A vlog interview with Prof. Tara Brabazon, Dean of Graduate Research, Flinders University (Dec 2018)
I am currently offering a series of talks on literature for public libraries.
Next event: ‘Why Read Novels?’ 14 February 2019 at Marion Library, SA. Details here.
For more on this project, see the media article in Flinders In Touch, Engaging library-goers in literary conversation
If you are a library (or other organisation) interested in hosting such events, please contact me.
William Blake was an artist, author, inventor, and a Christian, or so he said. His Christianity was radical, especially for his time (1757-1827). I would add that it still is radical today. Centred in a strongly Christian society, Blake re-envisioned Christianity, creating his own views on Christian teachings, which were inspired through a number of influences. Yet not whimsically inspired, for he was culturally aware, and familiar with many major literary and artistic works, both contemporary and ancient. He also had an esoteric side to this thought, drawing from writers including Jakob Böhme, Paracelsus, and Immanuel Swedenborg.
Blake’s Christianity differed from orthodox denominations of his era. While he held to many of the moral teachings involving how to love and live, and referred to the Bible regularly (through his own interpretation), he was not known to attend a church regularly or any other religious gatherings. His writing included ideas that breached traditional Christian decorum, including a text entitled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which describes an inversion to Christianity as a truer teaching of wisdom (contained in a Bible of Hell), and promotes the liberated energy of the devil over the self-righteous rules of angels. Blake’s art also included images of demons, spirits, and other supernatural beings. Despite this, Blake called himself a Christian, and encouraged others to also be Christians. In a sense, his vision spanned both heaven and hell.
After Blake’s death, his work entered the hands of a follower, Frederick Tatham, who came to think of it as inspired by Satan and so destroyed a number of works. Blake’s associate, John Linnell, also in contact with Tatham, encouraged the censorship of Blake’s work where it was irreverent to Christianity.
So if Blake says he is a Christian, then one must review what exactly this means.
He was born over a century after the end of the Reformation, at a time when Christianity was open to a far greater variety of interpretations. He was also part of the dawn of Romanticism, an artistic movement that values individual imagination, emotions, creativity, and spirituality. He saw art (visual and literary) as the way to access God, to draw divine vision into the world, through artistic works that would in turn open their readers or viewers to their own divine imagination.
Not only did he often consider his works visions from the divine, but he constructed them as mythic narratives, showing how to awaken to a state of vision. Blake recreates Western mythology in a new light, offering mythological bridges that join his vision of the divine with the world, so that the reader or viewer can cross such bridges with their imagination.
In short, to Blake, religion is the practice of art. Art (in the sense of the arts) is worship, work, and ritual. Yet this does not mean Blake would agree that all art is such. To understand what he meant by the practice of art requires study of his work (both textual and visual). To the artist or writer inspired by Blake, there is a wealth of material that can guide an in-depth Blakean practice of art, or at the least, offer some ideas towards Blakean influence in one’s own creative practice. On a broader scale, art is the art of living as a human being, in whatever work one does, which Blake also relates through his vision.
Religion is viewed quite differently today than in Blake’s time. Blake lived in a pervasively Christian society, and his creative practice was his communication with his surroundings. We must avoid jumping to stereotypical conclusions about what is meant by religious terms Blake uses, and look deeper into what Blake meant by them. He drew from Christianity as well as other influences, and he was radical for his time – so much so that he only began to be acknowledged fifty to one hundred years after his death, and even today remains obscure.
To apply the principles of Blakean art and writing today would require an adaptation of Blake’s ideas to one’s current context. This is certainly possible, since Blake, although living two centuries prior, remains relevant, perhaps even necessary, today. (I will not go into the reasons for this here, as this is a whole other topic.) His works deal with larger ideas spanning the mythology and history of Western civilisation, while also focusing on what is perennially human and humane. To apply Blakean principles to artistic and literary practice is to give life to the symbol of Christ as the exemplary artistic genius, and to the human being (the artist) as a creative, living fountain of God.
Yes, William Blake wrote satire too. His longest (yet unfinished) satirical work is “An Island in the Moon,” which is also one of his earliest longer works, written in 1784. It is a ludicrous portrayal of various schools of thought popular during Blake’s time, to highlight their nature and inadequacies as Blake saw them. The title is also significant, because it coincides with a larger theme that pervades Blake’s oeuvre: the isolation of the philosophically abstracted mind from reality.
Blake repeatedly returns to this point throughout his writing – he observed how the mind constructs abstract thought from reality (like an island in a larger sea) and then imposes this system or model of thought upon reality – the tendency then being that the abstraction is mistaken for reality (thinking the island is all). This way of thinking creates an irrelevancy that, despite its narrowness, is believed to be reality, and therefore lived through as though the world operates accordingly. As humans we are complex creatures ever-intermixing actual experience and thought in our own minds as we attempt to understand the world (through language). But when we impose our point of view on the world – and so often we do, and may not even realise it – it is little wonder if the world reciprocates in unexpected, even unpleasant ways, every so often, causing us either more frustrated stubbornness in that view, or, hopefully, a re-evaluation of our schema of life, for the better.
Blake posited that imagination was the true glue that kept mind and reality coinciding. This may sound strange when the predominant model of the universe (even today) is largely Cartesian (containing an objective and a subjective world that, like oil and water, do not really mix). This model has basically been the accepted abstraction for reality for the Modern age. Imagination, being a subjective phenomena (in this model) had little say in regards to objective truth – truth is that which is measurable (according to Empiricism).
Imagination is creative. It is of a different order of truth than the seeking of truth via objects in the world. Imagination makes its own rules, or applies rules already present – either way is not a constraint for it. Imagination works well with poetry, to create what could be called poetic truths. Through poetry, imagination shapes language in a relationship with both objective and subjective reality for the experiencer of poetry (becoming the emulsifier for the ‘oil and water’ analogy). Poetic truth is relational; meaning we relate our subjective selves to it, by imagining, and we relate it to the objective world, in the same way. Yet even this explanation is an abstraction of the experience of poetry; and it is only in reading poetry that the reader gains an experiential sense of what poetic truth may be.
To delve any deeper into a study of this topic, of what exactly poetic truth is opens many other areas of ongoing discussion in literature and philosophy. This discussion informs the human need for truth, which is why as humans we do such things: it is a necessary part of our existence. The debate on ‘what is truth?’ is immense and ongoing – whether philosophical, empirical, poetic, or otherwise. It is a debate that continues to evolve and revolve through various ideas, as it has done for all of human history. Its unfinished nature is a good thing, because what would we humans do if we knew the answer to life? It seems the universe always offers more than a final answer, to allow life to explore itself further.
What has this to do with satire? Well, a lot of the search for truth involves philosophical viewpoints, and to these, Blake seemed to gain great satisfaction from mocking those he disagreed with. Satire is a facet of the greater search for truth – it aims to reveal, often amusedly, the fallacies inherent in falsity. Blake satirised others’ views of truth, their character, their opinions on art, among other things. He kept a lot of these private, which must have saved him a great deal of trouble. He comes across as the kind of person who knew when he knew something (or thought he knew it), and took contentment in stating that, if only to himself, to then continue on with some other, more important work – for satirist was not his main occupation.
If you visit the online version of the Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake at the blakearchive.org website (https://erdman.blakearchive.org/), and scroll down the side-menu you will find a section V.I, “Satiric Verses and Epigrams”. There you can read his short satirical writings, gaining a sense of Blake’s quirky satiric language, his strange humour, private rage, playfulness and imagination; along with some of his grander ideas. Some of it requires some background on those he refers to, which you can find in biographies on Blake (for recommendations, see my post here). When reading it, you may like to consider how poetry connects the subjective world of your mind and emotions with the objective world around us.
In conversation with others, sometimes, when I mention that I am researching within English literature, the question is raised as to the relevance of literature in general, or more specific to my topic, the relevance and importance of William Blake.
To answer the first part – on the relevance of literature – it seems that literature is one of those things that requires communication of its insights from a place of understanding for its significance to be grasped. I don’t want to imply there is some kind of insider secret code involved here, because anyone can study literature, with some willingness and effort. But there is a journey into literature as a discipline; it takes time to learn to read and critique literature. There is a need for the unpacking of literature by the reader as critic. To the casual reader, there is always the surface of a text to skim over. This skimming may bring amusement, entertainment, escapism, dislike, or boredom, but such a mode of reading is likely to miss much of what the text contains. As Andy Mousley writes, in Literature and the Human, reading literature involves an engagement with one’s entire being.1
Literature must be unpacked, or interpreted, by the reader as critic. Communicating an interpretation to those unfamiliar with literature – and also how to approach literary texts – grants access to the deeper meaning of a text. This communication is an art in itself, and may also teach the critic many things. Yet the value of literature as a discipline is not as obvious as something like, say, medicine or science – these latter disciplines have very obvious value, for their products often solve concrete problems in tangible ways. Even if a person has no understanding of medicine themselves, they will easily understand its value – it cures the sick.
But literature is more subtle and subjective, though its implications are no less pervasive and profound. When you recognise how influential literature has been to shape society, culture, history, and our entire scope of human thought, it becomes hard to restrain it as some mere auxiliary to human life. For the individual who studies literature, it promotes many traits for personal development: understanding, perspective, sensibility, empathy, communication ability, and so on. Reading literature activates the mind’s faculties: rouses emotions, raises thoughts and questions, stimulates the imagination, exercises the intelligence, and may stir past memories – it is an experience. Like a story, literature is narrative, but it is also more than that – this is what makes it literature. It could be described as profound narrative; story containing great insight and meaning, story which has human relevance. The fact that literature exists, that it has endured time, crossed many cultural and historical changes and survived, is evidence for its profundity. Literature has wide implications, but understanding these requires some work. Learning to access the enduring power of literature and extrapolate its relevance into various contexts brings forth its gifts for the world. The critic’s role as communicator, as bridge between literature and the world, is essential here.
The second part of the question that others sometimes approach me with – the relevance of William Blake – is a subset of the above. I was searching the Internet this afternoon for some blogs on Blake and the thought occurred to me that there are two ways the question of Blake’s relevance can be approached. The first requires that the world (or rather, individuals in the world) approach Blake for who he is. That means understanding what Blake sought to communicate through his writing and art. It requires entering Blake’s world, which may appear in many ways unusual to our common experience of the world. This is no easy task, and you will likely return changed by it. Blake’s world is visionary; it is paradoxical, imaginative, intense, rich, colourful, emotive, dramatic, daimonic. Not everyone has an interest in such a world; nonetheless, Blake’s literature and art is relevant to our shared world. This becomes apparent when his literature (and art) is unpacked, interpreted, critiqued. Because of the difficulty of this task, there will be only a few willing to embark upon it and persevere until success is gained.
Those not willing to do this, perhaps the majority, would benefit from the second approach, which is brought about by those who understand Blake, then bring Blake to the world in various mediums. There is a blog named Zoamorphosis, edited by Jason Whittaker and Roger Whitson, which explores the evolution of Blake’s work among the arts, media, popular culture, and also scholarship. This, I would suggest, is an excellent blog for providing information on the links between Blake and the world. This is part of a larger project known as Blake 2.0, exploring the dissemination of Blake’s work and Blake research through advances in technology. As not everyone is willing to become a scholar of Blake, there are still many ways to approach Blake through the arts, media, and popular culture.
From my own research, I have come to see how Blake, most of whose works were written over two hundred years ago, has relevance to the world in the twenty-first century. Blake’s work is still being unpacked and interpreted by scholars, while also emanating through art, culture, and media within the wider world. Therefore, both approaches, to and from Blake, are important for growing an understanding of this unique visionary artist and poet. Blake’s (and literature’s) relevance is likely to become better understood through this bi-directional process.
1 – Mousley, Andy. Literature and the Human: Criticism, Theory, Practice. Routledge, 2013, pp. 45-6.
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
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.
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.
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, with the ensuring celebrations gradually deteriorating. 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’s work 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.
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 18031
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.
1 – From a letter written to Thomas Butts, 25 April 1803. Keynes, Geoffrey, The Letters of William Blake, Macmillan 1956, p. 83, archive.org/stream/lettersofwilliam002199mbp/lettersofwilliam002199mbp_djvu.txt.
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.
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” (MHH14)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 – MHH – William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, from Wikisource: en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Marriage_of_Heaven_and_Hell.