Revolution & Revelation: William Blake and the Moral Law, by Michael Farrell
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, despite its parodic form and function, is Blake’s personal and politico-theological manifesto outlining his fervent opposition to institutionalised religion and the oppressive moral laws it prescribes. It ultimately concerns the opposition between the spirit of Prophecy and religious Law.
For Blake, true Christianity resides in the cultivation of human energies and in the fulfilment of human potential and desire – the cultivation for which the prophets of the past are archetypal representatives – yet the energies of which the Mosaic Decalogue inhibits. Blake believes that all religion has its provenance in the Poetic Genius which “is necessary from the confined nature of bodily sensation” to the fulfilment of human potential. Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” demonstrate how the energies underlying the true religious and potentially revolutionary consciousness are to be cultivated. He is especially concerned with repressed sexual energies of bodily sensation, stating in The Marriage that “the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy … This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment”. He subsequently exposes the relativity of moral codes and hence “the vanity of angels” who “speak of themselves as the only wise” – that is, the fallacy of institutionalised Christianity and its repressive moral law or “sacred codes” which are established upon “systematic reasoning”.
For Blake liberation from oppression – from the moral law based on natural religion – comes from within; from the Imagination and not from without; from Reason and the observable, calculable, material world. Reason is effectively a preoccupation with morality so that, when separated from Imagination, it “thence frames Laws & Moralities To destroy Imagination”. The clergy are the agents of repression through reason; the cursers of innocent joys through a rigid moral code in that it preaches a passive obedience to its deontic “stony law”. Blake believed that institutionalised religion is intrinsically repressive and corrupt; that it “makes up a heaven of our misery” in impressing upon the mind the fear of death and the hope of a heavenly existence post mortem or “an allegorical abode where existence hath never come”.
A Religion of Chastity
Moreover, Blake perceived that institutionalised religion is hypocritical in that the virtues it exhorts are seldom practiced. For example, in the poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake criticises the “virgin That pines for man” who “shall awaken her womb to enormous joys In the secret shadows of her chamber”; and also the “youth shut up from lustful joy” who creates “an enormous image In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent pillow”. He perceived that an outward adherence to the moral law of religion – “A Religion of Chastity” – did not necessarily imply an inward purity of spirit. For the poet, the “secret shadows” of the private chamber where repressed sexual energies are released through onanism are “the places of religion”, the places of moral hypocrisy. Blake associates religious hypocrisy, chastity, and auto-eroticism with a constrictive selfhood epitomised in The Book of Urizen by the self-closed, self-contemplating titular character. In the poem, Urizen, an anthropomorphic symbol for fallen Reason, gradually obscures the “prolific delight” of the Imagination and sexual fulfilment, “hiding in surging Sulphurous fluid his fantasies”. Urizen’s implicit auto-eroticism associates reason with the suppression of creative or sexual energies and so with religious hypocrisy.
Church and State: Beast and Whore
Blake was vehemently against the political alliance of the Church and State or “The Beast and the Whore” in the name of Reason. Writing in the late eighteenth century Samuel Johnson commented that “no man can now be made a bishop for his learning and piety; his only chance of promotion is being connected with someone who has parliamentary interest.” Blake saw that the piety of the period was a piety that had vitiated the fires of revelation into cold, abstract reason in that it shared little interest in Christian doctrine except to validate its ethical dogmatism. Blake perceived that this over-emphasis on reason, allied with the revolutionary cause, divorced the heart from the spirit and the mind, thus ideologically incarcerating man in “mind forg’d manacles”. Subsequently the individual’s capacity for revelation was inhibited, for “Man by his reasoning power can only compare & judge of what he has already perceived”. Revelation or freedom from natural philosophy and its natural law requires the energies of the creative and liberating Imagination.
In his observations on the condition of religious life in the eighteenth century, William Law wrote that “we live starving in the coldness and deadness of a formal, historical, hearsay religion.” For Blake, State religion is the source of all cruelty in its lack of sympathy for the physical and spiritual needs of the people. It was felt that the clergy stood aloof from the people so that those suffering “keep all things quiet within”. This notion of an aloof clergy, epitomised by the worldly-mindedness and self-interestedness of the then Bishop of Llandaff, is correlative to the Deist belief in a deus abscondia – a rational God existing outside of the world – a belief which Blake vociferously opposed.
Blake agreed with St. Paul that a rigid moral law potentially engenders sin and, to some degree, with William Godwin in his view that “the laws which are made to restrain our vices irritate and multiply them.” In the Book of Urizen, the “seven deadly sins of the soul” are engendered through the faculty of Reason: the moral codes of natural reason are static and furthermore infix selfish virtues of the natural heart; a Deistic belief in a self-sufficient human nature requiring no redemption from sin leads to self-righteousness, the vice of selfhood. Indeed the Deist’s insistence on the punishment of sin as opposed to the forgiveness of sin is the radix of civil conflict: “All the Destruction … in Christian Europe has arisen from … Natural Religion”.
The remedy for selfhood is Vision
The remedy for selfhood is Vision; an acknowledgement that the vegetable world is fallen. In essence the destruction of this cosmetic world must precede the vision of the same world transformed; egoic self-interest or “selfhood” must therefore be annihilated before the true visionary or Divine self can prevail. Blake advocated Father Augustine Baker’s notion that selfhood must necessarily be destroyed before the spirit may enter into union with the Divine Humanity: the individual who would embrace God must do so by “Self Annihilation”. Christ’s Incarnation is paradigmatic of this concept of self-annihilation and, as Thomas Altizer has observed, the biblical source for Blake’s concept of the Incarnation is in the Greek word kenosis meaning ‘emptying’: while this noun is not to be found in the New Testament, its correlative verb occurs in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians in which Christ, though manifest as God, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2: 7). Essentially, Christ’s Incarnation is an act of the emptying out of self; of self-abnegation, and Christ is therefore the archetypal figure of self-annihilation.
Blake interpreted the Law not as fulfilled by Christ (as in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets”) but as abolished by him, as in 2 Corinthians 3: “the new covenant … consists not of a written law but of the Spirit”. For him, “no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments: Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse – not from rules”. Christ represents the revolutionary energies that are prerequisite in order to liberate the Imagination from oppressive Reason, as Leslie Tannenbaum states: “Blake sees in the American Revolution the possibility of … a world redeemed from the bondage of the Law”.
In America, Blake envisions the potential for salvation and revelation that is embodied in the revolutionary energies of Orc, he who transgresses the Law of Urizen, or Reason. He is the “Lover of wild rebellion, and transgressor of God’s Law” – that is, the Mosaic Decalogue; “the fiery joy that Urizen perverted to ten commands”. Altizer notes that “Orc is America, for the true America is a resurrected passion that awakes to … annihilate the iron laws of repression”. As an embodiment of the vital energies necessary for social and political revolution, Orc may be identified with the impulsive, law-breaking and revolutionary Christ of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Indeed, Christ is seen a revolutionary figure in his opposition to Pharisaism and its espousal of an oppressive, stony law and so may be associated with the potential revolutionary and revelatory Energy represented by Orc. However, it must be acknowledged that Orc is representative of only a stage within the revolutionary process. He is an embodiment of the potential for revolution in the material or “feminine” world – his sexual energies are diverted towards the “shadowy female” who symbolises material existence – and therefore heralds its failure, since revolution must occur beyond the maternal/material world in the realms of Imagination: revolution must occur through revelation.
Blake and Liberation Theology
Blake’s concept of Christ as a revolutionary figure has parallels in twentieth century Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology is essentially an “immanentist” and opposed to a Deistic, transcendentalist theology. Liberation theologians envision a God who works in and through the indigent and oppressed communities in the Third World – that is, in their struggle for liberation from the oppressive forces of Western political and theological hegemony. Liberation Theology is a grass-roots theology. It promulgates the notion that the Kingdom of Heaven, and thus salvation, is at once immanent and imminent; that it will come to pass in the hearts of the oppressed people; and that it will be effectuated through political revolution in the foreseeable future. This notion of the Kingdom of Heaven occurring internally in the self – a “Jerusalem in every Man” – may be related to Blake’s idea of the Last Judgement as an instantaneous and immanent event which occurs internally whenever the spirit rejects Error and unveils Truth. Moreover, the concept of the Kingdom of God as an imminent phenomenon relates directly to Blake’s apocalyptic vision of the establishment of the New Jerusalem heralded by the American Revolution. Both Blake and the Liberation theologians utilise the Bible as a means to establish an analogue between the historical events documented in the scriptures and contemporary social and political injustices. The liberating message of the New Testament – Christ as a revolutionary figure, the primacy of inner revelation and so forth – is a means of empowering the oppressed towards social revolution and personal revelation.
The revolutionary Christ
2 Corinthians 3 is instructive in analysing Blake’s conception of the revolutionary Christ. The oppressive Law of the Old Testament is essentially abolished by Christ and the new Law which he establishes “consists not of a written law but of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3: 6). The Law of Elohim – the comminatory God of Judgement – is supplanted by the Law of the Spirit – the merciful Law of Jehovah – which operates not in an external and abstract system of moral codes but internally in and through the Spirit. The old covenant is effectively a veil separating the individual from the Spirit: “The veil is moved only when the person is joined to Christ” (2 Cor. 3: 14). For Blake the epiphany of the Christ at the apocalypse is the ultimate revelation or unveiling of Error: the word “revelation”, etymologically, derives from the Old French reveler or Latin revelare, from re, meaning “again”, in the sense of a reversal, and velum, meaning “veil”. The word revelation has etymological links with the word “apocalypse”, which, deriving from the Greek apokaluptein, also means to unveil or reveal. Thus in Blake’s secular apocalypse the individual must necessarily undergo a Last Judgement in casting off Error, or the old Law, and embracing Truth, the covenant or law of the Spirit.
Slavery and Marriage
In the poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Oothoon is opposed to an epistemology based on the dictates of natural reason – she is “open to joy and to delight wherever beauty appears”, indulging in “happy copulation” and unbridled free-born joy. She effectively demonstrates that unfulfilled desire renders the self “A solitary shadow waiting on the margins of non-entity”; a self-enclosed, auto-erotic shadow governed by the constrictive dictates of natural reason that results in an onanistic and tyrannical “self-love that envies all”. Visions is a poem about sexual freedom in relation to a rationalist epistemology: its openness to love is set against the desire for power epitomised by rationalism, the slave trade, and the late eighteenth century marital arrangements – “the evil of marriage” (Godwin) – in the sense that “she who burns with youth … is bound In spells of law to one she loaths” and thus “turns the wheel of false desire”. Here Blake is suggesting that the sexual ethics promulgated by the church give rise to cycles of oppression; the repression of true desire and the enslavement of the female under patriarchal dominion. The rape of Oothoon by Bromion may be paralleled with the myth of the rape of Persephone by Dis. In the sense that Dis’s imprisonment in the underworld may be interpreted as the soul’s descent into the world of experience or Generation, Oothoon contrastingly brings to Generation and the material world the memory of the values of the Eternal – that is, spiritual, selfless love. The poem ostensibly celebrates sexual desire as at once a revolutionary impulse against tyranny in the material world, against the rational dictates of a reductive epistemology based on natural reason or natural law, and as a potential vision or revelation of Eternity.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft presents herself as a rationalist who sets reason in opposition to the impulse of the heart. She insists on the virtue of female chastity, associating reason with the elimination of sexual desire. Blake wholly opposed this notion of self-denial. Comparatively, he presents sexual codes of the demand for physical purity and the hierarchy of male over female as continuous with the violence and injustice of slavery. For him, sex is a liberating experience and the erotic energies embodied by Oothoon are assimilated with the revolutionary desire for freedom from patriarchal control. Oothoon is therefore a mouthpiece for self-revelation and liberation through sexual experience. She represents the triumph of self-fulfilment over the rationalist doctrine of self-denial.
Enchained to the Material and Maternal
For Blake, sexual love is a means to transgress the inhibitive moral law and so access to the Imaginative and eternal world of Eden. In Eden, there is only pure energy manifesting itself in form: the material form of nature is absent so that, in the realm of the Imagination, there is no pre-Oedipal m/other figure: the Fall of man effectively constitutes a dependence on the objective material and “maternal” world of nature and natural law. This nourishing force in the natural world is the deceptively objective “Female Will” and is only possible to natural religion. In transgressing the rational moral law and therefore the natural world, it may be said that Oothoon represents the transgression of the Female Will; the potential return to a prelapsarian state of perception principally through the revelation of the Imagination and in the freedom of desire, not the revelation of Reason, in which male and female, anima and animus become one. This sexual union may therefore be said to be a form of self-revelation and self-emancipation from the natural world – that is, a partial perception of the epicene self and hence of the Eternal, of Truth.
Northrop Frye has noted that within Blake’s symbolism the two great symbols of the Female Will are the Madonna and the child; the infant imagination embraced and, it may be said smothered in the arms of the m/other (Frye, pp. 75-76). Blake repudiated the concept of the Virgin’s parthenogenesis: the Virgin is a paradigm of the religion of chastity and hence of repression.
Blake relished the energy and the boundlessness of the world of nature and of the mind and criticised all reductions of this sense of infinity to a concept of oneness. This relates to his opposition to the Deist belief in an abstract, invisible and unknowable God: the eternal or Divine Intelligence consists of distinct bounded Forms or Ideas which are perceptible through the Imagination. The Book of Urizen as a text is bound per se. Its columns of verse are divided into chapters and numbered sections, “divided, and measured Space by Space”, in imitation of sacred scripture. Moreover, the poet’s use of unrhymed anapaestic trimeter conveys a sense of rhythmic limitation, as Edward Larrissy observes “the verse is infected with the limitations of the Fall it describes”. The poem self-consciously lacks a certain richness and variety of metaphor and diction; the form of the text suggests the very moment at which poetry congeals into scripture in its unmediated/unrefined state – the very moment at which the Poetic Genius or vision is made incarnate and “moulded into existence”. The poet appears to hesitate between Vision and the limitation of Vision; the creation of poetry through Vision and its subsequent fall or bounding within the body of the text.
Re-writing the Word
Blake’s aesthetic practice was heavily influenced by the Bible and it is significant that Blake envisioned the Bible as at once embodying the oppressive, Mosaic Law of the Old Testament, and yet as being composed in a radical or lawless aesthetic mode unbound by fixed literary conventions. The Bible does not comprise a seamless, coherent narrative; rather, it is replete with textual ruptures, gashes and inconsistencies, semantic lacunae, reiterated passages; it is fissiparous, fragmented, and inaccessible to Reason; it is per se a Bible of Hell. Indeed, the Bible is “the product of a complex, continuous, and often arbitrary set of historical interactions”; it is “a heterogeneous collection of various materials gathered together at different times by different editors and redactors” and derives from a number of cultures, traditions, literary and historical contexts. It is therefore pertinent to examine Blake’s radical aesthetic practice in the light of his political theology and in the light of his opposition to a rational moral law.
Tannenbaum observes that Blake’s radical aesthetic derives primarily from the prophetic writings of Isaiah who, like Blake in America, similarly utilises the symbol of the Divine or apocalyptic marriage as a means to convey the culmination of history. In America, Blake infuses his vision of the apocalyptic marriage with erotic imagery derived from the Canticles of the Song of Solomon as a means to depict the revivification of latent reformative, creative and sexual energies that have been repressed by the moral law of State religion.
Blake utilises the principle of parallelism as a means not only to invoke inner vision in the reader but also to arouse the faculties into action, as Tannenbaum suggests: “He found in the Bible a concept of art … that acts upon the reader and enjoins the reader to act in response to it.” In this respect the concepts of revelation and revolution are interrelated in Blake’s aesthetic in that he synthesises vision (visio) and action (praxis); the means to revelation through vision and to political revolution through action. Blake, then, discovered in the Hebrew Scriptures a radical aesthetic “that was based not on external rules, but on a principle of inner coherence that served the poet-prophet’s need to protest against the moral, religious, and political abuses of his time” – that is, the moral law of natural religion. Blake’s aesthetic may also be considered to be radical in the respect that it wholly differs from and consciously subverts the conventions of neo-classicism in its disruptions of linearity, its constant divagations and transitions (the genera mista of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for instance), its representation of multiple perspectives (such as the constant interchanges or agon between Orc and Albion’s Prince in America), its effusive diction, and its resilience to a restrictive formal structure such as the “modern bondage of Rhyming”.
Energy and Enthusiasm versus Censorship and Control
Hebrew poetry is composed principally with the authentic and aesthetic energies of experience, of Divine inspiration. However, in the late eighteenth century the State, under the aegis of William Pitt – following from the social upheavals of the French Revolution together with the American Declaration of Independence, the 1787 Constitution, and Bill of Rights (1791), as well as the founding of the London Corresponding Society in 1792 – imposed a law on all publications, especially religious writings, which were deemed to be oppositional to the State or potentially subversive to the established order: in 1792 a Royal Proclamation against seditious writings was published and signalled the inauguration of Pitt’s “Reign of Terror”, which Michael Phillips describes as “a systematic effort on the part of the government to seek out, demoralize and effectively destroy any organization or individual that it deemed to be questioning the tenets of the constitution or the monarchy and therefore to pose a threat to its authority”. The penalty for publishing seditious writings, for slander against the authorities and, indeed, any overt opposition to the order of things was imprisonment. As part of the repressive government’s censorship programme and due to the lack of an established police force, an initiative was implemented whereby citizens were offered a financial reward for acting as informants to the government of any actual or potential acts of sedition within society. Writers and publishers were under constant surveillance not only by the government but by members of their own community.
This quasi-Panoptic concept of social regulation led Blake to claim that “To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life” and ensured that the repressive social institutions of power operative in society are unknowable and elusive. Furthermore, this notion of regulation and obedience via surveillance results in psychological discipline whereby the individual, through fear, is incarcerated in “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault). In this way, the law of censorship inhibited potentially energies. The religious energies of inspiration or “enthusiasm” posed a threat to the hegemony of the Church and State if cultivated amongst the masses. The word “enthusiasm” is linked etymologically to Blake’s notion of revelation: the word derives from the French enthousiasme and via the Latin from the Greek enthousiasmos meaning ‘possessed by God’ (based on theos, God). It is the inspiration of the Divine Sprit that drives the poet-prophet’s creative energies, and it is essentially this energy or enthusiasm, embodied by Orc, which Blake envisioned as necessary for the transgression of the stony law and so for social and political revolution.
Revolution as external revelation
In his synthesis of politics and theology, that is, in his vision of revolution as a prelude to apocalyptic revelation, Blake challenged the moral laws based on reason upheld by the established Church, as well as the rationalist epistemology based on a concept of natural law, and expressed this challenge via a radical aesthetic derived predominantly from the Bible, which is at once law-bound in its espousal of the Mosaic Law, and yet aesthetically lawless. Utilising the principle of parallelism in his verse, Blake subverted the conventions of classical poetry by prioritising sense over structure, subsequently engaging his readers on an imaginative level and, furthermore, deployed this aesthetic as a means to challenge received notions of linear chronology.
In Blake, revolution and revelation go hand in hand: revolution is the yearning for revelation, and the revolutionary impulses, both political and religious represented by Orc and Oothoon – the former as an emblem of self-renewal and potentially subversive Energy, the latter as an emblem of sexual manumission – ultimately represent the potential to unveil social and political Error – the tyranny of Reason, selfhood, and the moral codes of Church government – so that the individual may reject Error, embrace truth, and be free from oppressive, law-bound systems. Revelation is a revolution in the self, from within; and revolution from without begins with self-revelation.
Michael Farrell is an independent researcher and an alumnus of Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, UK, where he completed his PhD. His research interests include William Blake and the cultures of religious dissent in the Eighteenth Century. The above article is an abridged version of ‘Revolution & Revelation: William Blake and the Moral Law’, which originally appeared in Postgraduate English Journal (University of Oxford Postgraduate English, Issue 15, March 2007) and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.