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                                                                                                                                                  'How enlightened was the Enlightenment?' Week 10: the arts


William Blake (1757 – 1827)


Blake was a complex writer, but his central message was that we should trust our natural imagination and our emotions and not repress them.


Since I very much admire Blake, and think his ideas are similar to those expressed in these notes, I include some points gathered together over a few years, and not (yet?) put together into a coherent paper – a ‘work in progress’ perhaps.


Points here:

1. Reason and the imagination

2. Blake’s criticisms of the mechanical philosophy of Newton and others

3. The evolution of his ideas

4. Some well-known quotations

5. Blake and the Sixties

6. Philip Pullman on Blake

7. Blake and politics.

8. Notes from the Tate.


1. Reason and the imagination:


As W.H. Stevenson puts it in his introduction to Blake’s Selected Poetry (Penguin, 1988): Blake lived in revolutionary times: the impact of industrialisation especially, but also the time of the French revolution of 1789 which he supported, and the American Revolution. He was also ‘writing at a time when the Age of Reason was turning into an Age of Enthusiasm.’ In other words he was a precursor of the Romantic movement.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (another pre-romantic) stressed the importance of sensibilité – or feeling/sensitivity – rather than reason; but whilst Rousseau was a philosopher, and developed complex arguments about society, morality and politics, Blake was a visionary artist who saw reason and imagination as two opposed faculties. Imagination is liberating, whilst reason imprisons us.


His views on the Bible and Christianity were highly original. For Raine, “Jesus, the Imagination” (a liberator therefore) is opposed in Blake’s scheme to “Reason… (and law) [which is] call’d Satan.” And:  “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules” (Raine op cit p 57). For Blake, the Bible (especially the Old Testament), and other myths, taught something different to what Christ taught. That is, Christ taught love and forgiveness, whilst the Old Testament and the institutionalised church taught the imposition of law. Consequently, Blake rejected all this and worked out his own elaborate mythology (see below).


2. Blake’s criticisms of the mechanical philosophy of Newton and others:


Given the importance to Blake of the imagination, and the spiritual side of life, it is hardly surprising that he attacked Newton for his mechanical picture of the universe. Blake wrote, for example, that he saw,


[in the] “Schools and Universities of Europe”…

“… the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire

Wash’d by the Water-Wheels of Newton; black the cloth

In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works

Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic

Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden, which

Wheel within wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”


(ed. Stevenson, 1988, p 209, from ‘Jerusalem’)


It is often not realised that in the better-known poem which is also called ‘Jerusalem’ – but which is in fact from another long poem called Milton (see ed. Stephenson p 161) – the references to ‘clouded hills’ and ‘Satanic mills’ are not just to the industrial revolution, but at the same time to spiritual blindness and the shackles of the mind.


Additional point, from a Tate exhibition: For Blake, Newton omitted God, as well as all those significant emotional and spiritual elements, which cannot be quantified, from his theories. Blake boasted that he had ‘fourfold vision’ while Newton with his ‘single vision’ was as good as asleep. To Blake, Newton, Bacon and Locke with their emphasis on reason were nothing more than ‘the three great teachers of atheism or Satan’s doctrine.’


Martin Butlin (see below): the print shows Newton ‘as slave to reason, unillumined by the imagination, a state particularly abhorred by Blake.’ Accompanying a similar figure Blake wrote: ‘He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.’


Note that in Blake’s print of Newton he is a prisoner of reason, and the light and colour on the left is displaced by darkness on the right…


3. The evolution of his ideas:


Stevenson suggests that we will find our way through Blake’s ideas better if we think of him as having gone through several ‘enthusiasms’ one after another.


First (and perhaps foremost, in that it produced tangible artifacts which we can still admire) he was an illustrator, who worked out his own way of producing prints that were combined with poems, using the skills of an engraver. The themes and the style were heavily influenced by medieval art, and in this also he took up a practice that was an essential part of the romantic movement (and of William Morris).  It is worth mentioning, too, Stevenson’s suggestion that this way of working enabled him to take control and not to rely on others – for he was not an easy person to get along with, it is argued.


Apart from his Songs of Innocence and Experience, his poems are written in a style based on the ‘cloudy medievalism of Chatterton and Ossian’ (Stevenson p 13), and given that he created his own mythological figures to convey his ideas, they are unfortunately very difficult to read.


At first he associated with other radicals of the time - such as Mary Wollstonecraft - and supported the drive for political change. Later he became convinced (as Stevenson puts it) “that art, the works of the imagination, not political revolution, were the key to [the world’s] renovation.”  In fact he went so far as to say, in 1809 (from Raine, 1970, p 52): “I am really sorry to see my countrymen trouble themselves about politics… If men were wise, the most arbitrary princes could not hurt them; if they are not wise, the freest government is compelled to be a tyranny.”


In writings such as Thel, and America, written between 1789 and 1793, as Stevenson puts it, he ‘presents his case: the indestructibility of innocence. The soul that freely follows its imaginative instincts will be innocent and virtuous; nature protects this innocence, and the only sin is to allow one’s nature to be perverted by law and custom. Free love is the only true love; law destroys both love and freedom… Freedom could not come about except through the imagination.’


The Bible, and other myth-makers, had emphasised law – when they should have dwelt on ‘freedom, love, innocent happiness and (above all) the imagination’… (Stevenson p 14).


However, his ideas evolved, and instead of seeing the world as a conflict between rival forces he next describes how the original perfect human broke up into separate fragments, none of which are perfectly god or evil, and how the fragments need to be brought together again. (See 8 below).


Later he came to believe that original humans had a harmonious balance to their natures – after the Fall (which Blake saw as meaning the failure of human imagination) our natures became fragmented – reason, the imagination, the spirit; our good and our bad sides.


Eventually he returned to themes of a more religious tone, arguing that (as Stevenson puts it) “the solution to the disintegration of man is reconciliation through forgiveness”, and Christ represents the “Eternal Human” (i.e. the integrated, whole person).


4. Some well-known quotations:


“Everything that lives is holy”


“The hours of folly are measured by the clock; but the hours of wisdom no clock can measure.”


In one of his most famous and beautiful poems he says we should try:

“To see a world in a grain of sand,

And heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of our hand

And eternity in an hour.”


“Energy is eternal delight.” The energy of life should be allowed to flow freely – if impeded or suppressed it will become violent and destructive: a subtle explanation of the origins of evil…


“The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”  He opposed the institutionalised church and its restrictive moralizing.


“Without Contraries there is no progression.. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from energy.” (From the Marrriage of Heaven and Hell) (cited in Butlin p 9).


5. Blake and the Sixties:


Note that the hippies and others in the ‘60s argued that rationality had brought about an irrational world: the extraordinary and insane destruction of two world wars (and Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism), Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the atom bomb – together with the possibility of the human race destroying itself. Perhaps some who warn of the effects of climate change are arguing much the same: our scientific-technical-rational mastery of nature could destroy us. See Social Movements: Youth and the 'counter-culture'.


6. Philip Pullman on Blake:


I like some of the things that Philip Pullman says (New Statesman 18.12.06): what lured him to Blake was ‘intoxication’, the visionary qualities (as with Allen Ginsberg). The poetry works ‘as poetry always does, on the ear and in the mouth, before it lets itself be disentangled by the mind’… and though a lot of poetry leaves only a faint taste, Blake’s lyrics ‘disclose tough, dense and sinewy argument, always original, always surprising, always disturbing’ (as in Tyger…). The lyrics have an incantatory power. Blake also has a prophetic quality – warning, with moral force.


For Pullman, as for Blake, the aim of poetry is to:


… shew you all alive

The world, where every particle of dust

Breathes forth its joy


- ‘this world, this extraordinary universe in which we live and of which we are made, is material; and it is amorous by nature. Matter rejoices in matter, and each atom of it falls in love with other atoms and delights to join up with them to form complex and even more delightful structures.’


Man has no Body distinct from his Soul;

For that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five senses…


- non-material things arise from ‘matter-in-love-with-matter’ – such as thoughts (of which ‘you cannot say where one begins and another ends’)


How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,

Is an immense World of delight, clos’d by your senses five?


- ‘Consciousness is a normal property of the physical world, and much more widely present than human beings think’


Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of energy.


Energy is Eternal Delight.


- The ‘mental templates on which are formed such things as metaphor, the very ways we understand and interpret our experience, are based on the ways our bodies move around in the world and interact with other physical entities.’


A dog starved at his Master’s gate

Predicts the ruin of the State.


- ‘The visionary and the imaginative are not different realms from the political, but the very ground on which politics stands, the nourishing soil from which political awareness and action grow.’


- ‘The fullest and most important subject of our study and our work is human nature and its relationship to the universe.’


God Appears and God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.’


- ‘Lastly, we should not forget that the work we do is infinitely worth doing.’


In the same feature, Tracy Chevalier (writer) refers to what Blake called ‘contraries’: fire in the dark, sweetness amidst dread… His poems and pictures never get resolved…


In The Guardian 26.11.11 Pullman quotes Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: [there is an] ‘Angel, who is now become a Devil [and] is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world shall have if they behave well. I also have the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no.’


Further on he likens Blake to Occupy: Blake asks Isaiah and Ezekiel how they dare to assert so roundly that God spoke to them. Isaiah replies: ‘My senses discovered the infinite in everything, and as I was then perswaded, and remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.’


See also: Christopher Rowland: Blake and the Bible (Yale)


(ii) Guardian Review, 29th Nov 2014: - exhibition at Ashmolean, Oxford: from 1/3/15 – William Blake: Apprentice and Master.

Observer New review, 23rd Nov 2014, Fiona Maddocks on her favourite works by Blake:



7. Blake and politics:


In an article in ‘Post-16 Educator’ No 40, Dave Welsh, reviewing the Tate Britain exhibition, [Blake, Slavery and the Radical Mind] writes of how Blake’s verse was ‘full of images condemning the political, moral and economic system of his time: from the ‘chartered streets’ and ‘mind-forged manacles’ of London, to his re-working of Milton’s ‘Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves’ or his call to ‘Look up! Look up! Empire is no more!’


Blake’s poetry was put to music in Adrian Mitchell’s 1971 Glad Day….


Above all, Blake represented the fiercely independent spirit of the London radical artisan...  [The exhibition has] ‘a “family tree” of the 1790s [which] shows that Blake was part of the radical movement that included the philosopher William Godwin… Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine and Joseph Johnson the bookseller…


Blake opposed slavery here and in the Caribbean, stressing the links between the different forms of oppression:


‘All the Slaves from every Earth in the wide Universe

Sing a New Song drowning confusion in its happy notes.’


Blake was not an isolated visionary as Ackroyd portrays him, but the times were ripe for revolution: the Gordon Riots, unrest caused by food shortages, wars with France, mounting repression, the rise of trade unions, the London Correspondence Society, Combination Laws and the fight against land enclosure… As this is missing from the exhibition, Welsh describes the picture of Blake as a ‘sanitised, post-modern’ version…


8. Notes from the Tate: 


In a booklet first published in 1966 (revised 1983, reprinted 1993) Martin Butlin says: ‘Blake’s philosophy found written expression in a series of epic Prophetic Books. In these he evolved what can be called his own mythology. Personages such as Urizen, Los, Enitharmon and Orc struggle in a primeval world of frozen depths, tormenting fires... They symbolize the successive subdivisions of the original, innocent man into the individual elements that make up his unified being. The most important are his reason, his imagination, his passions and his senses, which, once divided, war jealously against each other. Blake regarded this process of subdivision as the real Fall of Man, and the orthodox doctrine of Original Sin and the whole idea of a vengeful Jehovah were repugnant to him. (My emphasis).


According to Butlin:

Urizen seems to be Jehovah – see the print The House of Death where Jehovah/Urizen is ‘presiding over the ultimate decay of his material creation.’  (p 7)


Los is the Eternal Prophet (p 8) and Enitharmon is Pity – formed when Los is so overcome with pity that ‘the first female form’ separates itself from his body and is called Pity or Enitharmon, once again subtracting from the completeness of the original man.’ 


Blake regarded pity as a negative virtue, as shown by the opening lines of The Human Abstract (from Songs of Experience):


Pity would be no more,

If we did not make somebody Poor:

And Mercy no more would be,

If all were as happy as we.


Orc is the son of Los and Enitharmon, and represents boundless energy – in Los and Orc, the latter is bound to a rock by the chain of Los’s jealousy. (See the poem America).


Vala and Enion (two female figures) represent Nature.


In the painting ‘Dante in the Empyrean, drinking from the River of Light’ - Enion and Vala are on the right symbolizing Nature, there is a scene of artists at work (on the left, above Dante), tiny figures or ‘infant joys’ on the left, and an aged poet, perhaps the regenerate Urizen. The whole scene represents ‘the regeneration of Art and Nature in the Eternal World as a result of the poet’s drinking at the River of Life or Divine Imagination.’


Butlin concludes: ‘The state of ultimate salvation, unlike the original state of innocence, accepts and transcends the full gamut of experience.’