Boehme’s influence on Blake, although often acknowledged, is frequently underestimated and has never been comprehensively investigated. Much modern criticism regards Blake’s work as non-transcendental, even secular. This is partly a reaction against earlier criticism, which was more sympathetic to Blake’s connection with the mystical tradition. The argument of this article, however, is that Boehme exerted a continuous and pervasive influence on Blake, and that recognition of this can illumine some of the most difficult and contradictory elements in Blake’s work. These include the attitude to the body and the senses, and the metaphysical status of the selfhood and the created world.
Boehme’s system represents a synthesis of many different currents of thought, including the Dionysian via negativa, the Hermetic tradition, the Kabbalah and the Lutheran faith. It is emphasized, however, that his philosophy arose from intense mystical experience rather than academic study, and that he chose to express it in symbolic and mythological terms rather than rational concepts.
Introduction: Blake and Boehme
In1863, Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, observed that Blake had ‘eagerly assimilated’ the writings of Boehme and Swedenborg. However, with the exception of E.J. Ellis and W. B. Yeats in their 1893 edition of Blake’s works (and they remain the only critics to suggest that Blake could have been interested in Boehme’s ‘Language of Nature’), it was not until 1924, with the publication of S. Foster Damon’s William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols, that any serious attempt was made to indicate the full extent of Blake’s knowledge of Boehme. Damon referred to Boehme as one of Blake’s ‘spiritual masters’ and he located numerous parallels between them.
Milton O. Percival’ s William Blake’s Circle of Destiny, in the course of placing Blake’s myth firmly in the esoteric and mystical tradition, with copious examples from Swedenborg, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and the Kabbalah, also unearthed a series of parallels from Boehme’s doctrines and related them to Blake in less haphazard fashion than Damon. He noted the importance of Boehme’s imagery of fire and light, symbolising angry Father and beneficent Son, and the general similarities in the fall narratives, comparing Urizen’s Mundane Shell with Boehme’s world of stars and elements, the sphere of Verstand, or reason.
Mark Schorer was anxious to dissociate Blake from the taint of mysticism, and dismissed Boehme as a ‘Protestant mystic low in the scale’, although he conceded that Blake was indebted to Boehme for his concept of the imagination and his doctrine of contraries. Bernard Blackstone (1949) alluded to Boehme but not in great detail; Jacques Roos (1951) discussed the place of reason and the imagination, and the Behmenist concept of ‘signatures’ , and was also the first to notice that the word ‘selfhood’ first appeared in the language in the seventeenth century Ellistone translations of Boehme.
Gerald Bentley (1954) examined the alchemical background to Blake’s works, referring chiefly to Boehme. He concluded that ‘Blake inherited from Boehme the ideas which formed the foundation of his philosophy and his myth’. This was the most detailed work that had appeared up to that date, and was also the first to examine in detail the ‘Law edition’ of Boehme, which Blake would have read. But it was by no means exhaustive.
By far the most useful, indeed indispensable works to date on the subject in hand are Kathleen Raine’s Blake and Tradition (1968), and Morton D. Paley’s Energy and the Imagination: A Study of the Development of Blake’s Thought (1970). Of particular interest in Dr. Raine’s study is her analysis of how Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, penetrated the significance of Boehme’s ‘dark world’; her discussion of the Behmenist concept of the ‘opening of centers’ in the context of Blake, and of the parallels between Blake’s Jerusalem and Boehme’s Sophia.
Paley concentrates more on the revolutionary political and social aspects of Blake than on the Neoplatonic tradition which is Dr. Raine’s main concern. He gives the best account available of how Boehme’s contraries of wrath and love operate in Blake’s work, seeing the myth of the fall, as described in the Lambeth prophecies and The Four Zoas, as a transition from Boehme’s second, light principle to his first, dark principle. He also gives full weight to the close similarities in the way Blake and Boehme understand the process of regeneration, and the central role that both ascribe to the imagination.
Vernunft and Verstand: The Master and His Emissary
Boehme was acutely aware of the problem of communication, especially regarding the non-verbal ‘mystical’ experiences he had: ‘If I had the Tongue of an Angel, and thou hadst an angelical Understanding, we might very finely discourse of it’, he remarked in his book Aurora.
The real difficulty, as far as Boehme’s obscurity is concerned, is that he is forced to communicate through the written word a knowledge which he believes is obtainable only through another means. He continually contrasts the limitations of discursive reason (Verstand), which ‘knows nothing of God’ (Mysterium Magnum), with what he calls understanding (Vernunft), a higher intelligence which ‘proceeds only from God’ (Signatura Rerum).
Verstand is analytic and sequential, baffled by paradox and unable to see the universe other than as a series of unrelated parts. Vernunft, on the other hand, is intuitive and holistic, able to grasp and reconcile contradictions in a simultaneous vision of the whole. Boehme continually maintains that his works are not the product of ‘outward Reason’ (The Threefold Life Of Man); if the spirit leaves him, he cannot understand them himself (Aurora). If the reader of Boehme follows his advice, he must also attempt a leap from Verstand to Vernunft. As Mircea Eliade has stated, of primitive myths: ‘there is no other way of understanding a foreign mental universe than to place oneself inside it, at its very centre, in order to progress from there to all the values that it possesses.’
Like the Gnostics and Kabbalists before him, Boehme is a mythologist as much as a philosopher (hence his appeal to the Romantic poets), and at the very least, some kind of imaginative or sympathetic identification with the higher level of reality that he seeks to convey is essential if the full scope of his enterprise is to be grasped.
Boehme always associates the stars and elements with the sphere of Verstand. From the point of view of traditional wisdom this is somewhat idiosyncratic, but is entirely consistent with Boehme’s system, with his desire to downgrade reason and elevate ‘understanding’ (Vernunft). The latter is contained only in the ‘holy spiritual Body’, which is formed from the one, pure element, out of which the four elements separate (Mysterium Magnum).
The Fall of Vernunft
Man was created as a complete image of God, an expression of the divine Word, bearing within him the divine name (Mysterium Magnum). Of all creatures, only man can bring the ‘Wonders of the world’ to light (The Threefold Life Of Man). In this sense, his life is higher than that of the angels (Aurora). Boehme’s view of man is dominated by the ancient idea of the correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Man can be lord of the universe because he is an epitome of it.
Like the angels, he was to act in partnership with God as a co-former of creation, completing the work of divine revelation. This was the very purpose for which he had been created. However, Adam’s idyllic existence proved to be short-lived. Adam should have been like a king who rules his territories without having to leave his inner fortress. Had he done so, the outer world would have remained solely for his play and sport. But he was not content with this.
Like Lucifer, he possessed a will of his own, a selfhood. He desired to experience the properties in themselves, to know the outer world in itself, divorced from its spiritual basis. He sought multiplicity rather than unity. From this one act of the imagination, his fall proceeded. He fell asleep, which signified the loss of his divine consciousness. When he awoke, it was to time rather than eternity. At the same time, he lost Sophia, the divine wisdom, who had been his heavenly bride, and received Eve, created from the female element within him.
The consequences of the fall were immediate – the body became gross matter, the divine light within was eclipsed, and the ‘temperature’ amongst the properties was destroyed. With innumerable contending wills striving for mastery within him, man became many times divided against himself. Having lost Vernunft, the divine understanding, he found himself occupying the world of stars and elements, the province of Verstand, but now as servant rather than master, subject to the will of the Spiritus Mundi.
Adam’s act also introduced disorder into his environment. The holy element withdrew into itself – this is Boehme’s interpretation of the Biblical curse (The Three Principles of the Divine Essence) – and the outward world stood revealed in all its rawness as a scene of perpetual conflict, where the evil and the good struggle incessantly for possession of the human soul. The playground had been transformed into a battlefield.
Imagination as the medium of Incarnation
Imagination is the means through which subjective idea passes into objective reality. It acts as the creative instrument of will. Will alone is not sufficient, but ‘the Imagination of the willing maketh Substance’ (The Treatise of the Incarnation). Only imagination can affect the condition of the soul, for good or ill, ‘for what life imaginates after, that it receives’ (Six Theosophic Points).
Boehme’s Theory of Contraries: The Tyger and the Lamb
Nurmi believed that Blake took his ‘general conception’ of the contraries from Boehme, but used it for his own purposes, the final result bearing only a distant resemblance to Boehme’s original concept. Swedenborg also had a theory of contraries, believing that nothing could exist except in relation to its opposite. For every good, there was an evil opposed to it, and knowledge of a thing could be deduced from a knowledge of its opposite.
But it was in Boehme that the theory had taken a new development. His originality lay in his belief that, firstly, it was only through conflict that joy could become manifest, and secondly that in the perfect life of Eternal Nature, conflict did not simply lead to joy, as something beyond itself, it became the very joy itself. Yeats captured this vision in his play The Unicorn from the Stars, in which the dreamer Martin Hearne (who is based on Boehme), discovers that the life of Paradise is like ‘a battle where the sword made a sound that was like laughter’.
This is something quite different from the common resolution of the problem of opposites, whereby all discord is considered to form part of a larger pattern of order or harmony. Blake’s approach in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell clearly resembles that of Boehme, and in the emphasis which both place on the need to reconcile the opposites at a higher plane of existence, they are also distinguished from Swedenborg, who considered that a static balance had to be maintained between opposing forces of good and evil, and saw no need to transcend these conventional categories. Blake chose Boehme’s dynamism in preference to Swedenborg’s equilibrium; his aim was to apply Boehme’s insight to the creative activity of the artist, and also to use it as a weapon with which to overturn conventional religion and morality.
Blake was grappling with the problem of how to unify existence without destroying its essential polarity, in the wake of a study of Boehme. Leopold Damrosch argues that as Blake’s myth developed, he found it increasingly difficult to accommodate the idea of two active, mutually affirmative contraries, tending to ‘exalt one and repel or even exterminate the other’ and there is truth in this as far as reason and energy are concerned.
However, the contraries could also take other forms, and Blake continued to employ Boehme’s idea of two opposed but complementary principles to indicate the different ways in which the Godhead could be experienced, as wrath or pity, tiger or lamb, and his Eden remained a union of these principles in ‘wars of life & wounds of love’ (Jerusalem), beyond the moral code of good and evil. The ambivalence, however, remained.
The God of the dark, the Unseen, the Implicit, the Unconscious
Blake warns against a failure to see beyond an ‘outward consideration’ of man’s present environment; its more fearsome and distressing aspects should be comprehended within a wider totality, beyond man’s limited vision: ‘The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man’.
But more specifically, Blake was attracted to Boehme’s descriptions of the dark properties, and he found it easy to identify them with the energy which he was so enthusiastically celebrating:
For from the two-fold Source, every Thing has its great Mobility, running, springing, driving, and growing. For Meekness in Nature is a still Rest, but the Fierceness in every Power makes all Things moveable, running and generative. (Aurora).
By his term ‘fierceness’ (Grimmigkeit), Boehme conveys the sense of a driving, restless agitation akin to the ‘cauldron of seething excitement’ which Freud discovered in the Id. In The Marriage, Blake seized on Grimmigkeit and saw it as the embodiment of life’ s procreant urge, the very source of creative energy, and he had ample justification in Boehme for doing so:
the Fierceness [or wrath ] is the Root of all Things, and moreover, the Originality of the Life; therein only consists the Might and the Power, and from thence only proceed the Wonders. (The Three Principles of the Divine Essence)
Blake personifies the ‘might and the power’ in the form of a group of giants, shackled and huddled together against a dark background (the dark abyss of the first principle?); it is they who are responsible for forming the world, and they remain ‘the causes of its life & the sources of all activity’. The title-page of The Marriage can also be seen in a Behmenist light, clearly showing the outer world as an ‘outbirth’ of the two interior worlds. In Blake’s eyes, Boehme had laid bare the surging energies at the heart of existence, and for both men too, it was a vision which transcended the limitations of good and evil.
Neither term had a place in the truly integrated life, whether of God or man; when Boehme refers to God as the ‘Eternal Good’ or the ‘only Good’ (Mysterium Magnum), he usually means the unmanifest God in Trinity, prior to his self-realization in Eternal Nature. But this goodness is static, whereas the life of Eternal Nature is goodness on the move, joy itself, ‘eternal delight’, and any other term is inadequate to describe the nature of divine life.
So also for man, who was created ‘in Paradise in the Joyfulness’; he should have known as little of the evil as he did of the good (Mysterium Magnum), he was of a different order, a different principle; he stood in bliss itself. Good and evil are therefore limited categories, recognized only by an impoverished and divided mind. As Nicolas Berdyaev, who was heavily influenced by Boehme, wrote: ‘The Kingdom of God cannot be conceived moralistically: it is on the other side of the distinction. It is the Fall that has made moralists of us.’ So also for Blake, who shared the desire to raise others to the level of the ‘immense world of delight ‘ which he perceived in the flying bird, a state of joyous and unreflective activity in which the empty piety of the Swedenborgian Angel was transcended.
Positive Darkness, Negative Light
Blake grasped that evil arose only when the smooth unfoldment of the dark properties, which constituted the fundamental life-forces, was arrested or hindered. But Blake would take this a step further and identify the dark energies with what he had earlier called ‘the staminal virtues of humanity’ (Annotations to Lavater), meaning the physical appetites of man, particularly sexual desire. Any energy which is repressed becomes poisonous; a desire which is not consummated ‘breeds pestilence’.
Boehme would not have accepted this as a reasonable interpretation of his philosophy, but nonetheless, at the metaphysical level his point is basically the same: the dark properties, by turning in upon themselves and refusing to act in consort with the others, become transformed into a whirlpool of unfulfilled desire, and it is this which spawns the venomous creatures of hell.
In each case, the crime is that an essential aspect of life should remain incomplete and unsatisfied. It should be remembered that Blake also understood the term desire in a wider sense, as an expression of the longing of the finite for the infinite, of time for eternity, and conversely, as the pouring out of the eternal ideas into temporal forms.
In this respect, the Blakean desire resembles the expansive nature of Boehme’s Ungrund, in its yearning to come forth and display itself, and also Boehme’s belief that all manifest life is driven by a desire to re-establish a living connection with its infinite source. Only in isolation does desire become restless and desperate. Both Blake and Boehme believed that:
In every external Thing there are two Properties; one from Time, the other from Eternity; the first Property of Time is manifest; and the other is hidden, yet it sets forth a Likeness after itself in each Thing. (Signatura Rerum)
It is because of this that ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time’ (Blake), since time is the expressed word, or signature, of the ‘eternal speaking word’:
The whole outward visible World with all its Being is a Signature, or Figure of the inward spiritual World; whatever is internally, and however its Operation is, so likewise it has its Character externally. (Signatura Rerum)
Swedenborg’s doctrine of correspondences is similar to Boehme’s signatures, and is certainly a parallel influence here.
The Alchemical Imagination: The Transformation of Form
Both Blake and Boehme shared the alchemical vision of nature as a vast, seething receptacle for the refinement and spiritualization of matter, an alchemical retort no less; ‘the Earth must be turned to Heaven’ (Signatura Rerum). For good or ill, this perspective is absent from Swedenborg, and Blake certainly reacts as an alchemist when he implies that Swedenborg’s writings can be placed in the same category as ‘Aristotle’ s Analytics’.
It was fashionable for Hermetic philosophers to dismiss Aristotle and the schoolmen with contempt, supposing that they studied books too much and nature too little; in consequence, their knowledge had no experiential basis. Vaughan complained that the scholastics thought of God as a carpenter, piecing the universe together with dead materials, whereas in truth the world was ‘full of spirit, quick and living’. Boehme too, reading the book of nature, sensed that ‘Nature labours with utmost Diligence, to produce in its Power heavenly Figures, Shapes or Forms’ (Aurora); he saw in the wrestling of the seven properties a vast creative power:
O … what an Eternal labour there is therein, so that one form generateth another, till they are all brought to Light, and so the Eternal is manifest. (The Threefold Life Of Man)
In a long and extraordinary passage in the Aurora, he describes how the ceaseless activity of the properties gives birth to a flower or plant. It may well have been the inspiration behind Blake’s proverb ‘To create a little flower is the labour of ages’, which succinctly expresses Boehme’s meaning.
The Body Divine
The position of honour which Blake accorded to the body must also be understood against an alchemical and Behmenist background. He had already observed in his annotations to Lavater that ‘God is in the lowest effects as well as in the highest causes’ (Annotations to Lavater), which suggests his early familiarity with the aphorism ‘What is below, is like what is above’ from the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. Boehme echoes the same thought: ‘What the Superior is, that is also the Inferior’ (Mysterium Magnum); the entire universe, even down to the most dense matter, is permeated by living spirit.
Thus Blake’s description of body as a ‘portion of Soul’ was sanctioned by the Hermetic tradition, and Blake overcame the possibly dualistic implications of the terminology of above/below, superior/inferior by stating that the body could break free of its self-imposed limitations and embrace soul as an equal partner, thereby ensuring that existence was no longer divided against itself: ‘Man has no Body distinct from his Soul’.
Boehme likewise held the body in high regard, as an outbirth of the divine, a temple rather than a tomb. He could not conceive a disembodied, purely spiritual existence; the invisible must put on the visible, for neither could manage without the other. A spirit without a body was ’empty’ and could not know itself.
In this sense, Blake’s statement that ‘Energy is the only life, and is from the Body’ could have been penned by Boehme. It was precisely because man possessed a body, in addition to his spiritual make-up, that he was able to function as a concentrated receptacle of divine power, both microcosm, ‘the whole Eternity manifested in an Image’, and microtheos, ‘the child of God; not a similutude only, but a Child … born of God’ (The Threefold Life Of Man), harmoniously uniting in himself two realms of being.
Body and Soul go hand in hand, and are nothing else but the inward and outward State of one and the same Life. (William Law, The Spirit of Love)
Mention of the fallen, ‘bestial ‘ body is important, because for Boehme it is only at the fall that antipathy arises between flesh and spirit. His philosophy is exactly that of Paul, who, like Boehme often sounds dualistic, but in fact draws a very careful distinction between flesh (sarx), which is sold into sin, and body (soma), which is for the Lord. So also for Boehme, the ‘gross, deformed, bestial dead Image’ (Signatura Rerum) belongs only to the fallen third principle; the ‘true body’, belonging to the second principle, lies couched within it ‘as the Gold in the Ore’ (Mysterium Magnum), and it is this holy body which must be revealed, so that body and spirit may once more be united.
There is no doubt that Boehme himself, like Blake, experienced the world of sense with great intensity. One commentator has observed that when Boehme writes of an ‘All-seeing, All-hearing, All-smelling, All-feeling, All-tasting God’ (Aurora) he is idealizing his own desire for exquisite sensual experience. Boehme too was of the Devil’s party.
Imagination: the Son
Although, as Morton Paley has pointed out, Blake does not use the actual word ‘imagination’ very frequently in his writings before 1799, the early tractates and The Marriage clearly indicate the Behmenist line that his thought was taking. For Boehme, it was through imagination that the primordial will first brought wisdom into being. The desire to manifest is itself an imagination:
Wherein the Will, in the Looking-Glass of Wisdom, discovers itself, and so it Imagines out of the Abyss into itself, and makes to itself, in the Imagination, a ground in itself, and Impregnates itself with the Imagination out of the Wisdom …
Thus the Imagination of the willing, viz. the Father’s, attracts the Aspect, Form or Representation of the Looking-Glass … into itself, and so becomes Impregnated with the Glance of the Wisdom, with the Power and Virtue: This is the Will’s, viz. the Father’s Heart, wherein the Abyssal Will attains a Ground in itself, through and in the eternal Imagination. (The Treatise of the Incarnation).
Man shares in this divine imagination, through which he acts with, and on behalf of, the creator:
For the Soul comprehends the highest Sense, it beholds what God its Father acts or makes, also it co-operates in the heavenly Imaging or Framing: And therefore it makes a Description, Draught, Platform or Model for the Nature-Spirits, showing how a Thing should be imaged or framed. (Aurora)
Blake’s proverb ‘Where man is not, nature is barren’ should be understood against this background. Man is a little God, his imagination acting upon nature in the same way that, in the beginning, the spirit of God gave form to the void.
The imagination therefore is the power which shapes and colours nature, and its reach is vast; nothing in the universe is immune from its influence, as Blake’s proverb ‘One thought fills immensity’ suggests.
As the agent of change, the imagination is the power which leads from the fire of the first principle to the light of the second (The Treatise of the Incarnation) and in Blakean terms it is only the imagination, the faculty which man has neglected, which can lead him out of his self-imposed prison.
If man could recover his former imaginative power he could transform his environment at a stroke; like Blake’s Devil, he would see pleasant moonlit riverbanks where he now saw Leviathans. Boehme equated the strong imagination with the faith that moves mountains (The Treatise of the Incarnation), and Blake’s equivalent is the ‘firm perswasion’ which moved mountains in the ‘ages of imagination’. Boehme reiterates the point, using an expression which Blake was later to adopt:
If we have not divine Imagination, viz. Faith in us, then the divine Love will leave us, and not let us in at her Doors. (The Treatise of the Incarnation)
This is obviously the sphere of ideas in which Blake was moving at the time of his writing The Marriage, and the inspiration he derived from Boehme should be abundantly clear. Although the imagination also occupies an important place in the work of Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus, neither magician nor alchemist made it the central pivot of his philosophy, whereas the paramount significance which Boehme attached to it would be apparent even to a casual reader.
Ulro and the Fall into Darwin
In Blake’s terminology, Albion now founds himself in the desolate, dehumanized world of the Ulro. Ulro is first named in the first night of The Four Zoas as the space allocated by the Daughters of Beulah to the ‘Circle of Destiny’. It is therefore the material world, but seen in its most unimaginative and sterile form. It is associated with death, cruelty, error and delusion; its inhabitants are ignorant of the spiritual causes which underlie natural events (Milton).
Ulro also represents the Newtonian universe, functioning with a vast mechanical regularity, beyond the control of man and rendering him small and insignificant, lost in the giant spaces. Such a universe forces even God to sit in exile beyond the skies.
Boehme too has his Ulro, which is the world as perceived by Verstand and here it is as if he is correcting Albion’s distorted vision:
Why will you be fooled by Antichrist, by his laws [Precepts] and Pratings? Where will you seek God? In the Deep above the Stars? You will not be able to find him there. Seek him in your Heart, in the Center of the Birth of your Life, and there you shall find him. (The Three Principles of the Divine Essence)
He further counsels: ‘Give no place to reason; when it saith, thou art without God, then say, No, I am in God, I am in Heaven in Him’ (Threefold Life Of Man). This of course is exactly what Jesus attempts to convey to Albion at the beginning of Jerusalem:
Awake! awake 0 sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine:
I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend;
Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me:
Lo we are One, forgiving all Evil, Not seeking recompense.
The emphasis on the indwelling divine love, which sees no fault and demands no self-abasement, as opposed to the God of stern justice and vengeance, is typical of Blake. It was certainly stimulated by Boehme’s continual insistence that God is love and love alone, and that in him there can be neither anger, nor evil, nor any desire to inflict punishment.
The opposite view can be held only by Verstand, which sees God in its own image as a being both divided and divisive. This is the God who is ready to wreak vengeance on man for his disobedience and to condemn half the human race (the line of Esau) to damnation before they even see the light of day. According to William Law, those who held such a view were:
… miserable Mistakers of the Divine Nature, and miserable Reproachers of His great Love, and Goodness in the Christian Dispensation. For God is Love, yea, all Love, and so all Love, that nothing but Love can come from him; and the Christian Religion, is nothing else but an open, full Manifestation of his universal Love towards all Mankind.
The wrath which separated man from God belonged not to God but to ‘the dark Fire of our own fallen Nature’.
Blake similarly attacked the pretensions of fallen reason, which ‘takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole’. Because reason is ignorant of the unity which underlies the diverse elements of creation, the unity which it seeks can only be artificially imposed from without, and this is inevitably baseless and damaging: ‘One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression’.
Albion and The Starry Cosmos
Blake’s description of the extraordinary intimacy between Albion and the life of the cosmos was surely stimulated by Boehme’s account of the paradisiacal man, who had the entire universe within his reach. Adam, with his vision pure and unobstructed, was able to see into the heart of the creation, to feel its ‘signatures’ and to know it as his own, because whatever is contained within can also be known in its manifestation without.
It was only when Adam lost this intimacy (ironically, in a miscalculated attempt to enhance it) that, for the first time, he perceived the outward world in isolation, quite divorced from himself. It then appeared as a completely hostile power, alien to a being still tinged with the memory of paradise. No longer did Adam, or, in Blake’s terms, Albion, hold the world in immediate embrace. On the contrary, it was the world which now held him, as human life ‘fell to the Stars’ (Mysterium Magnum), and these are the same ‘starry heavens’ which escape from Albion’s limbs and torment him throughout Jerusalem.
This can be looked at from another angle, in the context of the three designs by Dionysius Freher which were included at the back of volume three of some copies of the ‘Law edition’ of Boehme’s work, and which were praised so highly by Blake. Each design represents man in one of his three possible states: pristine, fallen, or regenerate. All the designs are multi-layered, and a series of flaps can be lifted up to reveal progressively more inward states of existence.
The first design (of man in his pristine condition) shows, before the flaps are lifted, the zodiac and the planets, including earth, but does not reveal man. According to the extracts from Freher’s explanation which were included with the designs, this was because man was not to appear ‘within the Limits and Bounds of the Zodiac’. In other words, although man had the universe in him, he was not bound by it.
What Blake would have noticed as he examined the Freher diagram was a spiral line, which starts at the outermost point of the zodiac, and winds inwards, as the flaps are lifted, via earth and the other planets, which are also equated with the seven properties. In this way the figure of man is gradually revealed, and the spiral line continues to wind, ‘through all the Circumvolutions of Time’ directly into him.
More flaps lift up from within the man himself, to reveal, successively, Fire, Tincture, Majesty, Ternarius and finally ‘that incomprehensible Point, which is most significantly called ‘NOTHING and ALL’, where the spiral line ends. From a Blakean point of view, if a ‘traveller thro’ Eternity’ were to take up the spiral line from its outermost point (the end of the golden string of Jerusalem, which leads into heaven’s gate) and wind it into a ball as he journeyed inwards, the planets would one by one be collected up until eventually he would find himself standing at the Point within man’s heart, which would also contain the entire universe.
From this point of view, the universe itself can be seen as opening out from within man, as an emanation of his own heart, rather as Blake describes it: ‘In every bosom a universe expands as wings’. The passage in Boehme on which Freher based his design can be found in chapter nine of The Threefold Life of Man. The planets and the zodiac are described as the ‘wheel of nature’ which ‘windeth itself from without inwards into itself’ towards the Heart of God, the ‘Eternal Center’ in which the ‘whole Power of the Majesty of God’ is concentrated, and is ‘held or shut up by nothing’. In this place stands the regenerate human mind (The Threefold Life Of Man) – also the mind of Blake’s Albion.
In Jerusalem Blake depicts a process similar to the above but with opposite implications. Albion’s universe, rather than expanding as wings, is forcibly extracted and separated from him as Vala, Rahab and Tirzah combine to draw out the living fibres, seen as a cord, from his body. The cord will eventually draw with it the sun, moon and stars which are still contained within him.
In another Freher design, fallen man is depicted as enclosed by, yet unconnected with, the zodiac, which forms a circle around him. However, his body retains its planetary equivalents; the heart corresponds to the sun, for example, and the brain to Jupiter, and this suggests a contrast with Blake, who shows man losing the stars from his own body as he falls.
However, the difference is more apparent than real. In effect, Boehme says exactly the same thing as Blake, although he describes it rather differently. For Boehme’s fallen man, the stars were no longer the means by which he could gain knowledge of the cosmos; no longer could he, like Los and Enitharmon ‘stretch across the heavens & step from star to star’ (The Four Zoas). The stars had acquired a malevolent character.
The innermost representation of man in the Freher design shows, in his ‘Dark Soul … the former Characters of the Seven Planets, all black and coloured’. Now active in their selfhoods (see Mysterium Magnum), the stars pick up their spears, and it is man, not they, who must flee naked away, enslaved by what he formerly ruled. It is not that man loses the stars from his own body in the way that Albion does. On the contrary, he becomes unpleasantly aware of them. Whereas before, they had lain quiescent within him, now they assault him. Nevertheless, the result is exactly as in Blake. Man relinquishes his power of communication with the universe, and the stars, no longer recognizable as his friends, conspire against him.
A final point to be observed in connection with this series of designs by Freher is Blake’s illustration at the bottom of plate 91 of Jerusalem, which shows the process of ‘What is within now seen without’ (The Four Zoas). The externalizing of the seal of Solomon is particularly interesting, since the seal appears (in the flap marked Tincture) as one of the innermost aspects of Freher’s unfalien man.
In the Hermetic tradition the seal normally signifies the synthesis of the four elements, and therefore the union of opposites; Albion’s loss of it clearly indicates his divided state.
The Rational Circle and the Wheel of Anguish
This sprawling, parasitic creation is a cancer to the divine body; like the Covering Cherub, it represents the devil’s parody of the divine embrace, for ‘He who will not comingle in Love must be adjoin’d by Hate’ (Jerusalem). Expansion in this context can mean only the acquisitive hunger of contending selfhoods in their desire to possess and subdue each other. All that this accumulated activity can produce in the fallen world is the circular motion of the ‘terrible starry wheels of Albion’s sons’, or the ‘dark Satanic wheels’ (Jerusalem), which is the development of the ‘rolling of wheels’ in Urizen, and refers to the oppressive nature of the Newtonian heavens.
But it is likely that Blake also had Boehme’s first three properties, the wheel of anguish, in mind. William Law had specifically linked the two:
In the mathematical System of this great Philosopher these three properties, Attraction, equal Resistance, and the orbicular Motion of the Planets as the Effect of them, etc., are only treated of as Facts and Appearances, whose Ground is not pretended to be known. But in our Behmen, the illuminated Instrument of God, their Birth and Power in Eternity are opened.
For Law, nature left to itself was a maelstrom of torment and frustrated desire, due to the activity of the first three properties, and anything in the material system of the world which possessed a circular motion was an example of Boehme’s wheel of anguish.
Boehme also describes the Angst as the ‘wheel of Nature’ (The Answers to Forty Questions concerning the Soul). It is responsible for wars and the desolation they cause. However, the peculiar feature of the wheel is its self-defeating nature; locked within its own principle, it can only feed upon itself.
As Morton Paley has noted, Blake adopts this idea, and uses the same vocabulary. In The Four Zoas as Orc it is transformed into a serpent, he becomes ‘A Self consuming dark devourer rising into the heavens’, and the Polypus is described as a ‘self-devouring monstrous Human Death’ (Milton).
The serpent that Orc becomes is of course the traditional alchemical symbol of the uroboros, the dragon which devours its own tail, and thus appears as a circle.
Selfhood and Self-annihilation
Both selfhood and self-annihilation are key themes in Boehme and Blake. Self-annihilation, which is the dominant theme of Milton, is an immediate consequence of the lightning-flash. As the flash arises, and if it is received aright, the selfhood subsides.
Several plates in Milton illustrate this. In Plate 18, Milton splits the word ‘Self-hood’ into two parts with his right foot, and in the ‘William’ and ‘Robert’ plates, both men are shown thrusting themselves backwards in self-annihilation as the star that is Milton descends.
The word ‘selfhood’ was first introduced into the English language in John Ellistone’s translation of Boehme’s letters, which was published in 1649. It occurs so frequently in Ellistone’s translation of the Signatura Rerum that even a casual reader could not fail to notice it, and John Sparrow also used it in his translations. The word did not come into common usage until the middle of the nineteenth century; Blake’s use of it is therefore fairly isolated, and Boehme seems to be the likely source.
Dying to self is the pattern of behaviour in Boehme’s Eternal Nature. At the instant of the flash, the dark properties form themselves into a cross, the eternal symbol of sacrificial death.
Thus the fire in its Devouring must beget the Water, viz. its Death, and yet must again have it for its Life; else neither the Fire nor the Light could subsist. And thus there is an Eternal Generation, devouring, receiving, and again consuming; and yet also it is thus an Eternal Giving; and has no Beginning nor End. (Mysterium Magnum)
This is an interesting passage because it suggests the superficial resemblance between fallen and unfallen life, the one being a reversed version of the other. The ‘generation’, ‘devouring’ and ‘consuming’ represents the predatory life of Boehme’s dark world and Blake’s Polypus; like Blake’s Covering Cherub, it is ‘a reflexion/Of Eden all perverted’ (Jerusalem). The eternal giving and receiving, however, is the higher version of this: self-annihilation in love for another.
Boehme regarded the selfhood as the cause of all sin and suffering, dividing man against himself and bringing him to destruction (Signatura Rerum). Selfhood was therefore the will to separateness, the assertion by an individual of his own independence and self-sufficiency. Boehme, like Blake, groups a number of almost interchangeable terms around the same idea: ‘for every willing of Evil is a Devil, viz. a false compacted Will for self, and a Rent or Splinter broken off from the entire Being, and a Phantasy.’
Here we can recognize not only Urizen but also the Satan of the Bard’s Song in Milton – the two are explicitly identified – and Milton’s own realization that ‘I in my Selfhood am that Satan: I am that Evil One’. The basis of our whole culture (‘we are individuals’) is therefore a delusion, and one that is generated by what Blake terms ‘the Great Selfhood Satan’.
Boehme equates the selfhood with reason, and this produces a cluster of associations, which Blake also shares. Urizen, for example, had been changed by his fall, from certainty to doubt (The Four Zoas), and this echoes Boehme’s statement that ‘earthly Reason passes always into doubting’ (The Treatise of the Incarnation). Blake sneers at the ‘idiot Questioner’ who ‘publishes doubt & calls it knowledge’ (Milton), just as Boehme warns his reader against the divines whose ‘knowing is altogether doubtful’ (The Threefold Life Of Man). Boehme is equally plain that the God of those who are ‘reason-taught’ is the Antichrist, the creation of the selfhood (Mysterium Magnum), just as Blake’s ‘Great Selfhood’, Satan, is ‘Worship’d as God by the Mighty Ones of the Earth’ (Jerusalem). Blake and Boehme fought similar battles against similar enemies.
The nature of the selfhood confirms the central paradox of all mystical thought: that the way of knowing must be by unknowing. The self-will loses the knowledge and power which it seeks at the very instant it asserts itself; it is here that ‘the Lye is generated’ (Of the Election of Grace). Kathleen Raine’s comment confirms that Blake’s thought follows similar lines: ‘When Satan assumes autonomous existence, he falls from the Divine Humanity, and his real existence is lost at the very moment he claims it.’ Of course, the Satanic mind could never accept such an explanation, since for the rationalism that it represents, a paradox is a problem which demands a solution, rather than a truth which can be immediately apprehended and lived.
The only way out of the web of deceit and ignorance that is woven by the selfhood is to renounce it, to do on earth as is done in heaven. Not only does this redeem Milton, but it is the central act which saves Los and sends him out on his regenerative work (‘by Self annihilation back returning/To life Eternal’ (The Four Zoas).
In like fashion, history is redeemed only by the self-sacrifice of Jesus, the Seventh Eye of God, after Lucifer, the First Eye, had ‘refused to die’, and his successors had been more willing to sacrifice others than themselves (The Four Zoas). It is only when Albion, by casting off the Covering Cherub, follows Jesus in this most positive of acts that the ‘Furnaces of Affliction’ are transformed into ‘Fountains of Living Waters’ (Jerusalem). What the act of self-annihilation does is to free the rational intellect from the illusion of self-sufficiency, making it aware once more of the true ground of all being.
Blake’s concept of the different levels of vision was undoubtedly stimulated by Boehme. Here is Boehme as he hectors Verstand: ‘Beloved Reason, behold! open both your eyes, and look not with one eye only’. After the fall, the world ‘hath but one Eye’, and as long as man continues to seek only in the stars and elements for knowledge of the mysteries of nature, his effort will forever be wasted: ‘you find no more but one Eye, and see with but one Eye’ (The Threefold Life Of Man). Thus Ulro becomes the world of ‘single vision’.
My final point is reflective. There is a peculiar irony in compiling an academic thesis on the work of two men who insisted with such vehemence that true knowledge was not accessible to ‘reason’ but must be sought ‘in the center of the birth of your life’. Boehme’s ‘doctors’ and ‘masters’,’wrangling and jangling’ in a Babel of confusion, and Blake’s ‘idiot Questioner who is always questioning/ But never capable of answering’ (Milton) reveal a supreme contempt for the value of the kind of learning which we tend to take for granted.
It has been remarked that The Book of Urizen ‘is a book written to liberate us from books’ and the structure of Jerusalem in Professor Mitchell’s analysis, ‘is a denial of our usual ideas of structure’, its purpose being to lead us away from time into eternity, or, to put it in a different way, out of the book into the expanded human mind, itself the container of all books. In such a view, much Blake criticism, including this thesis, might be seen as little more than a Urizenic exercise in numbering and categorizing, or, at best, a game attempt by Verstand to pass itself off as Vernunft. Boehme’s experience in the fields at Gorlitz once more gives us pause:
…the Gate was opened to me, that in one Quarter of an Hour I saw and knew more, than if I had been many Years together at an University…
This is an edited and abridged version of Bryan Aubrey’s doctoral thesis The Influence of Jacob Boehme on the Work of William Blake. To read the full thesis please click here.