BLAKE is only known to have attended a religious service three times in his life: he was baptized, in the year 1757, at the beautiful font of St. James’s, Piccadilly. He was married in Battersea Old Church; and at his own wish, his burial service (he died in 1827) was according to the rites of the Church of England. His admiration for such dissenters as John Wesley and William Law notwithstanding, he preferred the national Church to non-conformity; perhaps in part because of his love for those Gothic churches—and especially Westminster Abbey—in whose architecture he saw the true expression of the spirit, in contrast with Wren’s St. Paul’s, which he saw as a monument to Deism and human reason. His last great work was the splendid but incomplete series of illustrations to Dante; he admired St. Teresa of Avila, and the French Quietists, Fénélon and Mme Guyon, no less than the Protestant mystics, of whom two in particular—Jakob Boehme and Emmanuel Swedenborg—were his acknowledged masters.
He declared himself a Christian without reservation: “I still and shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God” he declared. He never had any period of doubt, early or late. But what kind of Christian was our great visionary and national prophet?
No Natural Religion
In Blake’s time, Anglican Christianity was dominated by Deism, or “natural religion,” which denies revelation and bases belief in God upon reasonable deduction from the phenomena of nature. What the Deists really believed in was science; their successors are our own humanists, most of whom nowadays have dispensed with deity altogether. Blake’s lifelong mental fight was against Deism.
His first printed book is a series of three short, forcefully argued tractates entitled There is No Natural Religion. He challenges the premises of Natural Religion, as these had been defined by Locke – who had argued (in Blake’s words) that “Man by his reasoning power can only compare and judge of what he has already perceiv’d” and that “Naturally he is only a natural organ subject to Sense”—premises still acceptable to the majority influenced by the popular scientific climate of opinion.
In a material universe it cannot be otherwise; “man is either the ark of God or a phantom of the earth and of the water”—these, as he clearly saw, are the alternatives between which all must choose. In the modern West, the materialist view has gained the widest support; and yet it is a relatively recent, and in the words of Blake’s greatest disciple, W. B. Yeats, “provincial” deviation from the universal and unanimous traditional teaching that spirit, not matter, is the ground of all things and the essential nature of man. To the philosophers of India, to the Platonic tradition, to the Prophetic tradition of the Jews, and indeed to even the most primitive races, the primacy of spirit as the first principle and ground of being has always and everywhere been understood. And Blake but reaffirmed in the face of Locke that:
Mental Things are alone Real; what is call’d Corporeal, Nobody Knows of its Dwelling Place; it is in Fallacy, and its Existence an Imposture. Where is the Existence Out of Mind or Thought ?— Where is it but in the Mind of a Fool.
So the mystics have always understood; but Blake had behind him the philosophy of Berkeley and, through the writings and translations of his contemporary and acquaintance Thomas Taylor the Platonist, the authority of the Platonic tradition. Whereas the Deists dismissed all revelation, Blake believed that all is revelation: “To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination,” and “Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he Sees.”
Spirit, for Blake, is not, as for the Deists, the remote first cause of a material universe but an ever-present reality creating continually all we behold. At this time when many are questioning the premises of naive materialism Blake’s spiritual religion, which he so ardently, and with such powerful argument also, opposed to “natural religion” is finding many followers. To his contemporaries he was incomprehensible; to a younger generation at this time he is the prophet who speaks the word of life.
Nature is part of Man
Blake’s Jesus is the universal eternal Mind, or Spirit, which he calls the Imagination. “All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, The Human Imagination”. Like a vine this Divine Body branches throughout all creation; “all Animals and Vegetations, the Earth and Heaven… contain’d in the All Glorious Imagination.” Blake’s Divine Body, or “Jesus, the Imagination” is the Imagination of God present in and to man: “God only Acts and Is in existing beings or Men” he declares.
When Blake declares his worship of “him who is the Express Image of God” he is speaking not of the historical Jesus but rather of the universal divine humanity. “Human nature is the image of God” and “Man can have no idea of any thing greater than Man, as a cup cannot contain more than its capaciousness. But God is a man, not because he is so perceiv’d by man, but because he is the creator of man”. “It is the God in all that is our companion and friend… God is in the lowest effects as well as in the highest causes; for he is become a worm that he may nourish the weak. For let it be remember’d that creation is God descending according to the weakness of man for our Lord is the word of God and every thing on earth is the word of God and in its essence is God”. This is why for Blake all life is holy. Blake’s Divine Humanity is not set against the rest of natural creation but includes it. Like the Egyptian Osiris, the dismembered fragments of whose body were scattered throughout the universe, “the Eternal Man”
…looks out in tree & herb & fish & bird & beast
Collecting up the scatter’d portions of his immortal body
Into the Elemental forms of everything that grows.…
And in the cries of birth & in the groans of death his voice
Is heard throughout the Universe: wherever a grass grows
Or a leaf buds, The Eternal Man is seen, is heard, is felt
And all his sorrows, till he reassumes his ancient bliss.
These quotations are all taken from Blake’s earliest writings. At the end of his life he only affirmed with greater assurance the same realisation. In the margins of his copy of Berkeley’s Siris he wrote: “Imagination or the Human Eternal Body in Every Man… Imagination is the Divine Body in Every Man.” For Blake, the traditional teaching of the centrality of man in the universe is confirmed solely by the presence of God in man. “The Eternal Body of Man is the Imagination, that is, God himself…The Divine Body…Jesus: we are his Members.” Thus Blake’s Jesus is the archetype,
Humanity who is the Only General and Universal Form
To which all Lineaments tend and seek with love and sympathy.
Whereas for the humanist, God is a fiction made in man’s image, spiritual tradition has always taught that man is made in the image of God. From certain passages in Blake, taken out of context, humanists have found justification for their own atheism. The speaker in one such passage in a late poem The Everlasting Gospel is presumably the Holy Spirit:
If thou humblest thyself thou humblest me;
Thou also dwelst in Eternity:
Thou art a Man, God is no more,
Thine own Humanity learn to Adore.
But the humanity Blake asks us to adore is not the “phantom of earth and water” of the materialists, but the “express image of God.”
Within our own lifetime Jung has criticized the religion taught by the Churches (in practice, no matter what the theologians might counter in theory) as being “all outside.” For those able to project on to an event in history their own inner experience the cult has served, and may still serve its purpose. But though the historical Jesus was the teacher and exemplar of the Divine Humanity, the truth is an experience of our inner being. It is for this reason, I believe, that Blake’s Christianity speaks with power. Many who are at this time turning to India and the Far East would find a guide to interior regions and experiences to whose threshold they have come in the Christian teachings of “English Blake.”
All religious traditions have been aware of the “other” mind whose inspiration imparts knowledge beyond such experience as we ourselves have acquired through the senses. Blake’s challenge to the Deists and their belief that all knowledge comes through the senses turns upon the existence of this inner source of knowledge. In many passages he describes what seemed to him the appalling human consequences of the “shrinking” and “withering” of human consciousness that follows from the belief that our only knowledge comes from outside. The God of “natural religion”—Blake’s Satan—who so narrows and distorts our humanity, declaring:
I will turn the volutions of your ears outward, and bend your nostrils
Downward, and your fluxile eyes englob’d roll round in fear;
Your with’ring lips and tongue shrink up into a narrow circle
Till into narrow forms you creep…
For Blake himself the senses were the windows of the soul: “I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro’ it and not with it.”
But the rationalist thinks otherwise:
I am your Rational Power, O Albion, and that Human Form
You call Divine is but a Worm seventy inches long
That creeps forth in a night and is dried in the morning sun,
In fortuitous concourse of memorys accumulated and lost.
Blake well describes the experience of any one individual, considered as natural man, as a fortuitous concourse of memories; and after the laborious accumulation of a lifetime all these, in the absence of any universal and immortal humanity can only be “lost” as if they had never been.
At best human knowledge can be extended, artificially as it were, by the records of history. But, noted Blake, “Nothing can be more contemptible than to suppose Public RECORDS to be True.” And he continues, “If historical facts can be written by inspiration, Milton’s Paradise Lost is as true as Genesis or Exodus; but the Evidence is nothing, for how can he who writes what he has neither seen nor heard of be an Evidence of The Truth of his history.” Moses and Milton alike wrote unchanging truth from the inspiration of the eternal mind, and not historical fact from accumulated records. He himself was dedicated to the service of the inspiring Imagination:
… I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.
The Divine Humanity
The phrase “the Divine Humanity” is so characteristic of Blake that most of his readers probably think he originated it. This is not so: “the Divine Human” was proclaimed by Emmanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth century Swedish visionary. That “God is in the form of a man” is one of the “four Leading Doctrines” of his “New Church.” Blake and his wife, together with Flaxman the sculptor and his wife, were early members of the Swedenborgian Society in London.
It was Swedenborg who in the eighteenth century re-opened the inner worlds and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is within. The inner worlds of the heavens and indeed the hells also are not in space but in mind; and they open within everyone inner regions of experience. “The Heavens” are also said to be “in the form of a man” and the body of the Divine Humanity is neither large nor small, since it is not in space. Although in certain respects Blake criticized Swedenborg—notably for his conventional moral teaching—we find in Swedenborg’s teachings the ground of Blake’s system.
Perhaps the most wonderful of Swedenborg’s visionary realizations is the “Grand Man” of the heavens who is the mystical body of the Divine Humanity, made up of an innumerable multitude of human souls, the collectivity of all blessed spirits. Blake, in his great composition of the Last Judgment, on which he was working up to the time of his death, has represented Jesus as the Judge, enthroned at what seems the living, pulsing source of the life of a circulating, streaming multitude of spirits. He is the one life in all. This composition could well be seen as a representation of Swedenborg’s Grand Man of the Heavens, whom he calls, as does Blake, the Divine Humanity. “There is a throne in every man, it is the Throne of God,” Blake has written; and it is from this Throne from which Jesus the Imagination rules as the Judge and conscience of all mankind.
Then those in Great Eternity met in the Council of God
As one Man, for contracting their Exalted Senses
They behold Multitude, or Expanding they behold as one,
As One Man all the Universal family; and that One Man
They call Jesus the Christ, and they in him and he in them
Live in Perfect harmony, in Eden the land of life,
Consulting as One Man…
Sometimes he speaks of “the Divine Family”—“One Family, One Man Blessed for ever,” and sometimes of “the Divine Voice” which speaks “as multitudes without/Number, the voices of the innumerable multitudes of Eternity.”
Blake speaks of the “expanding” or “contracting” of consciousness by which we become more or less aware of the one God in all. Within the Grand Man are lesser communities which Swedenborg likens to the members and organs of the divine body; these are collectivities of spirits in the same “state”. Blake also writes of these States: “when distant they appear as One Man, but as you approach they appear Multitudes of Nations.” We know the Divine Humanity through those individuals who make up the Divine Body:
He who would see the Divinity must see him in his Children,
One first, in friendship and love, then a Divine Family, and in the midst
Jesus will appear;…
But General Forms have their vitality in Particulars, and every
Particular is a Man, a Divine Member of the Divine Jesus.
The poem from Songs of Innocence we all know so well is an eloquent expression of Swedenborg’s teachings and his own. He intends us to understand in the most literal sense the words:
Then every man, of every clime
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heather turk, or jew,
There Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
In these virtues human beings not only resemble Jesus but are Jesus.
Doubtless Blake’s seeming heresy shocked his less inspired acquaintance; like Wordsworth’s friend the diarist Crabb Robinson who pressed Blake on his belief concerning Jesus Christ: “He was the son of God,” Blake replied; “and so am I, and so are you.” Blake on his part denounces as idolatrous the claim of any human individual to uniqueness:
No Individual ought to appropriate to Himself
…any of the Universal Characteristics.…
Those who dare appropriate to themselves Universal Attributes
Are the Blasphemous Selfhoods and must be broken asunder.
A Vegetated Christ and a Virgin Eve are the Hermaphroditic
Blasphemy; by his Maternal Birth he is that Evil-One
And his Maternal Humanity must be put off Eternally,
Lest the Sexual Generation swallows up Regeneration.
Yet the universal Divine Humanity “protects minute particulars every one in their own identity.” Blake’s Jesus is born with every member of the human race; he is not merely human, but humanity itself, the divine image which in each of us experiences birth, the journey of life, and death. Blake understood that it is the ego, whom he calls “Satan, the Selfhood”—the opposite principle from Jesus, the universal Divine Humanity—who has “wither’d up the human form” into the appearance of a multitude of little lonely separate individuals
Till it became a Mortal Worm,
But O! translucent all within.
The Divine Vision still was seen,
Still was the Human Form Divine,
Weeping in weak and mortal clay,
O Jesus, still the Form was thine.
And thine the Human Face, and thine
The Human Hands and Feet and Breath,
Entering thro’ the Gates of Birth
And passing thro’ the Gates of Death.
In the matter of the Human Face of Jesus Blake is, again, shocking to some in the sheer directness with which he cuts through centuries of cant and convention. In The Everlasting Gospel, a late poem in which he certainly meant to provoke and shock his readers into understanding, some have thought he speaks with disrespect of Jesus Christ in the lines
The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Jesus with a snub nose seems outrageous until we realize that Blake is affirming that every human face is the face of God, including his own snub-nosed and resolute English countenance. A more profound expression of this meaning is to be seen in the illustrations to the Book of Job. In several of these Blake has shown us simultaneously the inner and the outer worlds. Below, the story of Job, the man, is depicted; while above, we see God enthroned in Job’s inner “heavens”, where the spiritual drama, with the angels and Satan, is enacted.
It has often been noticed that the face of God and the face of Job are alike: for the mortal face is formed in the likeness of the God Within. Every being bears outwardly the “signature” or, to use Swedenborg’s term, the “correspondence” of its inner nature; and humanity is formed according to the archetype of Christ. Satan, on the other hand, as the fallen Selfhood, the ego, is not at all like Job’s “God within”; by which perhaps Blake means to indicate that the ego is not our true self but a mask, a distortion.
For Blake the drama of Job is the drama of every man who falls into the power of “Satan, the Selfhood” who seeks to separate us from the God Within. His own Giant Albion (the collective being of the English nation) re-enacts Job’s story when he falls into the power of selfhood
Refusing to behold the Divine Image which all behold
And live thereby, he is sunk down into a deadly sleep.
Albion thinks to be immortal in his own strength, and “Turning his Eyes outward to Self, losing the Divine Vision” he falls from the Kingdom of Imagination into the kingdom of “Satan the Selfhood”, who has attempted to build a world outside God. Albion’s children became, like Job’s, “dead” to him when they are seen as external and separate beings:
His inward eyes closing from the Divine vision, and all
His children wandering outside, from his bosom fleeing away.
He loses, by seeing these as separate from himself in the world of selfhood where “man is by nature the enemy of man,” his children, his friends, his flocks and his houses, his whole world. Even his own body comes to seem leprous and loathsome to him. When we lose the sense of the God in all, even our own bodies cease to seem living or real. All these are restored to Albion, as they were to Job, through a vision of the true God—for Blake the God Within.
We shall now consider how, according to Blake, the inner drama of redemption is enacted. This eternal event is reflected in time continually, as “God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is,” following and accompanying us throughout life.
The extraordinary radiance and poignancy of all Blake’s poems about infancy—Infant Joy, the Child on a cloud of Songs of Innocence; the Infant Sorrow who leaps into the dangerous world “Helpless, naked, piping loud”, comes surely from his belief that in every birth the Divine Humanity is born anew. In Jerusalem he describes, in a beautiful and touching image, the reflection of the single eternal event in nature’s “looking-glass” of time and space:
And Jehovah stood in the Gates of the Victim, and he appeared
A weeping Infant in the Gates of Birth in the midst of Heaven …
No Human Form but Sexual, and a little weeping Infant pale reflected
Multitudinous in the Looking Glass of Enitharmon, on all sides.
The “sexual garment” does not belong to the Divine Body, the Imagination. It is the “coat of skin” in which God has clothed fallen mankind, according to the story in Genesis. Yet sex is itself made, as Blake calls it, “holy” because through sexual love the Incarnation is perpetually realized. Blake’s defense of sexual love is not from carnal permissiveness but as a sacrament associated with the Incarnation:
O holy Generation, Image of regeneration!
O point of mutual forgiveness between Enemies!
Birthplace of the Lamb of God incomprehensible!
The Dead despise and scorn thee and cast thee out as accursed,
Seeing the Lamb of God in they gardens and thy palaces
Where they desire to place the Abomination of Desolation.
The “dead” are the spiritually dead: for Blake there is no other death. It is only by those “dead” to the divine mysteries that sexual love is “accursed”.
Blake calls Jesus the Saviour and the Redeemer especially when he is considering the Divine Humanity as guide and companion in the journey of life, through what he calls the States. Of these innumerable situations and states of consciousness Blake writes in an almost Buddhist sense, as signifying every condition short of supreme enlightenment into which we may fall, “States that are not but ah! Seem to be”; and:
… What seems to Be, Is, To those to whom
It seems to Be, and is productive of the most dreadful
Consequences to those to whom it seems to Be, even of
Torments, Despair, Eternal Death…
These States (and again the resemblance of Buddhism is striking) may be as illusory in the morally good as in the morally evil. In his description of the Last Judgment Blake wrote, “I do not consider either the Just or the Wicked to be in a Supreme State, but to be every one of them States of Sleep which the Soul may fall into in its deadly dreams of Good and Evil when it leaves Paradise”. Even affection and love, he warns us, becomes “a State when divided from Imagination” but “the Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence Itself.”
Blake’s States, like Dante’s mountain of hells and purgatories, or like the Buddhist Wheel, are stages on a journey. “Man passes on”, he writes, “but States remain for Ever; he passes thro’ them like a traveller who may as well suppose that the places he has passed thro’ exist no more, as a Man may suppose that the States he has pass’d thro’ Exist no more.” “The Spiritual States of the Soul are all Eternal. Distinguished between the Man and his present State.” Hell is eternal; but no man remains eternally in hell.
Jesus, the Imagination, is said “to Create/States, to deliver Individuals evermore” as the ever-present possibility of release from the Selfhood into the Divine Humanity. Again and again Blake insists that “Iniquity must be imputed only/To the State they are enter’d into, that they may be deliver’d./Satan is the State of Death and not a Human Existence”. But “Satan the Selfhood” is called the “state never to be redeemed” because it is a state of total opacity to the light of the Imagination; the “limit of opacity”, the state of death. As Jesus the Imagination is the universal humanity, so Satan the Selfhood includes that multitude of states of separation from the God Within which comprise the hells;
A World where Man is by Nature the enemy of Man,
Because the Evil is Created into a State, that Men
May be deliver’d time after time, evermore. Amen.
Learn therefore, O Sisters, to distinguish the Eternal Human
That walks about among the stones of fire in bliss and woe
Alternate, from those States or Worlds in which the spirit travel
Satan does not so distinguish; he is the Accuser, who imputes sin and righteousness alike to individuals—to the ego. That is what Blake meant when he wrote:
Truly, My Satan, thou art but a Dunce,
And dost not know the Garment from the Man,
Every Harlot was a Virgin once,
Nor canst thou ever change Kate into Nan.
Harlot and virgin are states; Kate and Nan are eternal individualities. Because “Individual Identities never change nor cease. You cannot go to Eternal Death in that which can never die.” Satan is called the Accuser because he identifies the sinner with his sin; and therefore “many doubted and despair’d and imputed Sin and Righteousness To Individuals and not to States”.
Satan’s “natural religion” is based upon the moral virtues of the ego; a cruel religion. “We do not find any where”, Blake wrote, “that Satan is accused of Sin; he is only accused of Unbelief and thereby drawing Man into Sin that he may accuse him”. Blake’s task was to expose:
… the Self righteousness
In all its Hypocritic turpitude, opening to every eye
These wonders of Satan’s holiness, shewing to the Earth
The Idol Virtues of the Natural Heart, and Satan’s Seat
Explore in all its Selfish Natural Virtue…
In the Job engravings the most terrible ordeal is depicted by Blake as the apparition to Job of Satan in the guise of God, venerable and holy; his identity revealed only by his cloven foot.
“The Spirit of Jesus” he wrote “is continual forgiveness of Sin: he who waits to be righteous before he enters into the Saviour’s kingdom, the Divine Body, will never enter there. I am perhaps the most sinful of men. I pretend not to holiness: yet I pretend to love, to see, to converse with daily as man with man, and the more to have an interest in the Friend of Sinners.” So, Blake knew, can every human being converse with the “God within”: he claims no special privilege or right of access.But again, the divine forgiveness operates through human beings:
Mutual Forgiveness of each Vice,
Such are the Gates of Paradise.
As “Jesus, the Imagination” is “the human existence itself” so the “State nam’d Satan” is unreality itself, “a kingdom of nothing” because based on illusion, since nothing exists or can exist outside God. In the last Judgment which follows the epiphany of the God Within, Satan’s world of “Error, or Creation” vanishes like a shadow before the light. “Error is Created. Truth is Eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, and then, and not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it.”
Blake says in many passages that the State named Satan can never be redeemed; yet he also says that Jesus died to “save Satan.” The contradiction is only apparent; for when the last soul is saved from the state of selfhood, that State will be empty and exist no more. We are reminded of the saying of the Buddha that he will not abandon this world until the last blade of grass has attained salvation.
The last of the States Blake calls “self-annihilation”; the putting off of the Selfhood in order to enter the divine kingdom. It may seem strange to some that Blake saw the state of poetic inspiration as this selfless condition, and Milton as type of the inspired poet who puts off self in vision. Not sin and repentance, but the enlarging of our individual selves through union with the Divine Body, is for Blake the way to Christ. This we may experience through poetry and the other arts whose function it is to open the imagination in this way.
Satan is the punisher, Jesus is the sufferer of punishment; “He died as a Reprobate, he was Punished as a Transgressor”. Satan the Selfhood makes the laws; but the Divine Human is not subject to law, being reality itself. In his early and revolutionary poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake presents Jesus not as the maker but as the breaker of laws: “I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments,” he wrote, “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
And at the end of his life he thought the same. In The Everlasting Gospel he asks a series of rhetorical questions: was Jesus gentle? Was Jesus humble? Was Jesus chaste? and so on; and he answers, Imagination is not moral virtue, but forgiveness of sins; but “if you Avenge, you Murder the Divine Image, and he cannot dwell among you.” The Crucifixion also is eternally re-enacted: we ourselves crucify when we destroy in ourselves the image of God. This is the realization of Blake’s Albion, who has fallen into the power of Satan the Selfhood:
O Human Imagination, O Divine Body I have Crucified,
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law.
The Saviour suffers with those who suffer: but “Vengeance cannot be healed”, Blake says, because “Vengeance is the destroying of Grace and Repentance in the bosom Of the Injurer, in which the Divine Lamb is cruelly slain”.
I am the Resurrection
Finally, what, for Blake, is the meaning of the Resurrection of the Dead, through the death and resurrection of Jesus? Again, he understands this central mystery of the Christian religion as a perpetually enacted experience within the souls of mankind. Believing the soul to be immortal, Blake was not concerned with physical death; the corporeal body was for him only the garment of the immortal soul in its experience of generation in this world. On the design illustrating the poem ‘To Tirzah’ (the last poem added to Songs of Experience) he engraved the words, “It is raised a spiritual body”. This text is a comment on the poem, which considers sexual generation. It opens with the lines:
Whate’er is Born of Mortal Birth
Must be consumed with the Earth
To rise from Generation free.
He therefore renounces Tirzah, the “goddess nature”, as the “mother of my mortal part.”
The Death of Jesus set me free,
Then what have I to do with thee?
Elsewhere he makes the Divine Humanity say: “unless I die thou cant not live;/But if I die I shalt arise again and thou with me.”
But the “death” of Jesus, as Blake understands it, is his “descent” into the “grave” of the mortal body in order to free us from mortality. Therefore Blake addresses Tirzah as the “mother of my mortal part” in the words Jesus used to his mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?”
The “sleep”, “deadly sleep”, and ultimate “death” of the soul is a death from eternity, a loss of the divine vision; and the soul’s awakening from death is a resurrection into the Divine Body. His call is never to repent, but to awake; and this is the language rather of Plotinus than of the Church. The Platonic philosophers speak of the body as the “cave” or “grave” into which the soul “descends” from eternity into the world of generation, and Blake follows them. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he speaks of “the caverned man” and of the five senses as the “chinks in his cavern”. There are many passages throughout his writings in which he uses the same language. Plato tells in the form of a parable of how the souls, approaching generation from the eternal world, come to the river of forgetfulness; which later philosophers interpret as matter. From this river all must drink; and some drink deeply so that they forget eternity all but completely; others who drink less deeply still retain some memory of their native country.
Like Plato and Plotinus, Blake believed that all knowledge comes through recollection of what we knew in eternity, which is to say, in the ever-living Imagination of God. Like Plato also, Blake believed that birth is in itself a “death” from eternity and that the assumption of a physical body brings forgetfulness. “The Natural Body is an Obstruction to the Soul or Spiritual Body” because the mortal body clouds the vision of the soul. The Platonic paradox, “Who knows whether to die be not to live, and to live, to die?” was ever present to Blake’s mind. The womb into which the souls “descend” in order to be born he calls the “funeral urns of Beulah”, since those souls who enter generation have “died” from eternity.
Through the very fact of birth we leave the eternal world and enter Satan’s kingdom of separate selfhoods. “Man is born a Spectre or Satan and is altogether an Evil, and requires a New Selfhood continually,” and it is through the accompanying presence of the Divine Humanity who “dies” into this world with us, that we are able to “rise again” in Christ.
Kathleen Raine was a British poet, critic and scholar, and one of the leading twentieth-century authorities on Blake, whom she interpreted in a Platonic and rather pantheistic light, one curiously opposed to Blake’s own very critical view of Plato and what is usually called ‘Nature’. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Autumn, 1976). © World Wisdom, Inc. To read the full piece please click here.