William Blake - Prophet and Mystic
History has always thrown up amazing geniuses. There can be few more talented and extraordinary than William Blake (1757-1827). The list of his accomplishments is wide and varied: poet, artist, engraver, mystic and prophet. We are all acquainted with his simpler lyrics and even with his more popular engravings from our school days. However, behind these seemingly effortless and simple verses lies a complex and talented man of vision. Behind the popular engravings lurks a restless soul and talented artist.
It is rewarding to know at least a little about the life and work of this great genius. Reading his poetry and studying his paintings and engravings can bring much pleasure and not a little insight into Blake's mystical vision. I have highlighted the twin roles of prophet and mystic as the title of this paper because I believe they get to the heart of this man's creative work, and inspire all his other work from poetry to art, from his spirituality to his political and revolutionary beliefs.
Before setting out to read Blake, one should realise that he was almost completely self-taught. This would probably account for much of his unconventional spelling and punctuation, and for his inconsistent use of terminology in his longer and more complex works. Also it is important to bear in mind that he was rebellious in spirit and just did not like to conform. He was original to a fault. Having spent seven years as an apprentice engraver, he progressed to study art at the Royal Academy but quit after a year because he rebelled against the aesthetic doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. In writing his poetry he also broke with convention by rejecting the high neoclassical style and modes of thought then current, preferring a simple and direct style as exemplified in his lyrics. He was a nonconformist in religion, being born into a Dissenting tradition that encouraged extemporary hymn-singing. Hence much of his religious thoughts were unorthodox and even heretical by the standards of the more orthodox Christian churches. However, having borne these preliminary qualifications in mind, we can still find his writings inspiring and personally enriching.
The influences on Blake were the Bible in which he was steeped, the Bible-derived epics of Dante and Milton, the hymns of Charles Wesley, and the writings of two eccentric and highly unorthodox visionaries and mystics, Jakob Boehme (b.1575) and Emanuel Swedenborg (b.1688). A considerable influence in the artistic field was Michelangelo Buonarotti.
Blake as Prophet:
As I have outlined Blake was born into a Dissenting Protestant tradition and consequently remained a religious, political and artistic rebel throughout his life. As a child he claimed to have seen the prophet Ezekiel sitting under a tree. At four he tells us that he saw God looking through his bedroom window. He had early incurred his father's wrath for expressing these strong images. He insisted that he had been granted visions and that he could translate these visions into poetry and designs which interfused pictures and words. Jakob Bronowski puts it succinctly saying that Blake had a strongly visual mind and that 'whatever he imagined he also saw.'
He always had that strong sense of justice we associate with the Biblical tradition of prophecy. He numbered among his associates such English freethinkers and those concerned with the rights of human beings such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. He supported the promotion of democracy and the great tradition of Republicanism in both the American and French Revolutions, but quickly came to despair of all politics when Napoleon turned the Revolution in France into a tyranny. His prophetic voice concerned with justice is to be heard forcefully in much of his poetry. He was concerned with the plight of little black boys and girls, of very young chimney sweepers, of those born and living in grinding poverty. Notice how prophetic, biblical, and unfortunately quite contemporary, these lines from the poem Holy Thursday sound: "Is this a holy thing to see/ In a rich and fruitful land, / Babes reduc'd to misery... And so many children poor? / It is a land of poverty!" Another well-known lyric is London which recounts much oppression from poverty to pointless war to the social injustices of growing cities. Truly he realised, as he etched the following line on a copper plate, that "Cruelty has a human face."
Blake as Mystic:
Mysticism has been variously defined, but in general it refers to an experience of God. It has been traditionally understood as a loving knowledge of God which is born from a personal encounter with the divine. Mainline Churches have always been suspicious of mystics whether within or without their fold because they are very much pioneers who in some way seem to have a privileged access to God. However, there is much support for such direct encounters with God from the prophets in the Old Testament to those mystics within the Catholic tradition. Needless to say, mysticism in the general sense can in no way be confined to the Roman Catholic tradition. For the Greeks the word 'mystic' referred to one to whom a secret knowledge of the divine mysteries had been given. Over the centuries it came to refer to anyone who enjoyed contact and communion with the very source of all life, God Himself. Consequently all the major religions of the world could boast of mystics within their individual traditions. Blake may be called a mystic in this more general sense, in so far as he had a vision and experience of the unity that lies behind and is revealed through all Creation. The following often quoted lines say more in their simplicity about Blake's mysticism than all the most learned exegesis can:
His mysticism was no private esoteric experience. It was solidly expressed in acts of love. William bravely nursed his ailing brother Robert who died in his twenty fifth year. He sat with him day and night without sleep, and was convinced that he was rewarded by seeing Robert's soul fly away to heaven. Likewise he was devoted to his wife, Catherine Boucher, whom he taught to read and write and whom he later sketched on his deathbed. Love was an inspiring energy he always sought to express in his own peculiar and unique Christian way:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour -
(Auguries of Innocence)
Seek Love in the Pity of others' Woe,
In the gentle relief of another's care,
In the darkness of night and the winter's snow,
In the naked and outcast, Seek Love there!
Without a shadow of a doubt William Blake was highly individualist, original and eccentric. He believed he was inspired by the divine, by angels of all types, by intuitions appearing either as visions or voices. Consequently the power of the imagination was the most important and indeed the central faculty of humankind - for him it was nothing less than the vision of Eternity. In practice for Blake salvation lay less in any arbitrary moral code and more in an imaginative and creative encounter with life through art in all its forms. He disliked drawing from life because it distracted him, he said, from his visions. Consequently he preferred such artists as Raphael and Michelangelo as his spiritual masters. Gothic art, he claimed, had more life and gave much more stimulus to his genius, than any posed living model ever could. Most of his artistic works are illustrations for his poems and books. All of them are splendidly original and visionary in quality, showing powerfully muscular figures inspired by enormously dramatic events and concepts. His figures, although evidently muscular, are strangely insubstantial and unearthly, often surrounded by a supernatural light. A lot of his art is inspired by Biblical themes. Perhaps one of his best known images is The Ancient of Days, or God Creating the Universe. His Illustrations to the Book of Job and The Raising of Lazarus are also masterly works. Consultation with a good edition of his plates or illustrations is a must, and viewing them in tandem with reading the texts which they illustrate an enriching experience. In short dialogue between word and illustration is essential to the artistic experience of Blake.
Balance of Opposites:
As a Dissenting Protestant and mystic he insisted on the inwardness and universality of religious experience, on the presence or immanence of the divine spirit in all of life. He had little time for elaborate theologies. For him "God only acts or is, in existing beings or men." Like Jacob Boehme, whose writings he admired, he was profoundly aware that life and energy and all good things are generated between opposing principles. He would remark that "Energy is Eternal Delight" and that "without Contraries there is no progression." We can see this principle in action when we read Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Blake is insisting that innocence and experience can only be understood in the dialogue between the opposites which both are. A lot of his later work is consequently Manichaean in tendency, that is, he goes so far as to see two principles at work within God Himself, where God the Father becomes a symbol of terror and tyranny and Christ the Son is identified with all the spiritual goodness that exists. As I have outlined Blake was a Dissenting, highly unorthodox, even heretical Protestant, but it is salutary to remind ourselves that many of the early Saints of the Church were also heretical. Blake was no theologian, so expect many inconsistencies and much unorthodoxy in his writings. He was simply a self-taught gifted artist, poet and visionary convinced of the reality of the unseen or spiritual world. He was often profound, but never a rational or tidy thinker. Gerald Bullett, in his excellent book, The English Mystics (1950), makes the valid point that no one can or should swallow Blake whole. One must read him with discrimination and objectivity, aware of the blatant contradictions, inconsistencies and heresies. When one does so, one can delight in the sheer energy and genius of the man, the honesty and integrity of the artist, the depth of his convictions, the power of his imagination, his love for the simple things of life, his hatred of hypocrisy in all its guises and the power of his mystical vision:
God appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those that Dwell in Realms of Day.
(Auguries of Innocence)
The image I have placed centre above is one of my favourite of Blake's paintings - it's The Ancient of Days or God the Father in the act of Creating (Designing) the Universe.