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’s idea that the meaning and the form of a poem are the same thing comes very close to what Dante appears to have meant by “anagogy” or the fourth level of interpretation. Insofar as a man is perceived by others (or, in fact, by himself), he is a form or image, and his reality consists in the perceived thing which we call a “body”. “Body” in Blake means the whole man as an object of perception. We need another word to describe the man as a perceiver, and that word must also describe the whole man. “Soul” is possible, though it has theological overtones suggesting an invisible vapour locked up in the body and released at death. Blake will use this word only with a caution:
Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses.
The commonest word, however, is “mind”, and Blake frequently employs it. We use five senses in perception, but if we used fifteen we should still have only a single mind. The eye does not see: the eye is a lens for the mind to look through. Perception, then, is not something we do with our senses; it is a mental act.
Blake’s Theory of Relativity
Yet it is equally true that the legs do not walk, but that the mind walks the legs. There can be therefore no distinction between mental and bodily acts: in fact it is confusing to speak of bodily acts at all if by “body” we mean man as a perceived form. If man perceived is a form or image, man perceiving is a former or imaginer, so that “imagination” is the regular term used by Blake to denote man as an acting and perceiving being. That is, a man’s imagination is his life – his reality.
To be perceived, therefore, means to be imagined, to be related to an individual’s pattern of experience, to become part of his character. Nothing is real beyond the imaginative patterns men make of reality, and hence there are exactly as many kinds of reality as there are men: reality is as much in the eye of the beholder as beauty is said to be. Scattered all through Blake’s work are epigrams indicating this relativity of existence to perception:
Every Eye sees differently. As the Eye, Such the Object.
Every thing possible to be believed is an image of truth.
The Sun’s Light when he unfolds it
Depends on the Organ that beholds it.
The abstract reasoner attempts to give independent reality to the qualities of the things he sees, and in the same way he tries to abstract the quality of his perception. It is to him that we owe the separation of mind and brain.
Ordinarily, our perception of the world is haphazard; it is often unrelated to our simultaneous mental processes, and hence when we use a real thing to “symbolize” a state of mind it seems to us only a fancied or arbitrary resemblance. At most, a natural object may symbolise a mental event because it “corresponds” to something in the mind. Here we still have Lockean dualism and its simile. But when we speak, for example, of the desire of the Selfhood or ego to restrict activity in others, it is rather inadequate to say that a prison is a “symbol” of the Selfhood. Prisons exist because Selfhoods do: they are the real things the Selfhood produces, and symbols of it only in that sense.
Similarly, to say that in Blake the sea is a symbol of chaos is incorrect if it assumes that “chaos” has any existence except in a number of things which includes the sea. The sea is an image of chaos. “Image” and “form” being the same word in Blake, the sea is the form of chaos. As even chaos is only an abstract idea unless it is a perceived form, the sea is the reality of chaos.
Nature as the Objective Form of Man
And when we realise that everything exists in the form it does because man is fallen God, it become evident that all things are the realities of fall and regeneration. In human society everything from the Sistine ceiling to thumbscrews owes its form to man’s mind and character in one of its various aspects.
Similarly the character of everything in nature expresses an aspect of the human mind. We say that a snowflake has a symmetrical design, not because the snowflake has consciously produced it, but because we can see the design. We see that the snowflake has achieved something of which we alone can see the form, and the form of the snowflake is therefore a human form. It is the function of art to illuminate the human form of nature, to present the ferocity of the weasel, the docility of the sheep, the drooping delicacy of the willow, the grim barrenness of the precipice, so that we can see the character of the weasel, the sheep, the willow and the precipice. This vision of character, or total form, is something of course much more inclusive than the words given, which express only aspects of that character, can suggest.
“The man was like a lion” is a Lockean simile, an attempt to express a human character in natural terms. “The man was a lion” is a much more dramatic and effective figure, and more suggestive of their real relationship; but still it is essentially a simile with the word “like” omitted. But if we say “the lion is like a man” we are getting somewhere, and beginning to achieve the concentrated focus of the artist’s vision on the lion which reveals his form to the human eye.
As we proceed in our vision, everything positive and real about the lion becomes an aspect of our perception of him, and we can take the next step and say that the lion is entirely a human form, a human creature. All art interprets nature in human terms in this way, so vividly that we hardly dare admit what art tells us about the relation between tears and tempests, joy and sunshine, love and the moon, death and winter, resurrection and spring.
Atlas, Atlantis, and Albion
The myth of a primeval giant whose fall was the creation of the present universe is not in the Bible itself, but has been preserved by the Cabbala in its conception of Adam Kadmon, the universal man who contained within his limbs all heaven and earth, to whom Blake refers. A somewhat more accessible form of the same myth is in the Prose Edda, a cyclic work systematising the fragmentary apocalyptic poems of the Elder Edda, which to Blake contained traditions as antique and authentic as those in the Old Testament itself. In the sleep of the giant Ymir, the Edda tells us, the earth was made of his flesh, the mountains of his bones, the heavens from his skull, the sea from his blood, the clouds from his brains – this last has a particularly Blakean touch.
The Greeks have also kept a dim memory of a Golden Age before the Fall in their legend of a lost island of Atlantis and of a giant who contained the world in the figure of Atlas, the Titan who bears the world on his back, a perfect image of the fallen Albion with nature outside him and pressing upon him, and of the etymology of that curious word “understanding”. Atlantis, according to Plato’s Critias, was settled by the god Poseidon, whose eldest son was Atlas: this corresponds to the English tradition, preserved in Spenser, that Albion, the eponymous ancestor of England, was the son of Neptune:
The giant Albion, was Patriarch of the Atlantic; he is the Atlas of the Greeks, one of those the Greeks called Titans. (Blake, ‘A Descriptive Catalogue’)
Albion includes, presumably, all the humanity that we know in the world of time and space, though visualized as a single Titan or giant. The history of the world from its creation, which was part of his fall, to the Last Judgment is his sleep. The yet unfallen part of God made seven attempts to awaken him, and in the seventh Jesus himself descended into the world of Generation and began his final redemption.
The fall of Albion included a deluge in which the centre of Atlantis was overwhelmed and only the fragments of the British Isles were left. The settlement of America by the English and revolt of America against the dead hand of English tyranny is therefore the dawn of a new age in which Atlantis begins to appear above the waves. In the meantime, England still exists in the spiritual world as Atlantis, and Blake’s engraved poems are on its mountains.
The Relapse into Passivity
There are several accounts of the Fall in Blake, but the invariable characteristic of them is Albion’s relapse from active creative energy to passivity. This passivity takes the form of wonder or awe at the world he has created, which in eternity he sees as a woman. The Fall thus begins in Beulah, the divine garden identified with Eden in Genesis. Once he takes the fatal step of thinking the object-world independent of him, Albion sinks into a sleep symbolizing the passivity of his mind, and his creation separates and becomes the ‘female will’ or Mother Nature, the remote and inaccessible universe of tantalizing Mystery we now see. Love, or the transformation of the objective into the beloved, and art, or the transformation of the objective into the created, are the two activities pursued on this earth to repair the damage of the Fall, and they raise our state to Beulah and Eden respectively.
On earth the cult of worshipping the independent object takes two chief forms. One is the superstitious reverence for a Mother God, the primitive fear of the sibyl or prophetess whom the Teutons called Vala. This is a symbolic form of nature-worship, and Blake gives the name Vala to nature in his symbolism. The other form is the worship not so much of vegetative nature as of the Queen of Heaven, the remote, mysterious beauty of the starry heavens. This produces on earth the blind devotion to a mistress who is expected to elude and tantalize the lover, the basis of the Troubadour code. The Queen of Heaven’s name in Blake is Enitharmon.
The seven attempts made by God to awaken Albion divide history into seven great periods, each with a dominating religion. These Blake identifies with the “Seven Eyes of God” mentioned in Zechariah, and he gives these “Eyes” the names of Lucifer, Moloch, the Elohim, Shaddai, Pachad, Jehovah, and Jesus. The “eighth eye” he occasionally speaks of is the apocalypse or awakening of Albion himself.
The Fall was not a single event, but required many generations, and covered the first three “Eyes” of God, described by Hesiod and Ovid as the silver, bronze and iron ages which followed the golden one. The silver age or Lucifer period was a time in which the universe was tearing apart in chaotic disorder, and gigantic energies, sprung from the body of Albion, were fighting for imaginative control of it.
Myths of the war of Titans on Zeus in the Classics, and of the Jötuns on Odin in the Eddas, preserve accounts of a war of giants and gods. The giants are rightfully defeated, according to most of our Scriptures, because even the fallen order of nature which the gods established is preferable to chaos. But the feeling that Odin and Zeus are really usurpers can still be traced. Gradually, as the universe took its present form, the weakening human imagination was slowly pushed down and contracted into its present helpless state. Yet gigantic energies still remain in men, imprisoned, but struggling to be free. The revolt of Prometheus nearly destroyed Olympus; and in the Eddas it is prophesied that some day the chained Loki will burst free and begin the destruction of the world. This imprisoned Titanic power in man, which spasmodically causes revolutions, Blake calls Orc. Orc is regarded as an evil being by conventional morality, but in Blake the coming of Jesus is one of his appearances.
The Universe as the Collective Form of the Nervous System of Man
The victory of the sky-god over the Titans means that the universe slowly became more orderly and predictable, and that men, weaker than the Titans but still gigantic, turned into internecine war as history enters the “Moloch” brazen period. The new thundergod of moral law and tyrannical power, whom Blake calls Urizen, was a projection of the death-impulse, and these giants, at the nadir of the Fall, worshipped him in a cult of death consisting largely of human sacrifices. Since then, the belief that somehow it is right to kill men has been the underlying cause of wars.
This is the period of Druidism, when giants erected huge sacrificial temples like Stonehenge and indulged in hideously murderous orgies. The burning of great numbers of victims in wicker cages went on for centuries and is referred to by Caesar and other Classical writers: Blake speaks of the “Wicker Man of Scandinavia”, and early explorers found the same custom in Mexico, indicating the world-wide spread of the Druid culture. The main characteristics of Druidism were megaliths or temples for human sacrifice, sun worship, serpent worship and tree worship – in Britain, of the oak.
During the Druid period the world took its present form, which means, as to be is to be perceived, that men’s bodies were gradually shrinking down to the point at which they now perceive it. When the present body of man was achieved, the universe necessarily appeared to that body in its present shape. Its present shape is a stabilizing of the object-world, made permanent on a basis of “mathematic form” or mechanical order. Therefore the creation of the present body of man must have been part of this stablilization. This process is described in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.
Northrop Frye was an eminent Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered to be one of the most influential of the 20th century. The article above is taken from his remarkable study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry (1947), one of the greatest interpretations of Blake’s works ever written.
Martha Wainwright’s dramatic interpretation of the last song Kate McGarrigle (her mother) ever wrote, Proserpina, illustrates that the deep processes that we see and experience all around us – “the relation between tears and tempests, joy and sunshine, love and the moon, death and winter, resurrection and spring” – are also human ones, if we have the imagination to recognise and apprehend this interconnection