Throughout the 19th Century the works of William Blake
suffered almost total neglect. His message simply
surpassed contemporary currents of thought. A
voracious reader, Blake mastered (and used) the
symbology of the Bible, Plato, the Neoplatonists, Greek
mythology, Paracelsus, Boehme, and God knows what else.
(This subject will be treated in greater detail in a
future chapter on Blake's sources.)
20th century his reputation as a poet and thinker
steadily grew. His most popular collection of poems,
href="http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/BlaSong.html" target="-blank">'Songs of Innocence and Experience', has won
general recognition as a classic.
largest works, called the major prophecies, still offer
technical difficulties that may defeat the casual
reader. Once they were thought to represent the
eccentric vagaries of an unbalanced mind; many people
considered Blake insane. Intensive Blake scholarship
over the past eighty years has slowly deciphered the
cryptograms and clarified (at least some of) the mysteries.
What had seemed
the most insane passages often proved on closer
examination to be the most rational and meaningful. A
growing body of translation and interpretation has made
the major prophecies accessible and rewarding to the
reader willing to take reasonable pains with them.
They are now about as accessible to the general reader
as is the Bible.
A systematic acquaintance with Blake's literary
peculiarities will enhance the reader's enjoyment of his poetry.
This chapter introduces a few guiding principles of his thought
processes and literary and artistic style. First of all we
should note that Blake combined word and picture in a unique
Although he wrote unadorned poems and painted wordless
pictures, his primary mode of expression was the
illuminated manuscript, an intimate blend of graphic
and verbal art. To provide a full exposition of this
unique double form is beyond the modest goal of this
book. At this point the illuminated form is simply
mentioned as a most distinctive facet of Blake's art.
One simple clue to reading Blake concerns his use of
dialogue; he spoke with many voices. He exercised this freedom
especially with the larger prophecies, the three major works.
These on first reading may seem to present insuperable difficulties, but the reader who pays close attention to the identity of
the speaker at each point will thereby break down the forest into
manageable groves of trees. In his three long poems Blake gave titles to various elements or speeches; they became units, landmarks
or guideposts, casting light on what at first seemed general
In Night i of href="http://www.english.uga.edu/nhilton/Blake/blaketxt1/the_four_zoas_nt1.html">'The Four Zoas' for example we find
Enitharmon's Song of
Death (FZ1-10.9; E305), the "Nuptial Song"
of the "demons of the deep" (FZ1-13.20; E308), and the message
of the Daughters of Beulah, which they call the "Wars of Death
Eternal"(FZ1-21.13; E311). These three songs comprise three
of the many selves of the human psyche; needless to say their
ideas and attitudes vary immensely. They all describe the same
event, but they see it, oh, so differently. They use the same
words with different meanings. For example consider that what
the daughters call "Death Eternal" the demons call marriage.
In this way Blake challenges the reader and stretches his mind
and immensely rewards whoever will accept the challenge. He gives
us the end of a golden string.
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
While we look not at the things which are seen,
But at the things which are not seen:
For the things which are seen are temporal;
but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Marriage of Heaven and Hell (the 2nd Memorable Fancy) Blake placed
in the mouth of Ezekiel a statement of his own primary purpose as
an artist and as a man, "the desire of raising other men into a
perception of the infinite". That basic aim pervades Blake's art; he was supremely interested
in what he called the infinite or the eternal, and he believed
that every man has access to it through his imagination. For a fuller
discussion of MHH go to chapter 9.
In the majority culture people consider the material
realm to be the real. This viewpoint is so dominant that in
mathematics we speak of real and imaginary numbers as opposites.
But Blake understood that our only experience of the material
comes through our images of it. He saw reality as existing beyond the material. Like Plato he believed that the material lacks
substance; it is only the shadow of the real. The real is the infinite or the eternal, accessible through the imagination.
All this does not mean that Blake was otherworldly in
the conventional senes. His heaven existed very much in the here
and now; its reality was not geographical but psychic. His poetry
reflects a vital interest in everything around him: personal relationships, the social scene, politics, all the works of art and
literature that he encountered.
All these things became the raw
material for the eternal vision that haunted his mind. No one of
Blake's era recorded a more intense experience of life, a more
gripping drama of the passing scene. The political events and military campaigns of Europe march through his poems and pictures.
People have written lengthy and meaningful books on Blake as a
However from the perspective of two centuries the political level of his thought pales beside the spiritual dimension which was always his deepest concern. The political events interested Blake primarily as expressions of the human
Poetry by its nature yields meaning at more than one
level. Most of Blake's poetry has significance at three primary
levels: political or historical, personal or psychological, and
religious or metaphysical. Blake would have denied these distinctions
because life to him was all one.
He saw the political
spiritually, the historical metaphysically. This means that the
reader may encounter an initial confusion, but if he perseveres
in the face of the complexities of symbols and thought forms, he
eventually discovers a wealth of meaning. Once again the guiding
principle is that everything points to and converges upon the eternal
reality underlying what Blake called the
shadows of life.
To think and speak eternally is no small achievement
for him or for us. Pursuing this aim he floundered for many
years (See Chapter One).
The words of Los in href="http://www.english.uga.edu/nhilton/Blake/blaketxt1/the_four_zoas.html">The Four Zoas
record the moment when Blake got a firm grip on what he sought
for himself and for us:
...I already feel a World within
Opening its gates, & in it all the real substances
Of which these in the outward World are shadows which
pass away. |FZ7a-86.7; E368|
After twenty years in the visionary wilderness that
"World within" opened its gates into the mind of the mature artist and
Then he began to exercise the greatest freedom
in his artistic use of the shadows. They served him in every
conceivable way to elucidate the real world within. All the
shadows, all natural phenomena, all historical events, all works
of art, his own included, he treated as fluctuating insubstantials which illustrate or point to the eternal reality.
Blake thought so much of Infinity that he learned to
take great liberties with time and space. In this he followed
the style of the most imaginative books of the Bible. As a young
man sitting at the feet of Swedenborg he had learned the
doctrine of correspondences
which had come down from the Bible through the
heterodox tradition. As Blake applied it, every material thing
has a spiritual or eternal referrent. In the words of the alchemical tradition, "As above, so below".
In the Book of Revelation for example Babylon, a code
word for Rome, more generally connotes the citadel of worldly power and evil. Blake of course used it in the same way. He used
geographical locations of all sorts to point to spiritual realities. Africa symbolizes slavery in all its forms, particularly
the href="http://www.uh.edu/engines/romanticism/blakeessay2.html">"mind forg'd manacles" (from London) of the moral law. America
symbolizes the hope of freedom. In the 16th plate of href="http://www.english.uga.edu/nhilton/Blake/blaketxt1/jerusalem_chapter1.html">'Jerusalem'
(J16.1; E159) Blake went to extremes with this sort of
symbolization; he superimposed the territorial tribes of Israel
upon the map of England. The lapse into obscurantism was an
unfortunate attempt to evoke spiritual values from a very prosaic
He more often succeeded in translating historical events
and personages into spiritual realities. Constantine and Charlemayne symbolize war with religion as its handmaid. Albion is
Blake's master symbol for Man, but sometimes Moses symbolizes
Man; Michael and Satan then symbolize the forces of light and
darkness in contest for Man. In Blake's last great work Job became the archetypal man.
Some of his symbols (Orc, Urizen, Los) Blake elaborated
into the dramatis personae of his complete myth. Their identities, not immediately apparent, grow and take on new and fuller
meaning throughout a life time of reading Blake. The fascination of the prophecies lies in watching these strange symbols
come forth from the mists of confusion and speak with ever increasing authority to the reader about himself and his world.
Beginning with the traditional language of symbolic
discourse Blake learned to translate every facet of man's experience into a symbol of the ultimate:
...Each grain of Sand,
Every Stone on the Land,
Each rock & each hill,
Each fountain & rill,
Each herb & each tree,
Mountain, hill, earth & sea,
Cloud, Meteor & Star,
Are Men Seen Afar.
(from Blake poem, To Thomas Butts)
And two years later, in another letter poem:
For double the vision my Eyes do see,
And a double vision is always with me.
With my inward Eye 'tis an old Man grey;
With my outward, a Thistle across my way.
Blake used earlier works of art as symbols which he put
together to convey his thoughts about the eternal struggle and flux
of values. He used the Bible, Milton, earlier Blake in the same
way, all as a reservoir of ideational symbols combined into new
forms to convey spiritual truth. This habit of mind can be described awkwardly at best. But it can be experienced vividly by
the reader who will live into Blake's poetry. It's one of the
ways in which he expressed his "desire of raising other men into a
perception of the infinite".
As we have seen, Blake like the biblical writers expressed the eternal by means of metaphors or symbols from sense
experience. Logical positivists deny meaning either to the eternal per se or to value of any sort (other than quantitative);
Blake of course stood at the opposite pole. He despised the mental world of the positivists whom he knew best: href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bacon">Bacon, Newton,
and Locke. They had directed men's thoughts away from the spiritual and toward the natural world. In violent reaction Blake refused any significance to natural events aside from their eternal
language language for href="http://lee.jaffebros.com/gulliver/">Jonathan Swift, with his
Lilliputians and his talking horses, had developed irony into a
fine art and a popular form of English writing.
Irony among other things separates out the less bright.
When Blake makes a statement like, "As I was walking among the
fires of Hell, delighted....", whoever attempts to read this literally thereby excludes himself from understanding. But ask
the question--what does Blake mean by the fires of Hell? A few
lines before he had said that hell or evil is "the active springing from Energy". In this way he responds to the viewpoint of
the pious. The knowledge of irony makes us aware that he disagrees with their value structure. Blake suggests that the 'religious' most likely would perceive his ideas as evil, so he ironically accepts their judgment as if to say, "Okay, I'm evil; if
delighting in energy is evil, then I'm evil." He must have been
in contact with some soul deadening religionists when he wrote
A real tail-twister, MHH has thrilled thousands of sophomores and helped them to endure frustrating experiences with
Writing shortly before Hegel Blake, with his doctrine
of contraries (reason and energy, innocence and experience, love
and jealousy, heaven and hell), vividly displayed the obverse of
every truth which he considered. He often simply assumed the obvious or conventional wisdom as a starting point, not bothering
to state it explicitly. Instead he went directly to its opposite,
calling our attention to the dimension of truth buried on the other side of the conventional. From this dialectic he finally
arrived at a synthesis.
He had a habit of inverting the meaning of the most
sacred words, for example "holiness". For Blake, as for many
others since his day, the holy most often seemed holier than
thou. Sometimes he used the word with an alliterative adjective
hypocritic holiness" (plate 13; line 25).
Holiness characterizes the self righteous pharisee, who is most
insidious because he judges as non-holy all those who don't
measure up to his standard: "God, I thank thee that I am not as
other men." Holiness of course relates to the law, which Blake
despised for its life denying power. Furthermore he thought
holiness often rather stupid. In a climactic speech near the
end of 'Jerusalem' Los cries:
I care not whether a Man is Good or Evil; all that I care
Is whether he is a Wise Man or a Fool. Go, put off Holiness
And put on Intellect....
Having excoriated (false) holiness Blake also tells us
what the word really means with his sacred line, found at the end
"Everything that lives is holy".
Since he wrote it, only
a few great souls in the west, like Albert Schweitzer with his
"reverence for life", have risen to that level of vision.
Religion, like holiness, Blake almost always used as a
pejorative. A deeply religious man, though he might have denied it
at times, Blake keenly focused on the seedy side of religion: the
greedy priest, the life denying marriage law, the blasphemous alliance between an established church and the military lust of an
oppressive crown. "Religion" for Blake most often conveyed these
dire meanings, the sort of thing that "good people" feel should
be slurred over or ignored. Blake felt they should be named, and this
he proceeded to do in great detail with his descriptions of religion.
"Elect" and "reprobate" are two words known today primarily by theologians. In Blake's day they were more common.
They came into prominence with Calvin's Institutes. The two
words basically differentiate the "good people", bound for heaven,
from the others. The doctrine of election represented the core
or key of Calvinism. Blake adopted the conventional meanings, but
he related them, not to the conventional God, but to the God of
this World. His elect are those fully conformed to the God of
this World. His reprobate is Jesus and others like him who are
despised and persecuted by the elect.
The Bard's Song"
(Plate 2, line 22), the first third of Blake's major poem,
'Milton', concerns the creation of the three classes of men: the
Elect, the Redeemed and the Reprobate:
"Of the first class was Satan...."
For more on The Bard's Song look at a file in the Yahoo
Blake group called The Farrm at Felpham.
With such inversions Blake provokes his reader to think
more deeply about these terms of value. As you go through the
hundreds of pages of Blake's poetry, these and similar terms recur
at frequent intervals. The reader who keeps in mind the ironic
dimension has a good chance to get the full and vivid impact of
Blake made words into jewels, and with the utmost freedom he displayed their multiple facets. To the most significant
words of the English language he gave a new wealth of meaning.
The language contains a limited number of terms that relate to
ultimate value: God, heaven and hell, good
and evil, love href="notes.htm#death">death.
Blake's poetry exhaustively explores the meaning of these words
as symbols of value. A later chapter will describe Blake's images
of God. Here we look at his use of 'love' and 'death' as examples
of his general style and for the light they shed upon his basic
habits of thought.
The general fate of all great words is to be steadily
abused and debased. We heard for example about the 'democracy' of
the Soviet Union. The word 'love' is certainly no exception to
this rule. A seaman may reach port and hasten to the nearest waterfront establishment to find love. In polite circles of course
we don't speak with such vulgarity.
The devout have put the word 'love' very close to the
acme of the language. In John's first epistle marvelous use of
it is made to show the relationship between God and man. We see
the same thing in Paul. Look at some of the jewels of the English
God is love.
God so loved the world....
[Love] beareth all things....
And now abideth faith, hope and love, these three; but
the greatest of these is love.
From that sacred backdrop it's easy to be offended at
the use our poet makes of the word. Worse than the seaman, he
turns everything upside down and comes up with href="http://www.gailgastfield.com/mhh/mhh.html">the Bible of Hell
(MHH: end of Plate 24). In his poems love most often connotes the
worst forms of human behaviour. How gross! But Blake knows that
'love' is not God; quoting Bob Dylan, it's a four letter word. It means many things
to many people, and even to the same person in a variety of
states. Like the grain of sand Blake wants to show infinity in
the word, in this case the infinite variety of meanings that it
carries, all the minute particulars. He wants to marry Heaven and
Of course like every other word love conveys basically
two meanings. We all have some experience of God's love and the
Devil's love. And Blake sets out to show us both very clearly.
He aims for us to learn to distinguish the two and to make a wise
choice between them.
The enchanting poem, Thel, lives and
breathes the exquisite fragrance of divine love. In it the
humblest creatures of nature--the lily, the cloud, and the clod
of clay--know themselves as favored by God; in response their
love goes out to all. Their perfect love casts out fear; death
means only tenfold life. Here we meet innocent love at its best.
But after the first five plates of Thel we come to sterner stuff.
We don't meet divine love again in Blake's poetry until the href="http://www.english.uga.edu/nhilton/Blake/blaketxt1/the_four_zoas.html">appearance
of the Saviour
(FZ8-100[1st].10;E372) in the later
additions to 'The Four Zoas'.
In Songs of Experience the clod of clay returns, this
time as one of the contraries.
A very elementary lesson about
love confronts the reader of "The Clod and the
Pebble". It shows with stark simplicity the two kinds of love,
divine and demonic.
Two kinds of love! Blake will explore the pebble's
love with its infinite variety of forms before he allows us to
rest again in the love of God.
Blake's poem, href="http://www.bibliomania.com/0/2/81/198/15852/1/frameset.html">Visions
of the Daughters of Albion, (Look also at the href="http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~dianna/visions.html">Plates)
begins with the words, "I loved Theotormon".
The heroine, Oothoon,
thus describes the first significant act in a life of horror.
Before the consummation of her love for Theotormon she is raped
by Bromion. Then Theotormon won't have her; well named, he's
tormented by God. Woman as a possession makes life hell for
everyone. Here we find Blake's first full manifestation of the
"torments of love and jealousy".
At the climax of this strange love song, with the irony
all spent, Oothoon properly assesses conventional love and brands
"self-love that envies all, a creeping skeleton
With lamplike eyes watching around the frozen marriage bed."
Those are hot, passionate words of righteous indignation at what fallen men have made of love. Oothoon then proceeds
to offer a happier form of married love:
"But silken nets and traps of adamant
will Oothoon spread,
And catch for thee girls of mild silver,
or of furious gold.
I'll lie beside thee on a bank & view their wanton play
In lovely copulation, bliss on bliss, with Theotormon
(For an ampler description of this "Vision" look at
Section I of Chapter 8.)
With these extravagant images the young poet shocks his
reader into an awareness of love's spectrum of value. In the
ironic language of 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' the first,
jealous love, is the love of Heaven or Restraint, and the second,
the selfless love, is that of Hell or Eternal Delight. This
version of values set the style for Blake's use of the word. It
became in his hands a sharp sword penetrating to the core of
The subtitle of The Four Zoas begins, "The Torments
of Love & Jealousy". Violent and passionate feelings characterize
the entire epic. As soon as the reader can envision 4Z as a
whole, he will perceive that all these passionate feelings in all
of these characters have a common destructiveness and alienating
effect, until the Moment of Grace recorded in Night vii. Love,
hate, fear, pride, humiliation, all are united in this common
In Night i the primeval pair, Los and Enitharmon, set
the tone for the meaning of love in this fallen world. (They all
too aptly portray the emotional universe of many married couples):
"Alternate Love & Hate [filled] his breast: hers Scorn & Jealousy".
Enitharmon believes love to be a one way street. Speaking to Los
of their parents:
"...if we grateful prove
They will withhold sweet love,
whose food is thorns & bitter roots."
And in Night ii she announces her philosophy of the relations between man and woman:
"The joy of woman is the death of her most best beloved
Who dies for Love of her
In torments of fierce jealousy & pangs of adoration."
There you have love at its worst! This fairly represents Blake's ironic use of the word in his major work. In
Blake's symbolic structure of thought love is most often a function of woman, who is a symbol of fallenness (See CHAPTER EIGHT).
Not until 'Jerusalem' do we meet the feminine embodiment of the
Christian graces, among them love divine.
The notebook poem which begins, "My Spectre around me
night and day" merits study as an approach to understanding the
use of Blake's symbolism to express his deepest feelings about
life. I quote the climax of it. In the first verse Blake means
by 'love' very much what Paul in Romans 8 meant by 'flesh'. In
the second, without using the word, he expresses in the fullest
possible way what divine love meant to him:
Let us agree to give up Love,
And root up the infernal grove;
Then shall we return & see
The worlds of happy Eternity.
& Throughout all Eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me.
As our dear Redeemer said:
This the Wine & this the Bread.
(from href="http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=3026&poem=359883">Broken Love)
As these lines suggest, Blake had a strong sense of reticence about using the sacred words in the sacred sense, perhaps
because he had so exhaustively explored their profane senses.
Nevertheless in the poem "William Bond" from the Pickering Manuscript
he gave an exquisite portrait of romantic love, purified of
fallenness and filled with the divine. Read the last two
I thought Love liv'd in the hot sun shine,
But O, he lives in the Moony light!
I thought to find Love in the heat of day,
But sweet Love is the Comforter of Night.
Seek Love in the Pity of others' Woe,
In the gentle relief of another's care,
In the darkness of night & the winter's snow,
In the naked & outcast, Seek Love there!