Blake, Cultural Contrast, and the Cultivation of Eternity

William Blake despised the classical culture of Ancient Greece and Rome, even while adapting its ideas (such as Plato’s Ideal Forms). He considered these cultures the antithesis of real art, bringers of war, destroyers of humanity. Neither did Blake appreciate the ancient (pre-Christian) British culture for its elite priestly class, the druids, to which were attributed the many stone circles and other megalithic formations, but to Blake were in the business of human sacrifice and the maintenance of a tyrannical control over the populace. Along with classical and druid culture, Blake also places Deism in the same oppressive category.  Deism is somewhat of a hybrid of Christianity and Enlightenment science, where God created the world to operate under the laws of science and left it be with we humans in it.  Deism does not acknowledge revelation as a means of knowledge, but instead relies on empiricism and reason for understanding truth.

So these three – classicism, the druids, and the deists – are classified as natural religion to Blake because they isolate humanity within the mundane world. Now one may argue these are not so earthbound as Blake describes them as, but were Blake around these days, and were you to engage in debate with him, you’d not likely convince him otherwise. (And that’s okay, because the aim here is to understand Blake, not change his mind.) These cultures of natural religion are Blake’s main enemies throughout his oeuvre (painted with a broad and general brush). And here the term enemies is not too strong, since Blake was vehemently opposed to them and not afraid to say so. His mythos writes them throughout as in one way or another contributing to the negating void-state known as Ulro, which is a state of tyranny upon humankind, until humans wake from their spiritual sleep.

On the upside, Blake looks to the prophets of the Old Testament, to the Gothic-Christian monks who were the intellectual and spiritual torch-bearers for England during the Dark Ages (which Blake considered a culture of wisdom and true art), and to various individuals – inspired geniuses – such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Albrecht Dürer,  Shakespeare, and Jesus (on whom he has his own unorthodox views). It is such cultures and individuals which aid the restoration of a golden age.

This vision for a golden age was centred upon art. To Blake art was a spiritual practice. Considering he lived within a predominantly Christian society, his view was unorthodox: that the true Christian was an artist who exercised the imagination to restore the vision of eternity among human culture. He considered this vision to be universal, manifesting in select ways in different times, cultures, and individuals, but always originating in one divine humanity, which he called Poetic Genius. Humans who strived with their creative imagination could tap into this genius and reintegrate their being into eternity, as eternal artists of the imagination, thereby bringing creations of eternal forms, of art and science and wisdom, into the world, into earthly culture. Such a culture could restore on earth the completeness of human nature; the individual living as a balanced, complete human being; a harmonious integration of what Blake calls the Four Zoas in his mythos: Reason (Urizen), Imagination (Urthona), Sensuality (Tharmas), and Emotion/Energy (Luvah).

Blake saw this human connection (individually and culturally) with eternity, with Poetic Genius – the origin and ‘blueprint’ for human wholeness – as the normal state for humanity, from which many people, in his time, had fallen from. This normal, eternal state was no static paradise, but a continual striving in the work of the creative imagination; to discover, experience, explore, and express eternal art, science, and culture based upon wisdom.

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 of 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, limited within the mind of the individual, which is not imagination proper. This differs from imagination (sometimes written capitalised, Imagination), which is defined by the Romantics as fundamental to the universe, not confined to the private mind of the individual: it is the primal creative power of existence (whether arising from Nature or the Divine), which human beings 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 as a single being. 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.