William Blake (1757–1827) was a British artist, engraver, poet, and writer on theological themes. His illuminated books were the product of his technological inventiveness, and are characterized by the juxtaposition of texts and images in which a dialectic between two different media is a means of stimulating the imagination of the viewer and reader.
Influences on Blake are often hard to trace, though he explicitly cites and criticizes Milton and Swedenborg, as well as the contemporary artist Joshua Reynolds. Such influences, which might help explain Blake’s ideas, seem less important than the extraordinary inventiveness which one finds in his words and images and their production, which have analogies to earlier themes, but without offering the evidence that demonstrates direct dependence. Blake’s emphasis is on the importance of “inspiration” rather than “memory,” and as such he set great store on the creativity of the poetic genius and its reception by the engaged reader or viewer.
The visual was primary for Blake. It was a major part of his attempt to produce that which is “not too explicit as the fittest for Instruction,” to allow the reader/viewer to work out what the meaning of words and images was and how one might inform the other. Much of his work is inspired by the Bible, though the heterodox approach he takes to biblical interpretation is frequently at odds with mainstream Christian opinion.
Blake’s lifelong fascination with the work of John Milton led him both to challenge and refine his great predecessor’s views and, in Milton a Poem, to enable the departed spirit of Milton to discern the worst of his intellectually self-centered excesses. Blake’s interpretative method, his hermeneutic, is encapsulated in some words he wrote to a client who was perplexed by his work. In it he gave priority to imaginative engagement with the Bible which was only then complemented by rational reflection: “Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book. Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason?” (Letter to Trusler 1799).
“Blake, in a fantastic rebuttal of everything that is our world today, said, ‘That which is comprehensible to an Idiot is not worth my care’” – rock musician Bruce Dickinson speaking at the Unveiling of a Gravestone to William Blake (‘APOCALYPSE’), 12th August, 2018
His ongoing work and the complex idiosyncratic mythology that he invented reflect the changed circumstances of the reaction to the events in revolutionary France. Themes of the Blake corpus, such as prophecy, challenge the hegemony of authoritative texts like the Bible. His critique of dualism and the monarchical view of God pervade his work.
Born in 1757, Blake lived most of his life in London with the exception of four, often difficult, years in Felpham, Sussex (1800–1804). He was married to Catherine Boucher (1762–1831), who in his later years was a collaborator in his engraving and printing. Arguably, the companionship of Job’s wife in the Illustrations of the Book of Job, so different from the impression one gets from the brief reference to Job’s wife in the biblical book, may reflect their marriage.
The Felpham years were difficult because they marked a time of great personal upheaval, when the ideas which formed his long illuminated poems, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, took shape. As a consequence of an incident with a soldier in Felpham, he was put on trial at this time for sedition, for comments he was alleged to have made to this English soldier. This experience seared his visionary imagination and left its trace in the repeated references to the soldier who brought the charge against him, Schofield, which are dotted throughout Blake’s Jerusalem.
Blake was trained as an engraver and pioneered his own technique. This remained the basis of his art, and arguably offered a means that complemented his visionary imagination (Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book). After his move back to London, he lived in obscurity and on the fringes of poverty, indebted to the support of patrons like Thomas Butts, for whom he painted many biblical scenes, and later John Linnell. Only in the last years of his life was he discovered by a group of artists. Toward the end of his life he was adopted as an artistic father figure by a group called “The Ancients,” which included George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert.
“Every great collective, as we believed we were, needed a guiding light, a torch-bearer to show us the way – ours was a man named William Blake” – from the film ‘The Ancients’ (2000) about a group of young painters, led by Samuel Palmer, who fall under the spell of the visionary artist William Blake. “To see one must look beyond mere landscapes”, Blake tells the young seekers, “look long and hard, and continually observe, as with a child’s eyes, so that you go further, transgress, to a place unfamiliar.”
William Blake: Ancient and Modern
Blake is an important part of the history of religion, not only in terms of the theological concepts which he espoused and his ambiguous position in Enlightenment theology, but also because of the distinctive mode of presentation of his ideas, in which text and image vie with each other on the pages of his illuminated books.
His is a form of metaphorical theology in which one medium does not complement the other so much as it provides an essential counterpoint thereby embodying one of Blake’s convictions that “Without Contraries is no progression” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
Blake’s theology harks back to the apocalyptic mysticism of Jacob Boehme and was explicitly influenced by Milton and Swedenborg, though both end up being foils to his critical creativity as he carved out a distinctive intellectual space for himself, with Swedenborg, in particular, being firmly rejected, even if there are relics of his thought in Blake’s theology.
Recently, evidence has emerged of the possible influence of Moravian ideas on Blake as a result of his mother’s involvement. Less clear is Blake’s relationship to a longer tradition of radicalism and antinomianism, with which he has often rightly been linked. The antecedents go back to the 17th century, and further still to the Radical Reformation. The Familism and strands of Anabaptism and Spiritualism linked with the writing of Hans Denck and Sebastian Franck influenced radical non-conformity.
Blake is in some sense a classic antinomian, in that a religion of Law is consistently a target of his, epitomized by his view of Jesus who “was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell). It is not that Blake is opposed to morality even if he is a critic of its conventional examples and its hypocrisy. He came to promote “The Gospel [which] is Forgiveness of Sins & has No Moral Precepts” (Annotations to Watson’s Apology) and also “Human Brotherhood” (“As God is Love: every kindness to another is a little Death/In the Divine Image nor can Man exist but by Brotherhood”, Jerusalem). The prerequisite is not an appeal to some static moral code, so much as that human impulse to altruism so easily eclipsed, but which Blake’s work consistently seeks to advocate.
Blake is a Janus-like figure who on the one hand sympathizes with aspects of the Enlightenment, not least the emphasis on human autonomy and the critique of Christian orthodoxy, but on the other whose biblical interpretation sits uneasily with the prevailing rationalism and historicism of his day and harks back to the imaginative engagement of an earlier age.
The notes that he made in his copy of Richard Watson’s apology for the Christian orthodoxy in the face of the critique of the Bible by Tom Paine reveal this. While Blake’s politics and sympathies lie with Paine, he clearly has little time for the emerging historicism as the way in which the Bible is to be best understood and interpreted. So, Blake rejects Watson’s apologetic use of the antiquity of the gospels: “There are no Proofs that the Earliest of all the Writings of the New Testament was written within the First Century”. The “sentiments and examples” of the Bible are important for Blake, not primarily its historical worth, as he puts it in one of his longer marginal notes:
I cannot concieve the Divinity of the books in the Bible to consist either in who they were written by or at what time or in the historical evidence which may be all false in the eyes of one man & true in the eyes of another but in the Sentiments & Examples which whether true or Parabolic are Equally useful as Examples given to us of the perverseness of some & its consequent evil & the honesty of others & its consequent good This sense of the Bible is equally true to all & equally plain to all. None can doubt the impression which he receives from a book of Examples. If he is good he will abhor wickedness in David or Abraham if he is wicked he will make their wickedness an excuse for his & so he would do by any other book (Annotations to Watson’s Apology)
Blake has no interest in the kinds of debates which were to become typical fare in the emerging historical study of the Bible. His is still a hermeneutic which finds meaning in the text.
In a famous letter, in which he takes issue with the narrow-minded demand for a key to his paintings, he stresses the importance of the effects of literature and art (“The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act,” Letter to Trusler 1799). As far as Blake is concerned, the genius of the Bible is “Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book. Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason Such is True Painting and such was alone valued by the Greeks” (Letter to Trusler, 1799).
Here we find an intellectual move which is crucial to Blake’s art and theology: the priority of imagination over reason. As he puts it in one of his earliest illuminated books, “the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again” (There is No Natural Religion). What is required as he puts it here is “the Poetic Genius which is everywhere call’d the Spirit of Prophecy” (All Religions Are One) to stimulate and expand the horizons of human thought and action.
Hacking into and Rewriting the Biblical Codes: Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job
In his Illustrations of the Book of Job of 1825 Blake engages first hand with a complete biblical book, though he also engaged in a similar exercise on Genesis, which was left incomplete at his death. Blake’s distinctive form of biblical commentary is found in twenty-one images, surrounded by marginal biblical references. The images seem to be illuminated by the text but the words have a subordinate position to the centrally placed image. Blake’s “Job” recapitulates familiar themes from Blake’s earlier work. Blake has Job being weaned away from God as a transcendent divine monarch demanding obedience to what is written in a holy book. Job comes to see God face-to-face and to realize that the divine indwells humans.
Blake reads Job as the story of a theological and intellectual journey involving a personal upheaval and apocalyptic vision. In the first image we see Job and his wife surrounded by their children, in pious poses, with books open on their laps. The musical instruments are on the tree. All seems to be well, but they are unaware that it is a time of spiritual exile for Job and his family in that it is an understanding of God based on what has been received rather than personal experience.
Beneath the image on the left is a quotation from the Book of Job: “Thus did Job continually,” which may sound a note of reproach about the habitual nature of Job’s religion. In the final image the books have gone and the instruments are off the tree. In the middle of the altar are Blake’s version of words from 2 Corinthians 3:6: “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” and 1 Corinthians 2:14: “they [the things of the Spirit of God] are spiritually discerned.”
The Eliphaz and Elihu engravings (Plates 4 and 10 respectively), as well as the nightmare experience of Job (Plate 11), in different ways, bear witness to the way Blake focuses on the few texts about visions and dreams in the Book of Job, which then become an interpretative framework for his reading of the book as a whole.
Job’s agony in his “dreams and visions of the night” elicited from Blake one of his most graphic and disturbing images. The terrifying apparition has the characteristics of the divinity seen in previous images but now intertwined with a serpent and with a cloven hoof. The figure points with his right hand towards the tablets of commandments, while below Job, other figures stretch up trying to pull him down into the fiery inferno below. In the main caption Blake paraphrases Job 7:14 which in the KJV reads “Then thou scarest me with dreams, and terrifiest me through visions.”
Below the image there is a long quotation from Job 19:22–27. In this crucial image in the Job series Blake depicts Job’s agony as he confronts the shortcomings of an understanding of God who rewards righteousness by prosperity and joy and unrighteousness by the woes of hell fire. In interpreting Job’s terrifying night vision as he does, Blake has Job come face-to-face with one of the errors taught by “Bibles and sacred codes,” the neat and tidy compartmentalization of life and indeed divinity which does not do justice to the complexity of experience. The change in Job’s hermeneutical perspective means that the divine vision takes priority over an understanding of God based on reading holy books, doing good works and engaging in rituals. It is the latter but it is also much more. The decisive moment comes when Job practices love of enemies, and at that moment “The Lord turns again the captivity of Job.”
In Plate 17, Job sees that God is not some far off enthroned divinity but God-with-us, Christ the Divine in human, as God appears to Job and his wife. Hence Blake glosses his depiction of the theophany not only with verses from the Gospel of John but by Job 42:5 in a slightly emended version of the KJV. Blake has “I have heard thee with the hearing of the Ear but now my Eye seeth thee,” whereas the KJV has “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye seeth thee.” Note also that Blake does not continue the quotation from the Book of Job to include the words, “Wherefore I abhor myself & repent in dust and ashes.” Once again, Blake has used his own imagination to depict what Job sees of God, the tradition of whose existence and demands Job had hitherto accepted on hearsay.
An aspect of visionary texts is the way in which contrasts between the visionary world, the world above, and the world below, jostle with one another. The dualistic characteristics of visionary texts appear in Job 1–2 also, where the reader is given a glimpse into the activities of the heavenly court. In the early engravings of the sequence we find the distinct contrast between the heavenly world above and the world below. This disappears in the divine theophany (Job 38–41). The overcoming of the division between heaven and earth is a major theme of the New Testament Apocalypse, where the divide between heaven and earth, the age to come and this age, comes to an end when God dwells on earth with humans (Rev. 21:3) (cf. Blake’s Jerusalem 3: “Heaven Earth and Hell henceforth shall live in harmony”). Blake’s inclusion of passages from the Gospel of John in Plate 17 indicates the abolition of the distinction between humans and God.
In engraving 20, Job bequeaths to his daughters an experience rooted in the events of his life. Blake stresses the importance of experience and challenges the hegemony of book religion and gave priority to an experiential faith. In engravings 17 and 18 the key verses are written on both books and scrolls. This is the moment when the contents of the books are actually seen by the reader (hitherto we have seen them on the lap of God or Job and his wife (engravings 1 and 2).
The first book quotation in engraving 17 relates to Job’s experience of God, the divine in human. The second in engraving 18 suggests that Job’s liberation finally comes through his act of forgiveness. It is only when he prays for his friends that the experience of upheaval in his life, and the change of perspective, are embodied in a changed ethic. It is this experience which Job demonstrates and passes on to his daughters (engraving 20): it is the “text” of life. The Job story becomes for Blake a story about a changed perspective and changed action, in the light of experience, however great the personal trial might be. The components of the text are created by Blake into an effective combination of word and picture, as Job becomes a paradigm for similar existential change in readers as they engage with Blake’s exegesis of the Book of Job.
I pretend not to holiness! yet I pretend to love.
These words from Jerusalem, where holiness is contrasted with love, point to one of the most significant aspects of Blake’s theology for the study of religion, and are his attempt to protest against the effects of dualism. This is endemic in various forms within the Judaeo–Christian tradition, particularly in the simple contrast between the good power and the evil power, God and Satan, the high god and the demiurge, which has been inherent in both orthodoxy and heterodoxy. It is one of the errors, which Blake criticizes in “all Bibles or sacred codes” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
While Blake’s mythology seems to presuppose such dualism, the contrasts and the oppositions are integral to his understanding of the way in which dislocation and lack of integration is the problem, which needs to be rectified, whether personally or socially. What is clear is that Blake is opposed to a dualistic understanding of divine and human powers in which the triumph of one means the negation of the other, for he wants to see both powers at work within the human person and indeed in the world, and the opposites themselves as a necessary complement in the successful outworking of the process of human engagement.
Picking up on strands which themselves have a long tradition within the Christian tradition, stretching back via the theology of Jacob Boehme to the writings of Nicholas of Cusa, Blake challenges Christianity’s preoccupation with holiness as an obstacle to an understanding of human psychology and an impediment to the necessary perspective of the dynamism of the poetic genius.
Blake’s work is a challenge to the aniconic tradition in religion. Despite being a product of Protestantism, his emphasis on the visual contrasts with the stern austerity of much Protestantism. The crucial plate of his Illustrations of the Book of Job has as its main text Job 42:5 (“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye seeth thee”), which summarizes so much of his work, as well as encapsulating the way in which Blake reads the book.
The immediacy of the vision of the divine transcends the information received in the words of tradition. It portrays Blake’s contrast between Memory and Inspiration and depicts the moment when, to quote the words of the Preface to Milton a Poem, “the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration”. Mystics such as “Fenelon, Guion, Teresa” (Jerusalem) are treated with approbation.
The mystical and the visionary are given their place in religion and their place in the articulation of a transformative language, which will enhance the intellectual horizons of those engaging with his illuminated books and images. Blake writes as follows in relation to the biblical images and suggests the possibility of mental visualization which was such a familiar part of medieval exegesis:
If the Spectator could Enter into these Images in his Imagination approaching them on the Fiery Chariot of his Contemplative Thought if he could Enter into Noahs Rainbow or into his bosom or could make a Friend & Companion of one of these Images of wonder which always intreats him to leave mortal things as he must know then would he arise from his Grave then would he meet the Lord in the Air & then he would be happy. (Vision of the Last Judgment)
“Every Honest Man Is a Prophet”
Blake saw his words as being in continuity with what John saw on Patmos (Four Zoas), and in one of his early works, over the words “As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell) Blake has written “1790” immediately above the words “new heaven,” which, because of the words “it is now thirty-three years since its advent” probably draws attention to the year 1757, the year of Blake’s birth.
So Blake seems to see himself as some kind of messiah, who opened up “the return of Adam into Paradise” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell) initiating the eschatological age, just like Jesus, who, after his call and testing, according to Mark 1:15, proclaimed “the time (kairos) is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (cf. John 13:1; John 7:6). Similarly Paul believed himself to be the messiah’s agent of salvation to the nations in the Last Days, and John on Patmos saw in his day the heavens opened just as Ezekiel had seen by the rivers of Babylon. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, they were the ones on whom the ends of the ages had come (1 Cor. 10:11).
In later works William Blake thought of himself as a prophet. Elsewhere at the start of one of his earliest illuminated works he quotes the classic prophetic words “The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness” (All Religions Are One) in a work which argues for the necessity of rediscovery of “the Poetic genius, the Spirit of Prophecy” to remedy exclusive reliance on sense perception.
Blake himself wrote two prophecies about America and Europe in the form of illuminated books, in which, by word and picture, a process of epistemological transformation, personal and political, is sought in the reader through the effects of the texts. Blake’s prophetic writings mirror the obscurity of biblical prophetic oracles. In this age both prophet and recipient of prophecy “see in a glass darkly” awaiting the clarity of understanding which would exceed even what fourfold vision could offer. Indeed, in Lectures 20 and 21 of his Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753) Robert Lowth had described the allusiveness of prophetic discourse in words which resemble Blake’s own interpretative method, stressing prophecy’s obscurity and its abrupt transitions: “prophecy in its very nature implies some degree of obscurity, and is always … like a light glimmering in a dark place, until the day dawn and the daystar arose”.
Blake’s famous depiction of divinity in “The Ancient of Days” at the beginning of Europe a Prophecy, with the wind blowing his beard, is juxtaposed with the serpent on the following page, embodying energy and desire which disturbs the careful order of the old regime, whose position had been so shaken by revolution whether in France or in the American colonies. There can be few passages more redolent of the revolutionary optimism of biblical prophecy than America a Prophecy Plate 6. It reads like an anthology of allusions to biblical passages, which merge to portray the hopeful mood of the young man with eyes raised looking for the “redemption” which “draweth nigh,” to quote Luke 21:28.
Blake briefly expounded his views on prophecy in 1798 in one of his annotations to Watson’s Apology. Watson, who was Bishop of Llandaff, offered a riposte to Tom Paine’s writings on the Bible. In his own hand Blake gives some of his most explicit views about the Bible, indicating the extent to which he shared the critical spirit of Tom Paine, while sharing with Brothers and Southcott an attachment to its words as “Sentiments and Examples”:
Prophets, in the modern sense of the word, have never existed. Jonah was no prophet, in the modern sense, for his prophecy of Nineveh failed. Every honest man is a Prophet; he utters his opinion both of private & public matters. Thus: If you go on So, the result is So. He never says, such a thing shall happen let you do what you will. A Prophet is a Seer, not an Arbitrary Dictator. It is man’s fault if God is not able to do him good. For he gives to the just & to the unjust, but the unjust reject his gift. (Annotations to Watson’s Apology)
When Blake states that Jonah’s “prophecy of Nineveh” failed, he seems to mean the prediction, which God commissioned Jonah to announce, namely, that Nineveh was going to be destroyed, did not come to pass. The supposed failure of the prophecy of Nineveh’s demise obviously came about because the people of Nineveh repented. This gets to the heart of what prophecy was for Blake. It is not primarily about prediction but the assertion of insight and warning, setting out the situation as it is and getting a response.
The distinction between prophecy as “forth telling” (roughly speaking, pronouncing the truth about society and individuals) and “foretelling” (predicting that which is to come in the future) is important and is needed to complement the variety of prophetic activity in the modern period, and indeed at other times. Blake is to be categorized more as a “forth teller.” Prophecy is important and the prerogative of every one. “Every honest man is a Prophet” (Annotations to Watson’s Apology). Indeed, “the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
Even that apparently most future orientated text, Revelation, is in Blake’s interpretation more about laying bare the realities of history and political oppression than offering a map of the end of the world. In its visions, its threats and promises, and its graphic imagery, it sets forth the reality of what is going on in the world and the pervasiveness of human self-deception, and summons its readers/hearers to change their outlook and practice. It is, to paraphrase Blake’s own words, about “cleansing the doors of perception” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
This is clear from the overt political reading of the Apocalypse, apparent in a design Blake created to illustrate Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. Here we see Babylon seated on the seven-headed beast, interpreting the words “Virtue’s Apology, in which are considered, the Love of this Life, the ambition and Pleasure, with the Wit and Wisdom of the World.” Young’s words prompt Blake to broaden their meaning to include the social and the political using the lens of the vision of Babylon seated on the many-headed beast in Revelation 17.
At the time he painted this picture Blake was acutely aware of the culture of repression in war-torn England. It was a situation in which, to quote his words, “The Beast and the Whore rule without control” (Annotations to Watson’s Apology). This picture of Babylon interprets Blake’s sentiments so well and in so doing picks up on a long tradition of political interpretation of apocalyptic images, rooted in Daniel and the Apocalypse. The heads of the beasts function as a way of understanding political oppression, and do not refer just to eschatological prediction. Like John’s visionary interpretation of Daniel, these interpretations are not a succession of empires, therefore, but a fourfold imperial oppression, taking place all at once and with differing dimensions.
Blake depicts the heads of the beast as contemporary military, royal, legal, and ecclesiastical powers, in much the same way as Gerrard Winstanley had interpreted the beasts of Daniel 7 as the fourfold oppressive aspects of contemporary political and economic power in his day. Blake took the opportunity of this commission to insert his protest against the political repression in the England of the 1790s giving expression to the violent culture of kings and their ideologues. Blake depicts the monarchical deity with papal tiara and throne with his brazen book of rules in Europe a Prophecy, Plate 12. It is this kind of political culture, which the non-conformist Jesus challenged, according to Blake in The Everlasting Gospel. For, in Blake’s words, he “acted from impulse not from rules” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
Blake revealed his ambivalence about prophecy, especially the case in later works like Jerusalem, but there are even passages in earlier texts too (e.g. America a Prophecy). The contrasting fortunes of Los, the prophetic hero of Blake’s mythological system, indicate the complex relationship between energy and prophecy on the one hand and the need for boundaries which enable definition and comprehension on the other. There is not a simple polarity between restriction and freedom, inspiration and tradition, Law and Prophecy, the authoritarian and solitary Lawgiver, Urizen in Blake’s mythology, and Los, “the Eternal Prophet” complement each other (The First Book of Urizen).
What comes across in the complex poem, Jerusalem is that, however sincere Los’s attempts at redemptive action may be, they do not always achieve their aim, as the energy generated can often lead in a direction different from what was intended. At the climax of Jerusalem there seems to be an irruption from beyond, to solve the despair about the fulfillment of redemption. For Blake this was not in any way a “supernatural” solution, but rather concerns an epistemological “break through.” It may seem to come from beyond but in fact it is the result of insight from a hitherto dormant human faculty, which has been eclipsed.
It is the way in which an appropriate ethical option is allowed to affect outlooks and actions. What is needed is the casting off of Selfhood, which comes about through being “united with Jesus” as Los recognizes (Jerusalem). It is not just building Jerusalem or even the exercise of the poetic genius that counts, but the extent to which “the Breath Divine” informs it, and the need for “the annihilation of selfhood and false forgiveness” (Milton a Poem). The crucified Christ offers a paradigm for human beings and their relating. “When Jesus dies in Blake, he is not a sacrificial victim. He models a way of living.”
As far as Blake was concerned, however, the prophetic vocation was not a role exclusive to him, as his quotation of Numbers 11:29 at the end of the Preface to Milton a Poem suggests (“Would to God that all the Lords People were Prophets”). Prophecy is democratized, therefore, for “Every honest man is a Prophet.”
In addition, with increasing insistence in his work, the complex task of the prophet to help cleanse “the doors of perception” gains increasing prominence. Word and image in Blake’s illuminated books suggest a move away from the “innocent” abandon of revolutionary optimism, as a result of “experience.” It was not a retreat into a passive submission to a transcendent divine agency. The issue for Blake was not so much about the relationship between the human and divine but how the work of the prophet takes effect, given the distorting effects of the human ego on the prophetic endeavor.
Where Blake’s dialectic differs from the traditional Christian morality, however, which he so roundly condemns, is that there must be a real dialectic. To quote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “The Prolific” and “The Devourer” are both necessary in the process of unmasking “Religion hid in War, a Dragon red & hidden Harlot” (Jerusalem).
Contraries are crucial; negations are a denial of the outworking of the dialectic (Jerusalem). As Blake put it, Religion is an endeavor to reconcile the two but according to Blake that is to destroy existence. Contraries do not involve exclusion and rejection as is often the case with dualistic systems, where the sacred is given priority over the profane. Both are needed to enable a comprehensive understanding of the nature of reality.
Blake of all poets and artists exemplifies the attempts to channel and direct “Poetic Genius aright” (All Religions are One), not in the sense of doing what befits conventional propriety, but rather allowing the bounds of his artistic creations to communicate its prophetic challenge. Like the biblical prophetic oracles which had inspired him, his words and images have to be patiently worked with so that they “Rouze the Faculties to act”. Blake plumbed the complexities of the human personality which leads to the “dark delusions” (The Four Zoas), including the delusions of the prophetic ego and the need to ensure that its potentially counter-productive endeavors were informed by, if not subordinated to, “Human Brotherhood” (Jerusalem).
The Reflexive Interpreter Redeeming the Text He Reads
Milton a Poem is a particularly extraordinary text, even compared with Blake’s other works. In it psychology and hermeneutics coalesce in this complex mix of text and image to show how a later poet can critically understand and correct an earlier poet. But this does not come by means of a conventional act of criticism, so much as by a redemption that is enacted as the inadequacies of the earlier poet are laid bare and acknowledged.
One of Blake’s criticisms of Milton is his relationship with women, not least his relationships with his spouses and daughters. This issue is woven into Blake’s myth, as Ololon, a character found in no other Blake work, has a prominent role embodying Milton’s treatment of women (and his redemption). What we find Blake doing is not simply criticizing texts, as his spirit comes to recognize his shortcomings in his life and writing enabling the redemption of the earlier author. What we have here is Blake engaging with one of his great mentors, John Milton, an inspiration for many of his, and previous, generations of writers.
It is an unconventional process of interpretation, which deserves recognition for its pioneering contribution to the history of hermeneutics in religion. Asking what a text means and the relationship with the past and its traditions of beliefs and practices are part of the fabric of religion. But, anticipating much modern biblical study Blake goes further, and seeks through the text to get at the author and what an author intended. What Blake does is to engage with the past, not in the form of a text, but by internalizing the person of the writer through his text. That sense of the author being somehow “alive” in his text is evident in a wonderful passage from Milton’s Areopagitica 6:
For Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively and as vigorously productive as those fabulous Dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book: who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
This is part of Milton’s brilliant apologia for “the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing.” Here the persona of authors is to be found in their books. It is “the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them” which becomes part of Blake’s imaginative and spiritual life (Milton). As a result, Blake goes on to enable Milton to confess “I in my Selfhood am that Satan. I go to Eternal Death” (Milton) and recognize the extent of the inhibition of his “Immortal Spirit” and his need to cast off his addiction to “Rational Demonstration by Faith” and “the rotten rags of Memory” and be clothed with Imagination “To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Inspiration.”
Blake engages with Milton, from his very first reference to the poet in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which starts with a manifesto against the effects of a dualism that reduces Christianity to a religion of restraint and morality, good and evil, right and wrong. Milton’s Messiah is a stern judge rather than the agent of Spirit and Energy, which end up being identified with the Devil, and characterized as evil.
In other words, Milton, in Paradise Lost, seems to side with kings and governors, espousing a Hobbesian form of power in which absolute monarchy is a bulwark against the pandemonium of the democratic politics and religion of the English Civil War period in the 17th century. Jesus’ promise of the Spirit in John 14–16, and the doctrine of the Descent of Christ into Hell are used by Blake the narrator to criticize Christian orthodoxy’s preoccupation with restraint of Desire and Energy.
That spiritual energy had to be rescued by the Messiah from hell to liberate energy, life, and desire from the restrictions imposed by Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless Blake asserts that Milton, almost despite himself, does recognize the energy of the Spirit, but identifies it with Satan rather than with Christ—hence his comment: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
So, the upshot is that Blake grasps Milton’s thought better than Milton did himself, and in Milton a Poem, Blake, having “digested” Milton’s words, and “getting inside his skin,” as it were, can redeem the wrong moves that Milton made. Blake’s exercise of poetic genius enables the hints and promise latent in Milton’s work to be released by Blake’s own essay which “justify the ways of God to men”. Blake reads, criticizes and so liberates his predecessor’s thought from its bondage to convention. In Milton a Poem Blake redeems Milton and so gives him a second chance to recognize the wrong direction his theology took and to see the drift of what he wrote but failed adequately to express.
Blake’s redemption of Milton has its analogies in some modern Christian biblical interpretation. Whether it be the “quest for the historical Jesus” or the “mind of Paul,” Biblical scholars have been interested in trying to understand the persons to which the texts bear witness. They seek to engage with the real Jesus of their imaginative reconstruction, or with Paul, tease out his motives and aims, and often, seek to offer a critique of what is discovered and suggest better ways of expressing their insights, if necessary, liberated from the constraints of their historical assumptions and conditioned assumptions. Thinking the thoughts of scriptural writers like Paul after them and putting the drift of their thoughts better than they did themselves has become part and parcel of some aspects of modern Protestantism. The interpreter’s task is not just to sit at the feet of his mentor, but to put right that which the earlier writer did not fully understand, and so effect a better understanding and appreciation of his life and thought.
Blake’s Milton is a complex poem and much more is going on than the narrative of a later poetic genius enabling his predecessor to recover that genius which has been encrusted with the rationalism and resistance to inspiration and imagination. Blake’s mythological poem, in which he himself is a crucial actor, is a paradigm for a quest which has many parallels in the history of religion, as later interpreters by their close reading seek to understand texts and those who wrote them.
In doing this, later readers identify with earlier authors, but often part company from their opinions in some respects while resonating with them on others. In so doing they criticize the shortcomings of what have come to be seen as authoritative texts, which have hitherto had such a hold on them and the readers’ contemporaries. Blake’s hermeneutical and theological achievement in Milton a Poem is to explore the relationship with the past and the nature of its hold upon us. As we have seen, Blake never makes any secret of his conviction that resort to “Memory,” is inferior to “Inspiration.”
That which has been handed down must always take second place to the Poetic Genius and the Spirit of Prophecy latent in every one, which can stir the embers of the past and fan into flame new insight and wisdom. The past must not become the “mind-forg’d manacles” (“London,” Songs of Experience), which bind a new generation in its thrall. Rather than reject the past Blake recognizes in Milton a muse and a kindred spirit, even if his predecessor might not have recognized such affinity. Thereby there is a hermeneutical act of liberation in the expression of the genius of his predecessor, to enable it to be a stimulus for the intellectual imagination of a later generation.
Herein lies the basis of an interpretative method which in different situations was to be the method of non-conformists and progressives, who sought a different relationship with authoritative texts, acknowledging them but not being subjected to their dictates, or to the dictates of those who appealed to their literal sense as a buttress for their power. It is thus not without some justification, then, that when “The Ancients” visited Blake they talked of visiting “the House of the Interpreter”!
Blake’s inventiveness as a printer complemented an extraordinary imaginative life in which the visionary experience was the foundation for a life of non-conformity. What we have in Blake’s work is the extraordinary mix of technical proficiency as an engraver and printer, which enabled inspiration and production to complement each other and image and texts become an essential part of the hermeneutical medium. Images cease to be mere illustrations but a necessary part of the interpretative process. Blake was a self-involving interpreter, in that it is the effect of the text on him that is most important and the effect of his productions on his readers/viewers as they cleansed the doors of perception. While Blake allows the subjectivity of the interpreter full rein, that subjectivity is given its critical contribution also. Few could be more creatively critical than he was of essential aspects of the biblical text.
Scholarship on Blake’s work has been pioneered by literary specialists, historians, and art historians rather than biblical exegetes. This has illuminated Blake’s world in ways which have enabled us to appreciate the complex undercurrents of the late 18th-century revolutionary sub-culture of which Blake was a part. But in the midst of all this there stands the place of the Bible in the Blake corpus from earliest text to latest. Blake occasionally writes about the Bible, but it is the way in which he engages with predecessors like Milton and Swedenborg, whose politics and visions (respectively) he admires but in whose work he also finds much to criticize, that we can really begin to grasp how he treats the Bible. It is not an authoritative religious code but a stimulus to the imagination which, to use his own words “Rouzes the Faculties to act.”
The history of modern religion is incomplete without consideration of Blake’s theology and biblical interpretation. Over the years these have been touched on in various publications but have not loomed large in Blake scholarship, and mainstream theological studies have made little contribution to the debate. The late Illustrations of the Book of Job show Blake in his prime mingling biblical texts and centrally placed images, which encapsulate key moments of the biblical book, all of which have as their aim to trace the experience of Job from conventionality to a life of vision based on inspiration rather than memory. So tradition and received wisdom are put in second place. It is the necessity of this kind of experiential wisdom, which he bequeaths to his daughters at the end of the series. Not only is it a masterpiece of engraving but it is also a theological essay, which has few parallels in the history of religion.
Professor Christopher Rowland was Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture and Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford and is the author of Blake and the Bible and Radical Christianity. The above piece is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in Oxford Research Encyclopaedias. To read the full article please click here.