gnostics, Plotinus, Paracelsus, Boehme, and a host of others had reported on those realities, not to mention Elijah, John, Stephen,
and a few other such types. To the conditioned mind of his day
(and ours) all these reports were just stories, but to Blake they
were imaginative realities. Imagination was more real to him than
any cold blooded materiality.
With such a psyche how could he possibly trust himself
to the sense deadening compromises by which most of us make our
way in the world? When the chips were down, he always chose principle, conviction, imagination, and never mind the cost. The surprising thing is not that he failed to make his way, but that he
managed to survive in this world for almost seventy years. He did
have a strong instinct for survival.
So Blake lived in the world without beoming a worldling,
and he learned to fight back. His defense mechanism was telling
about his own world. In fact he turned it into a counteroffensive,
which he launched with a bang in 1789. He wrote a strange document called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which he stood
the dominant consciousness on its head. (This work probably contains
more famous Blake quotes than any other.)
"The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' embodies new communicative skills which Blake used to raise consciousness, not among
his contemporaries, few of whom ever saw it, but among later
generations. In MHH and in subsequent prophecies he describes a
world of thought, imagination and reality foreign to the socially
conditioned mind. He deconditions us and reprograms us, or in
his language he attempts to raise us "into a perception of the
infinite." (Cf Blake's conversation with Ezekiel in MHH: in the first
of the Memorable Fancies)
MHH celebrates Blake's discovery of his identity as a
prophet and of the use of irony, which he likely learned from
Isaiah. He called himself a devil, but that does not have the
satanic implications that simpletons have ascribed to it; all his
life Blake showed implacable enmity to Satan. Still perhaps his
greatest weapon was the ability to turn conventional ideas upside
down and let us see another reality beside the prevailing group-
think. "Without Contraries is no progression". (MHH Plate 3; Erdman
For example laws are for the protection of society--or
sometimes for the advantage of those who make them. Wealth is
virtue--or sometimes thievery. Worship is life giving--unless it's
idolatrous. War is terrible--but also profitable. These are
called href="http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=antinomy">antinomies. Blake called them contraries, and the Proverbs of Hell
in MHH express his realization that much of the world's
thinking is illegitimately one sided. In a strange way Blake's
vision showed him the other side of the coin. This is what he
shared in the decades when he fought back.
In a letter written to William Hayley Blake indicated
that he had lost his vision about 1783 and regained it exactly
twenty years later. From this we may surmise that Blake had
chosen the world (or attempted to) when vision left him, but he
apparently had a large reservoir of visionary capital which he
lived on during his twenty years in the wilderness.
He also had a Christian friend, Thomas Butts, a minor
civil servant who saw something in Blake that most people had
missed. (In this letter Blake explained to Butts, with
great poetic brilliance his experience "on the sands at Felpham".
Though Butts probably had no unusual visionary gifts
himself, he did recognize them in his friend Blake. To encourage
him he occasionally purchased Blake's pictures. As Butts became
more aware of Blake's poverty, he commissioned him to paint fifty
pictures at a guinea each and gave him complete freedom to choose
his subjects. Butts' financial generosity made it possible for
Blake and his wife to survive; in all likelihood his spiritual
support was even more decisive.
A series of letters which Blake wrote Butts suggest a
relationship of mutual warmth. Major Butts affirmed Blake in
such a way that in these letters Blake dropped the cryptic and
enigmatic style which had become almost a part of him and reverted
to the limpid clarity seen in the 'Songs of Innocence'. Blake
made every effort to explain himself to Butts, and we are rewarded
in the Butts correspondence with some of the most revealing
glimpses of his mind and being.
Blake tried to repay Butts for his kindness by offering
him spiritual direction. However it seems likely that the relationship was the reverse, at least until the moment when Blake
became confirmed in the Lordship of Christ. If Blake had a spiritual midwife, it must have been the humble customs officer.
As the century drew to a close, in spite of his friendship with Butts Blake's spirits began to sink. Cash and work were
scarce. He began to suffer from melancholy, avoid his friends and
shrink from social scenes.
Then in 1800 he received an invitation
from a wealthy popular poetaster named William Hayley to move to
Felpham, a village by the sea, and to collaborate in some artistic
projects. Hayley in fact took Blake under his wing and set out
to make a success of him. In particular he set him to painting
miniature portraits and secured numbers of commissions for him.
At the same time he strongly discouraged Blake's interest in writing.
This proved to be Blake's last temptation. Naturally
he felt grateful for Hayley's interest and sponsorship, but as
time went on it became increasingly clear that Hayley meant for
him to become a man of the world (painting portraits) and to turn
his back on the eternal (stop writing poetry). It was the climactic struggle between the two principles for possession of the
artist's soul. We find the struggle aptly expressed in the extravagant words of a spiritual report which Blake wrote to Butts
on January 10, 1803. (For the pertinent portion of this letter see
Erdman at the bottom of 724 and top of 725.)
A more reasoned explanation of this archetypal problem came in a
letter to George Cumberland in July 1800:
I myself remember when I thought my pursuits of Art a
kind of Criminal Dissipation and neglect of the main
chance which I hid my face for not being able to
abandon as a Passion which is forbidden by Law &
By the main chance he meant of course seeking
After three years at Felpham it appears that Butt's
support helped Blake to make the right final decision.
An unpleasant altercation with a drunken soldier
leading to a trial for sedition also helped. In 1803
he returned to London, richer only in experience, but
confirmed in his determination to give his spiritual
visions priority in his life.
The study of anyone's life from a distance of two centuries requires a lot of reading between the lines. In Blake's
case we fortunately have a detailed spiritual journal reflecting
the most critical years of his life. It exists in the form of an
epic poem that he worked on for many years but never finished.
Northrup Frye called 'The Four Zoas' "the greatest abortive masterpiece in English literature". Anyone who takes the trouble to
read it three times is likely to agree with Frye; the first two
readings may mystify more than enlighten.
Once you know the man and his language, the poem takes
on a fascinating personal dimension; it records the journey of a
soul from darkness to light. Scholars tell us that Blake wrote,
revised, cancelled, renewed, rewrote 4Z. The historical interpreters fancy that they can see the European military scene changing from line to line. But two centuries later the personal dimension, universalized into the metaphysical, is more gripping.
In the prophetic poems between MHH and 4Z (called the
Lambeth Books) we see Blake's spiritual capital running out. Even
his secular critics observed the flagging of his vision and his
enthusiasm during the period. He was struggling with the forces
of darkness; moreover he was aware of the nature of the struggle,
and he used the Ephesian epigram accordingly at the beginning of
In 4Z Blake tells how the universal man lost Eden and
fell into sleep and division and how his many selves struggled in
the "torments of love and jealousy". But in the midst of these
torments something happened, the selves worked through their trials, man awoke, and Eden returned. Here we have a personal adventure which is an expression of the history of mankind.
In the first six nights we see a spiritual genius grappling with the Fall. Blake reflected in excruciating detail on
the nature of fallenness. Why and how is mankind and the individual psyche so horribly messed up? The question haunts every
spiritual genius and afflicts us all in varying degrees. Then in
the midst of this darkness we see something strange: there are
sudden glimmerings of light for a line or two, and we begin to
realize that this may not be hell but purgatory. Few writers have
more magnificently described the light shining among the people
who walked in darkness. The really fascinating thing about 4Z is
that right in the middle of it the writer suddenly changes into a
new man. The exact moment is recorded in the action, and then the
poem becomes a testament of faith.
In 4Z Blake described the Moment of Grace in terms
that closely resemble those of Jungian psychology:
shadow and anima (Blake calls them spectre and
emanation) are integrated into the self. But without
question Blake described here a personal spiritual
event of the greatest importance. It was the moment
when the divided selves found themselves reconciled
into a new being under a new Lord; it marked a radical
alteration of consciousness.
Blake had shared with mankind a consciousness fallen
through a decision for the world and senses constricted through
turning his back upon the Divine Vision. Less guilty than most of
us, he had not reached the level of spiritual blindness which
characterizes true worldliness; nevertheless he was guilty. But
in his brokenness he opened himself to unmerited grace, with the
inevitable gracious consequences.
In Night vii of 4Z Urizen, the ice man, the great opposer of change, effects the metamorphosis of fierce and fiery Orc,
personification of change, into a serpent who crawls up the Tree
of Mystery. An earlier prophet had written about a serpent and a
tree at the dawn of history, and since that day the two figures
have served as the basic symbols of the Fall. But Moses had used
the same combined image to symbolize healing, and Jesus harked
back to it in predicting his own impending exit from the world
and its purpose.
Knowledge of the full weight of meaning carried by serpent and tree alerts us to an impending climax in Blake's story.
Back in Night i Los, the spirit of prophecy, the personification
of creativity, was estranged from his emanation, Enitharmon. In
Night v she gave birth to Orc, but Los chained him to earth with
the Chain of Jealousy, a sort of reverse Oedipus myth. This left
the creative selves a sorry shambles. But now in Night vii Enitharmon's shadow meets and unites with Los' spectre, and their
issue is twofold, the Whore and the Lamb. The Whore will burn,
and the Lamb will find a spotless bride.
There's no way anyone can fully appreciate the joy of
this moment without having participated deeply in the agony and
travail which preceded it. This is but a way of saying that
there's no way anyone can appreciate the salvation of the world
without having first quenched the cup of the fallenness of the
world. Long ago a book appeared entitled No Cross, No Crown,
suggesting that we don't appreciate what God has done simply because we refuse the cup. Jesus accepted it on our behalf, and
Blake did too in his way, as does every artist or prophet or saint
who follows the narrow path.
At the Moment of Grace the narrow path opens out into the
limitless expanse of eternity. The last half of Night vii marks
that moment in Blake's life and describes his own personal experience of Easter. Once it happened, he went on to what Kathleen
Raine called the Christianizing of his myth. In Night viii he
told the old, old story in the old, old terms, but the new creation
had taken place in Night vii.
If these paragraphs have sufficiently confused the reader, more enlightenment may be found in CHAPTER THREE, where Blake's
myth is described at greater length. At this point I can only repeat what I said a couple of pages back: you have to read it three
Next to the Bible the poet John Milton was Blake's most
formative spiritual influence. 'Paradise Lost' was the great religious epic in the English language, and Blake's calling as an
epic poet is closely related to his affinity with Milton. As ear-
ly as 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' he commented on Milton's
vision. Quotations from 'Paradise Lost' and allusions to it fill
the pages of 4Z. The evolving myth of Urizen, Los, and Orc may
be understood at one level as a meditation upon Milton's leading
characters--the Almighty, Satan, and Messiah.
In the first six nights of 4Z Blake had exhausted his
vision and didn't know at first how to proceed. Then he was surprised by joy and enabled to construct a Christian conclusion to
the myth. But he didn't bother to engrave 4Z because his interests
had changed. In the next long poem, 'Milton', he worked through
and meditated upon the Moment of Grace and savored the new spiritual
world which he had inherited. 'Milton' is a record of Blake's
In the first part of 'Milton', called the "Bard's Song',
Blake deals with the dramatic years at Felpham. Here we find
Blake's definitive and full bodied portrait of Satan. Blake had
come full circle from his ironic identification with the Devil in
MHH. Now he identified Hayley with Satan, which seems rather uncharitable. We need to bear in mind that there were two Hayleys
in Blake's mind. The first Hayley was a corporeal friend who had
lured him to Felpham and tried to do him in spiritually: "Corporeal friends are spiritual enemies". This Hayley served as tempter in what we may call Blake's last temptation. The other Hayley
was a fellow sufferer with Blake, an artist whom Blake continued
to encourage and nurture, as the letters attest.
In the remainder of 'Milton' Blake's hero, John Milton,
after a hundred years in Eternity, reenacts the kenosis (self emptying) of Christ and descends to redeem his successor, Blake, and
mankind. The poem is full of a beauty and joy which had been
largely absent from Blake's pen since 'Songs of Innocence'. It
contains some of his finest nature poetry. Between the end
of SI and the Moment of Grace Blake had seen and described nature
as corrupt, as groaning in travail. Now in 'Milton' he sees creation redeemed just as Paul had said that it would be:
Thou hearest the Nightingale begin the Song of Spring.
The Lark sitting upon his earthy bed, just as the morn
Appears, listens silent; then springing from the waving
He leads the Choir of Day: trill, trill, trill, trill,
Mounting upon the wings of light into the Great Expanse,
Reecchoing against the lovely blue & shining heavenly Shell,
His little throat labours with inspiration; every feather
On throat & breast & wings vibrates with the effluence Divine.
All Nature listens silent to him, & the awful Sun
Stands still upon the Mountain looking on this little Bird
With eyes of soft humility & wonder, love & awe.
Then loud from their green covert all the Birds begin their Song:
The Thrush, the Linnet & the Goldfinch, Robin & the Wren
Awake the Sun from his sweet reverie upon the Mountain.
The Nightingale again assays his song, & thro' the day
And thro' the night warbles luxuriant, every Bird of Song
Attending his loud harmony with admiration & love.
The primary monument of Blake, the new man, is the epic
poem, 'Jerusalem'. The old man wrote of fallenness; the new man
continues to describe the world as it is, but the note of grace
runs like a thread through all the hell of fallen life and leads
us out in the last pages into heaven. "Jerusalem' is for the
reader who knows Blake; he can rejoice. Others are well advised
not to invest much in the poem until they have some grounding in
Blake's myth and his symbolic language. However any reader acquainted with the book of Revelation may find joy in Blake's closing vision of the end of time and the moral principle upon which
Apocalyptic yearnings were the staple diet of the religious radical mind and school which Blake most nearly approached.
After his awakening in 1800 his vision of apocalypse was fleshed
out and glorified by his positive faith in Jesus, who died for
our sins. He saw all the fallenness fall away like a cloud when,
following Jesus' example of self giving love,
[Albion] threw himself into the Furnaces of affliction.
All was a Vision, all a Dream: the Furnaces became
Fountains of Living Waters flowing from the Humanity Divine.
No one has ever looked more deeply into the evil of the
world and discovered so glorious an outcome. It has cheered all
of the sorrowful who have known Blake, and it will cheer many more
in the future. It's in this that he most vividly resembled his
Lord, who suffered crucifixion and death and gave back life and
With the completion of 'Jerusalem' Blake's poetic work
was done, but his crowning work of art came in a series of pictures created as illustrations of the book of Job. That work has
mystified many through the ages, and many diverse interpretations
of it have been offered. Blake seized upon it for one last telling
of his story. A picture is worth a thousand words, and these 21
pictures speak with simple eloquence of the man who had the whole
world, saw it turn to ashes, and saw a new and better world take
its place. In the course of these events Job's vision of God
turned to Satan, and a new and more real vision took its place.
The most vivid image for me is the picture and moment when Job
and his wife intently watch Satan falling from Heaven and by his
side fall two small figures who may be identified as old Job and
old wife; two new creatures have taken their place. These pictures merit much study, and they yield a simple but profound understanding of Blake's life and myth, and, if he is right, the
life of every man and of the world.
In his last years a small group of liberal and progressive artists gathered around Blake, and he at last enjoyed a modest measure of that human acceptance which had eluded him for
most of his life. John Linnell assumed the loving care supplied
in earlier days by Thomas Butts; all but two of our last series
of letters are addressed to this young artist and his wife. Illness overtook Blake in 1826, but he remained in high spirits and
had a song of praise on his lips, an original of course, at the
moment of his departure from this world.
Here is a more secular biography.)
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