William Blake, who lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth, was a profoundly stirring poet who was, in large part, responsible for bringing about the Romantic movement in poetry; was able to achieve remarkable results with the simplest means; and was one of several poets of the time who restored rich musicality to the language (Appelbaum v).
His research and introspection into the human mind and soul has resulted in his being called the Columbus of the psyche, and because no language existed at the time to describe what he discovered on his voyages, he created his own mythology to describe what he found there (Damon ix). He was an accomplished poet, painter, and engraver. Blake scholars disagree on whether or not Blake was a mystic. In the Norton Anthology, he is described as an acknowledged mystic, [who] saw visions from the age of four (Mack 783).
Frye, however, who seems to be one of the most influential Blake scholars, disagrees, saying that Blake was a visionary rather than a mystic. ‘Mysticism’ . . . means a certain kind of religious techniques difficult to reconcile with anyone’s poetry, says Frye (Frye 8). He next says that visionary is a word that Blake uses, and uses constantly and cites the example of Plotinus, the mystic, who experienced a direct apprehension of God four times in his life, and then only with great effort and relentless discipline. He finally cites Blake’s poem I rose up at the dawn of day, in which Blake states, 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 his own 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 immediate social impact of a new play (Frye 4). His social criticism is not only representative of his own country and era, but strikes profound chords in our own time as well. As Appelbaum said in the introduction to his anthology English Romantic Poetry, [Blake] was not fully rediscovered and rehabilitated until a full century after his death (Appelbaum v).
For Blake was not truly appreciated during his life, except by small cliques of individuals, and was not well-known during the rest of the nineteenth century (Appelbaum v). Blake lived during a time of intense social change. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution all happened during his lifetime. These changes gave Blake a chance to see one of the most dramatic stages in the transformation of the Western world from a somewhat feudal, agricultural society to an industrial society where philosophers and political thinkers such as Locke, Franklin, and Paine championed the rights of the individual.
Some of these changes had Blake’s approval; others did not. One example of Blake’s disapproval of changes that happened in his time comes in his poem London, from his work Songs of Experience. In London, which has been described as summing up many implications of Songs of Experience, Blake describes the woes that the Industrial Revolution and the breaking of the common man’s ties to the land have brought upon him (Mack 785).
For instance, the narrator in London describes both the Thames and the city streets as chartered, or controlled by commercial interests; he refers to mind-forged manacles; he relates that every man’s face contains Marks of weakness, marks of woe; and he discusses the every cry of every Man and every Infant’s cry of fear. He connects marriage and death by referring to a marriage hearse and describes it as blighted with plague. He also talks about the hapless Soldier’s sigh and the youthful Harlot’s curse and describes blackening Churches and palaces running with blood (London).
London and many of Blake’s other works dealing with a similar theme, particularly those from the Songs of Experience, strike a particular nerve for those who are living in a society where the cost of living compared with income is steadily increasing, where AIDS, Ebola, and other new and frightening diseases are becoming increasingly common, and where the public is becoming increasingly disillusioned about the reliability and trustworthiness of politicians. These works resonate for a generation which has to deal with exponentially increasing population problems and with rapidly increasing demands on our immigration facilities and resources.
They strike a special chord with a nation that, due to the aforementioned problems, the rise of violent crime, and other considerations, is rapidly desensitizing itself to the marks of weakness, marks of woe that we are becoming accustomed to seeing on the faces of passers-by on the street. Blake did, however, approve of some of the measures that individuals and societies took to gain and maintain individual freedom. As Appelbaum said, He was liberal in politics, sensitive to the oppressive government measures of his day, [and] favorably inspired by the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolution (Appelbaum v).
According to Keynes, Blake wrote many positive and appreciative things about the revolutionary American political thinker Thomas Paine, for instance, such as The Bishop never saw the Everlasting Gospel any more than Tom Paine (Damon 318). As London shows, however, Blake did not entirely approve of the measures taken to forward the causes he longed to advance: London refers to how the hapless Soldier’s sigh/ runs in blood down Palace walls (London 791). Among many other events which took place during the French Revolution, this could possibly refer to the storming of the Bastille or the executions of the French nobility.
Blake also espoused many other notions with which we are now familiar, and occasionally even believe to be self-evident. For instance, in Jerusalem, Blake proposes the Brotherhood of Man as the only solution to the world’s problems, both individual and international (Damon 60). According to Blake, we are all brothers because we are all sons of the Father, and all have Jesus (who often symbolizes Imagination, Humanity, and the source of everything for Blake) in us (Damon 60; Damon 158-159).
This is very similar to the fundamental rights of man espoused in the Declaration of Independence, which states that all men are created equal because they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights (Declaration 10-20). Blake also believed that all life was inherently holy; Damon says that his religion became all-inclusive when he declared that every thing that lives is holy. This was a natural conclusion from the ancient belief that all things were created from the divine substance (344).
This becomes especially important and vital to us in an age where terrorist attacks are becoming increasingly common (witness the bombings at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the Oklahoma City building and increased security on international airline flights), the debate over abortion has led some anti-abortion activists to begin shooting doctors who perform abortions (such as the shooting of Dr. David L. Gunn in 1993), and the major nations of the world have nuclear weapons enough to kill every person on the earth multiple times.
Blake’s views on religion are also particularly relevant to the modern world. As Appelbaum said of Blake, Blake replaced the arid atheism or tepid deism of the encyclopedists and their disciples with a glowing new personal religion (Appelbaum iii). Besides rejecting arid atheism and tepid deism, Blake also attacked conventional religion. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he wrote Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion and As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys (Proverbs 19; Proverbs 20).
Rather than accepting a traditional religion from an organized church, Blake designed his own mythology (based primarily upon the Bible and Greek mythology) to accompany his personal, revealed religion. Blake’s personal 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 was the religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel. Antiquity preaches the Gospel of Jesus (Damon 344).
Blake’s religion was based upon the joy of man, which he believed glorified God (Damon 344). One of Blake’s strongest objections to orthodox Christianity is that it encourages the suppression of natural desires and discourages earthly joy; in A Vision of the Last Judgement, Blake says that Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d their Passions or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion, but Realities of Intellect, from which all the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their Eternal Glory (Damon 344).
Blake also believes that the religion of this world is actually the worship of the entity that St. Paul calls the god of this world in II Corinthians 4:4: Satan. It should be noted here that Blake does not conceive of Satan as an incarnate horned quasi-deity, but rather as Error and the State of Death; Blake also explicitly says that Satan is not a Human existence (Damon 355). Blake believes that orthodox Christians, in part because of their denial of earthly joy, are actually worshiping Satan, which is to say that they are in Error (Damon 344-345; Damon xi).
Since the 1960s, more and more Westerners have joined faith movements which promote individuals deciding on their own ethics and beliefs, or to find their own way to salvation. Examples of these groups include some Eastern 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 question traditional, dogmatic Western religion, Blake’s vision of individual revelation and 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 Black Boy, Blake describes a young black male, who is just becoming aware of the societal differences between himself and a white boy (English child) and uses his mother’s mythology (which he makes his own) to relegate the solution of the problems of racism to an imagined afterlife where I’ll shade him from 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 to Blake) is his emphasis upon science as a tool of understanding. The last line of his unfinished epic poem The Four Zoas is the dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns (Damon xi). Many modern individuals would accept science while failing to attempt to create a personal mythology, and this is not at all what Blake is looking for. Does Blake provide a solution to the ills of this world? Is this solution as relevant to modern times as it was to his own? Emphatically, yes to both questions.
The similarities between our own age and Blake’s are striking. Blake had the Industrial Revolution; we are living in the age of the Information Revolution, which is, with the Internet, entering a new phase which will enable information to be distributed on a scale never before possible. Blake lived in a time when greedy upper-class capitalists exploited the working class for personal profit; we are living in an age in which the nuclear family, with its one working parent and its one parent staying at home to raise the children, is becoming less common and feasible even as the cost of living rises.
Blake lived in an age where Deism, a faith which denied any possibility of direct experience with God, had captured the minds of the more intelligent people of the West; we live in an age of doubt, searching, rejection of traditional dogmatic religion, and science with no mystical experience. Certainly Blake’s vision of a personal mythology actualizing an individual, revealed religion can offer as much to our society as it did to Blake’s. However, whether Blake’s offering will save our television-oriented, fast-food, pop-culture society is another question altogether.