“War is Energy Enslaved” Blake once remarked – an observation that powerfully captures one of war’s most characteristic and toxic aspects: its ability to harness the astonishing productions of human society – our vast collective energies, intelligence, industries, and labour – and put them to profoundly destructive and degrading ends, to set humanity against itself. Blake’s observation equates war with slavery, with both mental and physical obedience and servitude – or “service” as it’s more frequently called today.
Blake witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of warfare: he lived for sixty-nine years (1757-1827) and for each one of those years, Britain was at war or in military conflict with one country or another – with India, with Portugal, with Hanover, Prussia, the Netherlands, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Austria, Germany, Ireland, America, France, Sweden, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma …
He saw that Britain’s global and commercial dominance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was built on its vast military empire and financial capabilities, which in turn were built on the back of global slavery, exploitation, colonialism and violence. “Slavery on an industrial scale was a major source of the wealth of the British empire”, notes Sanchez Manning, and the extensiveness and brutalising character of war’s “enslavement” marked the age of Britain emerging as the first modern superpower. It also marked the faces of those Blake encountered while wandering through the militarised and impoverished streets of London, the city he lived in for all but three years of his life, and which he wrote about constantly:
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 Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every black’ning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
Blake is perhaps best known for his remarkable collection of short poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience (of which this poem, ‘London’, is a part), but as even this short example shows, a profound social and political consciousness is evident throughout his writing, bursting through such lines as “mind-forg’d manacles”, or the haunting reference to the hapless Soldier’s sigh running “in blood down Palace walls” – a line that still drips into modern consciousness with our awareness of PTSD and the complicity of the establishment (“Palace walls”) in this ongoing brutality.
As these gnomic observations about the “enslaved” nature of war – both the literal enslavement and recruitment of war, and the deeper mental and ideological recruitment that supports it – suggests, Blake was someone deeply involved in the social movements of his time.
He wrote movingly and passionately about the effects of industrialisation on England’s “green and pleasant land’ (another striking and memorable phrase), the greed and egotism incarnated in Britain’s “dark Satanic mills” (“Satanic” is always a cypher for the human Ego in Blake’s work), and above all the distress and anger felt by ordinary people as a result of militarisation, industrialisation, urbanisation, and a society profoundly at war – both with other powers and with itself.
And all the Arts of Life. they changd into the Arts of Death in Albion …
And in their stead, intricate wheels invented, wheel without wheel
To perplex youth in their outgoings, & to bind to labours in Albion
Of day & night the myriads of eternity that they may grind
And polish brass & iron hour after hour laborious task!
Kept ignorant of its use, that they may spend the days of wisdom
In sorrowful drudgery, to obtain a scanty pittance of bread
Shortly after England declared war on France in 1793, Blake wrote Europe, a long “prophetic” work in which he depicts liberty as being repressed after England’s decision to embrace military action in pursuit of its morally self-righteous and apparently “holy” ideals and abstractions. This action won both Pitt, and later Nelson and Wellington, enormous glory.
The results are not glorious for the citizens though, Blake suggests, but miserable: “Over the doors Thou shalt not; & over the chimneys Fear is written:/With bands of iron round their necks fasten’d into the walls/The citizens” (Europe). Pointing out such cognitive dissonance was a risky task: many of his friends, including the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, were arrested and thrown into prison during this decade. Blake himself was put on trial for sedition in 1803.
Blake was living during the first “War on Terror”, the British establishment’s war with post-revolutionary France, which is where the modern word “terrorist” was first coined to describe supporters of the revolutionary government in France. In the 1790s, booksellers were thrown into jail simply for selling the works of Thomas Paine, also considered to be a “terrorist”. Britain’s war was simultaneously internal and external: in 1819, when Blake was in his sixties, the British government murdered eleven unarmed demonstrators and wounded over four hundred in the notorious “Peterloo” massacre, an event that also sparked Shelley’s outrage and inspired him to write one of the most politically electrifying poems ever published, The Mask of Anarchy:
‘And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’
Blake witnessed riots first-hand across London, such as the crowds setting fire to Newgate prison, and during his lifetime he saw revolutions breaking out in both France and America (Blake was just eighteen when the American Revolution started and thirty-two when the French Revolution began), as well as witnessing the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act at home, the Sedition Trials of 1793 and 1794, and the 1794 Treason Trials, intended by Prime Minister Pitt to cripple the British radical movement of the 1790s. He observed the military engagements abroad and the intense levels of violence used domestically against ordinary people, and noted that it was being justified or “rationalised” in the name of “law and order.”
I see London blind & age-bent begging thro the Streets
Of Babylon, led by a child. his tears run down his beard (Jerusalem)
War – then as now – was often portrayed as a glorious and moralistic enterprise. But Blake paints a different picture – literally, in his two extraordinary canvases depicting the ‘Spiritual Forms’ (i.e. the psychological realities) of Pitt and Nelson (c. 1805–9).
In this remarkable and thought-provoking image, Blake presents Nelson as standing serenely aloof over a scene of devastation and struggle that he himself has initiated. The association of Leviathan as a monster of the sea underlines Nelson’s role as a naval officer, and Blake’s description of the painting mentions Nelson “guiding” Leviathan, the destructive monster of chaos and war; what we see is Nelson holding a cord in his left hand, which is loosely attached to the head of the devouring serpent. He seems to be neither guiding nor restraining it. Indeed he seems to be very much part of it: his left foot rests calmly on the back of the writhing folds of Leviathan, while his right hand, held aloft, seems to be more clearing a space for him to stand and look glorious than to be effectively countering the movements of the coiled monster. Nelson—looking blithely undisturbed and convinced of his own rightness in going to war—is an unnervingly contemporary and familiar figure.
Indeed, Blake’s depictions of contemporary military and political leaders in Britain have a strikingly familiar aspect: Pitt (the subject of Blake’s other canvas) was Britain’s youngest Prime Minster, best remembered for his military engagement in foreign wars. Blake rarely painted what might be called historical or literal scenes directly: but here, in his vignettes of the bruising and mundane brutality of war—distant cities and churches on fire, hands held up in supplication to powers that are wholly indifferent to if not actually hostile to the fate of those they have torn down, human bodies doubled in agony, eyes appalled and uncomprehending—are some of his most trenchant and affecting sketches. In these paintings Blake draws attention to the contemporary forms of the political and social pathology of his day: William Pitt and Admiral Nelson, presiding over the gigantic violence of Leviathan, embedded at the centre of the scene within the terrifying “wreathings” not so much of a military machine but of a military dragon.
In his challenging and powerful depictions of warfare, Blake is not an advocate for quietism – like many later peace activists and campaigners, including Ernst Friedrich, Sylvia Pankhurst, Bruce Kent, and Ben Griffin, Blake’s response to the culture of militarism is energetic and oppositional. Indeed, he seeks to reclaim and re-imagine the whole concept of “fighting”, reforging it to signify not literal battles fought with equally literal and grotesque bayonets and cavalry charges, but rather to denote the true adventure of the human mind – what Blake famously called “Mental Fight” – the engaged, dynamic, passionate activity of debate, dialogue, and intellectual resistance. Blake’s work suggests that we are constantly misled into downgrading these vital forces within us, turning the dynamic cultural struggle through which liberty is forged into a crude parody of struggle.
For Blake, Mental Fight involves the whole artillery of human consciousness: reason, empathy, instinct, and above all imagination. Physical war – “corporeal war”, as Blake damningly called it – is presented by him as a dreadful perversion of this intellectual fight. Indeed, what is so exciting and striking about Blake’s position is that it reclaims for pacifism the exhilarating sense of adventure and dynamism that military institutions have so successfully drawn upon and perverted, and shows how pitiful and dehumanising their “corporeal”, literal, version of it truly is. Blake often appeals to young people for precisely this reason: his poetry is a living embodiment of his belief that instead of waging wars, we should be winning arguments, reimagining futures.
As Ernst Friedrich similarly observed a century later, “true heroism lies not in murder, but in the refusal to commit murder”: one can be engaged, and at war, with the assumptions and platitudes of war itself. It is interesting in this respect that Blake’s most famous lyric, ’And did those feet in ancient time’ (popularly known as ‘Jerusalem’), is actually a fierce criticism of the whole ideology of war – and of any Church or State that dares to wage literal “corporeal” wars on other human beings. Britain’s “unofficial national anthem” (as it has been called) is therefore all about this struggle: it is a profound attack on any religion or ideology that seeks to brutalise us through their pursuit of warfare, however “gloriously” they want to dress it up. Instead, the hymn Jerusalem advocates active resistance to all such states or religions. It is therefore something of an irony that it’s often sung at events and in churches which the poem itself criticises.
Blake asks what is it that drives the ideology of killing and legitimatises it: what is it that downgrades our imaginations – our way of seeing other human beings – in this way, and turns our energies into destructive, embattled literalisms? Blake suggests that it’s based on a restricting, hardening vision that we are encouraged to have of other people – seeing them in terms of narrow self-interest (“selfhood”) and often, he notes, bolstered by a sense of moral self-righteousness and rationalised superiority.
The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man; & when separated
From Imagination, and closing itself as in steel, in a Ratio
Of the Things of Memory. It thence frames Laws & Moralities
To destroy Imagination! the Divine Body, by Martyrdoms & Wars
For Blake, anything that gets in the way of our Humanity – the recognition of the humanity in all of us – needs to be challenged and jettisoned as quickly as possible, including the practice and rhetoric of ‘pseudospeciation’ (imagining one’s enemy to be less than human: a swarm, an insect, a machine, an alien) and morality, where it ends up harming other humans and fossilising or petrifying (literally “turning to stone”, or “closing itself as in steel” as Blake puts it) our empathy, which is rooted in our imaginative capacity. In Blake’s work, how we view war is ultimately a question of vision, and he urges us to recalibrate and elevate our view of humanity (that is, of our own humanity) in order to challenge and effectively undermine the basis of the pathology that lies behind all appeals to war. This inevitably entails a change in how the human imagination, which is for Blake the basic operating system of man, functions and is perceived: “Urthona [the Human Imagination] rises from the ruinous walls /In all his ancient strength to form the golden armour/For intellectual War The war of swords departed now”.
“Intellectual War”: this is the true business of the human intellect, Blake suggests, and the literal “war of swords” is simply a crude and grotesque perversion of it. As the modern media pervasively demonstrates, war is conducted precisely to stop people thinking, to prevent “mental fight”, and to try and co-opt us into accepting the validity of “corporeal war” instead. Blake’s work powerfully allows us to deconstruct and undermine this dehumanising rhetoric. Because of his extraordinary and remarkably prescient social, political and psychological insights many people have called Blake a prophet, and perhaps he was – in Shelley’s sense of the term: as someone who could see into the present.
Rod Tweedy is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness. He is an active supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and has written a number of articles on war and militarism, including My Name is Legion: The British Legion and the Control of Remembrance and How We See War.