Gradually, like a star emerging from behind dark clouds, the work of William Blake is coming into its own. In the mighty diorama of his philosophy, Blake saw the Eternal Worlds, and man a potential collaborator with the gods therein. His lofty symbolism 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.
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. Dr. Bernard Blackstone points out that the idea
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." — English Blake, p. 27
There is no doubt that in some degree Blake represented for England, along with the group which included Joseph Priestley, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Anglo-American Thomas Paine, 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 a 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.
At the weekly meetings at Joseph Johnson's, Blake discussed politics, philosophy, religion, and literature, and met the authors who resorted to the bookseller. Frederick Tatham, Blake's friend in his later years, wrote of him: "His mental acquirements were incredible; he had read almost everything in whatsoever language, which language he always taught himself." Of the theosophists who influenced Blake, Jacob Boehme was the first and chief: Boehme, like Blake, 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. 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, kabbalistic, 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 Sir Charles 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 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. 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. Here, Eternity was before time and space began. 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 human principles: 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 Orc 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). Los and Enitharmon, Luvah and Urizen and Orc, 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 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 reunite himself with the Divine. In Blake's conception, the soul is disintegrated and must reconcile every element of her being on the road back to Eternity. 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 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
It takes a poet of bardic power to give expression to this most profound, most fundamental, of man's spiritual problems. But there was 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 his entry for January 20, 1807, reads: "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.
To 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, Hobbes, Locke, and Pope, Blake's mental fare had been the works of the great theosophists of all ages. The rationalistic web of thought goes back to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whom H. P. Blavatsky describes as "one of the first to strike the keynote of materialism" (The Secret Doctrine 1:481), the origin 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 opposed the theosophical view of nature, in both its mystical and its alchemical aspects, and attempted to refute the teachings of the great English kabbalist Robert Fludd, though he does not refer to him by name. Dr. Blackstone observed in English Blake that "there is no doubt that the mainspring of Bacon's Novum Organum . . . 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, but was more skeptical than Bacon, and advocated sitting down "in a quiet ignorance of those things which, upon examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our capacities" (Concerning Human Understanding, Introduction). 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." Even Newton failed to give the utmost spiritual meaning to his new conception of the material universe, while 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."
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. Self-love is the wellspring of all in man, and reason is the only curb upon nature. The attainment of pleasure and avoidance of pain is the end and aim of life. 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 read without regard to its rational meaning, 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 where his intelligence was perfectly at home.
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 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.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2000/ January 2001; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)