Is Your Vision Fantasy or Imagination?

William Blake’s oeuvre contains a range of works, which though each is unique, participate for the most part in a common mythology. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is one such work, a long (100-plate) illustrated poem; actually his magnum opus. Jerusalem explores the process by which humanity (represented by Albion) is restored to a divine culture based in loving relationships, whose arts and sciences are inspired by creative genius.

At one point in the story, the hero-protagonist, Los, who is a blacksmith and artistic genius, becomes roofed in and thereby trapped within the world of the materialistic world-view.  He is now isolated from the Vision of Eternity, no longer able to access this vision as a living experience in communion with the universe, and beyond.

This vision, for Blake and the Romantics in general, is the imagination, which is not the same as fantasy, or fancy, as we might consider such today. Fancy (as it is differentiated by the Romantics, is a private form of imagination, which is not imagination proper. Rather, imagination itself (sometimes written capitalised, Imagination) is defined by the Romantics as fundamental to the universe itself; it is the primal creative power of existence (whether arising from Nature or the Divine), which humans may also participate in. This participation is often described as accessible through the power of individual genius. The artist, through their genius, may share in the creative process inherent in the universe itself.

Fancy differs – though is often mistaken for imagination – in that remains within individual images of the personal unconscious, the creations wrought around the individual ego-persona, with all its misconceptions, limitations, and biases. Imagination in contrast is considered universal, broader even than the collective human unconscious . This is the basic difference between imagination and fancy.

So, at the point in Jerusalem (around plate 19) where Los is trapped within the material world, humanity (represented by Albion) withdraws within itself, into the inner, lunar worlds of personal fancy. There Albion meets with Jerusalem, who is his eternal feminine counterpart, though she also trapped within the rock-like material-consciousness, due to the oppression of materialism. The individual imagination has been reduced to personal fantasy.

But Blake’s mythos ends on a high note; it is romantic-comedy, not tragedy. Eventually, when Albion and Jerusalem are both liberated from the reductionist world-view, they merge into the infinite creative imagination as the divine integrated human, and take their place once again in eternity. Albion becomes the creative will, and Jerusalem, the capacity for loving relationship.

Blake, William. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, copy E, plate 2. 1804-c. 1820. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

From Zero to Infinity, and Beyond

In his time, William Blake was a zero – well not exactly, but he certainly didn’t amount to much among the reputed society of the day. Georgian England preferred those who fed the British Empire in its already burgeoning, behemothic presence. But Blake had a larger vision, and the problem with such larger visions is that they often don’t fit within conventional schemes.

Blake was considered a zero, a nobody, and his attempts to be at least a respected member of British artistic and literary society, at least a one,  were met with derision, discouragement, and convenient looking-the-other-way, along with a good peppering of accusations of madness for posterity. This didn’t stop Blake; in fact, it encouraged him. His view was that the self-respecting society of Enlightenment, Church, and Empire was the zero: within his cosmology, he placed these institutions in his lowest world, Ulro, the extreme contraction of rationalisation and tyrannical control.

He wasn’t alone here, as these were revolutionary times. There was opposition to the French monarchy, which literally lost its head in 1793, but with the ensuring celebrations gradually deteriorating. And other revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine, were causing a great stir in America. In short, these were dangerous times for anyone who considered Empire as deserving a score of zero. Blake generally kept quite and went about his work.

He died (in 1827) and seemed forgotten, but his vision remained in his many works. And his vision gradually grew, shook off that zero he had been scored with, and in the new thinking of Victorian England, his poetry slowly began to gain a little merit. And this process continued into the twentieth century. Blake gained some recognition in popular culture: influencing musicians such as Bob Dylan, Allens Ginsberg, and U2; inspiring writers like Philip Pullman and Tracy Chevalier;  appearing in comics, such as those by Alan Moore; and in Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp, as well as gaining a mention in other films. Meanwhile, understanding the complex intricacies of Blake’s mythos has been left to academics, who have made great gains.

No longer is Blake considered wholly mad; perhaps holy-mad to some. But generally he is seen as a self-educated, culturally informed, somewhat eccentric, inspired and talented artist: in other words, more-or-less a genius. And what is significant about his work is the direction it takes. From the zero of Ulro – the state of contraction and opacity of human consciousness – Blake’s mythic vision leads to infinity: the complete awakening of human imagination and the creative powers of genius (in the broadest sense) that this provides. Blake calls this state of infinite consciousness Eden.

Blake is no longer a zero. From zero to infinity, Blake’s vision continues to unfold itself within the global cultural-sphere today.

Blake, William. Europe: A Prophecy, plate 17. 1794. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

The Fourfold Universe

William Blake’s world-view appears to be quite unique, not in every aspect, but for the most part. Much has been written about his work, and many connections have been drawn to other sources – Neoplatonism, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Milton, among others. Blake typically renders new ideas from traditional sources, and the resemblance is reduced. Then there are those he opposed, often quite strongly, such as Locke, Bacon, Newton, and Joshua Reynolds, who indirectly did their part to form his ideas. Yet Blake claims much of his work to come from a higher source, as though divinely inspired, such as in his writing about his magnum opus, Jerusalem:

I have written this Poem from immediate Dictation twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will. the Time it has taken in writing was thus renderd Non Existent. & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life all producd without Labour or Study.

– William Blake in a letter to Thomas Butts, 25 April 1803

Does one call this poetic inspiration, automatic writing, or perhaps even divine channeling? The answer to this really depends what one means by these terms. I won’t go into this topic here, but instead return to my opening statement on the uniqueness of Blake’s world-view, and outline an aspect of that.

Four States of Vision

Many times Blake writes of four states of vision in describing his cosmo-psychology. The four states of Blake’s system are both states of human experience and worlds in themselves.

The highest state is that of fourfold vision, which is synonymous with the complete awareness of Eternity and Infinity. This is why it is the highest state. Fourfold vision is possible, Blake writes throughout his works, through the complete integration of the human being in Divine Imagination, which is the true human nature. Such a human is limited only by the limits they consciously apply to their own experiences. This is the creativity of the artist par excellence, with the universe and self as limitless canvas. Blake calls this state Eden.

Yet as most of us experience, we are not in this state. The capacity required for such a state is great, and most of us certainly fall short of this on many levels: emotionally, in our ideas of the world, in terms of character, and in our capacity to withstand the energy of sublime experiences. Blake declares that as humans we are closed up in narrowness, not living our full potential. This reduction is described through three progressively less-complete states.

I will start with the lowest, onefold vision. This is the completely myopic state of consciousness, where there is only one truth (one’s own perspective, obviously) and that truth is selfishly centred on using the world for one’s own gain and expansion of power. Onefold vision is a state of exclusive rationality, dominating over all other human faculties, leaving the mind cold, hard, and calculating – it reflects the extreme Newtonian mechanical universe; without life beyond mechanism, without heart or spirit. This is a state of blind narcissism and isolation from relationship. Onefold vision is called Ulro.

The next state, Twofold vision is the world of animal instinct. It is nature in its struggle for survival. In twofold vision, oppositions are in conflict. This is very much the struggle of human beings in the world, where things are gained and lost, where there is suffering followed by joy followed by suffering again, where winter is too cold and summer is too hot. It is a realm of passion and conflicting energies. Creation is possible but then destruction is inevitable. Obviously there can be no peace from here. Twofold vision is named Generation.

The state of threefold vision appears as a paradise compared to these previous two, though it is not the ultimate state. Threefold vision is where opposites attain to a state of balance, they become equal, and so loving relationship can ensure. Threefold vision is a pleasant paradise, a restful place of delights. But it is a state of sleepy delights; desire is fulfilled, pleasure, restfulness and contentment are natural, but there is nothing more than this. Blake calls this state Beulah.

Beulah is not the ultimate because it is constrained by pleasant conditions. And much like a good childhood, it is a sheltered paradise, sheltered from the various energies of wider experience. The difference then between threefold and fourfold vision is that fourfold vision contains threefold vision (innocence), but also twofold vision (experience) and onefold vision (rationality), whereas threefold vision cannot handle twofold or onefold states. A child in their innocence is peaceful in a pleasant garden but not so in a war-zone, for example, unless they are a remarkable child. Threefold vision is not complete.

Fourfold vision is the complete integration of the human being, which is the integration of all lower states. From the state of fourfold vision, all that can be possibly conceived by the Imagination can become reality. If you think about this, this can be a terrifying thought, particularly if you are not ready for what your own Imagination might came up with. So the human of fourfold vision, which is Eternal Man (the term man refers to the species, being gender inclusive), must be capable of withstanding such experiences. Fourfold vision is the capacity for all experience, an awareness that is boundless and undaunted by that boundlessness. Another way to say this is that fourfold vision is Heaven, Hell, and Earth as one – it is the human capacity for Infinity and its endless exploration. This is Blake’s equivalent of God, for to Blake, Humanity is God through their Divine Imagination.

That is a brief outline of Blake’s fourfold cosmo-psychology.

Inspiration and Memory

If something is to stand up to scrutiny then it must be rigorous from as many angles as possible. This is the idea behind tradition: things stick around because they can endure the test of time. And what is this test? Well that depends what something is subjected to, what differing perspectives a thing is exposed to, placed into dialogue or debate with. I am referring to intellectual structures here: opinions, ideas, ideologies, philosophies, symbols, and the traditions that (slowly) grow from these. Something becomes a tradition when enough people see the value in it to invest their energy in it over time, and it is not eroded by neglect, or destroyed by countering points of view, and so on.

Within academia, there are traditions, a variety of them, and academia itself is a tradition. Living traditions are both preserved and evolving; they are not static things, but it is important that they keep a memory of their roots alive within them, a continuity, to enable their full power.

William Blake wrote of the Daughters of Memory and the Daughters of Inspiration. These are both types of the Muse. The Daughters of Memory are the sustainers of tradition,  the Daughters of Inspiration renew tradition. Blake equated the Daughters of Memory with the Classical tradition of Ancient Greece and Rome. He attributed the Daughters of Inspiration to the Hebraic tradition, which he placed more value in, because it arose from the inspiration of divine prophecy; that is, tradition renewed from the imagination, not solely carried through time via memory. Blake saw memory as dead and imagination as alive.

This same pair is found within us individually. Our memory sustains our identity across our lives, yet if we only had memory and no fresh input into our lives, what would we be? Dead is one way to symbolise such a state. The other extreme, of being entirely inspiration and no memory, certainly seems a more alive state – though this is too alive, an inspired presence without any trail of memory, a kind of psychosis. There needs to be a balance; our identity must have continuity over time, but not to the point of stagnation in Time. We also need to receive a degree of influx from beyond the circuits of what we already know. We need the new and the old, in a dynamic and constructive harmony.

Blake, William. Elohim Creating Adam. 1795. Tate Britain, London.

Returning to tradition, which is the memory of culture, we can see that throughout history there has always been the struggle between preserving tradition and renewing it; between defending it and ending it; between the old and the new. Where this is balanced – that happy medium has enabled both cultural stability and creative development – then society can flourish. Yet where people adopt a one-sided stance, and it really does not matter which side they stand on, then others will feel compelled to disagree and adopt the opposing stance.  You become a stance, rather than a representation of all that a human can be. It is like if you’re in a row-boat with another person. If you stand to one side, the boat tips up, so then the other person needs to take the other side to balance it again. There is a distortion in the craft when this tipping game occurs, and many problems ensure when this game becomes the focus, rather than focusing on the best way to move forward – and who can agree on what is best anyway? Perhaps there is a natural balancing mechanism in humanity; perhaps we need dynamic differences amongst us in order to thrive, rather than the bland agreement of sameness.

All of this becomes very complex, but at the same time, ideas such as the drama between memory and inspiration which William Blake writes about become points of meta-focus. They enable us to look at the dynamics of ourselves, our relationships, the world and its history, and the lives of other people from a much more sophisticated position. This is not saying you have to agree with Blake, or anyone for that matter – you can form your own conclusions – but without ever examining these kinds of things, we may simply remain closed without realising it,  a person who is only to “see all things thro’ narrow chinks of his[ or her] cavern.”1 That cavern is our memory, and the light that enters it is inspiration. To find the balance here between the two is no simple thing. What is wonderful about this is that in life, in every moment, we face this choice. If we can only realise this.


1 – William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 14.

Blake’s Jerusalem

I now enter into a study of William Blake’s epic poem, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion.

William Blake’s Jerusalem plate 1, c. 1804-1820.


When a mountain is not a molehill

I’m beginning to see the impossibility of exploring the entire mountain of literature on William Blake in full detail within the time span given for my postgraduate research. Is it a mountain? As far as publications about Blake,  G. E. Bentley, Jr., in his William Blake and His Circle (Toronto 2015) lists about 5000 books written on William Blake and around 13000 essays, since Blake’s time (1757-1827) until 2015. These published works include around 3500 publications in 46 different, non-English languages. That’s no molehill. Although I have no idea how many books have been written on Shakespeare, in comparison, it would be a far loftier mountain, guaranteed, of twice the age and far better received over time. Blake literature is growing, but not above Shakespeare.

Even within Blake studies, there are various valleys of like-minded research, streams that nourish and streams that dry up, smooth hill-tops of veneered perspectives on differing points of view, and perhaps some rugged ridges of debate – though I haven’t come across much pointed disagreement in what seems to be a cordial scholarly community. Even where differences exist, supported by Blake’s “Opposition is true Friendship” (MHH 20)  and “Without Contraries is no progression” (MHH 3), the landscape of Blakean literature becomes invigorating through contrast.

Of course, it’s realistic to draw limits on any project. My focus is a specific topic in relation to Blake, not the entire literature on him.

* * *

If I were a mole seeking to burrow into an ideal spot, first I would survey the terrain to orientate myself and find the best place to start digging. After much digging I would have contributed my own small molehill to that terrain. One might imagine as a mole in the field of their discoveries that they are instead a lofty mountain eagle. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Or as Alexander Pope puts it, in An Essay on Criticism (1709):

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

So the solution to not exaggerating molehills as mountains is in more learning. And I suppose the eagle to be sober. Being realistic is an important aspect of scholarship, and it goes both ways – reconciling the errors of both being over-confident and under-confident in one’s learning. Balance is the most effective path. I mention moles and eagles because Blake did, in Thel’s motto:

Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole:
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
Or Love in a golden bowl?
– The Book of Thel (i)

Balance necessitates practical sense, which is an antidote to any stress. A molehill is not a mountain, and that’s a good thing. As for the last two lines of Thel’s motto, the literal answer seems no, you can’t do those things.  But then it gets me thinking analogically

The landscape of literature on Blake is diverse and interesting. It shows there are many ways to understand what Blake wrote. Blake was big on “Sublime Allegory”,1 after all.

The Book of Thel
The front cover of William Blake’s The Book of Thel (1789)

MHH – The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
1 – From a letter written to Thomas Butts, 6 July 1803

Which take on Blake?

It’s amazing to explore the range of literature on Blake, all forming part of a larger conversation around his work. There are so many different facets to Blake that have been written about: his poetry, art, political views, theology and mysticism, historical context, views on gender, symbolism, the British mythos, humanism, science, materialism, modernism, his followers, his influence in the Nineteenth Century, comparisons of Blake with Goethe, with Yeats, with other Romanticists and writers, his supposed madness, use of language, way of writing, influence on Twentieth Century popular culture, construction of visionary myth – on and on the list goes. Some of these are directed towards Blake or his work, while others take Blake’s perspective and mix it with another, and others again take Blake into another field altogether. Whatever is done, it seems quite clear there is a density to Blake’s visionary oeuvre which permits a multivalent unfolding into surrounding literature.

An exploration of this literature is what I’ve been doing recently, in preparation for a literature review. Having familiarity with what has been done gives greater ability in constructing something new to add to the established body of literature. In a literature review, the new work is placed in relationship with what has previously been explored, and this relationship is critically examined. This serves to orientate one’s contribution within a greater dialogue of the topic at hand—in my case, William Blake.

Yet as has been mentioned, Blake’s work has many facets and it connects many disciplines. Such is to be expected of any genius in the creation of literature. This diversity contributes both interest and validity to Blake, although I have found one persistent question exists for me in this journey of research: What did Blake want from his work? The answer is already given, quite explicitly, by Blake himself:

“The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavour to Restore what the Ancients call’d the Golden Age.”
– William Blake, “A Vision of the Last Judgment”

To restore a Golden Age. This statement invites yet more questions: What exactly is this Golden Age? Why did Blake endeavour for it? And how did he intend to restore it? Such questions require extensive study. As I continue my journey (and blog it) further aspects of my research on Blake will be revealed along these and other lines.

In whatever way Blake’s statement of purpose measures up to what I am creating in relation to Blake, I would like to think I am somehow fulfilling both the need for scholarship in my work and also a sense of respect towards Blake’s intentions. I would not claim to follow Blake in any kind of discipleship, nor to aid in his purposes, but I do seek to understand him as clearly as possible, whether or not I agree with the result of this. From there, I can at least say I have thoroughly and accurately explored the topic I am researching, and thereby contribute something worthwhile to Blakean studies. This is my aim as I now see it.

Diving into research

“Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” – William Blake

And so I begin this blog, which aims to record the story of my research into William Blake, informally and for a general audience. As a reader you encounter this story mid-way. As a topic for academic research, I have been focusing on William Blake for nearly two years now. This began with my Honour’s dissertation, where I wrote about the exchanges between Blake’s mythic and historic narratives, Blake’s vision of the “Eternal Man,” and his concept of the liberated human body. I choose to continue with Blake in my Master’s research degree, and I am now three months into this.

What is a simple summary of Blake’s perspective, you might ask? Well, I will attempt to answer this: Blake saw humanity as divine through their power of infinite imagination. He considered humanity as being fallen, so developed a system – through his poetry and art – as an effort to return humanity to eternal wholeness. This vision of Blake’s evolved over his lifetime, and reached its greatest expression in his final longer poem, Jerusalem. It took many decades following Blake’s death for his work to be recognised and many more for his work to be better understood.

Much important ground-work on Blake studies has been done by scholars of the twentieth century. In the twenty first century, digital archives with all of Blake’s work makes it much more accessible. And there is now a growing diversification of discussion around Blake, so it appears to be a vibrant time for researching him.

But why study a poet from eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain? It’s one of those things you need to enter into willingly, to find out what is there. Reading the poetry is a good way to start. William Blake was unique, even among the Romantics who shared similarities with him. He devised his own mythological system (the term for this is ‘mythopoetry’), he invented a new printing technique, he was a painter, an engraver, a poet, a philosopher and theologian (of sorts), a mystic (another debatable label), and a very enthusiastic creative genius (most scholars seem to agree on this). Whether agreed with or not, his work continues to give something to reflect upon.