The real man, the imagination.
In 1827 there died, undoubtedly unknown to each other, two plebeian Europeans of supreme originality: Ludwig van Beethoven and William Blake. Had they known of each other, they could still not have known how much of the future they contained and how alike they were in the quality of their personal force, their defiance of the age, and the fierce demands each had made on the human imagination.
It is part of the story of Blake’s isolation from the European culture of his time that he could have known of Beethoven, who enjoyed a reputation in the London of the early 1800’s. The Ninth Symphony was in fact commissioned by the London Philharmonic, who made Beethoven’s last days a little easier. The artistic society of the day was appreciative of Beethoven. It ignored the laborious little engraver, shut off by his work and reputed madness, who was known mainly to a few painters, and held by most of them to be a charming crank.
It is hard to imagine Blake going to concerts or reading accounts of Beethoven’s music. He never traveled. Except for one three-year stay at a cottage in Sussex, he hardly went out of London. Like his father and brothers, he lived the life of a small tradesman—at one time he kept a printshop. He was always very poor, and generally worked in such seclusion that at one period, near the end of his life, he did not leave his house for two years, except to go out for porter. Blake had instinctive musical gifts; in his youth and old age he spontaneously, when in company, sang melodies to his own lyrics. Musicians who heard them set them down; I wish I knew where. Even on his deathbed, where he worked to the last, he composed songs. But he had no formal musical knowledge and apparently no interest in musical thought. Self-educated in every field except engraving, to which he had been apprenticed at fourteen, his only interest in most ideas outside his own was to refute them. He always lived and worked very much alone, with a wife whom he trained to be the mirror of his mind. The world let him alone. He was entirely preoccupied with his designs, his poems, and the burden—which he felt more than any writer whom I know—of the finiteness of man before the whole creation.
Beethoven’s isolation was different. He was separated from society by his deafness, his pride, his awkward relations with women, relatives, patrons, inadequate musicians. He was isolated, as all original minds are, by the need to develop absolutely in his own way. The isolation was made tragic, against his will, by his deafness and social pride. At the same time he was one of the famous virtuosos of Europe, the heir of Mozart and the pupil of Haydn, and the occasional grumpy favorite of the musical princes of Vienna. His isolation was an involuntary personal tragedy, as it was by necessity a social fact. He did not resign himself to it, and only with the greatest courage learned to submit to it. If he was solitary, it was in a great tradition. As he was influenced by his predecessors, so he became the fountainhead of the principal musical thought that came after him.
Blake’s isolation was—I sometimes think it still is— absolute. It was the isolation of a mind that sought to make the best of heaven and earth, in the image of neither. It was isolation of a totally different kind of human vision; of an unappeasable longing for the absolute integration of man, in his total nature, with the universe. It was the isolation of a temperament run on fixed ideas; and incidentally, of a craftsman who could not earn a living. There are analogies to Blake’s position in a world which has so many displaced persons as our own; but they are inadequate. Blake’s isolation may be likened to that of the revolutionary who sits in his grubby room writing manifestoes against a society that pays him no attention, with footnotes against other revolutionaries who think him mad. It was that of the author who prints his own books. It was that of the sweetly smiling crank who sits forever in publishers’ offices, with a vast portfolio under his arm, explaining with undiminishable confidence that only through his vision will the world be saved. It was that of the engraver who stopped getting assignments because he turned each one into an act of independent creation. Blake was a lyric poet interested chiefly in ideas, and a painter who did not believe in nature. He was a commercial artist who was a genius in poetry, painting, and religion. He was a libertarian obsessed with God; a mystic who reversed the mystical pattern, for he sought man as the end of his search. He was a Christian who hated the churches; a revolutionary who abhorred the materialism of the radicals. He was a drudge, sometimes living on a dollar a week, who called himself “a mental prince”; and was one.
There are other points of difference between Blake and Beethoven, important to recognize before we can appreciate their likeness. With Beethoven we are in the stream of modern secular culture. Beethoven, the enduring republican and anti-Bonapartist, the social dramatist of Fidelio, the jealous admirer of Goethe, the celebrant of Schiller’s call to the joyous brotherhood of man! is a central figure in our history, as Blake never has been. We remember Beethoven the moralist, the Beethoven who felt so gratefully at home in the world of Kant that he copied out a sentence, probably at second-hand, and kept it on his work-table—”The starry heavens above us and the moral law within us. Kant!!!” To Blake the “moral law” was a murderous fiction and the stars were in the heavens because man’s imagination saw them there. Beethoven speaks to our modern humanity in tones we have learned to prize as our own and our greatest, as Blake has not yet; he is uneasily religious and spiritually frustrated, in a familiar agnostic way? where Blake is the “immoralist” and “mystic” by turns. Beethoven could not hear the world, but he always believed in it. His struggles to sustain himself in it, on the highest level of his creative self-respect, were vehement because he could never escape the tyranny of the actual. He was against material despotisms, and knew them to be real. Blake was also against them; but he came to see every hindrance to man’s imaginative self-liberation as a fiction bred by the division in man himself. He was against society in toto: its prisons, churches, money, morals, fashionable opinions; he did not think that the faults of society stemmed from the faulty organization of society. To him the only restrictions over man are always in his own mind—the “mind-forg’d manacles.”
With Blake, it would seem, we are off the main track of modern secular thought and aspiration. The textbooks label him “mystic,” and that shuts him off from us. Actually he is not off the main track, but simply ahead of it; a peculiarly disturbed and disturbing prophet of the condition of modern man rather than a master-builder. From any conventional point of view he is too different in kind to be related easily to familiar conceptions of the nature of the individual and society. Blake combines, for example, the formal devotional qualities of the English dissenters with the intellectual daring of Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade, and Freud. No Christian saint ever came to be more adoring of Jesus, and no naturalistic investigator was a more candid opponent of traditional Christian ethics. He was one of the subtlest and most far-reaching figures in the intellectual liberation of Europe that took place at the end of the eighteenth century. But he had no interest in history, and easily relapsed into primitive nationalism. To the end of his life his chief symbol for man, “the eternal man,” was Albion; the origin of “natural religion” he located among the Druids; he hated Newton and despised Voltaire, but painted the apotheosis of Nelson and Pitt. Like so many self-educated men, he was fanatically learned; but he read like a Fundamentalist—to be inspired or to refute. He painted by “intellectual vision”—that is, he painted ideas; his imagination was so original that it carried him to the borders of modern surrealism. Yet he would have been maddened by the intellectual traits of surrealism: the calculated insincerities, the defiant disorder, the autonomous decorative fancy, the intellectual mockery and irreverence. That part of surrealism which is not art is usually insincerity, and to Blake any portion of insincerity was a living death.
As he hated church dogma, so he hated scepticism, doubt, experimentalism. He did not believe in sin, only in “intellectual error”; he loathed every dualistic conception of good and evil; the belief that any human being could be punished, here or elsewhere, for “following his energies.” But he thought that unbelief—that is, the admission of uncertainty on the part of any person—was wicked. He understood that man’s vital energies cannot be suppressed or displaced without causing distortion; he saw into the personal motivations of human conflict and the many concealments of it which are called culture. He celebrated in Songs of Innocence, with extraordinary inward understanding, the imaginative separateness of the child. He hated scientific investigation. He could say in his old age, when provoked, that he believed the world was flat. He was undoubtedly sincere, but he did not really care what shape it was; he would not have believed any evidence whatsoever that there were many planets and universes. He did not believe in God; under all his artistic labors and intellectual heresies he seems to have thought of nothing else. He is one of the most prophetic and gifted rebels in the history of Western man—a man peculiarly of our time, with the divisions of our time. Some of his ideas were automatically superstitious, and a large part of his writing is rant. There are features of his thought that carry us beyond the subtlest understanding we have of the relations between man and woman, the recesses of the psyche, the meaning of human error, tyranny, and happiness. There are chapters in his private mythology that carry us into a nightmare world of loneliness and fanaticism, like a scream repeated interminably on a record in which a needle is stuck.
Yet Blake is very much like Beethoven in his artistic independence and universality. Like Beethoven, he is a pioneer Romantic of that heroic first generation which thought that the flames of the French Revolution would burn down all fetters. Like Beethoven, he asserts the creative freedom of the imagination within his work and makes a new world of thought out of it. There sounds all through Blake’s poetry, from the boyish and smiling defiance of neoclassic formalism in Poetical Sketches,
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forced, the notes are few!
to the vision of man the divine in Jerusalem that lyric despair mingled with quickness to exaltation, that sense of a primal intelligence fighting the mind’s limitations, that brings Beethoven’s last quartets so close to absolute meditation and the Ninth Symphony to a succession of triumphal marches. What is nearest and first in both men is so strong a sense of their own identity that they are always reaching beyond man’s conception of his powers. In both there is a positive assertion against suffering, an impatience with forms and means. As Beethoven said of the violinist who complained of the difficulty of one of the Rasumofsky quartets—”Does he really suppose I think of his puling little fiddle when the spirit speaks to one and I compose something?”—so to Blake the forms he uses in his last Prophetic Books, even to their very narrative coherence, are nothing before the absoluteness of his vision. In both life becomes synonymous with the will.
There, however, the resemblance ends. For Beethoven does not block our way by asking us to read him in symbols of his own invention. He is subtle, moving, reflective, in a language which we- share because he has made it possible for us to share in it. Out of a limited number of musical tones and devices, he has organized his thought and impressed his conception in such a way that his difference is all in his art. When we have grasped his meaning something has enriched our lives without dislodging them. Beethoven is as luminously human as he is creatively independent; he can be gay; he parodies; he introduces a little Russian tune to compliment a patron; he is fond of bearish jokes. He is often difficult, but never impossible. He does not challenge man’s submission to the natural order; he finds his place in it, and often in such deep wells of serenity, of happiness in his own struggle, that the song that rises from him almost at the very end, in his last quartet, is for a dance. “Must it bed” he wrote on the manuscript. “It must be. It must be.” He may have been thinking of something less than man’s ultimate relation to life. But the idea that something must be is what is most hateful to Blake’s mind.
For Blake accepts nothing—not the God who is supposed to have proposed it this way, or the man who is constrained to dispose it in any way he can. Blake begins with a longing so deep, for all that is invisible and infinite to man under the dominion of God, matter, and reason, that he tears away the shell of earth, the prison of man in his own senses, to assert that there is nothing but man and that man is nothing but the highest flights of his own imagination. With his little tradesman’s look, his fanatical industriousness, his somber qualities of the English dissenter and petty-bourgeois, he begins with so absolute a challenge to the religion that was dying in his age, and to the scientific materialism that arose in it, that he transcends them both—into a world that is exalted and often beautiful, but of which he alone saw the full detail.
To understand this is to pass up the usual tags. Blake is seeking something which is analogous to mysticism, but he is not in any ordinary sense a mystic. He is very much in the stream of thought which led to naturalism, but he is not a naturalist. It is more important, however, to show what he shares with us rather than with the mystics. Only those who want to make a Blake easy to explain and apologize for, convenient for the textbooks, can see him as a queer and harmless “mystic.” As D. H. Lawrence said of his work, “They’ll say as they said of Blake: It’s mysticism, but they shan’t get away with it, not this time: Blake’s wasn’t mysticism, neither is this.” Even at the end, when Blake celebrated Jesus as his great friend and deliverer, we have in “The Everlasting Gospel:”
The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy:
Thine is the friend of all Mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the Blind:
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy Heaven doors are my Hell Gates.
Christian mysticism is founded on dualism. It is rooted in the belief that man is a battleground between the spirit and the flesh, between the temptations of earth and God as the highest Good. The mystic way is the logical and extreme manifestation of the spiritual will, obedient to a faith in supernatural authority, to throw off the body and find an ultimate release in the Godhead. Christian mysticism is based upon a mortification of the body so absolute that it attains a condition of ecstasy. To the mystic, God is the nucleus of the Creation, and man in his earthly life is a dislodged atom that must find its way back. The mystic begins with submission to a divine order, which he accepts with such conviction that earthly life becomes nothing to him. He lives only for the journey of the soul that will take him away, upward to God. What would be physical pain to others, to him is purgation; what would be doubt to others, to him is hell; what would be death for others, to him is the final consummation—and one he tries to reach in the living body.
Blake has the mystic’s tormented sense of the doubleness of life between reality and the ideal. But he tries to resolve it on earth, in the living person of man. Up to 1800 he also thought it could be resolved in society, under the inspiration of the American and French Revolutions. Blake is against everything that submits, mortifies, constricts and denies. Mystics are absent-minded reactionaries; they accept indifferently everything in the world except the barriers that physical existence presents to the soul’s inner quest. Blake is a revolutionary. He ceased to be a revolutionary in the political sense after England went to war with France and tried to destroy the revolution in Europe. That was less out of prudent cowardice—though like every other radical and free-thinker of the time he lived under a Tory reign of terror —than because he had lost faith in political action as a means to human happiness. Even in politics, however, his libertarian thought became a challenge to all the foundations of society in his time. Blake is not only unmystical in the prime sense of being against the mystic’s immediate concerns and loyalties; he is against all accepted Christianity. He is against the churches,
Remove away that black’ning church;
Remove away that marriage hearse:
Remove away that place of blood:
You’ll quite remove the ancient curse.
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.
Against the “moral law.” He denies that man is born with any innate sense of morality—all moral codes are born of education— and thinks education a training in conformity. He is against all belief in sin; to him the tree in Eden is the gallows on which freedom-seeking man is hanged by dead-souled priests. He savagely parodied a Dr. Thornton’s new version of the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father Augustus Caesar, who art in these thy Substantial Astronomical Telescopic Heavens, Holiness to Thy Name or Title, & reverence to thy Shadow…. Give us day by day our Real Taxed Substantial Money bought bread; deliver from the Holy Ghost whatever cannot be taxed….
He is against every conception of God as an omnipotent person, as a body, as a Lord who sets in train any lordship over man:
Thou art a Man, God is no more,
Thine own humanity learn to adore.
He believes that all restraint in obedience to a moral code is against the spirit of life:
Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs & flaming hair,
But Desire Gratified
Plants fruits & beauty there.
Blake is against all theological casuistry that excuses pain and admits evil; against sanctimonious apologies for injustice and the attempt to buy bliss in another world with self-deprivation in this one. The altar is a place on which the serpent has vomited out its poison; the priest is a blind old man with shears in his hand, to cut the fleece off human sheep. Sex is life, and no one can be superior to it or honestly content with less than true gratification:
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women in men do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
Restraint, in fact, follows from the organized injustice and domination in society:
The harvest shall flourish in wintry weather
When two virginities meet together:
The King & the Priest must be tied in a tether
Before two virgins can meet together.
He is against all forms of human exploitation, and all rationalizations of it in human prejudice:
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or few;
Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
Against war, especially holy ones; against armies, and in pity for soldiers; against the factory system, the labor of children, the evaluation of anything by money.
In “London,” one of his simplest and greatest poems, Blake paints the modern city under the sign of man’s slavery, the agony of children, the suffering Soldier and the Whore:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
“Charter’d” means “bound.” In his first draft of this poem, Blake wrote “dirty Thames,” but characteristically saw that he could realize more of the city’s human slavery in describing the river as bound between its London shores. His own place in the poem is that of the walker in the modern inhuman city, one isolated man in the net which men have created. “I wander thro’ each charter’d street.” For him man is always the wanderer in the oppressive and sterile world of materialism which only his imagination and love can render human. In a more difficult poem, characteristic of his deeper symbolism, he speaks of the world of matter as
A Fathomless & boundless deep,
There we wander, there we weep;
In “London,” however, the wandering is not a symbolic expression. In the modern city man has lost his real being, as he has already lost his gift of vision in the “fathomless and boundless” deep of his material nature. Blake here describes one man, himself, in a city that is only too real, the only city he ever knew—yet the largest in the world, the center of empire. The city stands revealed in the cry of every Man, in everyInfant’s cry of fear. The wanderer in the chartered streets is concerned with a social picture and, in the face of so much suffering, with the social evil that some create and all permit. The extraordinary terseness of the poem stems from Blake’s integral vision of the suffering of man and his alienation from institutions as one. His indignation gives him the power of movement; it also leads him into the repetitions which dominate the tonal order of the poem—the every cry of every Man, the Infant’s cry of fear, till his tender vehemence swells into the generality of in every voice, in every ban. Every is magic to Blake. Poetically he cannot go wrong on it, for it carries such a kernel of glory to his mind, it points so immediately to his burning human solidarity, that in using it he knows himself carried along by what is deepest to him. The mindforg’d manacles, as central to his thought as any phrase he ever used, follows with a triumphant sweep right after it, and for an obvious reason. For he is one with every voice, every ban, and can now make his judgment. On this fresh creative impulse he leaps ahead to what is so complex, but for him so natural, a yoking of images:
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
The young Chimney-sweeper is always dear to Blake, especially when he is condemned to get the soot out of the churches—an impossible task. He is the symbol of the child who is lost. He works among the waste-dirt of the Church, itself black with dogma and punitive zeal, and his own suffering makes it even blacker. Black’ning is a verb of endless duration in present time for Blake. In his drawing to this poem, the Chimney-sweeper is shown in one corner struggling before a black flame. At the top of the page he stands in defiance before the blind and tottering old man, the fossilized Church, who seems to be pouring out fresh soot. The walls are the stone blocks of a prison. The whole page is marked, like the turn of the hand on a vehement signature, by a fierce black border. Pictorially and verbally we thus rise to a climax at the wordappalls. The Church is not appalled by the Chimney-sweeper’s cry; the cry of the child, out of the midst of the Church, makes the Church appalling. Blake’s thrust is so swift and deep that he characteristically puts the whole burden of his protest, with its inner music, into four words. Every black and blackening Church is appalling, and in every way. The tone of palls to his ear, carrying the image of death, the grief and shame that will not rest, clangs with reverberations.
The unhappiness of the Soldier is not that of a man bleeding before a palace of which he is the sentry. Blake means that the Soldier’s desperation runs, like his own blood, in accusation down the walls of the ruling Palace. Blake’s own mind ran in so many channels at once, his vision of human existence was so total, that it probably never occurred to him that blood would mean anything less to others than it did to him. “Runs in blood down palace walls” is what Blake sees instantaneously in his mind when he thinks of the passivity and suffering of the Soldier. Blake is too much abreast of the reality he sees to use similes; he cannot deliberate to compare something to another. And he is equally incapable of using a metaphor with self-conscious daring. He saw the blood running down the ruler’s walls before thinking of blood as a “powerful” image. There is no careful audacity in him, the preparation for the humor of T. S. Eliot’s
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.
Blake’s poetic urge, it is clear, was not to startle, to tease the mind into fresh combinations, but to make tangible, out of the wealth of relationships he carried in his mind, some portion of it equal to his vision of the life of man. How swiftly and emphatically he turns, at the first line of the fourth stanza, to
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
But most stands for: what I have described thus far is not the full horror of London, my city; not anything like what I have to tell you! And he then gives back, in eighteen words, the city in which young girls are forced into prostitution; in which their exile from respectable society, like the unhappiness of the Soldier, expresses itself in a physical threat to another. The Soldier accuses the Palace with his blood; the prostitute curses with infection the young husband who has been with her; the “plague” finally kills the new-born child. The carriage that went to the church for a marriage ends at the grave as a hearse. Nothing can equal the bite of “blights with plagues,” the almost visible thrust of the infection. And thanks to Blake’s happy feeling for capitals, which he used with a painter’s eye to distinguish the height of his concepts, Marriage stands above the rest in the last sentence of the poem, and swiftly falls into a hearse.
These are some of the poem’s details, but they are not the poem. For the poem is to be grasped only by the moral imagination, as a shuddering vision of the mind. The title is a city, as the city is the present human world on the threshold of the industrial revolution. We are to read from the title to the last word, from London to its inner death, in one movement of human sympathy and arousal. This, in its simplest sense, is the key to Blake’s meaning of vision. Vision is his master-word, not mysticism or soul. For vision represents the total imagination of man made tangible and direct in works of art. And as the metric structure of the poem encloses, in each line-frame of sharply enclosed syllables, the sight of man entering fully into the city with all his being—hearing “the mind-forg’d manacles,” the harlot’s disease blasting “the new born infant’s tear,” so the whole poem carries us along, in a single page, while the border designs meanwhile extend the vision by another art.
Blake was artist and poet; he designed his poems to form a single picture. Trained to engraving as a boy, he invented for himself a method of etching a hand-printed poem and an accompanying design on the same page. Only two of his works were ever printed—his first book, Poetical Sketches, most of which he wrote between the ages of twelve and twenty-one, and a long and declamatory celebration of the new world after ’89 called The French Resolution. Neither of these works was ever published. Poetical Sketches was run od for him, with a patronizing and apologetic preface by a Reverend Mathew, who with his wife formed a provincial intellectual society that Blake burlesqued in An Island in the Moon. The French Revolution was printed by a bookseller, Joseph Johnson, who was the center of a radical circle in London that included Blake, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine. After England became embroiled with France and a reactionary witchhunt set after radical intellectuals and sympathizers with the French Republic, Johnson became panicky and left the book in proof. Some of Blake’s greatest poem—”The Everlasting Gospel,” “Auguries of Innocence,” the lyrics that follow Songs of Innocence and of Experience—were found in “The Rossetti Manuscript,” which was bought by Dante Gabriel Rossetti for ten shillings from an attendant at the British Museum. Blake’s most famous works, Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, along with his Prophetic Books—The Book of Thel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America, Europe, The Boot of Urizen, Milton, Jerusalem, etc.—were done entirely by his method of “illuminated printing.” Blake said he got the inspiration for this technique from the spirit of his dead brother Robert, the only member of his family with whom he had common sympathies. This may be true, but it is a pity that Blake had to say so, for it has given people the idea ever since that Blake’s visions were of the kind limited to a séance.
Blake’s general technique is now clear. He etched his poems and designs in relief, with acid on copper. He corroded with acid the unused portions of the plate— characteristically, this became a symbol in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell of the corrosion of dead matter by the visionary human imagination. Each printpage as it was taken off the press was colored by hand. Each copy of a work was planned in a different color scheme. There are probably no handmade books in the world more beautiful. The only models for Blake were, of course, the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. But Blake worked in an entirely different spirit. The medieval manuscripts, impressive as they are, remain pictorial and remote; they were created by copyists, ornamentalists and pious scribes who worked in a liturgical spirit. Blake’s designs are the accessories of a single creative idea. His conception of the beautiful book, as Laurence Binyon said, was one of a complete unity, “in which the lettering, the decoration, the illustrations, the proportions of the page, the choice of paper, surpassed even the conceptions of the medieval scribes and miniaturists.” Yet Blake was not aiming at a “beautiful book” for its own sake, or at the kind of isolated luxury product which we usually associate with book illustration by a master artist. To him all the arts were simultaneously necessary, in their highest creative use and inner proportion, to give us the ground essence of his vision and a stimulus to our own. What was most important to him was that he should get all his vision down, through all the arts open to him, in work done entirely in his own person.
Blake’s search for unity began in his own hands, with his sense of craft. The symbolic synthesis to be created by his imagination was an image of man pressing, with the full power of his aroused creativity, against the walls of natural appearances. Each page of “illuminated printing” for him was a little world, in which the structure of the poem, the designs on the border, the accompanying figures on the page, the tints of the color, the rhythm of the lettering, were joined together into the supreme metaphor.
The attempt to model some ideal unity in a single work is not unique in itself—it is the symbolic function of traditional religious art, and is to be found in the outer and inner architecture of the cathedrals, the structure of The Divine Comedy, and cruciformly printed poems of George Herbert. What is different in Blake is that he is not modeling after any symbols but his own. The symbols always have an inner relatedness that leads us from the outer world to the inner man. The symbols live in the ordered existence of his vision; the vision itself is entirely personal, in theme and in the logic that sustains it. What is before us, in one of his pages, has been created entirely by him in every sense, and the unimpeachable quality of his genius is shown in an order that is as great as his independence, and shows us how real both were. The characteristic of his genius is to lift his unexpected symbols for the inner world of the imagination into a world in which they stand apart from the natural world and defy it.
When he designs illustrations to Gray’s poems, the magnitude of his vision throws the lines he is illustrating off the page. But what impresses us in their magnitude is not their physical size, but the uncanny spiritual coherence which joins them together and gives them an effect of absolute force. Blake could never “illustrate” another man’s work, even though it was pretty much the only way by which he could earn a living. Even if he respected the other man’s work, as he did Milton and Dante, he created new conceptions of their subject in his own designs. When he did his twenty-one engravings to the Book of Job, he reversed the pious maxims of the Bible story to show a man destroyed by his own materialism and selfrighteousness. Fortunately, he did not set his Job designs against a page reproduced from the Bible; he selected passages, and wrote new ones, and put both into the scroll-work of his border designs. His vision of Job is entirely his own work, as the Job is indeed the greatest of his “Prophetic Books.” Where the words were created by him, as in his poems, the love of the word to the design is only one revelation of man’s will to wed the contraries—like the marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake’s conception of union and of the infiniteness of union has no physical status. For him infinity is in man’s passions and his will to know; it is a state of being.
Yet what has been designed is bound, much as Blake disliked all limits. So he carried the force and delicacy of his longing for the infinite into the subtle inwardness of everything he drew. In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he designed his poems in such a way that the words on the line seemed to grow like flowerheads out of a thicket. Each hand-printed letter of script, each vine trailing a border between the lines, each moving figure above, beside, and below the page mounts and unites to form some visible representation of the inner life of man—seen in phases of the outward nature. Yet Blake was not Peking to represent nature; he used it as a book of symbols. When he put down something “natural” and visible on his page—a bramble, a tree, a leaf, a figure moving mysteriously in its symbolic space—the effort seemed to dissolve his need to believe in its separate existence.
The acid of the designer’s imagination burned away the materials on which it worked. What he represented, for purposes of spiritual vision and imagery, dissolved its own exterior naturalness for him. The natural forms—from the arch of the sky to the stolid heroic figures he liked to draw—became a mold that would contain his symbolic ideas of them. This is what makes his gift so beautiful on one level, and often so unreachable on another. He brought a representation of the world into every conception; but he never drew an object for its own sake. He wrote and drew, as he lived, from a fathomless inner window, in an effort to make what was deepest and most invisible capturable by the mind of man. Then he used the thing created—the poem, the picture, joined in their double vision—as a window in itself, through which to look to what was still beyond. “I look through the eye,” he said, “not with it.”
In short, Blake was not looking for God. He shared in the mystic’s quest, but he was not going the same way. But we can see at the same time that he was not interested in natural phenomena, in the indestructible actuality of what is not in ourselves but equally real. Spinoza once said that the greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole nature. That is an exalted statement, but we can recognize its meaning through the work of naturalists of genius like Darwin, Marx, and Freud. The creative function of naturalism has been to establish, with some exactness, a measure of objective knowledge —whether in the description of matter and energy, man’s own life as a biological organism, his economic society, or the life urges which civilization has pushed into a world below consciousness.
Naturalism is a great and tragic way of looking at life, for with every advance in man’s consciousness and in his ability to ascertain, to predict, and to control, he loses that view of his supreme importance which is at the center of religious myth. Naturalism helps to postpone death, but never denies it; it cannot distort objective truth for the sake of personal assurance; it finds assurance in man’s ability to know something of what lies outside him. There flows from its positive insights an advance in man’s consciousness of his own power that is more fertile and resourceful than any anthropocentric myth can inspire. Naturalism declares limits, and discovers new worlds of actuality between them. It is tragic, for by showing that man’s experience is limited it gives him a sense of his permanent and unremitting struggle in a world he did not make. But the struggle is the image of his true life in the world, and one he deepens by art, knowledge, and love. The quality of tragedy is not sadness but grave exhilaration; it defines the possible.
Blake is not a naturalist; he believes in apprehension, not in being; in certainty at the price of reality. He does not believe that anything is finally real except the imagination of man. He grasped one horn of the classic dilemma—”how do I know that anything is real, since I know of reality only through my own mind ?”—and pronounced that the problem was settled. He refused to believe the evidence of his senses that the human mind—however it may qualify or misread reality—is bombarded by something outside itself. We are eternally subjective; but there are objects. Indeed, it would seem to follow from our very ability to correct ourselves that we do measure our knowledge by some source. Our backs in Plato’s cave are to the fire; but we know that the shadows on the wall before us are shadows, and not the fire itself. Blake assumed that what is partial is in error, and that what is limited is non-existent. But the truth is that he was not trying to prove anything philosophically at all; his greatness depends not on his conception of the world but on what he created through it. In defense of his own personality, and in defiance of his age, he imagined a world equal to his heart’s desire. He refused to admit objective reality only because he was afraid man would have to share the creation.
It is here that Blake has perplexed his readers even more than he has delighted them. The reason lies in his refusal to concede a distance between what is real and what is ideal; in his desperate need to claim them as one. Blake is difficult not because he invented symbols of his own; he created his symbols to show that the existence of any natural object and the value man’s mind places on it were one and the same. He was fighting the acceptance of reality in the light of science as much as he was fighting the suppression of human nature by ethical dogmas. He fought on two fronts, and shifted his arms from one to the other without letting us know—more exactly, he did not let himself know. He created for himself a personality, in life and in art, that was the image of the thing he sought.
Like all the great enlighteners of the eighteenth century, Blake is against the ancien régime in all its manifestations— autocracy, feudalism, superstition. Though he loathed the destructive reason of the Deists, he sometimes praised it in the fight against “holy mystery.” He was fighting for free thought. Yet he is not only a confederate of Diderot and Voltaire, Jefferson and Tom Paine; he is a herald of the “heroic vitalism” of Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence, of Dostoevsky’s scorn for nineteenth-century utilitarianism and self-contentment. Where the Encyclopedists were concerned with the investigation, on “natural principles,” of man’s place in society and his order in the universe, Blake—who hated the Church as much as Voltaire and was as republican as Jefferson —was concerned with the freedom of man from all restrictions, whether imposed by the morality of the Church or the narrowness of positivism. Like Nietzsche, he considered himself an enemy of Socrates and of the Platonic dualism that became a permanent basis of Christian thought. What Blake said in so many of his early poems Nietzsche was to say in his autobiography: “All history is the experimental refutation of the theory of the so-called moral order of the world.” Zarathustra, dancing mysteriously to the bacchanal of Nietzsche’s imagined self-fulfillment, is prefigured in Blake’s Los, the crusading imagination with the hammer in his hand. And like Nietzsche, Blake writes in his masterpiece, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with the playful daemonism of those who league themselves with the “Devil” because his opposite number restricts human rights:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
With it there is the stress on heroic energy, on the rights of the superior that cannot be claimed under what Nietzsche called the “slave-morality”:
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
Damn braces. Bless relaxes.
Improvement makes strait roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement are the roads of genius.
Destroy, Blake says, all that binds man to decayed institutions. But destroy as well man’s obedience to moral precepts that hinder the full power of his creative will to assert, to love and to build. Desire is never vicious in itself; it is only turned to vicious ends when driven out of its real channel. Restraint in the name of the moral code is alone evil, for it distorts man’s real nature. It is a device of the rulers of this world to keep us chained. For life is holy. Energy is eternal delight. Jesus is dear to us not because he was divine, but because he was a rebel against false Law, and the friend of man’s desire. He defied the Kings and Priests. He was against punishment. He was the herald of man’s joy, not of his imaginary redemption. Joy is the only redemption and all suppression is a little death. Humility is an imposture born of cunning. Better wrath than pity. “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”
If he had been Antichrist, Creeping Jesus,
He’d have done anything to please us:
Gone sneaking into the Synagogues
And not used the Elders & Priests like Dogs,
But humble as a Lamb or an Ass,
Obey himself to Caiaphas.
God wants not man to humble himself:
For he acts with honest, triumphant Pride,
And this is the cause that Jesus died.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake writes: “Opposition is true friendship.” His drive is always toward creative self-assertion, toward man as a free creator. In A Song of Liberty, his vision of the old world burning in the fires of the French Revolution leads him to cry: “Empire is No More!”
Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn no longer, in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren— whom, tyrant, he calls free—lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity that wishes but acts not!
So far Blake is a libertarian, an eighteenth-century radical more vehement, daring and imaginative in his conception of freedom than others, but sharing in a revolutionary tradition. Where he becomes truly prophetic and difficult is in his rejection of materialism. He denounces the Priest, in his “deadly black”; but he warns us not to “lay the bound or build the roof” with our anti-clerical freedom. He sets his thought absolutely against rationalism, scepticism, and experimentalism. He is with the Deists so long as they attack supernaturalism—detestable to Blake not because it is disprovable by reason, but because it implies obedience. He is against the Deists so long as they seek to submit the imagination to reason. Rationalism is dangerous because it leaves man in doubt. When the time-serving Bishop Watson wrote, at the request of the English Tory government, an attack on Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason, Blake scrawled vehement attacks on the Bishop all over the margin of his Apology for the Bible.
It appears to me Now that Tom Paine is a better Christian than the Bishop.I have read this Book with attention & find that the Bishop has only hurt Paine’s heel while Paine has broken his head. The Bishop has not answer’d one of Paine’s grand objections.
But in one of his most famous poems, he denounced Voltaire and Rousseau as the arch-Deists seeking to destroy man’s capacity for visionary wonder:
Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, Mock on: ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
The sand is the dead particles separated by reason from the true unity of the human vision. Man under the domination of reason is to Blake a creature who has lost his integral nature and has become a dead fragment in himself. Separateness is death; doubt is the child of separateness; the portions which man separates by his reason, in the analysis of natural objects, or by thinking of himself as a natural object, are the mocking ghosts of his dead imagination.
This impassioned rejection of all that is analytical and self limiting in modern thought is central to Blake. It underlies all his conceptions, is the psychological background of his life, and falls, sometimes with a dead absoluteness, between his revolutionary thought and the modern world. It is only when we have understood that doubt and uncertainty stand to Blake’s mind as the prime danger of modern life that we can see the main drives of his work, of his personal “queerness,” and what led him to the artistic wreckage and incoherence of the later Prophetic Books. Blake’s whole pattern, as man and artist, is that of one for whom life is meaningless without an absolute belief. He is like the nihilist Verkhovensky, in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, who “when he was excited preferred to risk anything rather than to remain in uncertainty.” Freud spoke out of what is deepest and most courageous in the modern tradition when he said that “Man must learn to bear a certain portion of uncertainty.” That is a great injunction which it is hard to follow: much harder than the authoritarian faiths of our time, the secular, sadistic religions, the phony ecstasy with which a Hitler’s self-mortification is lost in vision of eternal conquest.
But Blake is very much a man of our time: one who speaks to us with prophetic insight of our nihilism and insensibility. He was so frightened by what he could already see of it that he found his security only in an absolute personal myth. It is a trait that has become universal politics in our own time. Insecurity has become so endemic, in a society increasingly unresponsive to basic human needs, that men will apparently distort and destroy anything to find their way back to the mystical faith of the child in his parents, the medieval man in his God, and the Nordic in the pagan forest. Blake is peculiarly contemporary in his anxiety, his longing for a faith that will be absolute and yet insurgent, his fear of evidence that will destroy the fantasy of man as the raison d’être of the universe. He is as great as Dostoevsky in his understanding of our modern deficiencies; he is as self-deluding as Dostoevsky, who was so afraid of his own nihilism that he allied himself with all that was most obscurantist in Czarist Russia.
This does not make what is central in Blake’s work any less prophetic and beautiful. He is not the enemy of society, any more than Dostoevsky was, or the D. H. Lawrence who succumbed to a silly literary Fascism. The very excesses of Blake’s myth, like the golden quality in his best work, spring from his impassioned defense of human dignity. Far less than Blake have we solved the problem of restoring to modern man some basic assurance, of giving him a human role to play again. It is the mark of a genius like Blake, or Dostoevsky, or Lawrence, that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us. The distortions and flatulence of Blake’s myth spring in part from the very abundance of his gifts—turned in on themselves, with the “fire seeking its own form,” as he wrote in The French Revolution.
Those who distrust reason are usually those who have not enough capacity for it to know why it is beautiful, and slander in advance what they are afraid will destroy their prestige. But there are also those, like Blake and Dostoevsky, who are supremely intelligent, and in whom the audacity and loneliness of genius, not to say social frustration, have led to the distrust of all that will not lead to personal security. Blake had one of the greatest minds in the history of our culture; and more fear of the mind than we can easily believe. He was a genius who from childhood on felt in himself such absolute personal gifts that, anticipating the devaluation of them by a materialistic society, he made sure that society’s values did not exist for him. Yet one of his most distinguishable personal traits, weaving through his vehement self-assertion, is his need to defend himself against society.
This is not the view of many people who have written on Blake’s life; but with the exception of writers like Alexander Gilchrist and Mona Wilson, who at least sought the basic facts about him, most of his biographers have had no understanding of him. The usual view is that he was a happy mystic, who sat like a gloriously content martyr before his work, eating bread and locusts with an idiotic smile on his face. Blake evidently did enjoy great happiness in many periods, for he was a man for whom life consisted in exploring his own gifts. But there is even more in Blake’s total revelation of himself, a rage against society, a deeply ingrained personal misery, that underlies his creative exuberance and gives it a melancholy and over-assertive personal force. He defends himself in so many secret ways that when he speaks of himself, at abrupt moments, his utterances have the heart-breaking appeal of someone who cries out: “I am really different from what you know!” To a Reverend Trusler, for example, who complained after commissioning some drawings that inspiration had led Blake too far, he wrote:
I feel that a man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World is a World of Imagination & Vision. I see Every thing I paint in This world, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing which stands in the way. Some see Nature all Ridicule & Deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; & some scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.
This is beautiful; as many of Blake’s personal notes, in letters, marginalia, notebook jottings, and recorded conversation, are beautiful. But they are beautiful in the same way, just as most of The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem is ugly in the same way—as a series of passionately eloquent self-assertions, so burning in their exaltation that they seem to spring out of deep gulfs of private misery and doubt. That last word is always Blake’s enemy. Just as he believed that
He who doubts from what he sees
Will ne’er Believes do what you Please.
If the Sun & Moon should doubt,
They’d immediately Go out
so he felt the antagonism of the age to his vision to be such a burden that he exceeded what is normal in the human longing for certainty and made his kind of certainty the supreme test of a man. Reading a contemporary work on mental disorder, he suddenly scrawled in the margin:
Cowper came to me and said: “O that I were insane always. I will never rest. Can you not make me truly insane? I will never rest till I am so. O that in the bosom of God I was hid. You retain health and yet are as mad as any of us all—over us all— mad as a refuge from unbelief—from Bacon, Newton and Locke.”
Blake never wrote anything more important to himself. If he was mad, it was as a refuge from unbelief, and thus with the satisfaction of being firmly placed in the sense of his own value. His terrible isolation spoke in the need to defend his identity; if madness was the cost of this, it at least placed him “over us all.” And he was higher than his age and over most of those who lived in it—higher not in a fantasy of superiority, but in the imaginative subtlety and resolution of his gifts; his faith that
we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.
Yet what is so marked in his history is his need to prove to himself that his genius could survive. For he was struggling with his own temperament in a time when society threatened his right to exist.
Blake’s need of certainty, whatever its personal roots, is also one of the great tragedies of modern capitalist society; particularly of that loss of personal status that was the immediate fate of millions in the industrial England of the “dark satanic mills.” Blake was only one of many Englishmen who felt himself being slowly ground to death, in a world of such brutal exploitation and amid such inhuman ugliness, that the fires of the new industrial furnaces and the cries of the child laborers are always in his work. His poems and designs are meant to afford us spiritual vision; a vision beyond the factory system, the hideous new cities, the degradation of children for the sake of profit, the petty crimes for which children could still be hanged. “England,” a man said to me in London on V-E day, “has never recovered from its industrial revolution”; Blake was afraid it could not survive it; the human cost was already too great. He never saw the North of Britain, but the gray squalor of the Clydebank, the great industrial maw of Manchester and Liverpool, the slums, the broken families are remembered even in the apocalyptic rant of Jerusalem, where
Scotland pours out his Sons to labour at the Furnaces;
Wales gives his Daughters to We Loom.
The lovely poem at the head of Milton, beginning
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
is so intense a vision of a world other than the real industrial EngIand that it has long been a Socialist hymn of millions of its working people.
Blake was an artisan; an independent journeyman living entirely on the labor of his hands, dependent on patrons in a luxury trade that was being narrowed down to those who could please most quickly. He lived as near the bottom of the English social pyramid as was possible to someone not sucked into the factories. His London is the London of the small tradesmen, the barely respectable artisans and shopkeepers who were caught between the decline of handicrafts and the rise of mass industry. He had to live by hackwork for publishers, but was so independent in his designs that he was forced more and more to engrave after others. One of the reasons why he delighted to make his own books is that he enjoyed complete liberty as an artist-engraver; they certainly would not have been printed by a commercial publisher. But his own prints went largely unbought. The stray copies of Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that now belong only to the wealthiest collectors were offered, often unsuccessfully, for a pittance. In 1809 he held an exhibition of his pictures, featuring his design of the Canterbury Pilgrims, and offering with it “a descriptive catalogue” that is one of his most personal documents. The exhibition, held under the grudging hospitality of his brother James, was a complete failure.
To measure the full depth of Blake’s alienation from his age is impossible. Like Tharmas in The Four Zoas, he felt himself “a famish’d Eagle, raging in the vast expanse.” But it may help us to see his predicament when we realize that he was an impoverished engraver, without any real class to which he could belong; a libertarian without continuing faith in politics—”something else besides human life”; an unknown Romantic poet and artist who felt suffocated by the formalized tastes of the age; a visionary without religion; an engraver after artists he often despised; a poet whose works were unprocurable. Even in his own trade, engraving, he seemed outmoded in competition with sophisticated craftsmen, especially from the Continent, who advanced beyond Blake’s stiff techniques. Blake learned to engrave in a rigid and rather lifeless tradition; all his early training was under the direction of a master, James Basire, who set him to copy Gothic monuments. What makes his art so unique is his ability to design, with great formal inventiveness, his own intellectual visions; technically he was an anachronism even in his own day. He never resolved the twin influences upon his work of Gothic and Michelangelo’s heroic grandeur. His human figures are always distinguished by a somnambulistic quality: they are mechanical actors in the spell of a tyrannical stage director. Their look on the page is always one of watchful waiting; they are symbols of ideas and states of being. Blake satisfied his own conception of design, but he very rarely satisfied anyone else. Naturally he resented more successful fellow-artists; particularly in oil portrait, for which he had no skill and which symbolized to him the effort of society artists to paint with ingratiating “realism.”
It is no wonder that Blake’s writing so often sputters out into furious protest against a world that would give him neither a living nor a hearing. In his own mind he lived in “a city of assassinations.” He was a man who could be easily cheated; when defrauded by a shrewd “art-publisher” of the day named Cromek, he took out his revenge, after Cromek had brazenly hinted that it was easy to take advantage of him, since he was “one living in the wilderness,” by writing in his notebook:
A Petty Sneaking Knave I knew—
O Mr. Cr(omek), how do ye do?
But his ability to hit back ended in his notebook. He hated Sir Joshua Reynolds—the ruling light of the Royal Academy from which engravers were excluded; the genial and obliging portraitist of the ruling aristocracy, the complacent Augustan mind counseling artists to follow the rules. But all he could do about it was to note his hatred of Reynolds and his intense opposition to the latter’s theories in the margins of Sir Joshua’sDiscourses.
Having spent the Vigour of my Youth & Genius under the Oppression of Sr Joshua & his Gang of Cunning Hired Knaves Without Employment & as much as could possibly be without Bread, The Reader must Expect to read in all my remarks on these Books Nothing but Indignation & Resentment. While Sr Joshua was rolling in Riches . . . (he) & Gainsborough Blotted & Blurred one against the other & Divided all the English World between them. Fuseli, Indignant, almost hid himself. I am hid.
Henry Fuseli was a Swiss-born artist, famous in London, who liked Blake and was one of his few friends. He was successful, as Blake was not, and Blake seems to have exaggerated Fuseli’s artistic solidarity in his joy at having found a friend in his own craft. Fuseli once said that he found Blake “damned good to steal from.”
The vehement marginalia that contain so many of Blake’s deepest resentments—against Bacon, against Reynolds, against Bishop Watson and Wordsworth’s “atheistic” love of nature—are an obvious symbol of his protest against society. Not being part of it, he put his dissent into the margins. What is not so obvious, however, is that much of his vehement struggle to assert his independence was based on his marriage. The dissenting and small tradesman’s class into which Blake was born was one tributary of our Puritan culture; on Blake it imposed poverty made drearier by genteel conformity. Nietzsche, the lonely professor of Greek, became drunk on the vision of the all-conquering male, but the fantasy was his basic sex experience. Lawrence dreamed all his life of a sun-filled Mediterranean world, full of literary Indians and impossibly hospitable women, whose chief virtue was that they lacked the self-righteousness of Presbyterian miners and school-teachers in Nottingham. Blake in most accounts of his life is portrayed as the ideal husband, who taught his illiterate Catherine how to read, and even to see visions when he did. There is little doubt that he was the ideal husband; and apparently he could not stand it. Catherine Blake became the perfect amanuensis, to the man even more than to the artist. She even learned to write and draw so much in his style that her known contributions to his work would otherwise be indistinguishable from his own. She was the ideal wife of his artistic and intellectual alienation; she was the perfect helpmeet in his social and economic desperation. She starved with him, believed in him, and even saw visions for company. If visitors were shocked by the lack of soap in the Blake household, she explained that “Mr. Blake’s skin don’t dirt!” If Blake became completely indifferent to the lack of funds, she would gently remind him of the state of things by putting an empty plate before him for dinner.
Catherine Blake was an ideal wife; her only fault, apparently, was that she was not a person in her own right. The fault was most assuredly not in her but in Blake’s annihilating need of her. He made an adoring servant out of her, and then evidently found that he longed for a woman. All the stories we have of them add up to very little, and those who drew upon her and Blake’s friends for reminiscences after his death felt such veneration and excitement before their recovery of a neglected genius that they prettied up his domestic life as much as possible. But we do know that he proposed to her at their first meeting when, complaining that a girl had spurned him, she said: “Then I pity you.” “Do you truly pity me?” he asked, in pleasure. Whereupon he found that he loved her. Yeats, who helped to doctor up the truth about Blake’s life as much as anyone, thought this a lovely story and that they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, Blake’s own writing shows that he was tormented by her jealousy and that he thought marriage was the devil.
It is not necessary to find malicious confirmation of this in the famous story that he wanted Mary Wollstonecraft to join his household for a ménage à trois. Mary Wollstonecraft was a noble and deeply intelligent woman, more than a century ahead of her time, who believed in women’s rights and took them. She was a tragic and courageous woman, far more attractive than the complacent bluestockings of London highbrow society, and much more interesting than her husband, William Godwin, or their daughter Mary, who became Shelley’s second wife. She was the English type of the great Continental heroines of feminism, from George Sand to Alexandra Kollontai. But though Blake was a member of the same intellectual radical group, headed by Johnson the bookseller, it is not hard to imagine how incongruous she must have looked at his side—Blake, who was the imperial visionary of his meager household, but in the London world a curious and threadbare crank. A liaison between John Wesley and Isadora Duncan would not have been more strange— indeed, Wesley was a worldly and aristocratic figure; Blake was a lower middle-class drudge, more of a Wesleyan than Wesley himself. But he seems to have been of the type that makes history, partly because he is not very happy at home.
Blake’s “immoralism” (a silly word made necessary by the fact that moral lies like a fallen giant across our discourse) is of two kinds: lyrical and poignant expressions of human longing, and a dark obsession in the “Prophetic Books” with sex as the battleground of human struggle and revolt. And however narrow and pitiful the experience from which his own search for fulfillment sprang, there is no doubt that in its psychological truth, its tenderness and passionate support of human dignity, 131ake’s writing is one of the great prophecies of the love that is possible between man and woman. He is not a writer of “erotica”—the honeyed crumbs of those who have no bread; he rages in his notebooks, but he is never sly. The very status of the dirty story in our society reveals a conception of sex as something one puts over on the conventions. It is the great betrayal of human sincerity. Blake’s fight is against secrecy, unnatural restraint, the fear of life—the distortions in the personality that follow from deception and resignation to it. There is implicit in all his attacks on the “moral code” an understanding that gratification is impossible without true union. In this, as in so much else of his thought, Blake painted not only the immediate consequences of a reactionary morality based on outward conformity—the anxieties, the subtle hostilities, the habit of lying. He also foresaw the danger that is exactly present in our modern eroticism, which has the same relation to the failure of love that totalitarian solutions have to the failure of society. When we compare Blake with an artist like D. H. Lawrence, or an oratorical rebel like Henry Miller, we can see how much the obsessiveness, the cringing over-emphasis on sex in the most advanced modern writing is due to the inability of these writers to treat sex naturally in the whole frame of the human organization. As the dirty story pays homage to puritanism, so our modern eroticism wearily proclaims that the part which has been dislodged from the whole shall now be the key to all experience. The limitations of eroticism have exactly the same character, in life and in art: it divorces sex from human culture. As medieval men despised the body for the sake of the spirit and perhaps lost both, so we tend to forget that the body is above all a person. Every reaction in favor of some suppressed truth overshoots the mark. Hence, too, the dreary primitivism of so much advanced writing—as great a lie about our human nature as the genteel writing of the past.
Blake is not free of the characteristic modern obsessiveness; he was no more free than we are. But he always knows exactly what he is. His theme is always the defense of the integral human personality. His principal virtue is that he does not make a virtue of “frankness”; he is concerned with basic human desire, fear, longing, resentment; with the innermost movements of a human being in the world. He describes, in his great song cycle, the gulf between Innocence and Experience; he feels an inexpressible solidarity with those who are forever in it. For he knows that innocence and experience are not the faces of youth and age, but “the two contrary states of the human soul.” He writes as a man, not as an “immoralist.” One of the reasons why he is so supreme among those who have written of childhood is that he sees it as the nucleus of the whole human story, rather than as a state that precedes adult “wisdom.” If he is afraid for the child, he pities the adult. In experience there is always the longing for “unorganized innocence: an impossibility”; in innocence there is the poignant foretelling of experience, which is death without the return to confidence and vision. Blake is utterly without cynicism. He never makes the characteristic modern mistake of devaluating a prime experience; he never throws out love with the love-affair. We may not agree with him that desire is infinite; we can never be sufficiently grateful to him for insisting that it is never cheap.
Blake is serious about sex, as he is serious about the child; and for the same reason. For he knows that as sex is the buried part of our civilization, so the child is the buried part of the man. His faith in the creative richness of love has the same source as his feeling for the secret richness of childhood: his ability to see through the dead skin of adulthood. He would have understood very well that our “child-psychology” shows the same guardedness toward the child that modern love and marriage reveal between men and women. The same guardedness and the same fear: for we “handle” children from the same negative fears and out of the same lack of positive participation and sympathy. Blake would have seen in our pedagogic carefulness the effort of caution to do the work of the imagination. In his own time, when children were regarded as miniature adults, or as slaves or pets to those who ruled by their maturity, he showed that a child is not an abbreviated version of the adult, but a different being. In our time he would have seen that the distance between a parent and a child is usually the distance between the parents as lovers. For him sex meant enjoyment framed in wonder: the full play of our lifestriving beyond all the distortions inflicted by respectable society and cynical experience. By the same token childhood was also a lost world—calling to us from our buried life.
Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:
“Pipe a song about a Lamb!”
So I piped with merry chear. “Piper, pipe that song again;”
So I piped: he wept to hear.
Innocence is belief and experience is doubt. The tragedy of experience is that we become incapable of love. The tragedy of childhood is that we inflict our lovelessness upon it. Blake’s thinking is always organic; it is always directed to the hidden fountains of our humanity. Having never lost the creative freshness of childhood, he challenged experience with it. Having, as I believe, no real love-affair of his own, he had it with childhood. In any event, he had no children of his own. He was a man who had to believe fully, at the highest pitch of being, to live at all; and he loved childhood because it was native in its certainty. Human sensibility was so precious to him that he was ready to discard all its natural trappings to preserve it. Blake never deals with history, with the process and its reality; his search is only for the central and forgotten sources of human feeling, imagination, solidarity. To be certain of them, he conceived the world over again in the image of his desire. But it is like our desire, even if it is nothing like our real world. And our desire is always a portion of the reality we have, as it is always a shadow on the reality we have not. That is why Blake at his best is enchanting even in the smallest proportions—in fact, it is difficult to read him with the usual continuity, so much does he fill our minds at each step.
The central subject of Songs of Innocence and of Experience is that of the child who is lost and found. In its symbolism, it is the great theme of all Blake’s work—the “real man, the imagination,” that has been lost and will be found again through human vision. In Innocence, the little boy loses his father in the night, and God this Father leads him back to his weeping mother. The child is lost to its guardians, for in Blake’s mind the child’s nature is beyond the parents’ comprehension, and is alone in a world the parents cannot enter. The grief of the child is also the loneliness of the soul in its sudden prison of earth; he is protected by God the Father. In Experience, however, the little boy who demands of the priest the right to assert his own thoughts and desires is “burn’d in a holy place.” The little girl who enjoys love, without shame or fear, is suddenly confronted with the earthly father whose “loving look, like the holy book,” drives her into terror. One little girl is lost and yet found in Experience, however; for she enters lovingly into the world of the passions, where she lives in freedom from the “wolvish howl” and the “lions’ growl.”
Experience is the “contrary” of innocence, not its negation. Contraries are phases of the doubleness of all existence in the mind of man; they reflect the unalterable condition of the human struggle. As hell can be married to heaven, the body seen by the soul, so experience lifts innocence into a higher synthesis based on vision. But vision is impossible without truth to one’s deepest feelings. A lie is “the negation of passion.” Life is thought and creation; it is to be had only in its fullness, for the “want of thought” is death. To enter fully into life we must go through the flame of disbelief, kill the fiction that man’s desire is lawless and evil. In Innocence
Mercy has a human heart, pity a human face
Cruelty has a Human Head
And jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.
The Human Dress is forged Iron,
The Human Form a fiery Forge,
The Human Face a Furnace seal’d,
The Human Heart its hungry Gorge.
That is what experience is for: to bring us from God the Father to the God that man alone creates. Experience is not evil; it merely shows us the face of evil as a human face, so that we shall learn that the world is exactly what man makes it, and that its ultimate triumphs occur within his understanding.
In the world of Innocence the child speaks to the lamb and marvels in its soft and bright goodness, over which stands the Jesus who is himself a lamb. In Experience we stare into the fiery eyes of the Tyger and think ourselves lost in the “forests of the night.” But the Tyger is the face of the creation, marvelous and ambiguous; he is not evil. When Blake cries, in the most moving single expression in his work,
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see ?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
he does not find the thought abhorrent. But he does not answer the question; he keeps it as one, where a religious man would answer it consolingly. Never is he more heretical than in this most famous of his poems, where he glories in the hammer and the fire out of which are struck the “deadly terrors” of the Tyger. Blake does not believe in a war between good and evil; he sees only the creative tension presented by the struggle of man to resolve the contraries. What has been created, by some unknown hand, is a fiery furnace into which our hands must go to seize the fire. “The Tyger” is a poem of triumphant human awareness; it is a hymn to pure being. And what gives it its power is Blake’s ability to fuse two aspects of the same human drama: the movement with which a great thing is created, and the joy and wonderment with which we join ourselves to it. The opening and closing stanzas are the same, for as we begin with our wonder before the creation, so we can only end on it. It is the living eternal existence; the fire is, so long as we are. That is why Blake begins on the four great beats of “Tyger! Tyger!”, which call the creation by a name and bring us in apprehension before it.
The poem is hammered together with alliterative strokes. Frame is there,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
because he wants fearful as well.
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
begins the questioning. Blake goes straight to the poles; we are in the presence of a creation that can be traced from distant deeps to skies. What sustains the verse in our ear is the long single tone in which are blended the related sounds of burnt, fire, thine, eyes. By natural association—from the burning fire to the topmost eyes of the Tyger—and through the swell of the line, these words also form a natural little scale of four notes—a scale that ends in the crash of the question-mark. Blake’s mind is darting between the mysterious unseen he, the maker of the Tyger, and the fire in its eyes. The fire is central to his thought, so much so that it eclipses the maker as a person and turns him into the force and daring with which he creates. Blake does not write “He”; he is far more interested in the creation than in the creator. But so great is this creation that the creator grows mysterious and powerful in its light. What is so beautiful in the second stanza is the leap from the Tyger to the creator. Blake goes from the fire to the creator’s wings. This is not because he has an image of a celestial being with great wings, but because the fire could be created only by someone lifted on topmost wings. Blake is as astounded by the creator as he is by the Tyger—and in the same way, for both are such revelations of absolute energy. The emphasis on the creator, in the last line of the second stanza, is thus on dare.
We are now in the midst of the creation—or rather, of the great tiling being created. The hammering, twisting, laughing strokes with which the creator works are not more decisive than Blake’s own verse hammer. As usual, he has leaped ahead of us, and begins on a new question; a question that begins with And because it is like a man talking breath between hammer strokes:
And what shoulder, & what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? & what dread feet?
The creator’s shoulder, with terrible force, twists the sinews to make the Tyger’s heart. Twists is powerful enough; but there is joined to it in Blake’s mind what is “crooked” and off the main path for the genius-creator. The shoulder twisting the heart together has turned the creator’s back away from us, even as we imagine him at his work. The hammer strokes now go faster and faster; the creation is so swift and final with each blow that Blake’s mind rushes after the fall of the hammer, the movements of the creating hands and feet, the beats of the new heart. The poem now moves to the rhythm of the great work. Yet the poet must know whose dread hands and feet, working together before the anvil, could create this. Where does the creator’s body and tools end and the Tyger begin?
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
The chains ring in the sorcerer’s workshop. The questions now dart from the heart to the brain with the same instantaneous force with which brain and heart are being made. But where is this being done? Where is the furnace in which the fire of consciousness is being poured out into the Tyger’s brain? What, in space and time, could even hold the Tyger as it is being created? Blake never answers, for the wonder with which he asks them is the wonder with which he beholds the Tyger. But he leaps ahead, in the last phrase of the third line and the whole fourth line after it, to create the image of so dread a power that it can grasp the terrors of the Tyger. It is the long courageous movement with which the clasp is made—a great hand moving into the furnace to bring the Tyger to us—that gives the creation its final awesomeness. Blake creates this by the length of his question. Between the dread grasp and the clasp that holds the terrors in its hand is the movement between the creation and our being witness to it. Technically the thing is done by leaving a distance, a moment’s suspense, between the end of the third line on grasp and the hard closing of the stanza on clasp. The assonance of those two words, like bones rasping together, joins us to the thing. The terror is in our hands.
But when Blake asks,
When the stars threw down their spears, And water’d heaven with their tears, Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
he has no answer—least of all the comforting religious explanation of the division between the Lamb and the Tyger. The stars throwing down their “spears” join in the generation. But did he smile his work to see ? Did he? Blake’s answer is to bring us right back to the Tyger. He has no moral, and he will not let us off with anything less than our return to the fact that the Tyger exists—a fact that includes all its ambiguity and all our wonder and fear before it. The poem ends on the upbeat of man’s eternal question of the world: where is its moral order? Blake offers no answer; he asks his question with the “fearful symmetry” of the creation straight before us.
Blake does not let us off with any conventional religious consolation; nor does he let the creator of. Had he believed in God, the contraries which are presented to man’s mind by experience would have been easy to explain. The Christian explains them by the Fall—by that “happy guilt,” as Augustine put it, which left man with a sense of original sin which only religion can cleanse away. Blake is utterly opposed to this: man never fell, and there is no prime evil in him to redeem. For him the contraries exist not because God willed it so in his punishment of man’s transgression—could a just God punish man for “following his energies” and for showing curiosity? They exist because man’s gift of vision is blocked up in himself by materialism and rationalism. Every man, by the very nature of life, is engaged in a struggle, against the false materialism of the age, to find his way back to perfect human sight. Man is not a sinner—he is a weary traveler lost under the hill, a material “spectre” looking for his “spiritual emanation.” He is looking for his human center. Man cannot help getting lost when he deludes himself that he is a natural body subject to a natural society, obeying the laws of a natural God.
Do what you will, this life’s a fiction
And is made up of contradiction.
But vision restores his human identity. With the aid of vision, and through the practice of art, man bursts through the contraries and weds them together by his own creativity.
Blake’s Prophetic Books are his attempt to explain how the contraries arose. They are his Greek mythology, his Genesis, his Book of Revelations. Blake is not Diderot or Stendhal; he does not take man as he finds him. He is a Bible-haunted English dissenter who has taken on himself the burden of proving that man is an independent spiritual being. This required the refutation of all existing literature. The tortured rhetoric of the Prophetic Books is not a lapse from taste; it is the awful wilderness into which Blake had to enter by the nature of his staggering task. This was to give man a new Bible, and with it a new natural history; a new cosmogony, and with it his own version, supplanting Hebrew and Greek literature, of man’s first self-consciousness in the universe. But this is not all he tried to do in the Prophetic Books. No one in his time, after all, could escape the influence of realism. To Blake the myth-maker the age required a new Bible. As a contemporary he could hardly escape the inspiration of neoclassical drama, of the historical chronicle, and even of the psychological novel. His Prophetic Books are in fact an attempt to create, on the basis of a private myth, a new epic literature that would ride the currents of the age. His chief model was Paradise Lost, andMilton, he tells us, was written because Milton came back to earth and begged him to refute the errors of his own epic. But Blake had an eye on Greek tragedy as well, and the Book of Job, and The Divine Comedy.
Blake was not a “naif,” a “wild man” piecing his philosophy together from “odds and ends” around the house. He was a very learned man who felt challenged and uneasy by what he had learned. One of the reasons why he labored so hard to create a new literature equal to his own vision is that he could never free himself of the models others had created. When we look at his first poems in Poetical Sketches, we can see solemn imitations of Shakespeare, Ossian, Gray, and Spenser; his first beautiful songs move slowly away from neoclassic form. His tracts, There Is No Natural Religion and All Religions Are One, imitate the geometrical order of philosophic propositions that was the carry-over from mathematics to natural philosophy. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a parody of sources to which Blake was deeply indebted for his form: Genesis, the Proverbs, the Apocalypse, and Swedenborg. The Prophetic Books are an attempt to create a new classical literature, after all the sources. Nothing shows so clearly the tremendous inner conflicts in Blake as the ghosts of other men’s books in his own. It is impossible, for anyone who has studied the Prophetic Books carefully, to see him as an enraptured scribe singing above the clouds. His visions in these books were an attempt to force down his own uneasiness. He could find his peace only by creating an epic world so singularly his own that it would supplant every other. He never succeeded. His task was beyond all human strength and all art. He created myths endlessly and represented them as human beings in endlessly energetic and turgid postures of struggle, oppression, and liberation.But he never gave up the myth. The “mad” Blake, whose wildest sayings furnish so much biographical chit-chat about him, was the man who still believed the myth long after suffering and alienation had dulled in his mind the objects it represented. Without the myth he would have been entirely lost, intolerably isolated. So he went even further— John Milton believed in it, too; and—the significant last chapter of Blake’s thought—Jesus was above all a Blakean.
The last Prophetic Books are a jungle, but it is possible—if you have nothing else to do—to get through them. What Joyce said so lightly Blake would have repeated with absolute assurance— he demanded nothing less of his readers than that they should devote their lives to the elucidation of his works. Yet there are whole areas of the first Prophetic Books that represent Blake’s art and thought at their purest; the illuminated designs, even to a fantastic jumble like Jerusalem, are overwhelming in their beauty and power. To labor over works like The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem for the sake of intellectual exegesis is against the whole spirit of art. Where Blake does not write poetry, he orates; and when he orates it is “the will trying to do the work of the imagination.” Yet his rhetorical resources were so overwhelming that they flow like hot lava over the stereotypes of the myth. He obviously felt so little the consecutiveness of his “argument” that in at least one copy of Jerusalem he allowed misplaced pages to remain where they were. His concern is not with the coherence of his theme, but with his need to get everything in. Even within the assumed order of the myth the characters lose their symbolic references when they do not transfer them among each other. They came to represent so much of Blake’s private life as well as his public vision that he interrupted himself at regular intervals to preach against jealousy and the domination of man by woman.
Blake was never jarred by the tumult of all the conflicts he revealed in his Prophetic Books. His loneliness as a man and thinker was so overwhelming that he took his gifts as the measure of human insight. He was a lyric poet of genius and a very bad dramatic poet; but he suffered from the illusion that his poetic gift was also a dramatic and representational one. The gift of creating character is inseparable from an interest in history. Just as the novel owes its principal development to the modern consciousness that society is man-made, so the ability to create character is impossible without an understanding of men in relation to other men; in short, of man as a creature of process and conflict. Blake’s’s characters are names attached arbitrarily to absolute human faculties and stales of being. The name of the character may have a Stunning or derived relation to the faculty he represents, as Urizen is the god of this world and its sterility who is “your reason,” or Orc, Blake’s first hero, may have been derived from “cor,” or heart. So Albion is the central figure of man, “the eternal man,” and Enitharmon is the “universal” woman. But when Blake sets them to orating against each other, their nominal identity is only the line which he must desperately hold on to bring up the deep-sea fish of human passions, errors, lamentations. The figure of Urizen is an of oppressor; Orc is the spirit of visionary emancipation; Los, who comes in later, is the spirit of time working to rejoin man to his lost unity, and the “Eternal Prophet.” Through them, and many other characters, Blake is seeking to explain how man lost the gift of vision. Urizen is the false God, the Satan who separated himself from the prime unity and set in motion the divisions in man, the search after the analytical and the inhuman.
Blake is not interested in character. His figures are the human faculties at war with each other. He is trying to explain, in the form of a new Genesis, how the split in man occurred, and to show the necessary present struggle of man to unify himself back to an integral and imaginative human nature. He is also raging against all those who would hold him in—from the analytical God of Newton to the scepticism of Voltaire, from the successful painters of the day to “the shadowy female,” who torments man by jealousy. But since he has no interest in history the beginning, the present, and the future dissolve into each other. What was begun in error is suffered through error now. He is fighting his own sorrows even as he is trying to impose the massive structure of his hazardously built myth onto the contemporary world: to bring himself to us, and the England he actually lived in. Hence the bewildering jump from Old Testament names to English streets, cities, and counties, in which Blake’s own cries were never heard:
O dreadful loom of death! O piteous Female forms, compell’d
To weave the Woof of Death! On Camberwell Tirzah’s courts,
Malah’s on Blackheath; Rahab & Noah dwell on Windsor’s heights,
Where once the Cherubs of Jerusalem spread to Lambeth’s Vale.
Milcah’s Pillars shine from Harrow to Hampstead, where Hoglah
On Highgate’s heights magnificent Weaves over trembling Thames
To Shooter’s Hill and thence to Blackheath, the dark Woof. Loud,
Loud roll the Weights & Spindles over the whole Earth, let down
On all sides round to the Four Quarters of the World, eastward on
Europe to Euphrates & Hindu, to Nile & back in Clouds
Of Death across the Atlantic to America North & South.
Hence, too, the poetic atrocities:
In torrents of mud settling thick
With Eggs of unnatural production
Which is dreadful, but only a paraphrase of the noble rant which deafens and dulls us all through the later books:
But in the Optic vegetative Nerves Sleep was transformed
To Death in old time by Satan, the father of Sin & Death:
And Satan is the Spectre of Orc, & Orc is the generate Luvah.
Blake cannot get away from the materialist trappings, the naturalistic “spectre”; no one can, and his collapse as an artist in the later Prophetic Books is due to his effort to dispel the natural forms by a mythological explanation of them. He crated his myth to contain his defiance, as it were; when he found it insufficient, he let it supplant life itself. On the subject of God, he even borrowed a thought from the Gnostic heresy, as he was indebted to the Jewish Cabala for his vision of the man who anciently contained all things of heaven and earth in himself. The Gnostic heresy, as he was indebted to the Jewish Cabala for his vision of the man who anciently contained all things of heaven and earth in himself. The Gnostic heresy is one the Catholic Church understandably rooted out in furious alarm—for it held that the world was dominated by Satan. It is not hard to understand how comforting this thought must have been to Blake. If this world is a mere deception, and all its natural appearances a masquerade through which man must look for spiritual vision, it is because the “real” God has been supplanted by Satan. So all spiritual vision leads us back to the “real” God, who is now Jesus. Blake’s Jesus is the defiant iconoclast, the friend of artists and revolutionaries. When one reads Jerusalem, one thinks of Nietzsche, who when he went mad signed himself “The Crucified One,” and of that old cry from the defeated—”Thou hast conquered, O Galilean!”
Blake does not “yield” to Jesus; he creates Jesus in his own image.
The Son, O how unlike the Father! First God Almighty comes with a Thump on the head. Then Jesus Christ comes with a balm to heal it.
But not before he has shown us the inner thread in his snarled Prophetic Books—which is the lament against his own “selfhood” and the appeal against the Accuser, “who is the God of this World.” It is impossible to read Blake’s vehement and repeated cries against the “Accuser” without being moved by the tremendous burden of guilt he carried despite his revolt and independence. The “Accuser” is Satan, who rules this world, which is “the Empire of nothing.” It is he who tormented man with a sense of sin; who made men and women look upon their own human nature as evil; who plunged us into the cardinal human heresy, which is the heresy against man’s own right and capacity to live. The “Accuser” is the age in which Blake lived and it is the false god whose spectre mocks our thirst for life. It is the spirit, to Blake, of all that limits man, shames man, and drives him in fear. The Accuser is the spirit of the machine, which leads man himself into “machination.” He is jealousy, unbelief, and cynicism. But his dominion is only in you; and he is only a spectra
The Accuser is the prime enemy, yet he is a fiction; he need not exist. But Blake fought him so bitterly that he acknowledged how great a price he had paid for his own audacity. What was it that made him long at the end, above everything else, for “forgiveness” ? What was it he had to be “forgiven” for ?
And now let me finish with assuring you that, Tho’ I have been very unhappy, I am so no longer. I am again Emerged into the light of day; I still & shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God; but I have travel’d thro’ Perils & Darkness not unlike a Champion. I have Conquer’d, and shall go on Conquering. Nothing can withstand the fury of my course among the Stars of God & in the Abysses of the Accuser. My enthusiasm is still what it was, only Enlarged and confirmed.
We do not know—his only name for his “guilt” remains “selfhood”—that is, the full force of his individual claim to self-assertion. Blake was a prophet who was not delivered by his own prophecy. But if he succumbed at all to the “Accuser,” he did more than anyone else to expose him. If he failed at the complete harmony to which all his own thought is directed, it is because man, though he is a little world in himself, is little indeed when measured against the whole of a creation that was not made for him alone—or for him to know everlasting certainty in it. Blake’s tragedy was the human tragedy, made more difficult because his own fierce will to a better life prevented him from accepting any part of it. Laboring after the infinite, he felt himself shadowed by the Accuser. That is the personal cost he paid for his vision, as it helps us to understand his need of a myth that would do away with tragedy. But as there is something deeper than tragedy in Blake’s life, so at the heart of his work there is always the call to us to recover our lost sight. Blake was a man who had all the contraries of human existence in his hands, and he never forgot that it is the function of man to resolve them.
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.
by Alfred Kazin