May 20


Introduction to the Romantic Poets, part five: William Blake

The beginning of this series is here.

Of all the Romantic poets, William Blake is the closest to my heart. Ever since I first read Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, Blake has been a living presence, a thinker who continues to provide a large part of the framework of how I see the world, an artist whose colours and verse I notice everywhere. I remember sitting at my desk in Damascus, copying out The Marriage of Heaven and Hell line by line, puzzling over certain unexpected prepositions.

But the purpose of this post is more simple: to introduce his poetry and thought, and to relate him to the other Romantics. Blake worked through the “Romantic problem” that I described in my post on Shelley, producing a solution that remains just as psychologically penetrating for artists today.

Here is an introduction to Blake’s thought, starting at first principles and expanding onwards into art, the self, tradition and independence, science and perception, tyranny and freedom, psychology and religion. Each point is numbered, and this is my numbering system, not Blake’s, intended as an easy way to get a grip on this sometimes hyper-cryptic poet. Even this brief list should give some sense of why I, and so many others, find Blake such a great inspiration and support.

Blake’s vision, as understood by Daniel:

  1. The imagination exists.
  2. Under certain circumstances, the imagination is communicable, communal, and enduring.
  3. We call such circumstances “art.” A play like Othello, once merely a flicker in Shakespeare’s imagination, continues to communicate with audiences hundreds of years after the person called Shakespeare died.
  4. For most of our lives, however, art, desire, and imagination have only a limited sway over the world. Most of the time, we don’t get what we want.
  5. Therefore, there are only two intellectually coherent ways to see human existence. Either our imagination is “not real,” something confined to our individual heads, a secondary thing compared to the primary world of rocks and stones and trees, or it is the world itself that is not real.

Blake, an artist, chooses to believe the latter. He sees the world around him as “fallen”: fallen from a different time when the imagination was at all times real.

  1. Nature, in this fallen state of ours, plays three roles. She acts as the three-part goddess to each and every one of us, depending on how we perceive her: she is our mother, because we are born into the natural world and need her help to grow and survive; she is our spouse, once we learn to marshal our imagination to create art out of nature; she is a trickster and harlot when we mistake her for actual (and not fallen) reality.

Blake: “I fear Wordsworth loves nature, and nature is the work of the Devil.”

This mistake was, in fact, our original fall. God / Man created the world, and, admiring it as an object, he accepted it as something separate from himself. This breaking of the universe into subject and object, perceiver and perceived, sent both humanity and God falling towards worse and worse states. And the same fall is repeated every time we choose to see ourselves as accidental by-products of an inhuman and meaningless natural order.

  1. Science is, on one level, just another branch of art, another use of human imagination. However, modern science frequently pushes a world view that encourages us to remain fallen. Science assumes that nature can only exist in her harlot aspect–science posits a mysterious, incomprehensibly vast and ancient machine in which we exist largely by accident, its processes moving as inevitably and mindlessly as vegetable life. And because science and its defenders are constantly pushing this outlook, the artist must campaign against them. The artist is not “anti-science,” and definitely not “anti thought” or “anti logic,” only anti the view of life that science tends to promote. We must be able to see both the fallen world of the five senses and the risen, perfect world of the imagination.

Blake: “…it will be Questiond ‘When the Sun rises, do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

  1. Religion is essential to any understanding of  life. Each of us is, after all, a fragment of the fallen deity, a titanic God trying harder and harder to wake up. And the Bible guides its readers to a true understanding of reality, showing powerful stories of fall, struggle, and redemption. However, any religion that requires an unthinking belief in some long-vanished event, whether that event is the parting of the Red Sea or the crucifixion, is once again a defender of the “inevitable universe” fallacy–such a religion wants us to obey various mysterious, inhuman laws, and threatens us with punishment if we disobey. Such a religion is an enemy of the imagination, and must be fiercely resisted and fought.

“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & governd their Passions or have No Passions but because they have Cultivated their Understandings.”

  1. One Jewish and Christian myth that has been conveniently misunderstood by its preachers (and the rulers who pay their salaries), according to Blake, is the Garden of Eden story. As we have it now, the story makes humans look  simply foolish for not following God’s rules. In such a situation, God was quite sensible to confine those childlike beings to a garden, and also quite justified to hand them a set of laws.

Blake, however, argues that the fall out of the garden must have merely been the last of several falls. After all, the final book in the Bible, Revelation, describes a holy city. Therefore, it makes sense to assume we started off in that city, and descended in a series of disasters to a garden, and then, by a final fall, to where we are now. By that late point, humanity and God had descended to the rebellious child/paranoid tyrant stage that Genesis so vividly depicts.

“God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.”

  1. Many artists, of course, believe in this mechanical, inevitable universe, too. Without knowing it, they handicap themselves, because in that universe, art is considered ephemeral, a luxury. Such artists view themselves as passive recipients of nature’s beauty, and for them, the imagination is merely a tool to decorate what their senses perceive, or to lyrically explain what thoughts they are experiencing in their heads.

Perhaps they believe they should represent the world “as it really is” (as their senses and prejudices say it is), or believe they should present an impressionist, hazy picture of either the world or their interior life (implicitly arguing that reality is too complex for a mere human mind to grasp). Or, in the case of a writer like Shelley, they believe in a truth and power that lies out there somewhere, something unknowable and abstract. Such art is mistakes our fallen state, cut off from the divine and divided within ourselves, for reality.

Such art is, also, the enemy.

  1. A science that propounds a mechanical universe, a religion based on mystery, an art that merely tries to capture how things seem to appear–these are not morally neutral: they all support tyranny. After all, if the universe is ruled by inevitable laws that humans can only imperfectly grasp, then why should humanity be ruled any differently? If nature is cruel, and if we are natural beings, then government must surely be cruel, too (when the circumstances demand, of course).

In developed societies, a class of intellectuals will constantly tell us that we must follow, that we gain so much by obedience, that it is our moral duty. These “angels” must be opposed by all true artists, and in the debate and contest that follows, slowly a better world becomes visible to the populace.

  1. Part of the work of the “angels” is to convince us that if we just calm down and play along, trust in our rulers, enjoy our distractions, treat others with respect, then everything will improve and eventually everyone will be happy. Such a view is inevitably hostile to art, as it fears art’s fire and radicalism, its insistence on the present moment, its dislike of manifesto and paraphrase, and so these angels semi-secretly wish artists would stop being so weird, would stop following their uncomfortable visions, and “get with the program.” The problem, Blake believes, is that if this slow but steady approach to life actually worked, it would have worked by now. How long are we supposed to wait until this mysterious future arrives? In fact, our supposedly enlightened societies, and the wonderful comforts they give us, continue to produce suffering, slavery, poverty, and war. Only art, and the visionary freedom it brings, can wake us from the cycle of supposed necessity we call history.

My critique of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era may make more sense now.

  1. In the cycles of history, we see periodic risings of revolutionary energy. Empires rise, ossify, and fall. In his longer poems, Blake called this youthful exuberance “Orc,” a ruddy, enthusiastic archetype who opposes the wintry, hazy, sky-god tyrant “Urizen.” And artists represent Orc as they assert their own individuality, their own right to speak. Each new poet is a revolution.

However, revolutions fail. The Americans, having threw off the British, maintained slavery. And so, when looked at from a more remote angle, Orc and Urizen are really the same person, seen at different ages. Orc slays the old Urizen and inherits the kingdom, only to age into another Urizen. King Arthur is both the kingdom-redeeming hero and the dragon the hero must defeat. And so any poet too enamoured with Orc-ness will age, inevitably, into an exhausted and bitter Urizen—a Wordsworth worrying about paganism, a Shelley hailing the inevitable triumph of mechanical, inhuman life.

  1. The true hero of Blake’s epics, therefore, is not Orc but “Los,” a blacksmith who is continually forging the eternal holy city, creating it from all the works of art that humanity has ever made. And Los, unlike Orc, accepts the past and puts it to use. In Jerusalem, Blake depicts the spirit of Milton descending to Earth, in order to complete the poetic mission his own life left unfinished, and choosing to incarnate himself in Blake, entering via Blake’s left foot. Blake, by recognising his identity with poets of the past, by perceiving his part in a tradition he is determined to use and change, escapes the cycle of vitality and ruin, of Orc and Urizen. Poets who do not do this will sooner or later come to worship only their own exhaustion, their own cynical “maturity.”
  2. The artist’s role is to depict, through the hard, unending labour that is art, the terrors of our fallen state and the wonders of the true. The holy city is being built again, built from every artist’s work, a city where the streets are paved with fire, a place of continual creation, freedom, and change.

“Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.”


Blake in London, Northrop Frye, prophetic books, Romantic poetry, Shelley, William Wordsworth

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  • Fascinating summary. I have read some of Blake, but not much. You inspire me to read more. I have many friends who have read Blake and esteem him. Many of them are artists. One of them, a good friend, I think you might like in particular. He would say reading Blake & the Bible has led him on a profound spiritual journey.

    I will be returning to read more of your stuff.


    • Thanks Kirk! See if there’s anything in my “Criticism and Reviews” page that you like. My piece on Christina Rossetti’s “Uphill” is also popular. I think I have helped students plagiarise essays on that poem all over the world 🙂

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