William Blake was a member of a social class with a long history of radical dissent. The Artisan class which he, as the son of a hosier, was born into and consequently remained in as an engraver later in his life, had opposed in turn first the landed mercantile aristocracy in the late eighteenth century and then the emerging industrial capitalism of the early nineteenth. However, in order to determine whether Blake’s visionary world had any relevance to the political realities of the period it is necessary to briefly outline what these were. Whilst history usually records these as the emergence of rationalism, utilitarianism, science in a form we now recognise, and political economy, it is precisely because these forces were destined to eventually become the core values of contemporary society that we must beware of recording them as the only significant movements of the time-victors always have the privilege of writing history to suit themselves. In the London of the 1780’s that Blake lived in there was, in reaction to the spread of the aforementioned values, an explosion of anti-rationalism with a re-emergence of illuminism, masonic rituals, animal magnetism, millenarian speculation and mysticism with the formation of several new groups such as the Rosicrucians, Behmenists and Swedenborgians (of whom Blake was reputedly an avid disciple) to name but a few. New factions of religious belief were also growing and Blake is known to have been actively involved in the setting up of The Church of The New Jerusalem which was a millenarian group who believed that the apocalypse and the creation of God’s kingdom on earth was imminent. Millenarianism was a particularly important idea for artists of the day, including Blake. Millenarianists took the rebellion of the American colonies and the French Revolution as signs of the prophesied New Age in the Bible which was to last for a thousand years before Christ would come again and create ‘a new Heaven and a new Earth.’ Blake’s The French Revolution (1791) and America, a Prophecy (1793) portrayed these revolutions as portents of the last days of the world before the Apocalypse. The violent, creative energy of this period of revolution and fundamental societal change, frequently called the ’spirit of the age’ inspired Blake to announce the beginning of a new age. With his contemporaries he believed that everything was now possible, and that the example of the French Revolution was the best hope for beleaguered humanity, and that he was living in a time of promise of renewal for the whole world. In a sense the artists of the day could not help but be rebels; their art was a reaffirmation of Life, of spontaneous creativity in an increasingly regimented, capitalist society which threatened to dehumanise and mechanise the minds of it’s workers.
Blake’s style of writing also had a real relevance to the political situation of the day. Many of his fellow craftsmen felt threatened by the increasing power of the major industrialists and feared, rightly, that they would lose the ‘masterless freedom’ they then enjoyed. His use of the popular oral form in his Sonqs and his later use of Los the blacksmith/poet as a narrator placed him as an advocate of the class who opposed the war with France and the new Industrialism, along with his method of examining established texts and his hostility to academicism. Blake himself said that “General Knowledge is Remote Knowledge~ and he consequently examined other authors with a somewhat aggressive self-confidence. He treated each author as his equal or less, even the Old Testament prophets, whom he regarded as worse than unenlightened. He saw a battle between polite culture and imagination and claimed (as Los) that he must “create his own system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Blake worked on the premise that experience must be laid alongside learning; that the two should test each other as they progressed, and in this he cannot fail to be identified with the movement that challenged the established hierarchy of the day’s intellectual authority. His challenges to the authorities of the day is sometimes of a mystico-philosophic nature and sometimes of a far more direct nature as in Los’s speech where he declares
“Their God I will not worship in their Churches, nor
King in their Theatres” Therefore, although many of Blake’s contemporaries were undoubtedly far more overtly political in their writing, such as Tom Paine in his Riqhts of Man (1791) and Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication of the Riqhts of Women (1792) for example, Blake’s work had very close links with at least the social realities of the day. He saw himself as a ‘Bard,’ or a messenger to his nation from higher and inner worlds, but at the same time as an honest man expressing his opinion on public matters. This was not as difficult a combination as it might appear on first sight; although Blake rejected much of eighteenth century thinking about religion, he shared the belief with many other artists of the day that Man, in his perfect state, was God.
Despite Blake’s recurrent theme of the difficulties of religious belief for an intellectually advanced person in his era, he claimed himself that all he knew was in the Bible, and much of his mythology and all his prophecies are based on Biblical teaching. He was most concerned with the biblical plot of The Fall, humanity in the fallen world, redemption and the promise of a return to Eden and the creation of a New Jerusalem. This was what he and many others had believed the French Revolution heralded and The French Revolution, America:A Prophecy, Europe:A Prophecy and the prophetic satire The Marriaqe of Heaven and Hell all of which Blake wrote in the early 1790’s portrayed the
contemporary French Revolution as the purifying violence that according to Biblical prophecy was the precursor to the imminent redemption of humanity and the world. As time passed however, Blake and his contemporaries grew more and more disillusioned with the revolution as it became more and more bloody, and Robespierre’s rule became known as The Terror. The original aims of creating a just and equal society and aiding other countries who wished to do so became submerged in conquest and totalitarianism and eventually the Romantic Movement as a whole was forced to re-examine its beliefs. Advocation of a physical, political revolution and belief in an imminent Biblical Apocalypse gave way to a new idea that the prophecies in the Bible must be interpreted in a spiritual sense. Orc, the fiery spirit of Revolution gives way to Los, a visionary in the fallen world as a central character in Blake’s writing. He began to hold the view that revolution must be in the minds of the people, rather than in a political sense and that The Fall and The Redemption must also be explained in a spiritual sense. Whether this was an entirely new way of thinking for Blake is debatable, as he had represented historical revolution as occurring concurrently with radical change in the mind of the individual even in his earliest works. However, Blake’s first attempt to create a myth representing the past, present and future of humanity in a spiritual sense was The Four Zoas (1796-7) where he writes:
“Four Mighty Ones are in every Man; a Perfect Unity
Cannot Exist, but from The Universal Brotherhood of
Los was the fourth immortal starry one, and in the
Of a bright Universe Empery attended day and night
Days and nights of revolving joy, Urthona was his name
In Eden; in the Auricular Nerves of Human life
Which is the Earth of Eden, he his emanations propagated…..
Daughter of Beulah, Sing
His fall into Division and his Resurrection to Unity. Once again here we witness the “Universal Man” who Blake believes is God himself. Here we start to see the idea of an apocalypse by imagination rather than by revolution. He said himself that “The Nature of My Work is Visionary or Imaginative” and it is as Blake moves into the imaginative world of visions and mythology that it could be said his work starts to become divorced from the political realities of the day. He begins to ascertain that it is the psychic disintegration of the Universal Man that is the root cause of humanity’s misery. His ‘Giant Forms’ embodied his experience of human life and suffering and were a complete mythology in themselves. Blake gave credence to the notion that the original sin was ‘Selfhood’; the attempt of an isolated part to be self sufficient. The Fall was a fall into division as in The Four Zoas where Universal Man divides into the “Four Mighty Ones” and then into male spectres and female emanations and the consequent alienation of Man from his fellow beings and other parts of himself is what plunges him into suffering and Hell. He embodies this notion not in straightforward terms, however, but in a series of mythological creatures enacting an epic plot. The essential materials of his poetry are no longer external events and people but the inner feelings of the poet whom, he feels, can help Divided Man become whole again and recreate Eden. The Mind, emotions and imagination are what counts now as it is here that the revolution will take place, not in the outer world. Poetry was to be “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” as Wordsworth had it. Blake saw himself as the embodiment of the poet’s imaginative vision that had become separated from the ordinary world of common experience.
Whether Blake’s visions were literal, laudunum induced, or fabricated purely to challenge and provoke is debatable and much disputed. It is likely that he would have wished to lay claim to them on ideological grounds in his belief that Universal, Imaginative Man was God, but whether or not they were genuine ‘visions’ does not really matter; he uses them to express his imaginings, in the hope they will enable him and others to begin the approach to the mystical ‘whole’ of Paradise. He feels little need to explain them as he believes them to be part of a common Imagination, to which all individuals have a degree of access if they so desire.
However, when exploring the question of Blake’s
political relevance, it is worth remembering that Blake called his ~Universal Man” ‘Albion’; clearly as a representation of England and the imaginative power that is ‘Urthona’ in Eden becomes ‘Los~ in the fallen world, the artisan poet who is in conflict with “Urizen” the master architect of capitalism. “Los” is clearly a means for Blake to represent himself especially and poets in general as people who present vital, fertile consciousness in a society, and possibly a means of effecting change. It is possible to see the biblical fall being used only as a metaphor. Stuart Crehan, in Blake in Context says:
“Human beings are perhaps only ‘in sin’ when they are mentally imprisoned by social conventions and institutions, upon whose limiting constraints both Church and State depend.” ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’ may also be more than ‘contrary states of the human soul.’ In social, historical terms they can be seen to mark the irreversible transition from one type of society to another, which was certainly a political reality at the time Blake was writing. E.P.Thompson has called this process an ‘experience of immiseration’ that came upon working people
“in a hundred different forms; for the field labourer, the loss of his common rights and the vestiges of village democracy; for the artisan, the loss of his craftsman’s status; for the weaver the loss of livelihood and independence; for the child, the loss of work and play in the home; for many groups of workers whose real earnings improved, the loss of security, leisure and the deterioration of the urban environment.” In HolY Thursday Blake’s indignation at this state of affairs becomes apparent. Individualism has bred social indifference and it is not merely the poverty that appals, but the lack of any real concern or care for its victims.
It is possible, then to see Blake’s visionary world in a number of ways; as purely concerned with the mental recreation of Eden, as a comment on and presentation of social values, or as a combination of the two. There appears to be in my opinion an inextricable link between the two polemic interpretations of his visions. A coherent social context is unavoidably necessary to permit intelligibility, and usually, as in Blake’s case, political and social change are the motivating factors that inspire the need to master reality through art.
Crehan, S/BLAKE IN CONTEXT (Gill & MacMillan)
Erdman, D/PROPHET AGAINST EMPIRE (Princeton)
Mason, M (Ed.)/WILLIAM BLAKE (Oxford)
Raine, K/BLAKE & THE NEW AGE (Unwin)
Sampson, J(Ed.)/POETICAL WORKS OF BLAKE (Oxford)
Thompson, E/WITNESS AGAINST THE BEAST (Cambridge)wersdf