Tue 10 Nov 2009 11:27:03 AM EST
Here is an href="http://ramhornd.blogspot.com/2006/09/blake-and-bible.html">Introductory
post on this subject.
What we know today as the Bible crystallized into the
sacred book of Christianity in the fourth century. At that time
the bishops set the canon and closed it. In the ages that followed
it was carefully guarded, copied, studied and used by those who
controlled the destiny of the Christian Church; it remained largely
unavaliable to non-professionals.
The development of vernacular languages and the invention
of printing put the Bible for the first time in the hands of ordinary laymen. The Protestant Reformation increased the availability
of scripture to all believers. The resulting proliferation of
interpretations dismayed Luther and Calvin as well as the old
The reaction of the religious establishment to the wide
use and diverse interpretations of the Bible caused a century of
turmoil and violence (See CHAPTER SEVEN)
In England this instability reached its crisis in the l7th Century Civil War with the
beheading of Charles I and the establishment of a commonwealth
under non-Conformist direction. For a few brief years government
censorship of printing stopped, which led to an explosion of
spiritual creativity, largely inspired by non-Conformist biblical
The fascinating story of the radical groups active in
the years l640-50 is vividly and ably recounted by Christopher
A World Turned Upside Down.
His title is apt; the radical
social, political, and spiritual ideas of the various religious
groups shook the fabric of English society much as the New Testament
church had turned the Roman world upside down.
Look at three of these radical ideas:
1. The Levellers and Diggers took the Hebrew
doctrine of the Jubilee as biblical guidance for
breaking up the land enclosures which had disinherited
and made homeless thousands of English yeomen; Isaiah
had also condemned the immoral amassing of real
property to control wealth.
The New Light Quakers
emphasized the direct creative relationship between man
and God without intermediaries; all the Lord's people
target="-blank">as Moses had wished.
target=""> Ranters understood Paul's doctrine of justification by faith to signal the end of all laws.
They gave a radical freedom to the believer to follow
his conscience in every particular of conduct; their
spiritual descendants are the modern anarchists
A.L.Morton in The Everlasting Gospel claimed that Blake
was the last and best of the Ranters.
People have called Blake many things;
Northrup Frye called him a "Bible soaked Protestant". He
descended from the line of English non-Conformists who refused to
read the Bible in the establishment way and insisted on attaching
their own interpretation to it.
Where might the golden bowl come from? Look href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=rev%205:8;&version=31;"
target="-blank">here. What is Blake saying here? Can you find love
in a golden bowl? To grasp this lesson you have to understand that
Revelations is poetry and Thel is poetry, which means the Lord may
give us a great variety of meanings of Revelations 5 and of Thel, and
of how they relate to one another. Think about it. If you get an
idea, a new vision, share
it. That's the way we learn Blake-- and the Bible.
Continuing on a few lines we come to The Lilly of the valley?
Well who might that be? Look at an old hymn :
Look again at the context:
"and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time:
The Lilly of the valley". Without question Blake speaks of the
saviour, talking to our heroine and opening the spiritual and material
realms to her.
Blake has shared with us his vision of Christ-- one of many that came
to him through his long life. Does he enrich our understanding of
Christ? Yes, yes, I say.
With the Restoration in 1660 the contest in England
over the biblical meaning of the Christian faith slowed to a
virtual halt. Society came to attach less and less importance to
such matters. In the century that followed the shapers of opinion
fell increasingly under the influence of the materialism of Newton
and Locke--faith in the five senses rather than in the metaphysical
visions of the past.
had written of a second scripture to
which men might more fruitfully address their attention. Paine
called it the Bible of Nature; writing his
Age of Reason in the
language of the common man he demolished the Hebrew Bible as a
tissue of fabrications, which it certainly is to a reason confined
to the five senses.
Since that time the Bible has remained a best seller,
but used more often as an item of household furniture than as a
book. In our day it has become unfashionable even for that purpose. But for Blake the Bible was the primary and continuous
fountain for the ideas contained in his art.
To anyone truly interested in the Bible one of the big
issues concerns the canon--did God close it? When he finished
with John of Patmos, did he stop speaking? Did he assume that
men would thereafter hear his voice and experience his presence
only through the mediation of the sacred page? The orthodox,
explicitly or tacitly, answer these questions in the affirmative;
Blake and his dissenter friends gave a resounding no.
On the authority of the New Light Blake believed that
his visions had the same sort of authenticity as those of Isaiah
and Ezekiel. Some believers may see such effrontery as a sacrilegious depreciation of the Bible, but the many who worship the
Bible without reading it depreciate it more than Blake did.
Blake denied to the Bible any exclusive form of authority; he saw
that as the urizenic monstrosity, the
Book of Brass:
And Urizen Read in his book of brass in sounding tones
Listen O Daughters to my voice Listen to the Words of Wisdom
So shall [ye] govern over all. Let Moral Duty tune your tongue
But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone
To bring the shadow of Enitharmon beneath our wondrous tree
That Los may Evaporate like smoke & be no more
Draw down Enitharmon to the Spectre of Urthona
And let him have dominion over Los the terrible shade
Compell the poor to live upon a Crust of bread by soft mild arts
Smile when they frown frown when they smile & when a man looks pale
With labour & abstinence say he looks healthy & happy
And when his children Sicken let them die there are enough
Born even too many & our Earth will be overrun
Without these arts If you would make the poor live with temper
With pomp give every crust of bread you give with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts reduce the man to want a gift & then give with pomp
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh If pale say he is ruddy
Preach temperance say he is overgorgd & drowns his wit
In strong drink tho you know that bread & water are all
He can afford Flatter his wife pity his children till we can
Reduce all to our will as spaniels are taught with art.
(Four Zoas 7a-80:2-21; Erdman 355)
But 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
( Everlasting Gospel.
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.
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!
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;
Blake ascribes this
imaginative faculty to his hero, Los;
"He could controll the times & seasons & the days & years."
[And Los says of
I am that Shadowy Prophet who Six Thousand Years ago
Fell from my station in the Eternal bosom. Six Thousand Years
Are finish'd. I return! both Time & Space obey my will.
I in Six Thousand Years walk up and down; for not one Moment
Of Time is lost, nor one Event of Space unpermanent,
But all remain: every fabric of Six Thousand Years
Remains permanent, tho' on the Earth where Satan
Fell and was cut off, all things vanish & are seen no more,
They vanish not from me & mine, we guard them first & last.
The generations of men run on in the tide of Time,
But leave their destin'd lineaments permanent for ever & ever.
(The Four Zoas [Nt
1], 9.27, and Milton 22:15-25; Erdman 305 and 116)
Like Los Blake walks up and down the biblical scene
from Adam to John of Patmos. He takes what best serves his
purpose, or rather the biblical symbols rearrange themselves
kaleidoscopically into his visions of eternity. These together
add up to a cogent and provocative commentary on the Bible and on
its child, the Christian faith.
Out of this intuitive unconscious
process arose the great themes of his faith, embodied in his
art: the universal man, fallen and fractured, struggling, redeemed
and returning in the fullness of time into the blessed unity from
which he came. This is the essential story of the Bible for one
who reads it whole and without the constraints and blinders of
what I have called the black book.
It should be said however that Blake found inspiration
for his myth from many other sources beside the Bible; the
secular critics have pointed them out in great detail. He drew
impartially on everything in his experience, but found the Bible
his richest fountain. The other sources were secondary and for
the most part commentaries on or elaborations of the biblical
Much as he loved the Bible, Blake ascribed paramount
authority to his visions. The true man of God has visions which
refine, bring up to date, and correct the earlier visions of the
earlier prophets. This is where Blake departed from the orthodox
attitude to the Bible, which he called reading it black. This is
where he acted on the heritage of English dissent. This is how
he saw the New Light and became a man of the New Age.
One formative idea that Blake owed to Greek rather than
to Hebrew thought was the cyclic view of history. Plato's doctrine
and the eternal recurrence of archetypal events
strongly colors Blake's poetry, where it exists in continuous
tension with the linear view of history expressed in the Bible.
In addition Blake like other students before and after him found
cycles in the biblical history. In fact the cycles he found
helped him (and us) to move from the temporal to the eternal
level of consciousness.
The primary event of the Old Testament is the exodus,
the return from Captivity to the Promised Land. Actually it's
the central figure in a constellation of events:
(innocent) possession of the Promised Land by Abraham,
into captivity in Egypt for 400 years,
the deliverance from Egypt,
the struggle in the wilderness and
conquest after forty years of
the Promised Land.
Right there, in what theologians call redemption history, lies the biblical basis of Blake's myth.
Blake and many other students of the Bible perceived
that this cycle had happened not once but several times. When
they got to the Promised Land, the children of Israel didn't enjoy it; they continued to behave like the rest of fallen mankind:
they alternately fought wars of conquest and cringed before the
weight of mightier conquerors. They "went whoring" after the
local gods. Solomon married a daughter of every foreign god he
could find and turned the temple of Jehovah into a pantheon.
the children of Israel fell again, this time into Babylon. After
sixty years Cyrus delivered them, and there was another return
through the wilderness to the Promised Land, but soon they suffered
another fall--to Greece and then to Rome.
Even some readers of the black book understand that
Jesus reenacted this redemption history: Moses' birth was accompanied by Pharaoh's slaughter of the innocents, Jesus' birth
by Herod's slaughter of the innocents. Jesus as a baby was taken
to Egypt; he spent forty days in the wilderness; he suffered at
the hands of Pontius Pilate a
captivity to death
from which he
returned after three days and established the Church
(For a discussion of Luke's verse look at this target="">note).
book ends here, but the white book continues:
The Church fell into captivity to
a Caesar named Constantine
and 400 years later to
another named Charlemayne.
came Luther, and Blake at his worst moments feared that the whole
thing would go back to the beginning with Adam. (In one of his
visions he must have seen Nuke!)
Virtually all of the sixty six books of the Bible center
their attention in one way or another upon this series of events.
The Pentateuch describes the original cycle; the Psalms celebrate
its various facets; each prophet interprets his own day in its
terms; the evangelists understand and describe Jesus strictly as
the fulfilment of this redemption history.
The whole biblical process represents a taking up of
temporal material into an eternal consciousness. Blake perceived
not only that the same story was unfolding in 18th Century England
and Europe, but that it describes timelessly the destiny of the
human psyche. Put the two things together and extrapolate in
both directions, and you have the macrocosm/microcosm:
On one end
is the One Man, and on the other "A World in a Grain of Sand'".
Time and space loosen their grip on the mind; the doors of perception are cleansed; Man walks out of the cave into the light
of eternity. That was Blake's myth; it was the structure of
reality as he understood it. And it was the shape of his faith
until his Moment of Grace.
As can be said of the Bible, Blake's art basically
consists of telling this story in a thousand different ways. In
the early prophecies he applied it to the political events of his
day. In 'America' he portrayed the American Revolution as a
breaking free from Egypt/ Babylon/Rome. The French Revolution
was much more so. 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' celebrated
the dawn of the New Age. In these works he robustly translated
the temporal events of his day into the eternal categories using
the biblical symbols.
Of course he shared with the other liberals
of his time in the growing disillusionment with these political
movements. Napoleon turned into a reincarnation of Pharoah/Nebuchadnezzar/Caesar--a severe blow to Blake's faith in human redemption. As the political scene deteriorated, his art became less
vital, wearier. He was approaching what St. John of the Cross
called the dark night of the soul.
Blake's myth closely follows the biblical story as
described above: fall, struggle, redemption, and return. But about
the psychodynamics of the process he
had other things to say
than did the Bible. In Genesis the Fall occurs after the Creation
of Man. Blake, following 'Paradise Lost', placed the original
Fall in Eternity prior to Creation. Adam and Satan came along
after the division and fall of the four giant forms of Man; they
appeared in 'The Four Zoas' near the end of Night iv immediately
following the binding of Urizen, and their advent served as a
preliminary step of redemption:
And first [Jesus] found the Limit of Opacity, & nam'd it Satan,
And next he found the Limit of Contraction, & nam'd it Adam.
(Four Zoas [Nt 4], 56.19; Erdman 338)
In the Bible the episode of the apple is generally
understood as the primary event of the Fall. In contrast Blake
gives it an ambiguous moral significance stressing its redemptive
dimension as 'peccata felice'. Whereas Milton ascribed Adam's
participation in this wrongdoing to idolatrous love of Eve, Blake
described it as an act of love and solidarity, akin to and evocative of Christ's kenosis:
But Los stood on the Limit of Translucence, weeping & trembling,
Filled with doubts in self accusation, beheld the fruit
of Urizen's Mysterious tree. For Enitharmon thus spake:
When in the Deeps beneath I gather'd of this ruddy fruit,
It was by that I knew that I had Sinn'd, & then I knew
That without a ransom I could not be sav'd from Eternal death;
That Life lives upon death, & by devouring appetite
All things subsist on one another; thenceforth in despair
I spend my glowing time; but thou art strong & mighty
To bear this Self conviction; take then, Eat thou also of
The fruit & give me proof of life Eternal or I die."
Then Los plucked the fruit & Eat & sat down in Despair,
And must have given himself to death Eternal, But
Urthona's spectre in part mingling with him, comforted him,
Being a medium between him & Enitharmon. But This Union
Was not to be Effected without Cares & Sorrow & Troubles
Of six thousand Years of self denial and of bitter Contrition.
(Four Zoas [Nt 4] 56.19ff; Erdman338)
Jehovah and Astarte
After the Biblical Fall the Old Testament drama unfolds
as a protracted struggle between two Gods. In every age the
majority of Mankind have worshipped Mother Earth, Matter or the
recurring cycle of vegetative life. She has many names; in the
Bible one of the most common is Astarte. In our day "Astarte"
exacts an acceptance of things as they are, an attempt to flow
with the stream of Nature. The Bible called this "whoring after
Blake called it Natural Religion or Druidism. He
meant by Natural Religion the worship of the principle of fallen
life; those most conformed and faithful to it become the rulers
of this world.
Natural Religion involves choosing to remain at the
level of the material, which Blake called vegetative life.
believer in Natural Religion closes his mind to the reality of spiritual development; he turns his back upon the
Spirit. Unable to endure the tension of struggling and waiting
for spiritual evolution he erects a golden calf. He either acquiesces in or actively contributes to the brutishness and horror
of a life that "lives upon death".
The Bible and Blake's poetry alike are filled with gory
images of this ultimate horror, which comes from identifying life
with the merely natural. T.S.Eliot said in
The Sacred Wood that Blake's poetry is
unpleasant, as all great poetry is unpleasant.
It is "unpleasant" basically because Blake, like the Bible,
insists on calling a spade a spade. Nowhere is Blake closer to
the Bible than in his constant reiteration of the ultimate horror
of unredeemed life, celebrated in page after page of minute
Blake and the Bible both insistently remind us that
Nature is fallen
, and that one flows with this fallen Nature to
Abraham and Moses knew a higher God: he was above Nature; he was Spirit. He called men to rise above the natural
and to become sons of a God opposed to everything Astarte stood
for, to live by the laws, not of earth, but of heaven.
children of Abraham tried to put this God first, but rarely with
notable success. Instead at every opportunity they turned away
from Jehovah "under every green tree", back to Nature.
This inevitably led back to Captivity in the
iron furnaces of Egypt/Babylon/Rome, etc. The biblical cycle discussed above thus
relates to the alternating dominance of Jehovah and Astarte.
Blake's myth recreates this biblical story, but with
one vital difference.
Vala and her fellow females--Tirzah, Rahab,
the Daughters of Albion--represent the various forms of Astarte,
the Earth Goddess. Urizen represents Jehovah, the Sky God. But
in 'The Four Zoas' both are fallen. Blake claims that the Hebrew
consciousness of God is flawed at best.
Secular materialists had reached this conclusion long before,
but it was a startling and revolutionary idea for a man like
Blake, embedded in the biblical faith and firmly attached to the
life of the Spirit.
Blake had made as serious a commitment to the
eternal as anyone could, and now at the mid point of his life he
saw an eternal without a God worthy of worship. It was a dark
night of the soul indeed!
This honest and painful confrontation with what was for
Blake an existential reality has made him into the pariah of the
orthodox. The black book has no place for any criticism of the
Hebrew consciousness of God; he is perfect from first to last,
and everything the Bible says about him is perfect (inerrant!) as
well. The superstitious awe which has been called bibliolatry
forbids any questions of Abraham's God or Moses' God.
when we read without blinders, we can see their consciousness of
God changing before our eyes. Note Abraham bargaining with God
for the survival of his nephew in Sodom and Moses
simply defying God
refuses to forgive the worshippers of the golden calf. In the
spirit of these two revealing passages Blake in his own recreation
of the biblical story dramatically portrayed an evolving God consciousness, which the black book simply cannot permit. It was
Blake's willingness to let the old die that made him notably
ready for the new birth. The dark night of the soul had intensified until it became the
Sickness unto Death.
Images of Grace
For the Christian of course Blake's happiest use of the
Bible occurs with his statements of the gospel; these came after
Moment of Grace in 1800. 'The Four Zoas' had been an attempt
to organize experience into a pattern of meaning. In the years
before grace Blake's concept of redemption rested upon the efforts
of Los, the Imagination, to create meaning out of the chaos of
This process begins in Night iv and goes on to the
end of the poem. Blake called it "building Golgonooza", an adaptation of the biblical drama of rebuilding fallen Jerusalem.
Blake took this from the
book of Ezra
, one of his earliest
companions. At the beginning of Night ix, written after the
Moment of Grace
, Los and Enitharmon are no longer building Golgonooza; now they are building Jerusalem!
In the earlier years salvation for Blake lay in art, as
it has for so many sensitive souls before and after his day.
Once he met grace, Jesus became for Blake the One and the All.
Jesus subsumed Blake's art and redeemed it. He tells us that
Jesus appeared to him in "the likeness and similitude of Los".
Kierkegaard spoke of
the aesthetic phase.
Some aesthetes among Blake's critics, valuing art more highly
than Christ, have experienced the change as a deterioration of
Blake's art. Christians in contrast see the new work like Blake
saw it, as a glorified art, sublimated and fulfilled:
Prayer is the Study of Art.
Praise is the Practise of Art.
Fasting &c., all relate to Art.
Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists.
The Old & New Testaments are the Great Code of Art.
Art is the Tree of Life.
(Selected Passages from The
These are certainly provocative words! We should know
that the Bible is art in its highest form, but never art for art's
sake, always art for God's sake. In the
(quoted above) Blake made a frontal attack upon the "aesthetic"
orientation by pointing out the identity between true art and
true godlinesss, the "Tree of Life", which was God's original
intention for man before the serpent snarled up his plans.
It became a special joy and a labor of love for Blake
after his conversion to go back and recolor his biblically inspired
myth with those previously discounted parts of the Bible which
now burned in his consciousness. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
tell the story of the Lord of Love, adored by thousands who know
little or nothing about the rest of the Bible. Blake now puts
Jesus at the center, or rather the apex, of his myth of meaning.
The 17th chapter of John is probably the central passage
of scripture for Blake's myth, both before and after the Moment
of Grace. In it Jesus prays to the Holy Father:
that they may be one, as we are one....That
they all may be one: as thou, Father, art in me
and I in thee, that they also may be one is
us... that they may be one, even as we are
one: I in them and thou in me, that they may be
made perfect in one;
Blake's visionary experience from his earliest days had
centered on this image of oneness. All of his reading in the
heterodox tradition had reinforced it as the basic shape of reality. The Gnostics, the Neo-platonists, the alchemists, the
cabbalists, the Christian mystics, all had emphasized the supernal
oneness of God and Man and life. Blake had seen all trouble and
sorrow and brokenness in terms of the fracture and separation or
division from the primeval oneness. This was the basic idea of
"Daughters of Beulah, Sing His fall into Division & his
Resurrection to Unity."
And now on the sands of Felpham he had met the One,
been folded into his bosom and heard himself affectionately named
by the One ("Thou Ram Horn'd with Gold"). Turning to scripture
with new eyes, irradiated with his
First Vision of
finds the Saviour praying that we might be one as he is one with
In the eternal realm the sequence is reversed: the
divine prayer had in earliest childhood fallen into the deepest
levels of Blake's being. Like the veritable mustard seed it lay
there exerting an unconscious force, guiding him to the Gnostics
(who knew more about oneness than did the Church Fathers), the
Neoplatonists, and the others. And when the soil of Blake's
psyche was fully prepared, the seed burst out in the full embodiment of the vision of Light, when for Blake the One became flesh.
This is the center of the Christian faith: that we are
one, that we are all Christ's members. Those who deny to Blake
the name of Christian on the basis of his 'white' reading of the
Bible thereby betray their own off centeredness. Certainly he
was no orthodox Christian; orthodox Christianity in its many
forms has been way off center. When Blake dreamed of the One and
met the One and sang of the One, he imaginatively incarnated the
answer to the divine prayer. Is there any better way to be a
If a poll were taken to choose the most obscure of the
major books of the Bible, Ezekiel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New might win by a wide margin. Strangely enough
these very books seemed to mean the most to Blake. Their
meanings are largely symbolic; Blake adopted their symbols and
strenuously commented upon their meanings.
major work, 'Jerusalem', Blake took a great deal from Ezekiel:
the structural format, the oratorical style, the dialectic of
judgment and grace. But he used Ezekiel's style and material to
refute Ezekiel's vision of a jealous and punishing God.
The first chapter of Ezekiel contains his definitive
epiphany, the encounter with God that initiated and sustained his
prophetic activity. The vision of the four living creatures, the
wheels, the fiery chariot, all are the trappings of the Shekinah,
the Glory of God. This vision originally empowered Ezekiel to
prophesy; it recurred throughout his prophetic life.
In a climactic scene shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem the
prophet saw it hovering over the Temple and departing (read Ezekiel 10
with special attention to verse 18). Years
later he saw it returning to Jerusalem
as the liberated pilgrims
arrived from Babylon.
Ezekiel's living creatures
(zoas in Greek) as the
subject of his epic poem, 'The Four Zoas'. He humanized the Zoas
and enacted through them the destructive tendencies of the human
psyche which have led to the fracture and fall of Mankind. With
their fall Blake's Zoas became the "rulers of the darkness of this
world". As you study 4Z, keeping always in mind the biblical
source, you become aware that it all relates to Ezekiel's vision
The striving found
in 4Z was interrupted by the
Moment of Grace. This led to a radical reorientation of Blake's theology.
He didn't change his mind about Ezekiel's God, but he met a new
and more loving God in the person of Jesus. In 'Jerusalem' he
gave the most overt and candid evaluation of the relationship
between these two visions. The Negro spiritual has it that Ezekiel saw the wheel. Here, in the language of Old Testament prophecy, Blake tells us what the Wheel has meant to Mankind:
Plate 77 of Jerusalem might
well be considered Blake's valedictory: he tell us pretty plainly the
meaning of true religion. Here is a passage, but you should read it
wherever you can get your hands on it:
I stood among my valleys of the south
And saw a flame of fire, even as a Wheel
Of fire surrounding all the heaven: it went
From west to east, against the current of
Creation, and devour'd all things in its loud
Fury & thundering course round heaven & earth.
By it the Sun was roll'd into an orb,
By it the Moon faded into a globe
Travelling thro' the night; for, from its dire
And restless fury, Man himself shrunk up
Into a little root a fathom long.
And I asked a Watcher & a Holy-one
Its Name; he answered: "It is the Wheel of Religion."
I wept & said: "Is this the law of Jesus,
"This terrible devouring sword turning every way?"
He answer'd: "Jesus died because he strove
"Against the current of this Wheel; its Name
"Is Caiaphas, the dark Preacher of Death,
"Of sin, of sorrow & of punishment:
"Opposing Nature! It is Natural Religion;
"But Jesus is the bright Preacher of Life
"Creating Nature from this fiery Law
"By self-denial & forgiveness of Sin.
"Go therefore, cast out devils in Christ's name,
"Heal thou the sick of spiritual disease,
"Pity the evil, for thou art not sent
"To smite with terror & with punishments
"Those that are sick, like to the Pharisees
"Crucifying & encompassing sea & land
"For proselytes to tyranny & wrath;
"But to the Publicans & harlots go,
"Teach them True Happiness, but let no curse
"Go forth out of thy mouth to blight their peace;
"For Hell is open'd to Heaven: thine eyes beheld
"The dungeons burst & the Prisoners set free."
Here Blake with unparalleled eloquence has set forth
the opposition between the God of Wrath and the God of Mercy, the
dark Preacher of Death and the bright Preacher of Life. Mankind
in every age has turned Ezekiel's wheel into a juggernaut to enforce a worldly solidarity under the banner of priest and king.
And every age has had its dissenters who strove against it and
were all too often crushed.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
"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
A minimal knowledge of this symbolism prepares one to
appreciate Blake's use of the same images to tell 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
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.
Job and Jerusalem
If Ezekiel and Revelation are the most symbolic books of
the Bible, Job is the most poetic and indirect. It's significance
lies not in its theological statements, but in the questions it
raises. The primary question is how or why does a good and all
powerful God permit untold suffering to his most faithful servant.
The gospel of course provides the definitive answer, but an answer
grasped and accepted only by those commited to it as final truth.
The modern prophet,
C.G.Jung, in his
Answer to Job (click on the next article if you want to read further),
made some comments about God (the Hebrew God consciousness) very
reminiscent of those which fill Blake's earlier prophecies. By the time Blake got around to his recreation of Job
he had less interest in commenting on God than in retelling the
old, old story. Job, the most indirect book of the Bible, proved
an ideal vehicle for this, Blake's last and plainest statement of
the truth of his life.
The biblical Job is presented as a good man whom God
allows the devil to torment. Blake presents him as a moral but
self-centered and self-righteous man. He prays for his children,
but what about other people's children? Is he praying for God to
favor his children over others? In no uncertain terms, writing
in another work, Blake let us know what he thought of that kind
It this thy soft Family-Love,
Thy cruel Patriarchal pride,
Planting thy Family alone,
Destroying all the World beside?
(Jerusalem, 27.79; Erdman 173)
The point is that it's okay to pray for your children,
but be careful how you pray for them. If your prayer for them to
be first amounts to a curse on their fellows--to be second or
last--that curse will fall upon your children's heads, just as
it did upon Job's.
Job's self-centered prayers and his left handed charity
of the Job series) won him no reward but in fact
delivered him into the hands of his
Christians take warning: Blake's Job is the same rich man Jesus
spoke about, and he fills the pews (and too often the pulpit) of
our churches. Here once again, in the twilight of his life, we
find Blake dissenting from conventional religion, but now, unlike
some of his youthful protests, his dissent completely agrees with
the earlier dissent of the Prophet of Galilee: "Many that are
first shall be last."
So much of our goodness is rotten; let's
The image of the boil ridden man haunted Blake and
appears frequently in his prophecies. In his hands it became a
vivid symbol of the general fallenness of man. Job's boils
represent the physical misery of the fallen state of nature.
Blake's Job, like the O.T. Job, represents Man. His adventures
are a paradigm of the destiny of Man: he falls, but he is redeemed.
The importance of Job for the biblical writer as well as for our
poet is to make us poignantly aware once again that we're not
okay until we have experienced grace. Job's goodness got him
nowhere, but his faith opened him to redemption.
Now look at Job's God; he resembles Job. Once again
Blake reminds us that man's God is an image, a construct of his
mind. In the begining Job saw God as a solid moralist like
himself. In the dark night his God turned bad (
See Plate 11),
but in the end gave way to a new and better image. The whole
thing foreshadows Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.
If we could learn that our experience of God comes only through
our image of him, then we would be less prone to attempt (wickedly) to impose our God on others. Then we might experience a
loving rather than a coercive God, and the others, not feeling
compelled, might be attracted, like Job's friends are in the end.
Blake's Job is a beautiful series of pictures, a perfect wedding
of exquisite art and lofty faith, Blake at his plainest and
In 'Jerusalem', his most mature poem, Blake's basic
technique is to superimpose bodily the biblical scene, the biblical
story, the biblical truth upon the history and geography of England, and of the rest of the world as well. Understood in its
literal sense 'Jerusalem', like the book of Revelation, is
grotesque in the extreme. The reader will turn away in despair
or derision unless he succeeds in going beyond the literal
meaning and learns to see through rather than with the eye.
In reality the biblical truth is just as relevant to
18th Century England as it is to first century (or any century)
Palestine. The same spiritual events continue to unfold today
that Ezekiel, John and the others saw and described in their
day. The same choices are to be made by 18th Century Britons
(or 20th Century Americans!) as were made by first (or any) century Palestinians, and these choices have the same consequences.
Truth is spiritual and timeless; the passing scene is only a
shadow of the eternal reality.
Blake's grotesque juxtaposition of Canaan with England
may conceivably shock the reader into an understanding of these
profound truths. When this happens, the Bible suddenly takes on
new and gripping significance. It's no longer about all those
events way back in the past; it's about the stories unfolded in
this morning's newspaper. Blake's ability to live in the eternal,
his visionary capability enabled him to see with vivid clarity
the immediate relevance of scripture--personally, socially, and
His young friends called him Interpreter because he
taught them to see it also. If we read his work with aroused and
concentrated attention, we, too, may see how scripture relates to
us--with immeasureable enrichment to our spirits.
The Recreation of the Word
Having said all this how can we summarize Blake's
relationship to the Bible? First we recall that he didn't read
it literally but symbolically, not historically, but poetically.
Then we remember that he read it often enough and intensively
enough to see it as a whole. That's a rare view nowadays. The
Book has been almost universally blackened by simple ignorance
(the failure to read it) and by preconceived theological notions
that color and predetermine all of its meanings.
Few people have
the happy faculty of looking at what's there without preconceptions
of one kind or another. Blake's freedom from the conditioning of
formal education gave him a most singular ability to do this. His
powerful and energetic reading of the Bible therefore offers us
the priceless gift of a new beginning, of getting behind our preconceptions and seeing the bedrock of western life in a new way.
This new way is not really a new way, but a very old
way; it's a way that was lost when two things happened inaugurating
the modern age. First, Bacon, Newton and Locke convinced the
intellectual world that spirit doesn't really matter; all that
matters is matter. Second, knowledge exploded in such an expansion
that it became inconceivable to encompass it.
Blake's new way is
a medieval way, but it's a lost way that we desperately need today, for failing an organized unity of spiritual direction, we all
sink together into the abyss.
The Bible according to Blake provides that direction.
If you can make a commitment to the Bible like his, intensive
enough to read it thoroughly, if you can put away the black book,
if you can learn to read it imaginatively instead of binding it
down to literal-historical categories of time and space (which
Blake called "single vision"), if you can do all of these things,
what emerges is a myth of meaning, a way of understanding life--
the Hebrews' life and your life.
You find this myth of meaning most explicitly stated in
the earliest adventures of the children of Israel: they fall into
Egypt, at the Exodus are delivered, wander in the wilderness and
eventually occupy the Promised Land--but faithlessly. You see
this story recreated by every writer of the Bible and applied one
by one to a series of local scenes occuring over a period of about
a thousand years. You see a man named Jesus who deliberately sets
out to live this myth, and to live it in full, to do completely
what the successive preceding generations had always failed to do.
You see his death and resurrection and promise to come again to
achieve for us all what he had achieved as an individual (he in
us and we in him).
Finally you see John on Patmos still waiting
for the Return and recreating the whole thing one more time in
terms of the struggle between the Beast of Rome and the New Jerusalem.
But is that the end of the story? For Blake it went
on. In the City of God Augustine recreated it for the fourth
century. There was Dante's recreation in the 13th, Milton's in
the 17th, Blake's in the 18th--and yours and mine today! It's
our myth of meaning; it's the way we get from time to eternity.
Otherwise we stick with Locke, we decide there is no eternity,
and we rot--or burn!
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