The path of the mystic is a strange one. . . . Even as a bird cleaves the eternal ether, so the mystic advances on a path not ordinarily manifest, a way which must be followed with care, because like the Great Light, which flashes forth and leaves only traces when it returns again to its center, only indications are left for those who come after seeking the same spiritual wisdom. Yet by these "traces," for such they are called in the Kabbala, the way can be discerned, and the truth discovered.
— William Q. Judge.
Gradually, like a star emerging from behind dark clouds, the work of William Blake is coming into its own. By most of his contemporaries considered to have been three parts mad, Blake is now seen to have been eminently sane and percipient — the sanest mind in England of his time, as more than one scholar has recently asserted. This is because, while showing notable sagacity and prudence as regards the affairs of this life, to him the mundane scene was interpenetrated by the Reality that escapes the unseeing eye. It speaks well for the growing perceptions of the present age that the prophetic books and symbolic poems which were his gift to the world are now being taken seriously and meeting with ever-increasing comprehension.
To all who have ever joyed in even one of Blake's luminous verses, a new book (1) by Dr. Bernard Blackstone, Lecturer in English Literature in the University College of Swansea, England, will open further doors in the labyrinth of understanding. For the author makes us see the mighty diorama of Blake's philosophy, he parts the curtain and we see what Blake saw: the Eternal Worlds, and man a potential collaborator with the gods therein.
The lofty symbolism of Blake is in truth an overpowering challenge, utterly beyond the scope of the lesser personal mentality. Each must grapple with it for himself and find its inmost meaning: this Dr. Blackstone has obviously done, and what he passes on to us is not only a faithful account of Blake's life and an interpretation of his system ("tentative" though he claims it to be), but an urge to go exploring on our own account.
English Blake, he calls his book; not but what, all through its pages, Blake the universal overtops and overshadows the Blake of England, but that "Will Blake," as he often called himself, exemplified the very soul of what was best in English character on the one hand, and on the other, made England and its people the symbol of his dream of regeneration for all mankind. Dr. Blackstone says in his Preface:
Blake was proud of being an Englishman. His mind was soaked in the spirit of English history, in the rhythms of Milton and the Bible, in Chaucer and Shakespeare, and in the sights and sounds of the English countryside and the English metropolis. His art is the expression of a revolt from something peculiarly English towards something even more English — a revolt from the imposing tradition of philosophical thought from Bacon to Hartley, towards the ancient wisdom of the patriarchs who were the first inhabitants of "Albion's ancient Druid rocky shore." And he gave the name of Albion to the ancient primeval Man from whose torn body the earth and the heavens were created, and all the host of them. — p. vii
Moreover, there is no doubt that in some degree Blake represented, for England, along with the group which included the Anglo-American Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the great spiritualizing effort of the closing years of the 18th Century. Born in 1757, Blake's best period came at this time, and his boundless energy and forward-leaping imagination fitted him to take an adequate part in the new movement. This English group, contemporary with Saint-Germain and Saint-Martin in France, and with the inspired founders of the American Republic, held weekly private meetings in the little room over Joseph Johnson's Bookshop in London; and it was here that in 1792 Blake saved the life of Paine, warning him not to go home from the meeting (where he had just been describing an inflammatory public address he had made the night before) but to proceed at once to France — "or you are a dead man." Only twenty minutes after Blake had seen Paine off on the packet for Calais a government order was issued for his arrest.
Dr. Blackstone discusses at some length the theosophists who influenced Blake, and their views regarding the Universe. Jacob Boehme was the first and chief of these: Boehme, like Blake, he says, used Beauty as a window to the Divine. Robert Fludd and Thomas Vaughan gave to Blake ideas of alchemical symbolism; Blake held with the Hermetists that Man is the Microcosm of the Divine. William Law's works were well known to him. Dr. Blackstone comments:
Whatever the defects of the theosophical view of the universe, it did at least stress two points which orthodox Baconian doctrine tended to forget First, the unity of all things. Second, the quality of life in all things. Nothing is dead, and there is no dualism of body and spirit, of Man and Nature, or of Man and God. There is, however, a balance of contraries — in the world, in Man, in the divine nature, and in this aspect theosophy forms as great a contrast to orthodox mysticism on the one hand as it does to orthodox science on the other. Orthodox mysticism insists that God is a unity, a simplicity inexpressible in any terms, even symbolic, the best we can do is to speak of Nothing, or Darkness, and we must not venture to suppose contradiction in the Divine Essence. Theosophy says No. there are contraries in the Divine Essence, through the interplay of these contraries Eternity becomes an ever-growing thing, not a static perfection. And through the doctrine of the contraries Boehme and Blake can explain . . . the creation of the world, and the existence of evil. — p. 215
William Q. Judge, in his article on "Jacob Boehme and the Secret Doctrine," republished in The Theosophical Forum for March, 1950, explains this doctrine of contraries from the present-day theosophical standpoint.
The general trend of Blake's life is well known: his incessant work as an engraver to keep bread in his mouth; his poverty, shared by his faithful wife Catherine; his absolute refusal to depart from his convictions, from his self-originated methods of preparing for the world his awakening doctrine. Yet we must not dwell too closely upon a picture of pinching poverty. There was another side; and Dr. Blackstone points out:
The idea still current of Blake as an uncultivated naif must be abandoned when we consider not only the intellectual level of the society to which he had access for the major part of his life but also the great variety of literature with which he was obviously acquainted. "I never look upon him as an unfortunate man of genius," said one who knew him. "He knew every great man of his day." — p. 27
At the weekly meetings at Joseph Johnson's, Blake discussed politics, philosophy, religion and literature, and met the authors who resorted to the bookseller's. Frederick Tatham, Blake's friend in his latter years, wrote of him:
His mental acquirements were incredible, he had read almost everything in whatsoever language, which language he always taught himself. — p. 28
And Professor Milton O. Percival sums up Blake's intellectual background as having included:
The Orphic and Pythagorean tradition, Neoplatonism in the whole of its extent, the Hermetic, kabbahstic, Gnostic, and alchemical writings, Erigena, Paracelsus, Boehme, and Swedenborg. . . . Anyone who undertakes to do Blake's reading after him will respect his prowess as a reader. . . . When Blake, in an impetuous moment, referred to himself as a "mental prince," he uttered no more than sober truth. — William Blake's Circle of Destiny, pp. 1, 2
In addition, Blake eagerly read the English translations of the works of Hindu philosophy by Sir William Jones and Wilkins, which were coming out for the first time.
There is a curious parallelism between the life-story of William Blake and the successive works that came from his pen and brush (or graver). The matchless lyrics of the Poetical Sketches, and of the Songs of Innocence have the freshness of the morning of life — the lovely verses addressed to the four seasons; and that other, "To the Evening Star" with the exquisite lines
. . . Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake, speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver . . .
which Dr. Blackstone likens to some of the hymns of the Rig Veda, especially the hymn "To Night" in its English translation.
The Songs of Innocence, with their primitive emotions of unreasoned joy and infant woe, of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, have the power — momentarily at least — to create in us once more, "the child-state we have lost." They bring us a vision of "the child playing among the vital forms of the universe." Here, and later in the Songs of Experience and The Four Zoas are countless instances showing how Blake's whole soul was continuously working over the ills and pitiful wrongs of humankind: the terrors and sufferings of the little chimney-sweeps, the "charity children" sold into slavery in the factories; the harlots of the streets, the moral hypocrisy, the spiritual stagnation.
The gigantic framework of Blake's mythology embraces the complete "Circle of Destiny" — his own phrase — in which Man is caught up. "Before Time and Space were, Eternity was," paraphrases Dr. Blackstone. And the spiritual body of Man — the Adam Kadmon of the Kabbala — existed alone in Eternity "before Earth was, or globes of attraction." It is in this "Heavenly Man" that the Four Zoas, or Four Faces, have their being — rather, the Four Zoas are the Four Faces, or aspects, the divine energies, of the Man in Eternity. They are the principles, recognizable in theosophy: Los, the Inner God, the Imagination, "each man's portion of Eternity"; Urizen, the cold principle of Reason and materiality; Luvah, the passions and emotions; and Tharmas, the body (matter). The Book of Urizen begins the narrative of the Fall of the Heavenly Man into matter, into the maelstrom of experience, "the valleys dark of self-hood." And Man is at grips with the task of transmuting the "base" passions into the pure gold of the Eternal. To help on this cosmic process, Blake personifies in the fiery Ore the Awakener, the Spirit of Revolution and renewal, he who sings:
The times are ended, shadows pass, the morning 'gins to break
— America A Prophecy, 217.
Los and Enitharmon, Luvah and Urizen and Ore are not to be placed in categories: they are archetypes, Protean in their various forms and aspects according to the phase of evolution in which they act. Significantly, "Seven Watchers guard the fallen Man."
"Europe: A Prophecy, The Song of Los, The Book of Los, and The Book of Ahania, all develop the grand scheme of the Circle of Destiny, each with a greater clarity, until in the Four Zoas (to which Dr. Black-stone devotes an elucidative chapter) the scheme is expounded in detail. The Heavenly Man, the microcosm of the Universe (Albion, in Blake's terminology), in his Fall has become divided from his divinity, and now through ages must re-unite himself with the Divine. In Blake's conception, "the soul itself is disintegrated, and has to reconcile every element of her being on the road back to Eternity." (Dr. Blackstone's words). This is reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian myth of the dismemberment of Osiris in the beginning of time, and man's obligation in gathering together the dismembered parts in order to arrive once more at spiritual wholeness. To do this, "man requires a new Selfhood continually," as Blake himself expressed it: "Self-annihilation" was necessary. In Milton, and again in Jerusalem, his later works, Blake brought forth this gospel of Renunciation, the complete surrender of the human self to the Divine. Milton, used as a symbol of man, is made to plunge into the Abyss of experience, lest in the Last Judgment he be found un-annihilate, and be bound once more to his selfhood. And in Jerusalem, Albion, the "Ancient Man," unregenerate humanity, (especially English) "Throws himself into the Furnaces of Affliction," which immediately become
Fountains of Living Waters flowing from the Humanity Divine.
Los, the Divine, "the Inner God of Man," could live in Eternity if he wished, but renounces this felicity and through love remains in the world of generation. On his own behalf Blake cries, in the Preludium to the Book of Urizen:
Eternals! I hear your call gladly
Dictate swift winged words, & fear not
To unfold your dark visions of torment.
Even the Eternals (Immortals) "must forego each his own delight." "The rotation of the Wheel of Destiny is accompanied with the keenest anguish." Freedom from this wheel is only found in "the unconditioned, the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within." Milton addresses his Spectre with the words:
Such are the Laws of Eternity, that each shall mutually
Annihilate himself for others" good, as I for thee. . . .
. . . . . . . put off
In self-annihilation all that is not of God alone,
To put off Self and all I have, ever & ever . . .
. . .
The Negation is the Spectre, the Reasoning Power in Man.
This is a false Body, an Incrustation over my Immortal
Spirit, a Selfhood which must be put off & annihilated alway.
— Milton 541-6.
Dr. Blackstone comments:
It is only when this shell has been sloughed off — this mask discarded, that the true joy can spring, the joy of being what one really is.
It takes a poet, a poet of bardic power, to give expression to this most profound, most fundamental, of man's spiritual problems. But there was actual experience in the poet's own life to give reality and convincingness to these greatest of the prophetic books, the ideas for which poured into his consciousness during the one easeful interlude in his otherwise toilsome existence. This interlude was his three years" residence at Felpham in Sussex, where he was under the patronage of William Hayley, a well-to-do dilettante and poetaster, whose verse Blake was commissioned to illustrate. The relief of the change from London to the country, and his ecstasy on finding himself among the glories of nature were short-lived; he soon became uneasy in the conviction that at Felpham he had stepped out of the path of his destined mission, since Hayley thought nothing of Blake's own creative work, and demanded his complete application to his patron's affairs.
The almost universal lack of recognition of the value or seriousness of Blake's mystical works and his art seems to have reached a peak at this time, and at last he declared in a letter to his friend Thomas Butts:
I am not ashamed, afraid, or averse to tell you what Ought to be Told: That I am under the direction of Messengers from Heaven, Daily & Nightly; but the nature of such things is not, as some suppose, without trouble or care. Temptations are on the right hand & left; behind, the sea of time & space roars & follows swiftly; he who keeps not right onward is lost . . . — But if we fear to do the dictates of our Angels, & tremble at the Tasks set before us; if we refuse to do Spiritual Acts because of Natural Fears or Natural Desires! Who can describe the dismal torments of such a state! — I too well remember the Threats I heard! — "If you, who are organized by Divine Providence for spiritual communion, Refuse, & bury your Talent in the Earth, even tho" you should want Natural Bread, Sorrow and Desperation pursues you thro" life, & after death shame & confusion of face to eternity. . ."
The following year saw him back at his graver's bench in London. In course of time the inner picture cleared, and Blake was able to write:
I am again Emerged into the light of day; . . . but I have travel'd thro" Perils & Darkness not unlike a Champion. I have Conquer'd, and shall Go on Conquering. Nothing can withstand the fury of my Course among the Stars of God & in the Abysses of the Accuser.
He had indeed plunged into the Abyss; for his return to London (1803) marked the beginning of years of struggle with poverty and non-recognition. He was called "an unfortunate lunatic" in the public prints. About 1807 his fortunes were at their lowest ebb. And Dr. Blackstone records how "In his commonplace book for Tuesday, 20 January, 1807, we find the simple and terrible entry: 'Between Two & Seven in the Evening — Despair.' "
The years 1811-17 were "years of obscurity," during which Blake was almost lost sight of. But he retreated not from his "determination to go on thinking and writing for his country's good." Moreover, the quality of what he produced still continued to mature and was leading up to the final splendor. He was still working on Jerusalem at this time, and we find these lines, which bespeak the undaunted heart:
. . . I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.
— Jerusalem, p. 5
To his friend Butts, he had written in 1802:
The Thing I have most at heart — more than life, or all that seems to make life comfortable without — Is the Interest of True Religion and Science.
The truth is, he was an original in a highly conventional age. He was pitted against forces of complacent materialism which could not be resolved by gentle reasoning, hence the violent imagery and thunder of his language as prophet and bard. While the age in which he lived had been nourished on the pale and artificial systems of Bacon, Locke, Hobbes, and Pope, Blake's mental fare had been the works of the great theosophists of all ages. Dr. Blackstone is at great pains to make clear to us just what this rationalistic web of thought was, against which Blake was at such odds. He traces back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whom H. P. Blavatsky describes as "one of the first to strike the keynote of materialism," (2) the origins of this pernicious and soul-destroying philosophy, which gave to man no higher faculty than the Reason, and no broader field of study than the phenomena of the material universe — and that only for his own increasing sense of comfort and well-being. The soul was to be lulled to rest in a cradle of finality and material security.
Francis Bacon, according to Dr. Blackstone, opposed the theosophical view of Nature, in both its mystical and its alchemical aspects, and refuted the teachings of the great English cabbalist Robert Fludd, though he does not refer to him by name. "But there is no doubt," continues Dr. Blackstone, "that the mainspring of Bacon's Novum Organum, his machina technica for the advancement of the sciences, was a turning away from the vitalistic universe of the theosophists to a mechanical universe: a manifold of material objects in space, dead matter analysable by dissection and experiment." Locke followed Bacon, but was more skeptical, and advocated sitting down "in a quiet ignorance of those things which, upon examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our capacities." (3) "The great thing," Blackstone summarizes, "is to fix the "horizon" accurately, and then attend strictly to the territory on this side of the bounding line." But Blake's position was that "less than All cannot satisfy Man." "The Desire of Man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite, and himself Infinite." Then came Hobbes, in the later 17th century. With him the virtues and vices were simply reflexes, and man therefore not responsible. Alexander Pope, whose Essay on Man was sufficiently rich in moral reflections, still kept primly within the boundary with his "Presume not God to scan." Even Newton failed to give the utmost spiritual meaning to his new conception of the material universe. The mental outlook for Blake's generation could be summed up, at least in the aspects of it that roused his cosmic indignation, in this way: Knowledge is merely sense-perception. Laissez-faire: "Life is just like that: we can do nothing about it." Man is merely a passive being. Self-love is the well-spring of all in man. Reason is the only curb upon nature. The attainment of pleasure and avoidance of pain is the end and aim of life. There is no free will.
Hence Blake's fierce denunciation of such theories, on the ground that they were the very negation of those energies of spiritual enterprise through the exercise of which alone there could be inner growth. To him it was essential that this smug complacency should be broken up; and he became, what the world in general did not welcome, a disturbing spiritual force, urging men to awaken — and to dare to change and grow.
His language is like a foreign tongue to all but the few. But take any one of the great prophetic poems, and without regard to its rational meaning, read on:
Thus were the stars of heaven created like a golden chain
To bind the Body of Man to heaven from falling into the Abyss
Each took his station & his course began with sorrow and care . . .
Traveling in silent majesty along their order'd ways
In right lined paths outmeasur'd by proportions of number, weight,
And measure, mathematic motion wondrous along the deep,
In fiery pyramid, or Cube, or unornamented pillar square
Of fire, far shining, travelling along even to its destin'd end . . .
Read on in this way, and you find yourself at large in the Universe — in the awful freedom of the Boundless.
The poetry of Blake is effortless and purely inspirational: "a direct transcription of reality." This is undoubtedly because there was behind it the inexhaustible energy of the eternal worlds. "His intelligence . . . is perfectly at home with conceptions from which the ordinary mind would shrink in alarm at the unusual and the gigantic." And Dr. Blackstone gives this astonishing evaluation:
The writings of Blake stand beside the Gita, the Upanishads, and the Tao Teh Ching, among the spiritual masterpieces of the world. In English literature there is no one to compare him with after the mystical writers of the Middle Ages . . . He has no progenitor, and he founded no school. He stands quite alone as a prophet at the close of the materialistic eighteenth century and the opening of the mechanistic nineteenth century, proclaiming in a spiritual wilderness the doctrine of the eternal world.
and intuitively he adds:
It is possible that the second half of the twentieth century will see a growing interchange of thought between East and West, and here Blake is undoubtedly our representative thinker.
We have no hesitation in adding that it is largely through the efforts of H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society since 1875, that the modern West has developed its perceptions up to the point where it can adumbrate a state of consciousness above the rationalizing faculty, and is the more ready both to make an intelligent approach to Oriental metaphysics, and to understand in degree the Western exponents of the same ancient doctrine.
In 1818 Blake was introduced to John Linnell, the Swedish-English artist, who became Blake's friend and benefactor, and who saw to it that Blake was given some part of the consideration that he deserved. Around the now aging poet-bard a group of young men gathered of their own accord, to listen to his discourse. They have left it on record that to them he seemed "a new kind of man." "He was energy itself, and shed around him a kindling influence." To them his humble lodging was "the House of the Interpreter." . . .
There have been mystics in all ages, each with his peculiar genius; but in William Blake we have one who combines the characters of mystic, philosopher, painter, and poet — "and presents all of these in the supreme degree."
Dr. Blackstone's book is illustrated with a reproduction of Linnell's head of Blake, and with a representative group of Blake's mystical designs and his engravings.
1. English Blake. By Bernard Blackstone, M.A., Ph.D., Cantab. Cambridge: at the University Press, 1949. xviii + 455 pp. $6.50. (return to text)
2. The Secret Doctrine, I, 481. (return to text)
3. Concerning Human Understanding, Intro. (return to text)