In his Life of William Blake (1863) Alexander Gilchrist warned his readers that Blake "neither wrote nor drew for the many, hardly for work'y-day men at all, rather for children and angels; himself 'a divine child,' whose playthings were sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth." Yet Blake himself believed that his writings were of national importance and that they could be understood by a majority of men. Far from being an isolated mystic, Blake lived and worked in the teeming metropolis of London at a time of great social and political change that profoundly influenced his writing. After the peace established in 1762, the British Empire seemed secure, but the storm wave begun with the American Revolution in 1775 and the French Revolution in 1789 changed forever the way men looked at their relationship to the state and to the established church. Poet, painter, and engraver, Blake worked to bring about a change both in the social order and in the minds of men.
One may wonder how a child born in moderate surroundings would become such an original artist and powerful writer. Unlike many well-known writers of his day, Blake was born into a family of moderate means. His father, James, was a hosier, one who sells stockings, gloves, and haberdashery, and the family lived at 28 Broad Street in London in an unpretentious but "respectable" neighborhood. Blake was born on 28 November 1757. In all, seven children were born to James and Catherine Harmitage Blake, but only five survived infancy. Blake seems to have been closest to his youngest brother, Robert, who died while yet young.
By all accounts Blake had a pleasant and peaceful childhood, made even more pleasant by his skipping any formal schooling. As a young boy he wandered the streets of London and could easily escape to the surrounding countryside. Even at an early age, however, his unique mental powers would prove disquieting. According to Gilchrist, on one ramble he was startled to "see a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars." His parents were not amused at such a story, and only his mother's pleadings prevented him from receiving a beating.
His parents did, however, encourage his artistic talents, and the young Blake was enrolled at the age of ten in Pars' drawing school. The expense of continued formal training in art, however, was a prohibitive one, and the family decided that at the age of fourteen William would be apprenticed to a master engraver. At first his father took him to William Ryland, a highly respected engraver. William, however, resisted the arrangement telling his father, "I do not like the man's face: it looks as if he will live to be hanged!" The grim prophecy was to come true twelve years later. Instead of Ryland the family settled on a lesser-known engraver but a man of considerable talents, James Basire. Basire seems to have been a good master, and Blake was a good student of the craft. Blake was later to be especially grateful to Basire for sending the young student to Westminster Abbey to make drawings of monuments Basire was commissioned to engrave. The vast Gothic dimensions of Westminster and the haunting presence of the tombs of kings affected Blake's romantic sensibilities and were to provide fertile ground for his active imagination.
At the age of twenty-one Blake left Basire's apprenticeship and enrolled for a time in the newly formed Royal Academy. It was as a journeyman engraver, however, that Blake earned his living. Booksellers employed him to engrave illustrations for publications ranging from novels such as Don Quixote to serials such as Ladies' Magazine.
One incident at this time affected Blake deeply. In June of 1780 riots broke out in London incited by the anti-Catholic preaching of Lord George Gordon but also by resistance to continued war against the American colonists. Houses, churches, and prisons were burned by uncontrollable mobs bent on destruction. On one evening, whether by design or by accident, Blake found himself at the front of the mob that burned Newgate prison. These images of violent destruction and unbridled revolution gave Blake powerful material for works such as Europe (1794) and America (1793).
Not all of the young man's interests were confined to art and politics. After one ill-fated romance, Blake met Catherine Boucher, an attractive and compassionate woman who took pity on Blake's tales of being spurned. After a year's courtship the couple were married on 18 August 1782. The parish registry shows that Catherine, like many women of her class, could not sign her own name. Blake soon taught her to read and to write, and under Blake's tutoring she also became an accomplished draftsman, helping him in the execution of his designs.
By all accounts the marriage was a successful one, but no children were born to the Blakes. Catherine also managed the household affairs and was undoubtedly of great help in making ends meet on Blake's always limited income.
Blake's friend John Flaxman introduced Blake to the bluestocking Harriet Mathew, wife of the Rev. Henry Mathew and a celebrated lady of fashion whose drawing room was often a meeting place for artists and musicians. There Blake gained favor by reciting and even singing his early poems. Thanks to the support of Flaxman and Mrs. Mathew, a thin volume of poems was published under the title Poetical Sketches (1783). Many of these poems are imitations of classical models, much like the sketches of models of antiquity the young artist made to learn his trade. Even here, however, one sees signs of Blake's protest against war and the tyranny of kings. David Erdman argues that the ballad "Gwin, King of Norway" is a protest against King George's treatment of the American colonies, a subject Blake treated more extensively in America (1793). Only about fifty copies of Poetical Sketches are known to have been printed. Blake's financial enterprises also did not fare well. In 1784, after his father's death, Blake used part of the money he inherited to set up shop as a printseller with his friend James Parker. The Blakes moved to 27 Broad Street, next door to the family home and close to Blake's brothers. The business did not do well, however, and the Blakes soon moved out.
Of more concern to Blake was the deteriorating health of his favorite brother, Robert. Blake tended to his brother in his illness and according to Gilchrist watched the spirit of his brother escape his body in his death: "At the last solemn moment, the visionary eyes beheld the released spirit ascend heaven ward through the matter-of-fact ceiling, 'clapping its hands for joy.'"
Blake always felt the spirit of Robert lived with him. He even announced that it was Robert who informed him how to illustrate his poems in "illuminated writing." Blake's technique was to produce his text and design on a copper plate with an impervious liquid. The plate was then dipped in acid so that the text and design remained in relief. That plate could be used to print on paper, and the final copy would be then hand colored.
After experimenting with this method in a series of aphorisms entitled There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One (1788?), Blake designed the series of plates for the poems entitled Songs of Innocence and dated the title page 1789. Blake continued to experiment with the process of illuminated writing and in 1794 combined the early poems with companion poems entitled Songs of Experience. The title page of the combined set announces that the poems show "the two Contrary States of the Human Soul." Clearly Blake meant for the two series of poems to be read together, and Robert Gleckner has pointed out in reading the poems one should always consider the point of view of the speaker of the poem and the context of the situation.
The introductory poems to each series display Blake's dual image of the poet as both a "piper" and a "Bard." As man goes through various stages of innocence and experience in the poems, the poet also is in different stages of innocence and experience. The pleasant lyrical aspect of poetry is shown in the role of the "piper" while the more somber prophetic nature of poetry is displayed by the stern Bard.
In the "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence, Blake presents the poet in the form of a simple shepherd: "Piping down the valleys wild / Piping songs of pleasant glee." The frontispiece displays a young shepherd simply dressed and holding a pipe, and it is clear Blake is establishing a pastoral world. The "piping songs" are poems of pure pleasure.
The songs of pleasure are interrupted by the visionary appearance of an angel who asks for songs of more seriousness:
"Pipe a song about a Lamb!"
So I piped with merry chear.
"Piper, pipe that song again."
So I piped: he wept to hear.
The piper is no longer playing his songs for his own enjoyment. Now the piper is in the position of a poet playing at the request of an appreciative audience. The "song about a Lamb" suggests a poem about the "Lamb of God," Christ.
The child commands that the poet not keep the songs for himself but share them with his audience:
"Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read."
So he vanish'd from my sight
And I pluck'd a hollow reed.
The "book" is Songs of Innocence, which is designed in a form that "all may read." The simple piper is now a true poet. He no longer writes only for his own enjoyment but for the delight of his audience. The piper is inspired by the directions of the child, and the poet is inspired by his vision of his audience. The child vanishes as the author interiorizes his vision of his audience and makes it a central part of his work. Immediately after the child's disappearance, the author begins the actual physical composition of the poem by plucking the hollow reed for his poem. At the end of the poem the poet is no longer the simple shepherd of Arcadia playing for his own amusement. Now he writes his poems for "Every child" of England.
The "Introduction" to Songs of Experience is a companion to the earlier poem, and, as a poem written in the state of experience, it presents a different view of the nature of the poet and his relation to his audience.
The strident tone of the first stanza provides a marked contrast to the gentle piping of the first poem and reminds us that we are now in the state of experience:
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past and Future sees:
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees.
This is not an invocation, but a direct command to the reader to sit up and pay attention. Instead of playing at the request of his audience, the poet now demands that his reader listen to him. The speaker now has authority because of what he has heard. The voice of the poet is that of the ancient Bard and that also of the biblical prophet who has heard the "Holy Word," the word of God. Assuming the role of the prophet and the Bard gives the modern poet a sense of biblical authority to speak on matters sacred and profane.
With his authority, the Bard is more willing to instruct his audience than is the piper. The Bard repeats the call of the Holy Word to fallen man. The message repeated by the Bard is that man still "might control" the world of nature and bring back the "fallen light" of vision.
Blake presents two sides of his view of the poet in these introductory poems. Neither one should be dismissed in favor of the other. The poet is both a pleasant piper playing at the request of his audience and a stern Bard lecturing an entire nation. In part this is Blake's interpretation of the ancient dictum that poetry should both delight and instruct. More important, for Blake the poet is a man who speaks both from the personal experience of his own vision and from the "inherited" tradition of ancient Bards and prophets who carried the Holy Word to the nations.
In reading any of the poems, one has to be aware of the mental "state" of the speaker of the poems. In some cases the speakers address the same issue, but from entirely different perspectives. The child of "The Chimney Sweeper" in Songs of Innocence lives in deplorable conditions and is clearly exploited by those around him: "So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep." Yet in his childish state he explains away his misery with a dream of a promised afterlife where God will be his father and he will "never want joy." The same issue of child exploitation is addressed in "The Chimney Sweeper" of Songs of Experience. The speaker is also a child, but one who understands the social forces that have reduced him to misery:
"And because I am happy, & dance & sing
They think they have done me no injury.
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King.
Who make up a heaven of our misery."
In each poem the reader can see what the speaker can not always see because of his unique perspective: religion and government share a responsibility in the persecution of children.
The famous companion poems "The Lamb" and "The Tyger" are also written on the same subject: man's conception of God. Yet, how man understands God depends on man's view of God's divinity. In "The Lamb" the speaker makes the traditional association between a lamb and the "Lamb of God," Christ:
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild;
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb.
The speaker sees God in terms he can understand. God is gentle and kind and very much like us. The close association between the "I," "child," and "lamb" suggests that all men share in the same spiritual brotherhood.
The speaker in "The Tyger" also sees God in terms he can understand, but he sees him from a different perspective. The raging violence of the animal forces him to ask what kind of God could create such terror:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
The answer, of course, is never given, but again the reader should be able to perceive more than the speaker of the poem. God did make both the lamb and the tyger, and his nature contains both the gentleness of the lamb and the violence of the tyger. Neither perspective is true by itself; both have to be understood.
The two states of innocence and experience are not always clearly separate in the poems, and one can see signs of both states in many poems. The companion poems titled "Holy Thursday" are on the same subject, the forced marching of poor children to St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The speaker in the state of innocence approves warmly of the progression of children:
'Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow[.]
The brutal irony is that in this world of truly "innocent" children there are evil men who repress the children, round them up like so many herd of cattle, and force them to show their piety. In this state of innocence, experience is very much present.
The speaker of the companion "Holy Thursday" presents an entirely different perspective:
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc'd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
The speaker of experience understands that the children have been brutalized and places the blame for this condition not just on the "Grey headed beadles" who have direct responsibility for the children but on the country at large. In a "rich and fruitful land" like England, it is appalling that children are allowed to suffer:
For where-e'er the sun does shine,
And where-e'er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall[.]
If experience has a way of creeping into the world of innocence, innocence also has a way of creeping into experience. The golden land where the "sun does shine" and the "rain does fall" is a land of bountiful goodness and innocence. But even here in this blessed land, there are children starving. The sharp contrast between the two conditions makes the social commentary all the more striking and supplies the energy of the poem.
The contrast between innocence and experience is also apparent in another illuminated book produced in 1789, The Book of Thel. Thel is a maiden who laments the passing of youth and of innocence: "O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water, / Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?" Thel questions elements of nature, like the Lilly of the Valley and the Cloud, that are beautiful but transitory. Yet each understands that the transitory nature of beauty is necessary. The Cloud answers Thel's complaint by saying that "Every thing that lives / Lives not alone nor for itself." Thel is innocent but when one is stuck in a state of innocence there can be no growth.
Thel is allowed to enter into the world of experience, and she is startled by a voice from her own grave:
"Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?
Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?"
The Virgin is shocked by this peek into her own sexuality and mortality and runs back to the quiet vales of Har "with a shriek." Blake satirizes those who are unable to see the necessary connection between innocence and experience, the spiritual world and the physical world. Thel's world of soft watercolors is not enough. She cannot understand that even the lowly worm is loved by God and serves his part in creating life.
The storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 and the agonies of the French Revolution sent shock waves through England. Some hoped for a corresponding outbreak of liberty in England while others feared a breakdown of the social order. In much of his writing Blake argues against the monarchy. In his early Tiriel (written circa 1789) Blake traces the fall of a tyrannical king.
Politics was surely often the topic of conversation at the publisher Joseph Johnson's house, where Blake was often invited. There Blake met important literary and political figures such as William Godwin, Joseph Priestly, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine. According to one legend Blake is even said to have saved Paine's life by warning him of his impending arrest. Whether or not that is true, it is clear that Blake was familiar with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day.
In The French Revolution Blake celebrates the rise of democracy in France and the fall of the monarchy. King Louis represents a monarchy that is old and dying. The sick king is lethargic and unable to act: "From my window I see the old mountains of France, like aged men, fading away." The "old mountains" of monarchy are doomed to collapse under the pressure of the people and their representatives in the assembly. The "voice of the people" demands the removal of the king's troops from Paris, and their departure at the end of the first book signals the triumph of democracy.
On the title page for book one of The French Revolution Blake announces that it is "A Poem in Seven Books," but none of the other books has been found. The "Advertisement" to the poem promises "The remaining Books of the Poem are finished, and will be published in their Order." The first book was set in type in 1791, but exists only in proof copies. Johnson never published the poem, perhaps because of fear of prosecution, or perhaps because Blake himself withdrew it from publication. Johnson did have cause to be nervous. Erdman points out that in the same year booksellers were thrown in jail for selling the works of Thomas Paine.
In America (1793) Blake also addresses the idea of revolution, but the poem is less a commentary on the actual revolution in America as it is a commentary on universal principles that are at work in any revolution. The fiery figure of Orc represents all revolutions:
The fiery joy, that Urizen perverted to ten commands,
What night he led the starry hosts thro' the wide wilderness,
That stony law I stamp to dust; and scatter religion abroad
To the four winds as a torn book, & none shall gather the leaves.
The same force that causes the colonists to rebel against King George is the force that overthrows the perverted rules and restrictions of established religions.
The revolution in America suggests to Blake a similar revolution in England. In the poem the king, like the ancient pharaohs of Egypt, sends pestilence to America to punish the rebels, but the colonists are able to redirect the forces of destruction to England. Erdman suggests that Blake is thinking of the riots in England during the war and the chaotic condition of the English troops, many of whom deserted. Writing this poem in the 1790s, Blake also surely imagined the possible effect of the French Revolution on England.
Another product of the radical 1790s is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Written and etched between 1790 and 1793, Blake's poem brutally satirizes oppressive authority in church and state. The poem also satirizes the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish philosopher whose ideas once attracted Blake's interests.
The powerful opening of the poem suggests a world of violence: "Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden'd air / Hungry clouds swag on the deep." The fire and smoke suggest a battlefield and the chaos of revolution. The cause of that chaos is analyzed at the beginning of the poem. The world has been turned upside down. The "just man" has been turned away from the institutions of church and state, and in his place are fools and hypocrites who preach law and order but create chaos. Those who proclaim restrictive moral rules and oppressive laws as "goodness" are in themselves evil. Hence to counteract this repression, Blake announces that he is of the "Devil's Party" that will advocate freedom and energy and gratified desire.
The "Proverbs of Hell" are clearly designed to shock the reader out of his commonplace notion of what is good and what is evil:
Prisons are built with stones of Law,
Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
It is the oppressive nature of church and state that has created the repulsive prisons and brothels. Sexual energy is not an inherent "evil," but the repression of that energy is. The preachers of morality fail to understand that God is in all things, including the sexual nature of men and women.
Blake is, of course, not advocating moral and political anarchy, but a proper balance of energy and its opposing force, reason. Reason is defined as "the bound or outward circumference of Energy." Reason is a vital and necessary force to define Energy, and "Without Contraries is no progression." The problem now is that the forces of reason have predominated, and the forces of energy must be let loose.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell contains many of the basic religious ideas developed in the major prophecies. Blake analyzes the development of organized religion as a perversion of ancient visions: "The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & Numerous senses could perceive." Ancient man created those gods to express his vision of the spiritual properties that he perceived in the physical world. So far, so good, but the gods began to take on a life of their own separate from man: "Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of, & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood." The "system" or organized religion keeps man from perceiving the spiritual in the physical. The gods are seen as separate from man, and an elite race of priests is developed to approach the gods: "Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast." Instead of looking for God on remote altars, Blake warns, man should look within.
In August of 1790 Blake moved from his house on Poland Street across the Thames to the area known as Lambeth. The Blakes lived in the house for ten years, and the surrounding neighborhood often becomes mythologized in his poetry. Felpham was a "lovely vale," a place of trees and open meadows, but it also contained signs of human cruelty, such as the house for orphans. At his home Blake kept busy not only with his illuminated poetry but also with the daily chore of making money. During the 1790s Blake earned fame as an engraver and was glad to receive numerous commissions.
One story told by Blake's friend Thomas Butts shows how much the Blakes enjoyed the pastoral surroundings of Lambeth. At the end of Blake's garden was a small summer house, and coming to call on the Blakes one day Butts was shocked to find the couple stark naked: "Come in!" cried Blake; "it's only Adam and Eve you know!" The Blakes were reciting passages from Paradise Lost, apparently "in character."
Sexual freedom is addressed in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), also written during the Lambeth period. Oothoon, the "soft soul of America," expresses her unrestricted love for Theotormon who cannot accept such love because he is limited by jealousy and possessiveness. In the poem Oothoon is raped by Bromion, and the enraged Theotormon binds the two together. The frontispiece to the book shows Bromion and Oothoon back-to-back with their arms bound together while Theotormon, hunched over, stares at the ground. The relationship between Bromion and Oothoon is like that of marriage that is held together only by laws and not by love. In her lament to Theotormon, Oothoon denounces the destruction of a woman's sexual desire:
Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust?
The marriage "spells of law" bind a woman to man much like a slave is bound to a master, and marriage can become, in Mary Wollstonecraft's phrase, a form of "legalized prostitution."
Oothoon calls for the freedom of desire: "Open to joy and to delight where ever beauty appears" and even promises to provide women for Theotormon to enjoy "in lovely copulation," but Theotormon, bound by law and custom, cannot accept such love.
In 1793-1795 Blake produced a remarkable collection of illuminated works that have come to be known as the "Minor Prophecies." In Europe (1794), The First Book of Urizen (1794), The Book of Los (1795), The Song of Los (1795), and The Book of Ahania (1795) Blake develops the major outlines of his universal mythology. In these poems Blake examines the fall of man. In Blake's mythology man and God were once united, but man separated himself from God and became weaker and weaker as he became further divided. Throughout the poems Blake writes of the destructive aspects of this separation into warring identities.
The narrative of the universal mythology is interwoven with the historical events of Blake's own time. The execution of King Louis XVI in 1793 led to an inevitable reaction, and England soon declared war on France. England's participation in the war against France and its attempt to quell the revolutionary spirit is addressed in Europe . In Blake's poem liberty is repressed in England after it declares war on France:
Over the windows Thou shalt not; & over the chimneys
Fear is written
With bands of iron round their necks fasten'd into
the walls of citizens
The very force of that repression, however, will cause its opposite to appear in the revolutionary figure of Orc: "And in the vineyards of reds France appear'd the light of his fury." Orc promises fire and destruction, but he also wars against the forces of repression.
Blake's minor prophecies are, of course, much more than political commentaries. In these poems Blake analyzes the universal forces at work when repression and revolution clash. Erdman has pointed out the historical parallel in Europe between Rintrah and William Pitt, the English Prime Minister who led his country into war against France. Yet in the same poem we see references to repression from the time of Christ to the Last Judgement. Blake saw English repression of the French Revolution as but one moment in the stream of history.
The causes of that repression are examined in The First Book of Urizen. The word Urizen suggests "your reason" and also "horizon." He represents that part of the mind that constantly defines and limits human thought and action. In the frontispiece to the poem he is pictured as an aged man hunched over a massive book writing with both hands in other books. Behind him stand the tablets of the ten commandments, and Urizen is surely writing other "thou shalt nots" for others to follow. His twisted anatomical position shows the perversity of what should be the "human form divine."
The poem traces the birth of Urizen as a separate part of the human mind. He broods upon himself and comes to insist on laws for all to follow:
"One command, one joy, one desire
One curse, one weight, one measure,
One King, one God, one Law."
Urizen's repressive laws bring only further chaos and destruction. Like Milton's hell, Urizen's world is filled with the contradictions of darkness and fire: "no light from the fires." The lawgiver can only produce destruction, not understanding. Appalled by the chaos he himself created, Urizen fashions a world apart.
The process of separation continues as the character of Los is divided from Urizen. Los, the "Eternal Prophet," represents another power of the human mind. Los forges the creative aspects of the mind into works of art. Like Urizen he is a limiter, but the limitations he creates are productive and necessary. In the poem Los forms "nets and gins" to bring an end to Urizen's continual chaotic separation.
Los is horrified by the figure of the bound Urizen and is separated by his pity, "for Pity divides the Soul." Los undergoes a separation into a male and female form. His female form is called Enitharmon, and her creation is viewed with horror:
Eternity shudder'd when they saw
Man begetting his likeness
On his own divided image.
This separation into separate sexual identities is yet another sign of man's fall. The "Eternals" contain both male and female forms within themselves, but man is divided and weak.
Enitharmon gives birth to the fiery Orc, whose violent birth gives some hope for radical change in a fallen world, but Orc is bound in chains by Los, now a victim of jealousy. Enitharmon bears an "enormous race," but it is a race of men and women who are weak and divided and who have lost sight of eternity.
Urizen explores the fallen world, spreading his "Net of Religion" over the cities of men:
And their children wept, & built
Tombs in the desolate places,
And form'd laws of prudence, and call'd them
The eternal laws of God.
In his fallen state man has limited senses and fails to perceive the infinite. Divided from God and caught by the narrow traps of religion, he sees God only as a crude lawgiver who must be obeyed.
The Book of Los also examines man's fall and the binding of Urizen, but from the perspective of Los whose task it is to place a limit on the chaotic separation begun by Urizen. The decayed world is again one of ignorance where there is "no light from the fires." From this chaos the bare outlines of the human form begin to appear:
Many ages of groans, till there grew
Branchy forms organizing the Human
Into finite inflexible organs.
The human senses are pale imitations of the true senses that allow one to perceive eternity. Urizen's world where man now lives is spoken of as an "illusion" because it masks the spiritual world that is everywhere present.
In The Song of Los, Los sings of the decayed state of man, where the arbitrary laws of Urizen have become institutionalized:
Thus the terrible race of Los & Enitharmon gave
Laws & Religions to the sons of Har, binding them more
And more to Earth, closing and restraining,
Till a Philosophy of five Senses was complete.
Urizen wept & gave it into the hands of Newton & Locke.
The "philosophy of the five senses" espoused by scientists and philosophers argues that the world and the mind are like industrial machines operating by fixed laws but devoid of imagination, creativity, or any spiritual life. Blake condemns this materialistic view of the world espoused in the writings of Newton and Locke.
Although man is in a fallen state, the end of the poem points to the regeneration that is to come:
Orc, raging in European darkness,
Arose like a pillar of fire above the Alps,
Like a serpent of fiery flame!
The coming of Orc is likened not only to the fires of revolution sweeping Europe, but also to the final apocalypse when the "Grave shrieks with delight."
The separation of man is also examined in The Book of Ahania, which Blake later incorporated in Vala, or The Four Zoas. In The Book of Ahania Urizen is further divided into male and female forms. Urizen is repulsed by his feminine shadow that is called Ahania:
He groan'd anguish'd, & called her Sin,
Kissing her and weeping over her;
Then hid her in darkness, in silence,
Jealous, tho' she was invisible.
Blake satirizes the biblical and Miltonic associations of sin and lust. "Ahania" in Blake's poem is only a "sin" in that she is given that name. Urizen, the lawgiver, can not accept the liberating aspects of sexual pleasure. At the end of the poem, Ahania laments the lost pleasures of eternity:
"Where is my golden palace?
Where my ivory bed?
Where the joy of my morning hour?
Where the sons of eternity singing."
The physical pleasures of sexual union are celebrated as an entrance to a spiritual state. The physical union of man and woman is sign of the spiritual union that is to come.
At the same time as he was writing these individual poems that center on aspects of man's fall, Blake was also composing an epic poem on the fall of man into separate identities. Blake originally called the poem Vala and later changed the name to The Four Zoas. He worked on the poem for a number of years but never completed it. It survives in manuscript form with rough designs for illustrations, but it never became one of the "illuminated books."
The Four Zoas is subtitled "The Torments of Love and Jealousy in the Death and Judgement of Albion the Ancient Man," and the poem develops Blake's myth of Albion, who represents both the country of England and the unification of all men. Albion is composed of "Four Mighty Ones": Tharmas, Urthona, Urizen, and Luvah. Originally, in "Eden," these four exist in the unity of "The Universal Brotherhood." At this early time all parts of man lived in perfect harmony, but now they are fallen into warring camps. The poem traces the changes in Albion:
His fall into Division & his Resurrection to Unity:
His fall into the Generation of decay & death, & his
Regeneration by the Resurrection from the dead.
The poem begins with Tharmas and examines the fall of each aspect of man's identity. The poem progresses from disunity toward unity as each Zoa moves toward final unification.
In the apocalyptic "Night the Ninth," the evils of oppression are overturned in the turmoil of the Last Judgment:
The thrones of Kings are shaken, they have lost their robes & crowns
The poor smite their oppressors, they awake up to the harvest.
The final overthrow of all kings and tyrants that earthly revolutions tried but failed to achieve will be accomplished on the last day. The "harvest" imagery is from the Book of Revelations and represents the process of gathering and discarding that marks the progress of man's soul on the last day.
As dead men are rejuvenated, Christ, the "Lamb of God," is brought back to life and sheds the evils of institutionalized religions:
Thus shall the male & female live the life of Eternity,
Because the Lamb of God Creates himself a bride & wife
That we his Children evermore may live in Jerusalem
Which now descendeth out of heaven, a City, yet a Woman
Mother of myriads redeem'd & born in her spiritual palaces,
By a New Spiritual birth Regenerated from Death.
The heavenly City of Jerusalem is the true form of God's church. The earthly city of Jerusalem and the numerous forms of religions are but pale imitations of that true religion where God and the church are joined. In that City man's separate identities are reunited, and man is reunited with God.
Very little of Blake's poetry of the 1790s was known to the general public. His reputation as an artist was mixed. Response to his art ranged from praise to derision, but he did gain some fame as an engraver. He received several commissions, the most important probably being his illustrations to Edward Young's Night Thoughts. In 1795 the publisher and bookseller Richard Edwards commissioned Blake to illustrate the then-famous poems of Young. Blake produced 537 watercolor designs of which 43 were selected for engraving. The first volume of a projected four-volume series was published in 1797. However, the project did not prove financially successful, and no further volumes were published. After the disappointment of that project, Blake's friend and admirer Flaxman commissioned Blake to illustrate the poems of Thomas Gray. Blake painted 116 watercolors and completed the project in 1798. Blake was also aided by his friend Thomas Butts, who commissioned a series of biblical paintings. His commissions did not produce much in the way of income, but Blake never seems to have been discouraged. In 1799 Blake wrote to George Cumberland, "I laugh at Fortune & Go on & on."
Because of his monetary woes, Blake often had to depend on the benevolence of patrons of the arts. This sometimes led to heated exchanges between the independent artist and the wealthy patron. Dr. John Trusler was one such patron whom Blake failed to please. Dr. Trusler was something of a dabbler in a variety of fields. Aside from being a clergyman, he was a student of medicine, a bookseller, and the author of such works as Hogarth Moralized (1768), The Way to be Rich and Respectable (1750?), and
WILLIAM BLAKE'S GENIUS AND ORIGINALITY
William Blake's "Ancient of Days"
William Blake may be the most important and influential poet/artist of all time. And he was certainly one of the most original. For instance, please consider ...
In his day Blake was virtually unknown, and the few painters who knew his work considered him to be mad or a crank.
And yet Blake was the first and greatest of the great English Romantics.
Blake was also a mystic who claimed to see and talk to angels and departed saints.
Blake celebrated childlike innocence and seemed to see the "fall" as being man's immersion into material existence, and thus the fault not of man but of the Creator (Demiurge).
Blake saw the Creator/Demiurge as being the Biblical god Jehovah (whom he called Nobodaddy), which made Jehovah the Devil and the Accuser "who is the God of this World."
According to Blake, man never fell, and thus there is no reason for him to require redemption.
Blake refuted the idea that a just God could punish man for "following his energies" and being curious in the garden of Eden, or afterwards.
Blake did not believe in "sin" or "hell" and denied that human beings could be punished for following their energies and passions.
Blake borrowed from the Gnostic belief in the Demiurge, and he was indebted to the Jewish Cabala for his vision of the man who anciently contained all things of heaven and earth in himself.
Blake's main interest in ideas other than his own was to refute them: he railed against Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, Bacon and Wordsworth.
Blake was almost entirely preoccupied with his art, his poems and the task of determining man's (i.e., his) proper place in the grand scheme of creation.
Blake hated priests and churches and seemed to see himself as Christ, with his duty being to save himself and mankind.
Blake considered the "moral law" of orthodox Christianity to be a sham.
Blake was a rebel who despised polite society's laws, courts, churches, factories, money and morals.
Blake hated church dogma but he also hated skepticism, doubt and scientific investigation.
Blake rebelled against everything: God, religion, science, reason, rules, order. According to Blake, he was a God limited only by his own imagination.
Blake opposed everything that forces man to submit, to obey, to mortify himself, to deny his passions and lusts.
Blake denied that any God had authority over man.
Blake denied the need for restraint, obedience, abstinence or self-deprivation in this life, as ways of ensuring bliss in another life.
Blake believed in free love and sexual gratification.
Blake was against all forms of human exploitation and prejudice.
Blake was against wars, armies and the exploitation of soldiers.
Blake cared nothing for God and nothing for nature.
Blake saw Jesus is as a defiant rebel, the friend of artists and revolutionaries.
Blake's books are probably the most beautiful handmade books ever created.
William Blake's beliefs about God, Christ, the Bible and Christianity were, like his poetry and art, unique.
Blake may have been, ironically, both England's greatest heretic and its greatest visionary prophet. He denied the need for anyone to save him, least of all the biblical godhe called "Nobodaddy." In a similar vein, Blake did not see the Creator as being an all-wise God, but rather as Urizen, the demiurge, a "self-deluded and anxious" forger of pre-existent matter. In other words, Jehovah was Satan, the slavemaster of humans, a repressive father, and the "Accuser of the World." Blake shared with the Gnostics a belief that the "Fall" was not the fault of man, but of man's impetuous and incompetent Creator. For instance, in the Epilogue to Gates of Paradise we read Blake saying:
"To The Accuser Who is The God of This World
Truly My Satan thou art but a Dunce
And dost not know the Garment from the Man
Every Harlot was a Virgin once
Nor canst thou ever change Kate into Nan
Tho thou art Worshipd by the Names Divine
Of Jesus & Jehovah thou art still
The Son of Morn in weary Nights decline
The lost Travellers Dream under the Hill."
And so to Blake orthodox Christianity was, essentially, Devil Worship. William Blake's true God was the Human Imagination. He did not need to be saved by Christ, but through the salvation of his own imagination; once able to engage in right-thinking, he himself was Christ. While Blake was a scholar of the Bible, he created his own mythology and his own human-centered religion.
Related pages: The Best Poems and Art of William Blake, William Blake's Angels
William Blake was a student of the Bible, but he was a stern critic of the black-robed priests of Orthodoxy who condemned human beings to "hell" in the name of God. Today it seems Blake has been vindicated. The Bible published by the Roman Catholic Church, the New American Bible Revised Edition, doesn't contain a single mention of the word "hell." The Holman Christian Standard Bible, published by the famously literal Southern Baptist Convention, barely mentions "hell." If this interests you, please read why "hell" is vanishing from the Bible.
I used to attend a Southern Baptist Church, but I became convinced that its teachings were not only nonsensical, but evil. One day I picked up the Baptist Hymnal and for some reason wondered what the last hymn in the book might be. To my surprise, the last hymn in the Baptist Hymnal was number 666! Soon thereafter I discovered that the Bible sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention (the Holman Christian Standard Bible, or HCSB) didn't contain the word "hell" in its entire Old Testament, or in any of the epistles of Paul, or in the book of Acts (ostensibly the self-recorded history of the early Christian church), or in two of the four gospels. Had an all-wise God forgotten to tell most of the writers of the Bible about a place called "hell," or did a few diabolical "theologians" insert "hell" into the Bible very clumsily at the last minute?
I left the church and have never returned. But then one day something quite mysterious happened. My mother told me that a friend of hers had found a Baptist Hymnal at the city dump. When she showed me the hymnal, the last hymn was no longer number 666, because she had hand-written the words to one of her favorite hymns on the last page. The hymn was Blake's poem "Jerusalem" set to music ...
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
Blake was a fierce critic of what Dwight D. Eisenhower would later call "the military-industrial complex." Blake had a more evocative term for factories that churned out implements of war and death: "Satanic mills." Blake is thus the forefather of virtually every singer-songwriter who ever wrote a protest song. Before Blake, few poets and minstrels had the nerve to criticize church and state. After Blake, many of them would come to consider dissent a sacred task. Songwriters who followed in Blake's footsteps as critics of the military-industrial complex include Woody Guthrie, Peter Seeger, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Jim Morrison, Marvin Gaye, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.
Blake's Continuing Influence
According to Narelle Doe, "Blake still influences contemporary creativity and ideas. He is seen by many as one of the great synthesisers of cultural experience, attracting a myriad of followers with interests ranging from literature, painting, book design, politics, mysticism, philosophy, mythology through to music and film making ... John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and G. F. Watts are just some of the Victorian artists [influenced by Blake] ... From the 1960s onward, writers, musicians and film makers like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison of the Doors and John Lennon adopted Blake as a mystical seer and anti-establishment activist." Blake's influence on modern art can easily be discerned in "The Goblin" (immediately below) and in the following images, which have obviously inspired multitudes of comic book artists and graphic novelists. And it seems safe to say that the illustrators for the Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian and similar books have also been heavily influenced by William Blake.
William Blake's "The Number of the Beast is 666"
How influential did Blake become? According to John Lennon's FBI files, when the "fantastically nervous" Beatles met Bob Dylan for the first time and there was an uncomfortable initial silence, broken by Lennon snarling an insult at Allen Ginsburg, the unperturbed Beat poet plopped himself down in Lennon's lap, looked up and asked him, "Have you ever read William Blake, young man?" Lennon, in his best "Liverpudlian deadpan" replied, "Never heard of the man." But his wife Cynthia chided him, "Oh, John, stop lying!" and that "broke the ice."
It's interesting that Blake was the first "connection" and "ice breaker" between Dylan, Lennon and Ginsburg. Why did such super-hip modern dissident artists admire Blake? Probably because they were idealists longing for Utopia (or, at the very least, for radical social change) and Blake had urged his readers to cast off the "mind-forged manacles" of hidebound religious and political thinking, in order to change the dreary London of his day into a Mecca he called Jerusalem:
The Sick Rose
by William Blake
O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
According to Blake, human society and its institutions were sick, and the cure required a combination of revelation, imagination, right thinking, compassion, fierce tenacity and love. He believed the black-robed priests of religion had nailed a "thou shalt not" sign over the garden of earthly delights, robbing adults of pleasure and children of hope. He vowed to not let his pen rest in his hand until he had won the "Mental Fight" to transform the dreary London of his day into a new Jerusalem. Today, as we witness the suffering inflicted on innocent children all around the globe in the name of state, industry and religion, it behooves us to consider joining that Mental Fight on the side of Blake and his Rebel Angels.
by William Blake
Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;
Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go.
William Blake's "Angel of Revelation"
William Blake's "Angels Hovering Over the Body of Jesus Christ in the Sepulcher"
William Blake's "Jacob's Ladder"
In my opinion William Blake (1757-1827) is the most important poet of all time. Why? Because he helped change the world and in changing the world he saved many innocent children from lives of drudgery and misery terminated by premature deaths. While he wrote many wonderful poems and was also a talented painter, printer and engraver, what makes Blake the most important of poets and artists is the change his work wrought in human hearts, minds and consciences. No great poet ever wrote more compassionately (or more frequently) about children. For instance, take this poem of Blake's, one of the loveliest lullabies in the English language:
Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
Dreaming in the joys of night;
Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
Little sorrows sit and weep.
Sweet babe, in thy face
Soft desires I can trace,
Secret joys and secret smiles,
Little pretty infant wiles.
As thy softest limbs I feel
Smiles as of the morning steal
O'er thy cheek, and o'er thy breast
Where thy little heart doth rest.
O the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep!
When thy little heart doth wake,
Then the dreadful night shall break.
Only Michelangelo ranks with William Blake, among great artists who also wrote superior poetry, in combined achievement. But Michelangelo didn't rock the civilized world to its foundations the way Blake did, so Blake also gets my vote as the most important artist of all time.
William Blake's "Michael Foretells the Crucifixion"
How, exactly, did Blake rock the foundations of the world? By being a social critic and reformer akin to the Hebrew prophets. Here, for instance, is his bleak vision of the London of his day:
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
Here, as in other of his poems, Blake reveals the schizophrenia of a society of Bible-believing, church-going adults who inexplicably allowed children to work as chimneysweeps: an always-dangerous, sometimes-deadly occupation. Today's children of Gaza can no doubt sympathize with defenseless English children who suffered and died in the shadows of those despicable churches. While Jews and Christians raise hymns to God, and elect themselves the "Chosen Few," completely innocent Palestinian children live in abject fear and misery. Like Blake, I find that appalling. If you are a student, teacher, educator, peace activist or just someone who cares and wants to help, please read How Can We End Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide Forever?and do what you can to make the world a safer, happier place for children of all races and creeds.
Blake and Social Progress
When I say that Blake was the most important poet and artist, I am not suggesting that he wrote the greatest poems or created the greatest works of visual art. What I am suggesting is that Blake had the most influence on other poets and artists, and on the greater world, especially in terms of social progress. Much of the world's progress depends on how it treats children, because they form the foundation of each new generation of human beings. So Blake's advocacy of children's rights, at a time when many children were treated like slaves (or were slaves) was of prime importance in the development of the modern world.
Was Blake successful? Indeed, because today we have child labor laws, and most children in Western nations don't get "real jobs" until age eighteen or older. This gives them a considerable amount of time to play and learn, before they assume adult responsibilities. Of course Blake was not the only child advocate among writers and artists. Charles Dickens was obviously also very influential, as were other influential reformers. But Blake preceded Dickens by more than half a century, and when Dylan met Lennon, they discussed Blake, not Dickens. Blake was the first great writer to make children's rights a primary focus of his work. I love and admire him for that. And as we will see together, he was also one of the first abolitionists, creating some of the first graphic images of the horrors of slavery.
W. H. Auden once said almost plaintively that "poetry makes nothing happen." But if we consider the Bible to be poetry and the Hebrew prophets to be poets (much of the Bible was recorded originally as poetry), it becomes obvious that a certain type of poetry can certainly make all sorts of things happen. And of all the major Western poets, Blake comes closest to the Hebrew prophets in demanding repentance and social reform.
The Tenderness, Passion and Intellectual Energy of Blake
Blake was also unique among Western poets in that he was writer of surpassing tenderness and yet was able to summon and channel tremendous passion and intellectual energy. Other poets may have been as tender: Robert Burns and Auden, for instance. Other poets may have "channeled fire," as did Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. But few poets have combined such tenderness and passionate energy (although Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings and Hart Crane come to mind as heirs of Blake in this regard). Of the poets who followed Blake, Whitman seems closest to him in spirit and message. Of the poets who preceded him, the Hebrew prophets and Milton seem closest to Blake.
William Blake's "Portrait of Milton"
Newton's equation tells us that force is the product of mass and acceleration: a truck travelling at sixty miles per hour has much more force than a feather pillow travelling at sixty miles per hour. I believe a similar law applies to poetry. Poetic force is the product of mass (audience) and acceleration (excitement or movement). A poet who excites and moves only a few readers doesn't have as much poetic force as a poet who excites and moves larger audiences. Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens were undoubtedly great poets capable of tremendously exciting and moving audiences, but today those audiences are relatively small. Homer, Shakespeare and Milton have excited and moved much larger audiences: hence they have more poetic force. But audiences moved by Homer, Shakespeare and Milton don't usually put down their poems and decide to change the world. People who read Blake's work and took it to heart, sometimes did. So I consider Blake a poet of great force, in terms of social change. Other poets who have affected large audiences in the realm of social change include Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. If we include poetic sermons and speeches, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln would also make the first rank of such poets of social change.
Blake, the Prophet
To find a visionary as revolutionary as Blake, we would have to consider the major prophets of various religions, but in many cases their words have been altered for nefarious purposes (for instance, by charlatans who purport to "save" human beings from an illusory "hell" in order to acquire fame, fortune and power for themselves). But because Blake engraved and printed his own work, we have his thoughts in an unadulterated form. He virtually left us his words carved in metal. And one of the best things we know about William Blake is that he was a consistently fierce but tender advocate of the rights of children not to be used, abused or ignored by adults.
Today I believe we need another William Blake: someone who can touch our hearts, prick our consciences, and convince us that a world where the children of Gaza are being collectively punished for the "crime" of having been "born wrong" requires us to join in the great "Mental Fight" to save them. Therefore, I have dedicated this essay on my favorite poet to the children of Gaza. We shouldn't need poets to persuade us to do what we should want to do voluntarily out of love, compassion and simple humanity, but a study of history reveals that at certain times human beings have needed a Blake or a Harriet Beecher Stowe or a Lincoln or a Gandhi or a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to shock them out of their lethargy and apathy.
The Uniqueness of Blake
But in many ways Blake was first, and unique. He was the most visionary, mystical and prophetic of the major Western poets. And he appeared at just the right moment in time to become tremendously influential in changing the way people thought, because during his lifetime more and more people were beginning to question the "infallibility" of the Bible and the "divine right of kings." According to the Bible, (1) kings were appointed by God, (2) women and children were ordained by God to be subservient to men, (3) sex was "evil" unless sanctioned by marriage, and (4) serfdom and slavery had been instituted by God and Moses. But the Bible was like a house of cards. If a single verse could be proven incorrect, then it was up to human beings to decide which verses to believe, if any. As science proved one biblical "fact" after another to be incorrect, the authority of the Bible was undermined and the house of cards began to collapse. Free thinkers began to interpret the Bible as they preferred, either ignoring or "rehabilitating" verses that offended them, or in some cases becoming agnostics and atheists.
Suddenly it became possible to reject the orthodox ideas that extramarital sex was "evil," that kings and lords had the "right" to use and abuse serfs, that men had the "right" to use and abuse women and children, and that some men had the "right" to own other men. If God had not uttered every word of the Bible infallibly, or if parts of the Bible had been "doctored" by men, then people had to listen to their own hearts and minds, interpret what they read, and draw their own conclusions. But of course this was the last thing kings, lords, and the clergy wanted. So the forces of orthodoxy began to confront these strange new ideas of individual interpretation and freedom of conscience. Chaos and revolution were in the air. Poets, writers and artists would greatly influence how the "people in the streets" came to think, and act.
The initial poetic dissent may have originated with John Milton, who in trying to "justify the ways of God to man" had turned Satan, Adam and Eve into rebellious heroes for the ages. Blake, an intuitive genius, once remarked that Milton was of the "Devil's party" without knowing it, which Blake intended as a compliment. However, Blake didn't see God as the enemy, but rather organized religion, which according to him had subverted true religion, which he saw personified in Jesus Christ. If organized religion was the enemy, then perhaps Milton's rebellious "fallen" angels were freedom fighters, like the American and French revolutionists. But Blake was a compassionate man who abhorred violence and when he saw the terrible excesses of the French Revolution, he soon distanced himself from men like Robespierre. Poets and artists, for the most part, would come to advocate methods of social change that did not involve violence, torture, murder and war. There would be a progression of thinking from Blake/Wordsworth/Shelley to Emerson/Whitman /Thoreau to Gandhi/King/Mandela to Dylan/Lennon/Baez that might be summed up in these words from a Beatles song: "You say you want a revolution? We all want to change the world. But if you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out? You know it's gonna be ... alright." This idea that the world could be transformed through a revolution that did not involve violence and would lead to a day when things would be "alright" has its genesis in the work of Blake, as we shall see together ...
Blake, the Satanist?
While Blake has been accused of being a "Satanist," I don't think that's strictly true. Blake was so strongly opposed to the errors of orthodox Christianity that he believed rebellion was necessary. And he seemed to believe, as many mystics do, in the "inner light" or the "Christ within." He may have seen man as both Christ and Satan, with Christ representing purity and innocence, and Satan representing experience. But I see no evidence that Blake "worshipped" either Christ or Satan, in the sense of bowing down to them and pledging allegiance. For Blake religion was more a matter of transformation and becoming, than a matter of theology. As with many mystics, it seems likely that Blake thought of the Christ within himself, not as some remote figure to "believe" in and fawn over.
William Blake's "Satan in Glory"
Blake seemed to either believe or at least "work from" the Biblical account of God creating Adam and Eve, after which some sort of sexual imbroglio involving Satan resulted in the "fall." At least the images below suggest something along those lines. In the first image, the Creator prays and/or rests after having created the earth. In the second image, Eve is created while Adam sleeps. In the third image, Satan handles (fondles?) a snake while watching Adam and Eve kiss, suggesting that Satan's motive for tempting Eve was sexual. In the fourth image Adam again seems to be sleeping (perhaps because he's worn out from having sex?), while Eve cavorts with "Satan's snake." In the fifth image, the Archangel Michael foretells the resurrection. In the sixth image, at the Last Supper, Christ leans against an obviously female Mary Magdalene. In the seventh image, Christ is resurrected to new life.
William Blake "The Song of Los"
William Blake's "Sata Amor Adao Eva"
William Blake's "Eve Tempted by the Serpent"
From what I understand of Blake, he didn't subscribe to the idea that Jesus was a "sacrifice." In the Laocoön engraving he wrote, "Jesus and his Apostles and his Disciples were all Artists ... The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art. Art is the Tree of Life. God is Jesus." When he says that God is Jesus, I take Blake to mean that Jesus is where divinity and humanity intersect and become one. When he said of Jesus that "He is the only God ... and so am I and so are you," Blake was agreeing with Muslim Sufi mystics who claim to be one with God, and with Christian mystics who say the same thing, and with the mystics and shamans of many other religions as well. The best explanation I have heard of this common mystical belief is that God is the great sea of unity and that each human being is like an individual wave rising from that sea and collapsing back into it. While it seems unlikely that anyone can "prove" this to be true, it is interesting that the idea recurs over and over again around the globe and throughout time. So perhaps Blake was correct to speak of "The Everlasting Gospel" and describe it as being unchanged from greatest antiquity. For the mystic the Holy Trinity and a human family may be one and the same: Father, Mother and Child. Due to the chauvinism of the writers of the Bible, the female member of the Trinity (the Hebrew word SHEKHINA is feminine) was virtually written out of existence, becoming the oddly but perhaps aptly named "Holy Ghost." Blake also denied that Mary was a virgin, which wasn't a problem for him because he considered sex to be good, not a "sin."
When Blake criticized the orthodox Christian vision of Jesus, he did so with "an imagination and excessiveness that has rarely been matched." Blake's Jesus was not a moralizing preacher, philosopher or savior, but "the very embodiment of the poetic" and a "supremely creative being above rigid dogma, above harsh logic, above even morality. Jesus explodes from the pages of Blake's poetry with a fierce apocalypticism far removed from the eminently rational Enlightenment Jesus." Blake's Jesus "becomes more than just a thinker or a moralizer, he becomes a symbol of being, of the vital and non-dualistic relationship between divinity and humanity." These opening lines from "The Everlasting Gospel" illustrate Blake's extreme distaste for what orthodoxy had done to the reputation of Jesus Christ:
The Everlasting Gospel
THE VISION OF CHRIST that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the Friend of all Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.
Socrates taught what Meletus
Loath’d as a nation’s bitterest curse,
And Caiaphas was in his own mind
A benefactor to mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.
With Blake's imaginative reinterpretation of Milton, Satan, Jesus, the Bible and Christianity, an English "Romantic" movement began to form and soon expressed itself: primarily through poetry, prose and art. England managed to avoid the more violent extremes of the American and French Revolutions, but the desire for freedom and equality burned just as heatedly in English breasts as it did in those of Americans and Frenchmen. So it's not surprising that England produced six of its greatest poets within a relatively short period of time: first Blake, then Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats. Each of the six seemed to coin a new, man-centric religion. Each of the six was to some degree a heir of Blake's reinterpreted Milton. Within a few years, other strikingly unique voices would emerge, chief among them Walt Whitman, a romantic poet-prophet in the vein of Blake. Like Blake, Whitman was a mystic, with a belief in the "oneness" and equality of all life. Blake seems to have made a definite impression on Whitman, as Whitman had his death-crypt modeled after Blake's "Death's Door" ...
William Blake "Death's Door"
Blake, the First Poet of Equality
Equality is a staggering concept. Perhaps Blake intuitively "got" it before most of his contemporaries. Equality is counter-intuitive because there is no equality in the wild. In a pride of lions the dominant male gets the choicest meat and a harem of females. Even among herbivores the stronger males often dominate, drive off or kill the weaker males. But something fundamental had begun to change in human society: perhaps man had overcome his environment to such an extent that the rules of nature were no longer necessary. And if all human beings are "created equal," then obviously kings, lords, clergy and businessmen have no right to use and abuse women and children. A monumental "sea change" was about to take place, in the way Western nations judged the people in power. In the past, a king might have been judged, to some degree, by how he treated the men who "mattered." But after Blake and the Romantics shook the foundations of the world, the people in power would also be judged by how they treated women, children, serfs and slaves. While it would take some time for the change to "take hold" (and indeed there is still a good degree of "slippage" today, as some Western nations still resist giving fully equal rights to non-heterosexuals and Muslims), the suddenness of the change in the way poets thought can quite easily be discerned in the work of Blake, Whitman and their heirs.
Blake, the First Romantic
English romanticism, which seems to have found its initial focus, energy and drive in Blake, has been defined as "The tendency to cultivate an inner gaze; subjectivity, egotism, withdrawal. This approach is characterized by introspection, a searching inwardness of thought and imagery, and a transference of authority from the external world of forms and legality to the inner world of self-consciousness, private will, and spiritual power. Romantics are intensely personal, drawing on the writer's private experience, with a profoundly biographical element. Knowledge of the poet's life and personality can thus be critically relevant to understanding the work, more true than for other writers. The inward gaze is curiously qualified by [the Romantic] being a revolutionary and reformer, at least during the term of greatest creativity. Along with their more subjective works, the Romantics tended to produce political tracts as part of a general commitment to the moral regeneration of mankind. Several of these poets eagerly sought the center of the public stage in an historical moment of great drama and great danger. Whether political or not, the writers all manifested a faith in the ultimate regeneration of mankind." By this definition songwriters like Lennon and Dylan are clearly Romantics, and thus heirs of Blake. Like Blake, they would readily agree that any state or religion that oppresses minorities, women and children must be forcefully criticized and opposed.
Blake, the Child Advocate
Many children of Blake's time were treated like indentured servants, or worse. For instance, in those dark days chimneys had to be cleaned, and since small children were better able to squeeze into narrow chimneys than adults, unscrupulous businessmen gave children as young as four the dirty, dangerous, sometimes-deadly task of inserting themselves into chimneys and slowly working their way upwards to clean them. At the very best they would breathe in noxious fumes, coal dust and ash; if they were really unlucky they might fall to be crippled or die. Very young children were also forced to work grueling hours (up to 16 hours per day) at highly dangerous mines and factories. Even if they weren't crippled or killed, they had scant time or energy to learn or play. The majority of children who worked in mines would die before reaching age 25.
William Blake was a penniless, powerless poet. What could he possibly do about such horrors? What he did was quite simple: he wrote very touching, very tender, very moving poems about the plight of the children of his day. As we read his poems together, please imagine what Blake might write today, if he saw what the allegedly "great" nations of Israel, England and the United States have done to the children of Gaza ...
William Blake's "Songs of Innocence"
Songs of Innocence: The Chimney Sweeper
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."
And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight,―
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
Songs of Experience: The Chimney Sweeper
A little black thing in the snow,
Crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father and mother? Say!"
"They are both gone up to the church to pray."
"Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe."
"And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."
Blake wrote one collection of poems called Songs of Innocence, and another called Songs of Experience. The poems of the first collection look at the world from the vantage of childish innocence, while the poems of the second collection view the same world through the eyes of experience. In both poems above we can feel Blake's tender empathy for suffering children. In both poems the child chimneysweeps are so young they can't pronounce the "s" in "sweep" and so mispronounce their job titles. If the first poem seems hopeful, it may be simply because children are inclined to be hopeful, due to their innocence. The second poem is much darker and we sense Blake's fury with religious people who go to church and "pray" while innocent children suffer and die. What would he make of Jews and Christian today, who go to churches and synagogues, and endlessly read and study the Bible, but don't know better than to allow the children of Gaza to suffer and die needlessly? I have no doubt that he would think as little of them as he did of the slavemasters who used and abused children in the "jolly old England" of his day.
Here are two more poems from the same collections:
Songs of Innocence: Holy Thursday
'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two & two, in red & blue & green,
Grey-headed beadles walk'd before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames' waters flow.
O what a multitude they seem'd, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands.
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among.
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.
Songs of Experience: Holy Thursday
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song!
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor,
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill'd with thorns
It is eternal winter there.
For where-e'er the sun does shine,
And where-e'er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
The "Holy Thursday" of Songs of Innocence describes the celebration of the ascension of Jesus. On this day, children from the charity schools of London were marched to a service at St. Paul's Cathedral. The beadles were the men in charge of keeping order. In the last stanza of the poem, the children are singing in the balcony and the beadles are seated below them. The final line is an allusion to Hebrews 13:2, "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
The "Holy Thursday" from Songs of Experience describes the same ceremony. When Blake says "It is eternal winter there," he seems to be saying that a church that denies innocent children food and a decent life is utterly lacking in light and warmth.
Here are two more poems from the same collections:
Songs of Innocence: The Lamb
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life & bid thee feed,
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, wooly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek & he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child & thou a lamb.
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Songs of Experience: The Tyger
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes!
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire!
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand! & what dread feet!
What the hammer! what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain
What the anvil, what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spear
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see
Did he who made the Lamb make thee!
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry!
"The Lamb" from Songs of Innocence is highly symbolic. The lamb simultaneously symbolizes innocence, a human child, and Jesus.
"The Tyger" symbolizes experience, an adult and perhaps the Anti-Christ. A predator kills constantly. The poem asks the question: "Did he who made the lamb make thee!" but with an exclamation mark rather than a question mark. Blake may be asking: are the men who inflict such suffering on innocent children even human? He may have found it difficult to reconcile his humanity to the inhumanity of men capable of such brutality and utter disregard for the suffering of innocents.
Here are two more poems from the same collections:
Songs of Innocence: The Divine Image
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every dime
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or jew;
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
Songs of Experience: The Human Abstract
Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;
And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpiller and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The Gods of the earth and sea,
Sought thro' Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain
"The Divine Image" of Songs of Innocence attributes the virtues of Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love to the human form and says that where these virtues exist, "there God is dwelling too." Blake thus makes the point that if God dwells in every human being, racism is nonsensical.
"The Divine Image" of Songs of Experience appeared in only one copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience. Many critics and scholars believe this is because Blake considered the better companion poem for "The Divine Image" to be "The Human Abstract."
"The Human Abstract" also attributes Pity and Mercy to the human form, but suggests that we feel pity and practice mercy only after we have caused other people to suffer. Once again Blake seems to criticize religion, this time for creating "holy fears" (perhaps the fear of hell) and false humility. The result is darkness (perhaps superstition and false teachings) and deceit. The origin of such things is not God or Nature, but the "Human Brain," which produces bad theology and uncompassionate, unjust religions.
Blake, the Abolitionist
Blake was at the forefront of the British abolitionist movement, not only in opposing slavery, but also in advocating the equality of the races, as we shall see in the following poem (the full poem follows the plates and is much easier to read):
William Blake's "The Little Black Boy" (First Plate)
William Blake's "The Little Black Boy" (First Plate)
The Little Black Boy
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black, as if bereav'd of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east, began to say:
Look on the rising sun: there God does live,
And gives his light, and gives his heat away;
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn'd the heat to bear,
The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice,
Saying: "Come out from the grove, my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.''
Thus did my mother say, and kissed me;
And thus I say to little English boy:
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,
I'll shade him from the heat, till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father's knee;
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.
Blake also spoke clearly and forthrightly for equality between the races in his visual art. He depicted the horrors of racism and slavery more graphically than he did any other horrors ...
William Blake's "Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave"
... but he seemed to go beyond that to "connect" the suffering of slaves with the lot of suffering mankind, even poets, symbolized in the second image below by Los ...
William Blake's "Urizen in Fetters, Tears streaming from His Eyes"
William Blake's "Los, Symbol of Poetic Genius, Consumed by Flames"
Blake and other early Romantic poets including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, opposed slavery. In 1796 John Gabriel Stedman, a mercenary, published his memoirs of a five-year expedition against ex-slaves in Surinam; his book included a number of engraved illustrations by Blake depicting the horrifically cruel treatment of recaptured slaves. The first of these engravings has been "construed as an explicit attack on the slave trade" because Blake depicted "the skulls of the murdered slaves looking out over the sea to a slave ship in the distance while the most recent victim of plantation cruelty swings on the gallows in the foreground." These images were unique at that time for their graphic depiction of human suffering. Stedman's book and Blake's illustrations became part of abolitionist literature.
According to the "William Blake Biography" the poet was a "prophet against empire" who opposed slavery "over the course of his lifetime." Through his poetry and art "he was able both to counter pro-slavery propaganda and to complicate typical abolitionist verse and sentiment with a profound and unique exploration of the effects of enslavement and the varied processes of empire."
According to the same biography, Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) "explores the psychologically damaging effects of enslavement upon its victims and also caricatures the political debate over abolition in Britain. The triangular relationship between Oothoon the female slave, Bromion the slave-driver, and Theotormon the jealous but inhibited former lover, depicts the sufferings of those subjugated by the trade itself and mimics the position of the pro-slavery, vested-interest lobby and that of wavering abolitionists [who opposed slavery in theory without strongly opposing its actual practice] ..."
The biography concludes: "Blake was among the few British writers who actively advocated slave rebellion and believed that it was at the edges of empire that true revolutions would occur."
Blake, the Mystic
Blake was perhaps the most spiritual and mystical of English poets. He recorded having visions of angels and said that he saw and conversed with the angel Gabriel, Mary, and various historical figures. At age four he had a vision of God looking at him through a window. Around age nine he had a vision of "a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars." On another occasion, Blake "watched haymakers at work and thought he saw angelic figures walking among them." Blake also believed that he was personally instructed and encouraged by Archangels.
In a letter to John Flaxman, dated 21 September 1800, Blake wrote: "[The town of] Felpham is a sweet place for Study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen; & my Cottage is also a Shadow of their houses. My Wife & Sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace... I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels."
In a letter to Thomas Butts, dated 25 April 1803, Blake wrote: "Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy'd, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv'd & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends."
In some of his more mystical passages Blake wrote:
"To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."
"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite."
"He who binds to himself a joy,
Does the winged life destroy;
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity's sun rise."
William Blake's "The Parable of the Wise & Foolish Virgins"
Blake, the Genius
According to Jonathan Jones, art critic for The Guardian, Blake is "far and away the greatest [visual] artist Britain has ever produced." Blake has also been included among the top forty artists of all time by G. Fernández and has been called one of the greatest artists by John Ruskin, John Maynard, Henry Fuseli, John Flaxman, Alexander Gilchrist and Ita Marguet, among others. Harold Bloom, perhaps the best-known of modern literary critics, included Blake in his list of the 100 greatest geniuses of all time, calling him a visionary akin to Dante, Milton and Shelley. But perhaps the best measure of the genius of William Blake is his influence on other poets and artists, including especially the Romantics, and through them the Modernists and Post-Modernists. William Wordsworth, the leading figure among the early Romantics, offered this verdict after Blake's death: "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."
Blake might be considered the first major Romantic poet, because he combined imagination and individuality with contempt for mindless orthodoxy. He was a modern Prometheus, shaking off the chains of orthodoxy and authoritarianism, to seek the holy inner fire of passionate imagination.
Blake, the Forerunner of Whitman
Blake's "long, flowing lines and violent energy, combined with aphoristic clarity and moments of lyric tenderness" heralded the free verse of poets like Whitman. Where poets of the past had been poets of form and precision, Blake was a poet of freer-flowing energy, passion and imagination. After Blake, poets like Alexander Pope would often seem conventional and dull, for all their talent, skill and dexterity. Blake raised the bar by caring deeply about his subjects, and by requiring his readers to care and respond passionately in return.
Blake's Influence on other Artists
Blake also influenced the pre-Raphaelites, Allen Ginsburg and the Beat poets, the Underground Movement, the "counter culture," Percy Bysshe Shelley, Algernon Charles Swinburne, James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, U2, Salman Rushdie, Phillip Pullman ("His Dark Materials"), Orson Scott Card, et al. The modern graphic novel can clearly trace its roots to Blake's illuminated poems and prophetic books. And it seems likely that every major anti-war and anti-orthodoxy figure since Blake has been influenced to some degree by him.
Jim Morrison based the name of his rock group, the Doors, on Blake's "doors of perception." Bob Dylan collaborated with Allen Ginsberg to record two Blake songs. Ginsberg even claimed that Blake's spirit had communicated musical settings of several Blake poems to him. In 1948 he had an auditory hallucination of Blake reading his poems "Ah, Sunflower," "The Sick Rose," and "Little Girl Lost" (later referred to as his "Blake vision"). Patti Smith was heavily influenced by Blake, referring to him in her song "My Blakean Year" and also reciting his poetry before some of her songs.
William Rossetti called Blake a "glorious luminary," and described him as "a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors."
Blake, the Advocate of Women and Free Love
In 1793's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake "condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment." He abhorred the black-robed priests of organized religion who erected a "Thou shalt not" sign over his garden of earthly love ...
The Garden Of Love
by William Blake
I laid me down upon a bank,
Where Love lay sleeping;
I heard among the rushes dank
Then I went to the heath and the wild,
To the thistles and thorns of the waste;
And they told me how they were beguiled,
Driven out, and compelled to the chaste.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And "Thou shalt not," writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
Blake, the Inventor
Blake was the inventor of relief etching, or illuminated printing, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. He also employed intaglio engraving, most notably for the illustrations of the Book of Job.
Blake, the Anarchist
Blake's trouble with authority came to a head in August 1803, when he was involved in a physical altercation with a soldier called John Schofield. Blake was charged not only with assault, but also with uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King. Schofield claimed that Blake had exclaimed, "Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves." Blake would be cleared in the Chichester assizes of the charges. According to a report in the Sussex county paper, "The invented character of [the evidence] was ... so obvious that an acquittal resulted." Schofield was later depicted wearing "mind forged manacles" in an illustration to Jerusalem.
Blake revolted against the established institutions of his time, saying: "Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion."
He sided with the rebellious fallen angels of Milton's "Paradise Lost" and attacked conventional religious views, particularly those that called sex "evil" and thus opposed human happiness. Some of Blake's contemporaries called him a harmless lunatic, but by advocating free love and opposing misery-inducing religious orthodoxy, he was simply light years ahead of his time. In Blake's case it seems madness really is "divinest sense."
Blake, the Prophet of Freedom and Tolerance
One of Blake's lifelong concerns was to free the soul and its natural energies from the hidebound "reason" of organized religion. He hated the grimy, sooty effects of the Industrial Revolution in England and looked forward to the establishment of a New Jerusalem "in England's green and pleasant land." His personal religion was freedom, tolerance and the pursuit of happiness, without artificial limitations and impediments. To him, religious orthodoxy was like a speed bump in the middle of racetrack. He had a heart of all human suffering. But perhaps his greatest enduring legacy is his tender empathy for children, and his fierce, passionate defense of them.
William Blake's "Job"
Related pages: The Best Poems and Art of William Blake, William Blake's Angels