On 1st December 1948, PresidentJosé Figueres Ferrer of Costa Rica abolished the military of Costa Rica after victory in the civil war in that year. In a ceremony in the Cuartel Bellavista, Figueres broke a wall with a mallet symbolizing an end to Costa Rica’s military spirit. In 1949, the abolition of the military was introduced in Article 12 of the Costa Rican Constitution. The budget previously dedicated to the military is now dedicated to security, education and culture.
Take a trip around the place that you live. What do you see? What do you feel?
Over 200 years ago, that’s exactly what William Blake did. What happened on that trip – what did he see? what did he feel? – but most importantly, what did it inspire him to write?
He described these “chartered” streets, and even the river Thames as being chartered – he was expressing the sense of ownership, the fact that the streets are owned by someone. Or a river – when you think of a river, you imagine something that flows freely – but he’s pointing to the fact that the river is also owned by someone.
London at that time was starting to assert itself, it was starting to beat its chest. But Blake just peals the veneer behind that image, and speaks about “Weakness” and “Woe”. These are not adjectives that London would use to describe itself to the world.
The entrance to the Rockefeller Centre New York draws on Blake’s image of ‘God’, but reversed so that he now divides with his ‘Right’ hand. Presumably Rockefeller didn’t realise that this figure actually represents a dissociated and psychopathic form of hyper-rationality dominating and dividing the world. Or perhaps he did.
I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s
In speaking of the basic aims of his art, Blake says: “The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative. This world of Imagination is the world of Eternity. There Exist in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature.” Thus art was to him not only a means of communicating his own beliefs to others, but actually a primary source of knowledge concerning the divine plan. He defined poetry, painting, and music as “the three Powers in Man of conversing with Paradise, which the flood did not Sweep away.”
Any attempt to explain Blake’s symbolism will involve explaining his conception of symbolism. To make this clear we need Blake’s own definition of poetry:
Allegory addressed to the Intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding, is My Definition of the Most Sublime Poetry; it is also somewhat in the same manner defined by Plato.
The “corporeal understanding”, according to Blake, cannot do more than elucidate the genuine obscurities, the things requiring special knowledge to understand (such as the contemporary allusions in Dante), or the literal mechanics of a poem (meter, structure, general themes etc). The “intellectual powers” go to work rather differently: they start with the hypothesis that the poem in front of them is an imaginative whole, a unique and irreplaceable event, and work out the implications of that hypothesis. The way that poetry is generally taught in schools therefore, by converting it into “corporeal understanding” – into a form of machinery – completely misses its whole point, like explaining a joke or analysing a dead body to find out what makes it tick.
Blake called his Christianity “The Everlasting Gospel”, and as he articulates in that poem, the affirmation of man’s divinity implies a rejection all inequality and authority:
This is the race that Jesus ran
Humble to God Haughty to Man
Cursing the Rulers before the People
Even to the temples highest Steeple …
If thou humblest thyself thou humblest me
Thou also dwellst in Eternity
Thou art a Man God is no more
Thy own humanity learn to adore.
Blake’s humanistic Christianity has been acknowledged by most critics. What must be understood, in addition, is that his use of the myth of Albion, trinitarian doctrine, and the idea of a “mystical body of Christ” demands that we read The Four Zoas as a myth which is simultaneously psychological and social. “What are the Natures of those Living Creatures [the Zoas],” Blake tells us, “no Individual Knoweth” , for they evoke a social reality lost to fallen man.