William Blake, who lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century and theearly part of the nineteenth, was a profoundly stirring poet who was, in largepart, responsible for bringing about the Romantic movement in poetry; was ableto achieve “remarkable results with the simplest means”; and was oneof several poets of the time who restored “rich musicality to thelanguage” (Appelbaum v). His research and introspection into the human mindand soul has resulted in his being called the “Columbus of thepsyche,” and because no language existed at the time to describe what hediscovered on his voyages, he created his own mythology to describe what hefound there (Damon ix). He was an accomplished poet, painter, and engraver.
Blake scholars disagree on whether or not Blake was a mystic. In the NortonAnthology, he is described as “an acknowledged mystic, [who] saw visionsfrom the age of four” (Mack 783). Frye, however, who seems to be one of themost influential Blake scholars, disagrees, saying that Blake was a visionaryrather than a mystic. “‘Mysticism’ . . . means a certain kind of religioustechniques difficult to reconcile with anyone’s poetry,” says Frye (Frye8). He next says that “visionary” is “a word that Blake uses, anduses constantly” and cites the example of Plotinus, the mystic, whoexperienced a “direct apprehension of God” four times in his life, andthen only with “great effort and relentless discipline.” He finallycites Blake’s poem “I rose up at the dawn of day,” in which Blakestates, I am in God’s presence night & day, And he never turns his face away(Frye 9). Besides all of these achievements, Blake was a social critic of hisown time and considered himself a prophet of times to come. Frye says that”all his poetry was written as though it were about to have the immediatesocial impact of a new play” (Frye 4). His social criticism is not onlyrepresentative of his own country and era, but strikes profound chords in ourown time as well. As Appelbaum said in the introduction to his anthology EnglishRomantic Poetry, “[Blake] was not fully rediscovered and rehabilitateduntil a full century after his death” (Appelbaum v). For Blake was nottruly appreciated during his life, except by small cliques of individuals, andwas not well-known during the rest of the nineteenth century (Appelbaum v).
Blake lived during a time of intense social change. The American Revolution, theFrench Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution all happened during hislifetime. These changes gave Blake a chance to see one of the most dramaticstages in the transformation of the Western world from a somewhat feudal,agricultural society to an industrial society where philosophers and politicalthinkers such as Locke, Franklin, and Paine championed the rights of theindividual. Some of these changes had Blake’s approval; others did not. Oneexample of Blake’s disapproval of changes that happened in his time comes in hispoem “London,” from his work Songs of Experience. In”London,” which has been described as summing up many implications ofSongs of Experience, Blake describes the woes that the Industrial Revolution andthe breaking of the common man’s ties to the land have brought upon him (Mack785). For instance, the narrator in “London” describes both the Thamesand the city streets as “chartered,” or controlled by commercialinterests; he refers to “mind-forged manacles”; he relates that everyman’s face contains “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”; and hediscusses the “every cry of every Man” and “every Infant’s cry offear.” He connects marriage and death by referring to a “marriagehearse” and describes it as “blighted with plague.” He also talksabout “the hapless Soldier’s sigh” and the “youthful Harlot’scurse” and describes “blackening Churches” and palaces runningwith blood (“London”). “London” and many of Blake’s otherworks dealing with a similar theme, particularly those from the Songs ofExperience, strike a particular nerve for those who are living in a societywhere the cost of living compared with income is steadily increasing, whereAIDS, Ebola, and other new and frightening diseases are becoming increasinglycommon, and where the public is becoming increasingly disillusioned about thereliability and trustworthiness of politicians. These works resonate for ageneration which has to deal with exponentially increasing population problemsand with rapidly increasing demands on our immigration facilities and resources.
They strike a special chord with a nation that, due to the aforementionedproblems, the rise of violent crime, and other considerations, is rapidlydesensitizing itself to the “marks of weakness, marks of woe” that weare becoming accustomed to seeing on the faces of passers-by on the street.
Blake did, however, approve of some of the measures that individuals andsocieties took to gain and maintain individual freedom. As Appelbaum said,”He was liberal in politics, sensitive to the oppressive governmentmeasures of his day, [and] favorably inspired by the American Revolutionary Warand the French Revolution” (Appelbaum v). According to Keynes, Blake wrotemany positive and appreciative things about the revolutionary American politicalthinker Thomas Paine, for instance, such as “The Bishop never saw theEverlasting Gospel any more than Tom Paine” (Damon 318). As”London” shows, however, Blake did not entirely approve of themeasures taken to forward the causes he longed to advance: “London”refers to how the “hapless Soldier’s sigh/ runs in blood down Palacewalls” (“London” 791). Among many other events which took placeduring the French Revolution, this could possibly refer to the storming of theBastille or the executions of the French nobility. Blake also espoused manyother notions with which we are now familiar, and occasionally even believe tobe self-evident. For instance, in Jerusalem, Blake proposes the Brotherhood ofMan as the only solution to the world’s problems, both individual andinternational (Damon 60). According to Blake, we are all brothers because we areall sons of the Father, and all have Jesus (who often symbolizes Imagination,Humanity, and the source of everything for Blake) in us (Damon 60; Damon158-159). This is very similar to the fundamental rights of man espoused in theDeclaration of Independence, which states that “all men are createdequal” because they are “endowed by their Creator with certainunalienable Rights” (Declaration 10-20). Blake also believed that all lifewas inherently holy; Damon says that his religion “became all-inclusivewhen he declared that every thing that lives is holy. This was a naturalconclusion from the ancient belief that all things were created from the divinesubstance” (344). This becomes especially important and vital to us in anage where terrorist attacks are becoming increasingly common (witness thebombings at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the Oklahoma City building andincreased security on international airline flights), the debate over abortionhas led some anti-abortion activists to begin shooting doctors who performabortions (such as the shooting of Dr. David L. Gunn in 1993), and the majornations of the world have nuclear weapons enough to kill every person on theearth multiple times. Blake’s views on religion are also particularly relevantto the modern world. As Appelbaum said of Blake, “Blake replaced the aridatheism or tepid deism of the encyclopedists and their disciples with a glowingnew personal religion” (Appelbaum iii). Besides rejecting “aridatheism” and “tepid deism,” Blake also attacked conventionalreligion. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he wrote “Prisons are builtwith stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion” and “As thecaterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest layshis curse on the fairest joys” (“Proverbs” 19;”Proverbs” 20). Rather than accepting a traditional religion from anorganized church, Blake designed his own mythology (based primarily upon theBible and Greek mythology) to accompany his personal, revealed religion. Blake’spersonal religion was an outgrowth of his search for the Everlasting Gospel,which he believed to be the original, pre-Jesus revelation which Jesus preached.
As Blake said, “all had originally one language and one religion: this wasthe religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel. Antiquity preaches the Gospel ofJesus” (Damon 344). Blake’s religion was based upon the joy of man, whichhe believed glorified God (Damon 344). One of Blake’s strongest objections toorthodox Christianity is that it encourages the suppression of natural desiresand discourages earthly joy; in A Vision of the Last Judgement, Blake says that”Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’dtheir Passions or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated theirUnderstandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion, butRealities of Intellect, from which all the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in theirEternal Glory” (Damon 344). Blake also believes that the religion of thisworld is actually the worship of the entity that St. Paul calls “the god ofthis world” in II Corinthians 4:4: Satan. It should be noted here thatBlake does not conceive of Satan as an incarnate horned quasi-deity, but ratheras Error and the “State of Death”; Blake also explicitly says thatSatan is “not a Human existence” (Damon 355). Blake believes thatorthodox Christians, in part because of their denial of earthly joy, areactually worshiping Satan, which is to say that they are in Error (Damon344-345; Damon xi). Since the 1960s, more and more Westerners have joined faithmovements which promote individuals deciding on their own ethics and beliefs, orto find their own way to salvation. Examples of these groups include someEastern religions, such as Buddhism, and certain liberal Christian movements,such as Unitarian-Universalism (which can also be a non-Christian faith,depending on the individual follower). As more people begin to questiontraditional, dogmatic Western religion, Blake’s vision of individual revelationand a personal mythology makes powerful sense to many people. Blake cautions us,however, against deluding ourselves with our personal mythologies in his poem”The Little Black boy” from Songs of Experience. In “BlackBoy,” Blake describes a young black male, who is just becoming aware of thesocietal differences between himself and a white boy (“English child”)and uses his mother’s mythology (which he makes his own) to relegate thesolution of the problems of racism to an imagined afterlife where I’ll shade himfrom the heat till he can bear To lean in joy upon our father’s knee (Mack 784).
Even more compelling to a modern audience (but definitely less important toBlake) is his emphasis upon science as a tool of understanding. The last line ofhis unfinished epic poem The Four Zoas is “the dark Religions are departed; sweet Science reigns” (Damon xi). Many modern individuals wouldaccept science while failing to attempt to create a personal mythology, and thisis not at all what Blake is looking for. Does Blake provide a solution to theills of this world? Is this solution as relevant to modern times as it was tohis own? Emphatically, yes to both questions. The similarities between our ownage and Blake’s are striking. Blake had the Industrial Revolution; we are livingin the age of the Information Revolution, which is, with the Internet, enteringa new phase which will enable information to be distributed on a scale neverbefore possible. Blake lived in a time when greedy upper-class capitalistsexploited the working class for personal profit; we are living in an age inwhich the nuclear family, with its one working parent and its one parent stayingat home to raise the children, is becoming less common and feasible even as thecost of living rises. Blake lived in an age where Deism, a faith which deniedany possibility of direct experience with God, had captured the minds of themore intelligent people of the West; we live in an age of doubt, searching,rejection of traditional dogmatic religion, and science with no mysticalexperience. Certainly Blake’s vision of a personal mythology actualizing anindividual, revealed religion can offer as much to our society as it did toBlake’s. However, whether Blake’s offering will save our television-oriented,fast-food, pop-culture society is another question altogether.