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An Introduction to William Blake

With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; for he beholds the form of the Lord. -- Yahweh, on Moses, Numbers 12:8

Mouth to mouth, not mouth to ear. To be a prophet in the strictest sense of the word, a divine entity must speak through, and not to a person.

William Blake -- poet, mystic, perhaps prophet, composed a set of writings which are referred to as prophecies by scholars and critics as a matter of convention, simply because Blake himself labelled them thus. The substance of Blake's prophecies is a heretical Christianity which is based on a radical interpretation of Biblical events and prophecies, woven together into a coherent cosmogony. This cosmogony is a kind of "behind the scenes look" into the spiritual causes which precipitated the physical events of the Bible.

He invokes obscure names from both Testaments of the Bible, as well as Druidic names, the names of Oriental gods, and anagrams of Greek gods to populate his cosmogony with characters whose epic doings, triumphs and defeats, signify eternal events and physical Creation -- all of which, he claims, is the Truth revealed to him through the "Poetic Genius" or imagination, the same Eternal Truth that was revealed to the prophets of the Bible.

Whether truth or madness, Blake's voice was certainly that of a prophet in the more general sense of the word, for he was a denouncer of the evils of the world around him, calling for a return to God and a renunciation of worldly things for spiritual. William Blake wrote at one of the most important and turbulent junctures of history, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution which in his day was radically transforming the fabric of life in city and country, creating totally new and alien problems with which the old monarchies of Europe could not cope. Hence, revolution was in the air, flamed by the violent overthrows of tyranny in France and America, leading those of a visionary bent (like Blake) to see the signs of apocalypse in world events, when all mankind would break free of their shackles and arise to overthrow tyranny in all its hideous forms. As a poet and mystic, Blake took the stance of a radical visionary against the established order of his time. "His was a type which is never in tune with the times; but one can hardly imagine a century more definitely opposed, point by point, to everything in which he believed. The corollary is equally true, that no age needed him more. But, of course, it never heard him." (Damon, 124, 13)

The Age of Reason was not receptive to mystics or visionary artists of any kind, for in this period intuition and inspiration were deemed, even by poets, to be of far lesser value than pure reason, in creating art or making sense of the universe. The vices of society and the excesses of the reign of reason were reprehensible to Blake, but nowhere more than in the religious realm. He saw his age as worshipping reason above all else, as forsaking the Bible in favor of the Classics, and for the rise of deism -- the belief that God's nature can be known through reason alone. Deism postulated an absentee God, one who created the world like a wind-up clock in the beginning, and has let it function on its own since then according to built-in laws. Nothing could be further from Blake's very Hebraic belief in a living God who reveals Himself to Man. To Blake, Natural Religion, of which deism is a part, and holds reason as the key to divine knowledge, was the most serious perversion of Christianity, effectively sealing off the imagination from religion, God and Man.

What makes Blake stand out from mystics in any age is that he had the ability to transpose his visions into art. He was able, we might say, to bring a piece of Eternity to Earth, in the form of poetry. In the same manner, he also stood apart from the other poets of his day, bursting the bonds of meter and form, allowing inspiration to guide the creation of his "Perfect Unities". His definition of poetry is clearly a rejection of the prevailing poetry of his day, which was dominated by reason and metrical restriction.

"Allegory address'd to the intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding, is My Definition of the Most Sublime Poetry... (Blake 825)

Blake was not, of course, the only voice crying out against the cult of reason. It was during this period that John Wesley began the Methodist movement, which stressed "enthusiasm" and "ecstasy" in religious experience. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) founded a small sect based on a series of visions which he began having at the age of fifty-five, to which William Blake and his wife were members for a time. Swedenborg's ideas greatly influenced Blake, especially concerning prophecy and the cyclical nature of Creation, but Blake would later criticize Swedenborg for his more conventional interpretation of the Bible. (Damon, 1924, 18)

By this he means that through allegory truths exist unspoken within the actual narrative without translation or conscious elucidation of meanings. The words themselves should convey more than the corporeal, physical mind can comprehend. Poetry should appeal to a "higher" intellectual sensitivity, nourishing the soul as well as the mind. Blake is advocating a freer, more visionary poetry and mankind:

"Poetry Fetter'd Fetters the Human Race. Nations are Destroy'd or Flourish in proportion as Their Poetry, Painting and Music are Destroy'd or Flourish!" (Blake 621)

In the prophetic books, Blake experimented with several forms of versification before settling on his own unique style. He needed a line which could be repeated indefinitely in an epic setting, but he found the iambic pentameter of Milton too confining for his energetic vision. Instead, he developed his own line based on MacPherson's Ossian, a style which, as it developed, tended away from a metrically controlled verse toward something which at moments is akin to free verse. S. Foster Damon believes that the prophecies were meant "to be poured out in a great flood of oratory, stressing the natural accents, and passing over the unaccented syllables. The 'syllabic' tradition, which weighs every syllable with care, is to be completely ignored. Each line represents a breath; and this breath is the real metrical unit, around which all the variations are formed." (Damon, 1924, 57)

This evaluation comes quite close to the manner in which the Beat poets in the 1950s described their work in terms of the jazz musician's technique of expression, each line being a breath. William Blake's "visions" and claims to a prophetic heritage led those who knew him to regard him as an eccentric at best.

The most important thing to remember when speaking of Blake's "visions," however, is that he never at any time gives them an objective reality outside of his consciousness. To Blake, thought and imagination were the only true reality, and the corporeal world was a "Satanic illusion" perpetrated through the senses of the fallen Man. When he speaks of seeing visions, then, he is referring to his imagination, where thoughts comprise true reality.

When writing Milton, Blake claimed that he wrote "from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without premeditation, and even against my will..." (Blake 823)

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he claims to have dined with the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah. When asked about his prophetic experiences, Isaiah responds:

"I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and I was then perswaded, & confirmed, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote." (Blake 153)

Visions exist, then, in the imagination of the prophet as self-evident truths. To Blake, the Hebraic prophets were essentially visionary poets, men whose imaginations were touched by eternal truths, through the "Eternal Prophet", who he called Los. The visions of the imagination constitute true reality in Eternity, outside of time and space, and prophets are those who are the chosen recipients of knowledge from Eternity, apprehended in the human imagination.

"This world of imagination is the world of Eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the Vegetated body. This World of Imagination is Infinite & Eternal, whereas the world of Generation, or Vegetation, is Finite & Temporal..." (Blake 605)

By holding imagination and poetic inspiration as the sacred channels to illumination, Blake stood squarely against the "sanity" of the Age of Reason, and for that reason, he was considered insane by his contemporaries. As Northrop Frye points out, though, it was his age that was out of touch with the role of inspiration in art.

"The sources of art are enthusiasm and inspiration: if society mocks and derides these, it is society that is mad, not the artist, no matter what excesses the latter may commit..." (Frye 13)

It has become popular in recent years to see Blake as the prophet of the Industrial Age, when Reason's machinery began to dominate man's destiny, as the pre-Romantic who went further than any of the Romantics ever dared. Blake has gathered something like a cult status among those who share his concerns over the fate of man's soul at the hands of tyranny and industrial materialism. Many twentieth century poets see Blake as a spiritual predecessor, a bearer of the prophetic torch through dark times, and in light of Western culture's direction, see all around them the fruition of Blake's worst fears. Whatever his relevance to contemporary society, Blake is worth the effort for those who are willing to invest the time and energy to gain an understanding of his works, for as Frye suggests, to learn to read and understand Blake is to learn a new way of reading poetry, to learn the language of allegory and intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.

One who considers himself enlightened and liberal, and yet at heart religious, will usually cloudily concede a God and a Word somehow saturating the religious texts of the world. In light of the scientific advancements which support Darwin's theories about the origins of man and his present form, one might subscribe to the statement, "Yes, but all of evolution is God's miracle of Creation." More often than not the same person will also, with an educated accent and smile, make this pronouncement: "Man made God in his own image," fully confident that science will bear him out, since after all it has become quite apparent that the earth is not the center of anything, that we are just on a small chunk of dust in the corner of nowhere in an ever-expanding universe of infinite proportions.

William Blake would pity this person, but not enough to hold back a tirade of verbal abuse, for to Blake, the above person is in slavery to the senses and to reason; this person is asleep, but is unaware of his sleep. To Blake, man is made in God's image, literally, and all of mankind in the aggregate comprises the Universal Man who, in his present fallen state, is Albion, asleep on the Rock of Ages.

The Fall of Man occurred when his constituent elements fell into disharmony.

Blake divides man into four elements, four "Zoas": Luvah (Emotion, Love); Urizen (Reason, Wisdom), Tharmas (Body, Sensation), and Urthona (Spirit, Intuition). These divisions of man's nature lend themselves easily in retrospect to a psychological interpretation, but to Blake the Four Zoas represent actual immortal portions of humanity which fight amongst themselves in their fallen state for the control of Man.

Each Zoa becomes divided from its "Emanation" in the Fall, leading to a state of imbalance which can only be restored to balance in the Apocalypse, when the Universal Man is re-united in Eternity. Emanations are the female side of every entity -- they are the thing the entity creates and loves, as opposed to the Spectre, which represents the selfhood of the entity. In the fallen world Emanations are "outside" the entity, and are therefore a continuous source of tantalization and torment, since the entity yearns for union with its Emanation but cannot have it.

Blake took the name for the Four Zoas from the Greek word in the Book of Revelation which refers to the "four living creatures" around the throne of God. Ezekiel in the Old Testament also sees a vision of God with "the likeness of four living creatures" supporting the throne of the Lord. (Ezekiel 1:5) Blake also sees the Four Zoas in the unfallen state in the garden of Eden as the four rivers: the Pison, Hiddekel, Gihon, and Euphrates. These four rivers represent the four senses of the unfallen man as well.

Blake also makes extensive use of the Book of Daniel in his four elements of man. When King Nebuchadnezzar threw three men into a furnace, he looked in and saw four men, "and they were not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like the son of the gods." (Daniel 3:25)

To Blake this represents the transition of Man from a three-fold to a four-fold existence. On earth in his unfallen state, Man exists in terms of three: in time, there is past, present, and future; in space there is height, breadth, and depth; the fourth dimension of time is space and vice versa. In Eden, or Eternity, Man exists in a four-fold dimension of perfect harmony among the Zoas, beyond the illusions of time and space.

Another story in the Book of Daniel describes a vision which came to the same king in his dreams: a huge statue appeared before him with a head of gold, arms and breast of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, and legs of iron, with the feet both iron and clay. A stone cut by no human hand hits the statue and breaks it into pieces, then grows into a mountain which lasts forever. Daniel, who has prophetic powers, explains that his dream represents the ages of man, and the coming of the everlasting kingdom of the Lord. (Daniel 2:32:45)

Blake expands upon Daniel's interpretation while still embracing the central meaning as stated in the Bible. The statue is Albion (Man) before the Fall. The various parts of its body represent the Four Zoas, and the destruction of the statue is the Fall into separation, which leads to an apocalyptic re-union in Eternity, represented by the mountain. (Frye 276)

"Four Mighty Ones are in every Man; a Perfect Unity Cannot Exist but from the Universal Brotherhood of Eden,The Universal Man, to Whom be Glory Evermore, Amen." (Blake 264)

This perfect unity can only exist in Eden, so let us turn to Eden and follow man's fall as seen by Blake. Eden is the highest state of existence, from which Man has fallen and to which he will return after his recognition and rejection of error. Eden is a place of intense ecstasy and exulted communion with God, and hence the soul needs relaxation from its intensity.

"There is from Great Eternity a mild & pleasant rest nam'd Beulah, a soft Moony Universe, feminine, lovely Pure, mild & Gentle, given by Mercy to those who sleep, Eternally created by the Lamb of God around, On all sides, within & without the Universal Man." (Blake 266)

In Beulah the soul rests and rejuvenates itself for energetic delight in Eden. In Beulah, however, error is possible. The soul may decide not to return to Eden's ecstatic states, and instead lazily accept error. When this happens, the Fall begins and the soul enters the third state of existence, Urlo, which is the void of non-existence. Once the soul has fallen, it finds itself wandering aimlessly in the void of Urlo until, through the mercy of God, it is born into the physical universe and given a human body in the world in which we live, called Generation or Vegetation. The purpose of this world is to give the soul a chance to recognize error and cast it out, thus returning to Eternity or Eden. (Roe 76)

In short, the creation of the physical universe is synonymous with the Fall, but it is also an act of mercy by God to prevent Man from falling into total annihilation, which to Blake is the only hell.

"Thus were the stars of Heaven created like a golden chain To bind the Body of Man to heaven from falling into the Abyss." (Blake 287)

The possibility of the Fall, then, is inherent in the existence of Beulah, where error is possible. In Beulah, Albion divides into the sexes, which re-unite again upon entry into Eden. To Blake, every soul has a masculine and feminine component, which separate in the Fall. In the generative world in which we live, the division into the sexes is a source of torment, but also of ecstasy. The self-centered male desire for lustful satisfaction, and the female desire to dominate and control man leads to disharmony between the sexes. On the other hand, through sexual intercourse, mortals get a glimpse of Eternity. Ideally, physical love leads to spiritual union, and thus to illumination. Physical love also serves another important purpose in the generative world: it provides a vehicle for God to become Man through Jesus when he takes on the generative body.

When man falls his identity is not destroyed, it is only brought into another state of existence. At the end of time, Albion awakes from his sleep and returns to Eden through rejection of error and illusion, according to Blake. There is no hell, for good and evil are the arbitrary laws of Urizen, given to Moses at Mount Sinai. The only hell is non-existence. When the Apocalypse occurs all error is destroyed and ceases to exist, and all the wandering souls of man trapped in Urlo and Generation return to Eden. Both Urlo and Generation (this world) are annihilated.

Error is Created. Truth is Eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. (Blake 617)

For Blake, eternity starts beyond (for lack of a better word) the realms of time and space, which are an illusion of the generative world. The Fall of Albion does not occur in time, but is rather an eternal event which results in what we now perceive with our fallen senses: people living in a physical universe of time and space. The creation of time and space are the physical manifestations of the Fall of Man, and so it seems that this event "began" in time.

In Blake's cosmogony, though, eternal events simply exist eternally, and it is our own limited senses which see the world in terms of beginning and end.

"Many suppose that before the Creation All was Solitude & Chaos. This is the most pernicious Idea that can enter the Mind, as it takes away all sublimity from the Bible & Limits All Existence to Creation & Chaos, To the Time & Space fixed by the Corporeal Vegetative Eye, & leaves the Man who entertains such an Idea in the habitation of unbelieving demons. Eternity Exists, and All things in Eternity, Independent of Creation which was an act of Mercy." (Blake 614)

Although this world is an illusion of our fallen senses, and is the realm of the Satanic Urizen in his fallen state, it is not entirely evil, for it is an act of mercy by God to prevent Man's total annihilation. All the events of space and time exist as symbols of Eternal states. Hence, "Eternity is in love with the productions of time."(Blake 151)

"For every thing exists & not one sigh nor smile for tear, One hair nor particle of dust, not one can pass away."(Blake 634)

And all Eternity takes the form of the Universal Man -- Jesus Christ, who is God.

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