To understand William Blake’s writing is both extremely simple and entirely challenging. It all depends on which parts of his work you read. He has many types of poems. Songs of Innocence is the best entry point I would recommend. Then Songs of Experience, followed by his other shorter poems. You can read his biography – there’s a number of them around (Peter Ackroyd’s Blake is good for a general audience; G. E. Bentley’s The Stranger from Paradise is a recommended academic biography). Then there’s Blake’s songs, his plays and stories, his epigrams and annotations, and his letters – as well as a miscellanea of other works.
Then there are his illuminated books. These are where it becomes challenging. The Blake Archive is the best online source for these. And if you can’t visit a GLAM (gallery, library, archive, or museum) building that has displays of his original prints, you may be able to find a book containing them – I recommend David Bindman’s William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books. And if you’re seriously wanting to study Blake, a copy of Erdman’s The Complete Prose and Poetry of William Blake is a must. (The Blake Archive also has Erdman’s text on-line.)
So why is it challenging to study these illuminated works? Here’s a sample, chosen largely at random from Blake’s Milton:
Daughters of Beulah! Muses who inspire the Poet’s Song,
Record the journey of immortal Milton thro’ you Realms
Of terror & mild moony luster, in soft sexual delusions
Of varied beauty, to delight the wanderer and repose
His burning thirst & descending down the Nerves of my right arm
From out the Portals of my Brain, where by your ministry
The Eternal Great Humanity Divine planted his Paradise,
And in it caus’d the Spectres of the Dead to take sweet forms
In likeness of himself.1
So unless you’re Blake himself or someone well versed in his work, you may find his language somewhat obscure. Many early scholars gave up and called Blake mad. It’s somewhat understandable, for it takes some time to orientate yourself to Blake. But dig deeper and persist, and the power of his poetry grows with time.
Elsewhere on this blog, I have attempted to outline some of the basic elements of Blake’s vision as I develop my understanding of it. So I will now continue with this by adding some descriptions, as I interpret them at this point, of the four terms the title of this post is made from: Spectres, Shadows, Emanations, and Eternals. These terms are all types of beings, and in another sense, aspects of the one being, the human. So here goes.
Spectres are the haunting persona of the human who has fallen into the world of time and space. They haunt through preying upon the person’s fears, doubts, insecurities, hatred, jealousy, and other darker emotions. In this way the Spectre is a presence that works to bring a person further into the fallen world. It is a fragment of the person, much like the Jungian shadow, which requires effort to face, gain mastery over, and reintegrate consciously. To the degree a person gains mastery over their own Spectre, they are able to not succumb to the imprisoning of effect of the fallen world.
Shadows are similar to Spectres. They are the pale counterpart of an aspect of being, a powerless residue that is a passive form of its original. In this sense, the shadow is the outcome of the defeated person, similar to the classical Greek shade. Think zombie-brain couch-potato; a person who does not live out their full potential, having been suppressed and defeated.
Emanations are the female aspects of being. Blake’s human is ultimately (in their restored state) androgynous, as a harmonious blend of both male and female qualities. The female aspect – the Emanation – gives the capacity for relating, while the male aspect gives the capacity of creative will. Together the two form a mutual symbiosis of complete being. There are many Emanations in Blake’s cosmos, ranging from heavenly to diabolical; these either facilitate or hamper the freedom of the individual. The divine Emanation, Jerusalem, represents the freedom of genuine love, which is merciful, integrative, and liberating. Emanations can also become separated from their counterpart, which creates the experience of being in conflict with one’s environment, deceived, seduced, or afflicted by it in relation to one’s actions. This occurs because the Emanation provides the medium through which one’s surroundings are related to, for the exercise of one’s creative will.
Eternals are the restored humans of Blake’s cosmos. They are free from the limitations of space and time, and can instead create their own space and time as they wish, in order to experience various realities. They are the creator, the ultimate artist – on par with God – rather than the created; they are subjects, not objects. They dwell in Eden, which is very different from the Biblical idea of Eden – being a state of perpetual striving in creative rapture and vision. From Eden, they may rest every so often in Beulah, the paradisaical dream realm, but from there is the risk that they may then fall into lower states if they become too immersed in the dreams they create and forget their eternal self. Yet it is also by this process that they may integrate the experiences of lesser states, and thereby grow in love and wisdom. Eventually, a fallen being is restored to Eternity, often by the help of other Eternals (which is the main plot of Blake’s magnum opus, Jerusalem). The Eternals are complete humans; those who have integrated the various aspects of themselves (mentioned above).
The reader who is familiar with Carl Jung is likely to notice some similarities (the anima, shadow etc.) with these aspects of the human which Blake described a century prior to Jung. Blake is not the only one to do this, of course, as he studied many earlier writers, including Jakob Böhme and Paracelsus. The vision which Blake presents revives (in part) a mode of thinking from the medieval era, while also drawing upon earlier influences, such as the Old Testament and British folklore. Yet it is not simply the past Blake sought; his work is also highly original, which is why he uses original names for many of his own characters. He was primarily an artist, even though his ideas appear mystical, philosophical, or traditional. Approaching his work as art, whether visual or poetic, is perhaps the best way to begin to enter into what initially appears obscure to the unfamiliar reader.
1 – From ‘Milton (excerpts)/Book the First’, Wikisource: en.wikisource.org/wiki/Milton_%28excerpts%29/Book_the_First