Blake as Shaman: The Neuroscience of Hallucinations and Milton’s Lark, by David Worrall

The Mind in the Cave and the Cave in the Mind

‘A nude male, almost certainly Milton or a compound of Blake and Milton, strides away from us and into his book, perhaps leading us forward into its depths. Milton may be entering his ‘Own Vortex’. His right arm and hand also cut his name in two, an action suggesting that the route to apocalypse is blocked by a ‘selfhood’ that must be self-annihilated’ – Essick & Viscomi

This essay argues that Blake’s illuminated poem, Milton a Poem in 2 Books (1804-1811), exhibits characteristics of the hallucinations also encountered in the archaeology of rock paintings made during shamanic trances in the prehistoric period. The essay will particularly focus on the trance-like episode referred to at the end of Milton and will link it to similar shamanic trances known to have occurred to southern African /Xam (San) bushmen in their practices of rock painting.


The Mind in the Cave

/Xam (San) bushmen of southern African

The /Xam were hunter-gatherers. The animals of their environment are repeatedly pictured in their paintings. Although centred on Felpham, near Bognor, and not the savannah, Blake’s Milton is a type of visionary pastoral where animals are, perhaps surprisingly, ever present.

Quite noticeably, Blake assigns animals a place on the road to redemption, placing a ‘Lark … [as] Los’s Messenger’, a particularly significant role, describing it as passing seamlessly through the poem’s complex spiritual architecture, in what Jerome McGann has recently described (2014), with regard to Ololon, as ‘a kind of n-dimensional mutating figuration’.

San Bushmen rock art

Along with mythic entities having similarities with those in /Xam oral culture, Blake raises ‘Living Creatures’ from the limits of ‘Generation’ to the possibility of ‘Regeneration’:

And all the Living Creatures of the Four Elements, wail’d

With bitter wailing: these in the aggregate are named Satan

And Rahab: they know not of Regeneration, but only of Generation

The Fairies, Nymphs, Gnomes & Genii of the Four Elements

Unforgiving & unalterable: these cannot be Regenerated

But must be Created, for they known only of Generation (Milton)

This inclusion of animals in a global spiritual emancipation is resounding, as Milton’s final two lines demonstrate: ‘All Animals upon the Earth, are prepard in all their strength / To go forth to the Great Harvest & Vintage of the Nations’. No one would dispute that these are things Blake saw in his visions.

Living Creatures: The ‘Rosetta Stone’ of San rock art is located at the Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensberg Mountains. It was here that Professor David Lewis-Williams, the South African scholar and professor of archaeology, first uncovered a vital key to understanding the symbolism of the San Bushman rock art paintings: ‘The man is a shaman going into trance. He is about to leave this world for the spirit world, and he is taking on the power of the eland, the most powerful animal of all.’


Altered Neuroscience: Seeing, Vision, Hallucination

Common neurology across Homo sapiens permits the leap to be made between the occurrence of visual hallucinations in Blake and /Xam bushmen shamans. Human neurology is not altered or varied by temporal or spatial moment nor by gender, race, class or any other aspect of nativity or environment.

The principal argument presented here will be that much of the poem, particularly in its extended imagery of the skylark, ‘Los’s Messenger’, derives from a trance Altered Consciousness State (ACS).

Blake greeting Ololon on the garden path of Blake’s Cave at Felpham, the scene of his hallucinatory trance (from Milton a Poem)

This is described by Blake as happening when he ‘fell outstrechd upon the path’ in his cottage garden in Felpham, Sussex. The visionary stage of this ACS is unambiguously recorded in the picture of Blake greeting Ololon on the garden path of ‘Blakes Cottage at Felpham’. That Blake knew about (what today would be called) neural pathways is evidenced by his unusually frequent visual and textual references to ‘fibres’ (Ishizuka, 2006). This may suggest Blake had a degree of self-awareness about the experiences outlined here. The relevant neuroscience and its connection to archaeology is summarized in the next two paragraphs.

Blake’s unusually frequent visual and textual references to ‘fibres’

The foundational neurological proposition is Heinrich Klüver’s taxonomy that there are four, form-constant, geometrical patterns of visual hallucination propagated from the Primary Visual Cortex (often referred to as V1) and appear as percepts on the retina. In this cortical structure, the retina is an accurate map of neural activity on V1.

There are four Klüverian form-constants of geometric visual hallucination: (a) tunnels / funnels (b) spirals (c) lattices and (d) cobwebs / concentric circles (Klüver, 1966). Mathematical corroboration, completed in two stages in 1979 and 2001, provided reverse proofs of Klüver’s taxonomy by demonstrating a viable geometry for this retinocortical map (Ermentrout and Cowan, 1979; Bressloff et al., 2001).

The stability afforded by Klüver’s form-constants, with their proven retinotopic connection to V1, has important implications for the study of visual perception generally but particularly for understanding such things the neurology of eye disease, schizophrenia, migraine and Parkinson’s disease.

Pathologically, what Blake called his ‘visions’ were almost certainly visual (and sometimes auditory) hallucinations. In their visual mode, these hallucinations are form-constant entoptic images (images occurring within the eye), propagating from V1. Under the name of ‘eidetic’ images, their neurological derivation in Blake’s case was fleetingly suggested by Joseph Burke as early as 1964.

Geometric forms in cave art paintings at Marsoulas in France, from c. 20,000 years ago

As far as the archaeology is concerned, the principal breakthrough is J. David Lewis-Williams’s fieldwork in southern Africa which noticed that rock shelter paintings of the /Xam, produced by their shamans during trances or Altered Consciousness States (ACS), replicate Klüver’s form-constants. Lewis-Williams’s principal formulation is that ‘Shamans are able to corroborate each other’s experiences because of common neuronal wiring’ (Lewis-Williams et al., 2000).

Challenges to the thesis have ranged from the constructive to the intemperate. However, as more rock art sites are recorded in more and more diverse locations, Lewis-Williams’s work continues to be cited. Bard Ermentrout and Jack D. Cowan, co-authors of the reverse geometric proofs of Klüver, have recognized the significance of the thesis and it is now included in standard neuroscience textbooks.

Lewis-Williams’s and Dowson’s particular inflection of the form-constant theory is that they found /Xam rock art depicted graduated stages of entry into states of trance, crucially including sensations of entering a vortex. This developmental hallucinatory type is a critical modification of Klüver’s findings and of the form-constant shapes but its archaeological anthropology is based on a wide range of field data.

While their acculturation of Klüverian form-constants differ, Blake and /Xam hunter-gatherer bushmen shared a common neurology which, in the case of the /Xam, includes the incorporation of form-constants into painting. Blake’s incorporation of form-constant imagery from his own visual hallucinations occurs as early as An Allegory of the Bible (c.1780-85, Tate Britain) but is most easily recognized in Jacob’s Dream (c.1805, British Museum).

Jacob’s Dream: transversing states

The exact inducing agents of Blake’s hallucinations are not known. On plate 4 of Jerusalem (1804-1818), he refers to several:

This theme calls me in sleep night after night, & ev’ry morn

Awakes me at sun-rise, then I see the Saviour over me

Spreading his beams of love, & dictating the words of this mild song.

This lists includes hypnagogic (‘This theme calls me in sleep night after night’) and hypnopompic triggers (‘& ev’ry morn / Awakes me’). Blake’s hallucinations seem to have occurred in several modalities, not just those in Klüver’s group. For example, what may be primarily determinable as a visual hallucination (‘I see the Saviour’) also exhibits itself embedded within a concurrent verbal auditory hallucination (‘dictating the words,’ ‘This theme calls me’).

Where Blake saw Visions: a 3D Virtual Tour of Blake’s cottage in Felpham, where he wrote – or perhaps one should say ‘saw’ – Milton a Poem


Blake and Shamanism

Blake’s shamanism was first recognized by Alicia Ostriker in 1982. That Blake knew about shamans is evidenced by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1789-90). Referring to the privations of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 4), ‘who lay so long on his right & left side’, Blake says that his persistence arose from ‘the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite[.] this the North American tribes practise’.

It has never been noted before that the allusion is probably to James Adair’s pioneering work of ethnography, The History of the American Indians (1775). As well as arguing that native Americans are ‘red Hebrews,’ Adair gives several accounts of his conversations with ‘great divine men’, including a ‘Cheerake’ who once, ‘for the most part of the summer season … kept his bed through fear of incurring the punishment of a false prophet’.

Since Ostriker’s original insight (based on the work of anthropologist Mircea Eliade), the study of shamanism has undergone a revolution (see DuBois, 2011). The occurrence of similar painted features rendered onto rock faces across Eurasia, sometimes deep inside cave interiors, suggests the possibility that these are manifestations of a shared neurology.

Although these characteristics are perhaps most vividly present in cave paintings such as those at Chauvet, France, /Xam rock paintings are now understood as direct representations of the spirit world seen during trance.

As Lewis-Williams writes, ‘Upper Palaeolithic subterranean passages and chambers were therefore places that afforded close contact with, even penetration of, a spiritual, nether tier of the cosmos’. Or as he and Thomas A. Dowson put it elsewhere, ‘for shamans trancing in the rock shelters – and for ordinary people as well – the paintings were visions’ (emphasis in original). More precisely, these representations are not ‘art’ but more akin to tracings or painted outlines made of things visible through the rocky shell of the cave wall, as if the rock itself held windows opening directly onto the spirit world: ‘It is as if the rock were a living membrane … behind the rock lay a realm inhabited by spirit animals and spirits themselves’ (Lewis-Williams, 2004).


Cave Walls and Mundane Shells

Even readers with only a cursory familiarity with Milton will have spotted by now that Blake’s idea of ‘the Mundane Shell’ startlingly mirrors aspects of prehistoric rock art. The Mundane Shell is central to allowing us to grasp the rudiments of the spatial and temporal architecture of Blake’s personal cosmology.

Blake describes what amounts to almost a foreshortening of /Xam perspectives, emphasising the Mundane Shell as a barrier to spiritual vision: ‘The Mundane Shell, is a vast Concave Earth: an immense / Hardend shadow of all things upon our Vegetated Earth’. Counter-intuitively, both /Xam and Blake made ‘Hardend’ surfaces points of entry into spiritual worlds.

The Mundane Egg in the Mundane Shell: ‘Blake’s idea of ‘the Mundane Shell’ startlingly mirrors aspects of prehistoric rock art’. “We live in the mundane egg surrounded by the mundane shell. The egg is the physical world where we perceive with our physical senses. All which is experienced in the mundane egg is projected on the mundane shell which surrounds and encloses the physical world. Recorded on the mundane shell are the images of the history of what happens within time and space. The mental world is represented by the worlds of Tharmas, Urthona, Luvah and Urizen, who overlap the mundane egg. The earth is entirely within the world of Urthona and is impinged upon by the worlds of Tharmas and Luvah. The world of Urizen is within the mundane egg but outside of the earth. Within the mental world of Urizen it is the state of Satan. The void is outside of existence surrounding the mental worlds.”

However, Blake’s Lark penetrates the Mundane Shell which ‘finishes where the lark mounts’, the specific place where the material world opens out into the spiritual. As will be discussed below, bird messengers of the spirit world are common to both /Xam and Blake. The /Xam were hunter-gatherers well integrated with the creatures of the bush. Although lifelong Londoners, the Blakes then lived in a thatched cottage a few hundred yards from Felpham’s shoreline, obviously witnessing the larks he describes as ‘springing from the waving Corn-field!’. It was these, perhaps defamiliarising, rural experiences Blake grafted onto his distinctive anti-Enlightenment project of ‘cast[ing] off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albions covering’.

the Blakes lived in a thatched cottage a few hundred yards from Felpham’s shoreline, witnessing the larks ‘springing from the waving Corn-field’

Crucially, both Blake and /Xam therianthropized the things they saw in the spirit world. One of Blake’s most significant examples of this practice is The Ghost of a Flea (c. 1819-20), a tempera developed from the ‘Visionary Heads’ pencil drawings made for John Varley (tempera with gold on panel, Tate Britain).

The therianthropized Ghost of a Flea

Unusually in Blake studies, its moment of inception is well corroborated. Martin Butlin reports that a label on the back of the painting in Varley’s hand reads, ‘The Vision first appeared to him in my presence’. It may be coincidence – or something more – that one of the several animal manifestations of the mischievous /Xam deity, /Kaggen, a principal shamanic figure, comes as a praying mantis (Mantis religiosa), another reminder of Homo sapiens common, usually unsettled, relationship with insects.


Neural Networks of Vision: The Mind in the Cave 

For humanities scholars, the common neurology (but differing acculturation) of hallucinatory types across Homo sapiens is probably challenging to conceptualize. Literary critics have sought, with various degrees of persuasiveness, to describe the neuroscience of reading and writing.

By comparison, Blake is a lot more obvious. Perhaps the clearest suggestion of Blake’s awareness of neural networks comes at either end of Jerusalem. He makes a remarkable statement about how communal sensibilities persist at shared neurological levels ‘in you and you in me, mutual in love divine / Fibres of love from man to man thro Albions pleasant land’.

These neural routes subsist not only as discrete sets of experience but also at spatially differentiated levels of religious and political belief. They comprise both Jesus (the ‘Saviour’) and Albion, a geopolitical entity referencing a psychic and mythological surrogate of Britain as a material nation. In its entirety, this is the source ‘dictating the words of this mild song’ and, out of body, it comprises a neural network of fibres. At Jerusalem’s close Blake repeats that these bodily and out of body neural systems also carry linguistic channels where ‘every Word & Every Character / Was Human according to the Expansion or Contraction, the Translucence or / Opakeness of Nervous fibres’.

These lines, framing the entire poem, set out a complex neural architecture through which embodied language flows, describing and encompassing the transcendental and political categories included in its tropes. Jerusalem takes place within a comprehensive cognitive structure imagined as a neural network of ‘Fibres’ ‘thro Albions pleasant land’. If this describes Blake’s intuitive awareness of a national neural network extended beyond isolated brain function, by far the clearest sets of evidence are found in Milton, Jerusalem’s shorter precursor.

Frontispiece to Milton a Poem

Milton is central to Blake’s canon yet it remains complex and obscure even to the best modern scholarship (‘a difficult poem … central events are surrounded, even smothered, by a host of others’ – Essick and Viscomi, 1993). However, the synchronicity of its single lyric time has long been understood, an insight first established in Susan Fox’s remarkable breakthrough in elaborating its structure (1976).

Milton’s ultimate redemptive moment of renovation and restoration, around which the poem is articulated, occurs when Blake collapses in his garden in ‘Felphams Vale’, a reference to the village in Sussex where he and his wife, Catherine, lived under the patronage of William Hayley. The temporal, psychic and spatial configuration of this event is typical of Blake’s later poetry in being dauntingly compressed.

Terror struck in the Vale I stood at that immortal sound

My bones trembled. I fell outstrechd upon the path

A moment, & my Soul returnd into its mortal state

To Resurrection & Judgment in the Vegetable Body

And my sweet Shadow of Delight stood trembling by my side.

The ‘sound’ he hears emanates from the apocalyptic trumpets of ‘the Immortal Four’ (‘then to their mouths the Four / Applied their Four Trumpets & them sounded to the Four winds’. Within Blake’s poetic lexicon, these are Urizen, Urthona, Tharmas and Luvah, the personified but fragmented mythological entities which comprised Albion’s earlier state of unified existence.

In these poetics of Milton, Blake’s collapse ‘outstretchd upon the path / A moment’ is strikingly described as equivalent to two physical dimensions, the physiological and the temporal:

Every Time less than a pulsation of the artery

Is equal in its period & value to Six Thousand Years

For in this Period the Poets Work is Done: and all the Great

Events of Time start forth & are conceived in such a Period

Within a Moment: a Pulsation of the Artery.

Blake’s ‘moment’ of collapse is clearly an episode of ACS, one which – quite remarkably most of us would think – is ‘equal in its period & value to Six Thousand Years’.


Contraries of Perception: Mirroring Eternity

Strikingly, within Milton’s visual and verse narrative, Blake’s fall (‘I fell’) also references two extraordinary full plate designs, one simply labelled in etching ‘William’ and the other ‘Robert’. Both have a falling star which Blake links to a manifestation of the poet John Milton’s return to earth and entry into his body:

Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star

Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift

And on my left foot falling on the tarsus, enterd there.

The figures are compositionally arranged so as to mirror each other. William and Robert are shown apparently falling backwards, their bodies thrown so far back that their inverted faces are vertical.

Robert Blake died in 1787. William composed Milton between 1804 (the date etched on the title page) but probably completed it no earlier than 1808 (the watermark date). The presence of the ‘Robert’ plate appears to be a memorialisation of William’s brother, perhaps stimulated by the twentieth anniversary of his death, perhaps driven by William’s sense of mortality as he approached his fiftieth year. It is also possible the plate represents William’s attempt to experience spiritual contact with Robert.

Both images are in relief etching. Elsewhere, as Joseph Viscomi notes (1993), some of Milton’s full plate designs (such as the title page) are in white line etching using his ‘Woodcut on Pewter’ method. This technique shows outlines that, in conventional etching, would appear printed in ink but which in white line etching appear as boundaries revealed by the white paper support. That is, white line etching is the absence of ink in the areas where one would ordinarily expect to find it. This is what defines the outline we see. This amounts to a mirror reversal of the processes of visualisation required for etching and intaglio printing.

When it came to producing the ‘William’ and ‘Robert’ plates, Blake probably used yet another mirroring method. If we suppose he produced the ‘William’ plate first, creating a mirror written ‘William’ would be a conventional requirement for printing from a surface but he would also have had to write a mirrored ‘Robert’ when he produced the other plate. Assuming he worked economically, as Viscomi argues he usually did, Blake would probably have created the second plate by making a paper counterproof transfer from the first plate. At this point, assuming he used a method of ‘pouncing’ holes into the paper, he would have then needed to decide their orientation. As the finished design shows, he selected a mirrored transfer by turning over the pounced paper so that, when finished, it printed in reverse orientation.

Whatever the reproductive method, whether the one described here or another, the very act of predictively mirroring a visual image or visualizing letter reversal for a printing surface requires complex neural engagements. The early twenty-first century debate about mirror neurons has important implications for Blake studies. Mirror neurons are electrical energies passing to and fro between the brain and body which reinforce cognitive behaviour by setting up memories of experience and repetition.

The early twenty-first century debate about mirror neurons has important implications for Blake studies.

Their existence has been used to explain the mechanisms which not only elevated Homo sapiens as tool makers and tool wielders but also helped establish the neurological foundations for building structures of social organization. Materializing systems of symbolic registers has wrought profound changes on our cognitive processes. These may include procedures as varied as writing and reading or the disciplines of bodily orientation required to spectate theatricals or participate in collective acts of worship. The craft workers of proto-industrial societies, such as those existing in late eighteenth-century Britain, would have had highly developed mental and manual skills, co-ordinating their thoughts and actions to predict the behaviour of often intractable materials, all mediated through visual acuity and the dexterity of their hands.

Blake’s printing workshop and engraving and copperplate tools

Apart from surgeons, with their requirement to use hands and sharp instruments inserted into a living three-dimensional organism, there are probably few modern counterparts to the dexterities required by the final generation of commercial copper plate book illustrator engravers.

Blake’s corrosive method, his revelation of what lies beneath apparent surfaces: “First the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged: this I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.”

The copper plates Blake worked with, using skills learned during his seven year apprenticeship under James Basire, required the removal of metal, either by acid in the case of etching or by incision in the case of engraving. Not for nothing did engravers traditionally sign off their work with their names preceded by ‘sculp.[sit].’ These efforts, not least because of the hardness of copper and the inherent dangers of acid, required high cognitive dexterity.

One of the higher level skills Blake acquired, and dramatically exemplifies in the longer illuminated books, was the ability to write from right to left in mirror writing.  This not only necessitates forming the letters in reverse orientation but also trying to control the right hander’s (or left hander’s) inevitable slope. It is this somehow elegantly impeded calligraphy which so characteristically bunches up the verse in Blake’s illuminated books.

“the ability to write from right to left in mirror writing”: Blake’s dexterity and tool-using skills are evident throughout his work. All of his regular illuminated pages would have been written ‘backwards’ so that when printed they appeared correctly. He even plays with the idea, as in this image from Jerusalem, where he deliberately writes in code – the reader has to use a mirror to decipher the true meaning.

In The Marriage, Blake describes how he is ‘Printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid’. That is, to put it at its baldest, he says printmaking causes profound changes in perception. David V. Erdman’s The Illuminated Blake (1974) was probably the first attempt to systematically track his printmaking motifs while Morris Eaves’s The Counter-Arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake (1992) is almost certainly the most sustained meditation on how printmaking methods help elucidate his responses to contemporary social, aesthetic and ideological formations.

Producing the ‘William’ and ‘Robert’ plates must have involved extraordinary perceptual experiences. If he thought the ‘infinite’ existed ‘hid’ inside the spatial and spiritual dimensions of a copper plate, it is not difficult to see that ‘William’ might spiritually contact ‘Robert’ during the plate’s production. Around the same time Blake produced The Marriage, William Bryan, a fellow Londoner and sometime-Swedenborgian in the allied trade of copper plate printing, had recorded a similarly profound, specifically religious, vision whilst feeding dampened paper into his press (Worrall, 2000).

The heightened neurological investment involved in printmaking, if combined with Blake’s unequivocally recorded moments ‘outstrechd upon the path’, and taken together with the ‘William’ and ‘Robert’ plates, all point towards a shamanic ASC experience, perhaps akin to William Bryan’s.

“Stages of induction are often indicated in the paintings by characteristic nose-bleeds and leaning forward poses”. In this southern African San rock painting an antelope-headed figure wears a white kaross (skin cloak). Note the blood falling from its nose; it indicates that the ‘being’ is a San shaman who has entered an altered state of consciousness and thus travelled to the spirit world where people assume animal features.

The fallen or collapsed shaman is an unmistakable recurrent motif in /Xam rock art, very well documented and found at sites in the Republic of South Africa, Kingdom of Lesotho and Zimbabwe. Amongst the /Xam, the collapse of the shaman is induced by narcotics during a ritual trance dance whose stages of induction are often indicated in the paintings by characteristic nose-bleeds and leaning forward poses (caused by narcotic stomach cramps). The number and diversity of the site locations showing prone shamans in this rock art provides an enormously rich and geographically diverse body of evidence to corroborate Blake’s fall into trance.  Lewis-Williams and Pearce (2012) quote M. Guenther’s description of how the ‘trance motif … is depicted either figuratively, through metaphorical or mystical images of trance, or literally, through bent-over, collapsing, or collapsed dancers who bleed from the nose and dance to chanting and clapping’.

Of course, /Xam shamanic trance dances practised in the deserts and savannahs of Africa are different from Blake’s ACS in an early nineteenth-century cottage garden outside Bognor. Blake’s ACS were probably, like those of Australian bushmen, induced through meditative concentration rather than narcotics, although induction through tobacco usage is recorded amongst some native north American shamans (Van Pool, 2009). Nevertheless, common neurological patterns create striking similarities.

Blake’s awareness of the corporeal movements and rhythms of dance with respect to the imagery of Milton were noted long ago by Erdman (1973) and W. J. T. Mitchell (1973).  Astral travel, like that of the figure of John Milton in Blake’s poem, is also found in the ACS of the /Xam and !Kung people of the Kalahari, where rock art paintings of shamans are shown next to falling stars, all part of their stories of shamans returning from heaven (Ouzman, 2010).

Trance dance: San ritual fire dance (above); William Blake, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (below)

Of course, the sheer unusualness of Milton’s astral journeying allows us to notice differences between the /Xam and the British Romantic poet, and how each are specifically culturally located. Blake’s reference to the Bible’s Saul of Tarsus’s vision of Jesus (Acts 9:3-6) dominates his description:

Blake clearly recorded the event when he felt the inspiring force of Milton suddenly entering his body through the left tarsus. This suggests an instance of actual neuropsychological experience, as McGilchrist notes, where the left side of the body is directly correlated to specific areas in the right hemisphere. Indeed, “so thunder-struck was he by the experience,” McGilchrist adds, “that fortunately he illustrated the event.”

Then first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,

Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift;

And on my left foot falling on the tarsus, enterd there.

But it is easy to appreciate how they might share a common entoptic origin.

According to the classic paper of Ronald K. Siegel on geometric visual hallucinations (1977), one of ACS’s most marked features during hallucination is the sensation of moving through a vortex, or what he calls the ‘lattice-tunnel form constant’. In Milton, the eponymous poet’s descent, ‘in a trail of light as of a comet’, precipitates a remarkable description of eternity manifesting itself as a vortex:

The nature of infinity is this: That every thing has its

Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro Eternity,

Has passd that Vortex, he perceives it roll backward behind

His path.

Experiencing movement through a vortex is central to stages of trance described by Lewis-Williams (who builds on Siegel’s work). He describes it as ‘a widely reported, virtually universal feature of trance experience that is neurologically determined. As subjects move into a deep stage of trance, they experience a vortex that seems to engulf them’ (Lewis-Williams, 2001; see also Lewis-Williams 2004, fig. 26). In /Xam rock art as in Blake’s Milton, ‘Shamans … corroborate each other’s experiences because of common neuronal wiring’.

Vortexes and whirlwinds fill Blake’s imagination. As Hoakley notes, “Of all William Blake’s visionary images, perhaps the most radical and distinctive is that of the whirlwind.”


The Lark Rises

Blake’s visions, although culturally specific to Enlightenment Felpham, arise from the same neurological circuitry as the /Xam and, inevitably, produced similar therianthropic images. The Lark clearly had a significant role during Blake’s trance experience, functioning as ‘Los’s Messenger’ after resting ready ‘at the Gate of Los, at the eastern / Gate of wide Golgonzooza’, the spiritual city of art.

‘Night Startled by the Lark’

In the single temporal moment of Milton, after the vortex is passed, the Lark rises. That Blake freely therianthropized larks is evidenced from his design, Night Startled by the Lark, for Milton’s L’Allegro, to which he appended his own commentary, ‘The Lark is an Angel on the Wing’. Milton provides a profoundly complex description of the Lark’s mediating role in visionary experiences:

the Lark is Los’s Messenger

When on the highest lift of his light pinions he arrives

At that bright Gate, another Lark meets him & back to back

They touch their pinions tip tip: and each descend

To their respective Earths & there all night consult with Angels

Of Providence & with the Eyes of God all night in slumbers

Inspired: & at the dawn of day send out another Lark

Into another Heaven to carry news upon his wings

Thus are the Messengers dispatchd till they reach the Earth again

In the East Gate of Golgonooza

In /Xam shamanism, birds (particularly swallows and swifts, both natives of southern Africa) similarly function as messengers giving contact with the spirit world and are recorded in rock art. Archaeologist Jeremy C. Hollmann has found therianthropic ‘swift-people’ depicted in /Xam rock art at a number of sites in West and East Cape Provinces, South Africa. Just as Blake has his ‘Fairies, Nymphs, Gnomes & Genii of the Four Elements’, in Eastern Cape Province, the /Xam figure of //Kabbo has ‘sorcerers [shamans who] will turn themselves into little birds’ shown, human-headed, flying in rock paintings (Lewis-Williams and Pearce, 2004).

The presence of a common distributed neurology means that trances throw up similar images, perhaps originating from form-constant entoptic images distinctively acculturated and resolved into local forms. The /Xam spiritual messenger birds are swifts while in Blake they are the skylarks of Felpham’s fields. Skylarks (genus Alauda) rather than swifts (genus Apodidae) because of the ecological determinants of their location (there are no skylarks in Africa south of Cape Verde).

However, that swifts are also meaningful in Blake’s poem is accentuated by his conspicuous oxymoron that the figure of John Milton was first seen ‘Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift’. Such apparent lyric clumsiness probably arises from the intentional foregrounding of these images, focussing on Blake’s perception of the role of birds in his vision.

Strikingly, Milton’s Lark reaches into another world before doubling back after meeting another bird:

When on the highest lift of his light pinions he arrives

At that bright Gate, another Lark meets him & back to back

They touch their pinions tip tip: and each descend

To their respective Earths.

This is an astral or spiritual journey involving flight and return ‘To … respective Earths’. That the larks touch their wings ‘tip tip’ (another phrase probably designed to make us pause) references an obscure but distinctive characteristic of bird behaviour, wing-clapping, an aerial manoeuvre associated with avian courtship.

‘tip tip’

Hollmann found wing-clapping swifts regularly depicted in /Xam rock art. This is a poorly understood phenomenon but a recognized avian activity which also occurs in nightjars, a species annually migrating to England from southern Africa, but, very significantly, a behaviour also exhibited by the English skylark. This particular behaviour surfaces in the poetic tropes of British writers no later than John Lyly’s 1632 Twelfth Night play for children, Alexander and Campaspe:

None but the larke so shrill and cleare;

How at heauens gat[e] she claps her wings

The Morne not waking till shee sings

But this is not Milton’s only reference to fairly obscure bird movements.  Hollmann notes that in /Xam painting, swifts are often depicted in circusing flights, swirling patterns of scores of birds in a phenomenon linked to their courtship behaviour. In Blake there are also multiple birds, rising in number until the ‘Twenty-eighth bright / Lark. met the Female Ololon descending into my Garden’.

Finally, to emphasise the differences in perception and perspective involved, if we view the bird from the eternity inhabited by ‘Immortals … the Lark is a mighty Angel’. In other words, the lark is exactly a messenger between a material world and a spiritual world, sometimes anthropomorphized (‘His little throat labours with inspiration; every feather / On throat & breast & wings vibrates with the effluence Divine’), and sometimes therianthropized (‘the Lark is a mighty Angel’).

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visionary vortexes: ‘swirling patterns of scores of birds’



The entopic images encountered in the trances common to Blake and /Xam produce neurologically determined parallels, culturally inflected. The passage in Milton following Blake’s description of his trance collapse connects the reader to an unambiguous reminder of the Lark’s spiritual role: ‘I fell oustretchd upon the path / A moment … / Immediately the Lark mounted with a loud trill from Felphams Vale’. Moving backwards through the poem, as Susan Fox’s notion of the poem’s single synchronic moment encourages us to do, one arrives at a much clearer appreciation of the analogies with /Xam rock painting. The membrane which is the /Xam’s rock face and Blake’s ‘Mundane Shell’ is figured throughout as susceptible to penetration by African ‘swift-people’ or by British skylarks:

The Lark sitting upon his earthy bed: just as the morn

Appears; listens silent; then springing from the waving Corn-field! Loud

He leads the Choir of Day! trill, trill, trill, trill,

Mounting upon the wings of light into the Great Expanse:

Reecchoing against the lovely blue & shining heavenly Shell.

The ‘shining heavenly Shell’ against which the Lark’s song ricochets prefigures the ‘Mundane Shell’ uniquely pictured in the design to the next plate but its awakening ‘loud trill’ at the end of the poem also marks Blake’s exact ‘moment’ of epiphany when his ‘Soul returnd into its mortal state / To Resurrection & Judgment in the Vegetable Body’. This completes the circuitry of the imagery and marks a kind of sacralised sealing of the ACS, a confirmation of its visionary moment.

The precision of these points of comparison between transhistorical, globally separated, extraordinarily detailed avian phenomena are striking.  They all relate to the trance experiences, rooted in the shared common neurology, of William Blake in Felpham and /Xam bushman shamans in southern Africa.

David Worrall is Emeritus Professor of English studies at Nottingham Trent University and continues to carry out research in Romantic period. His research interests include Georgian Drama, William Blake, and Romantic period sub-cultures. His books include Celebrity Performance, Reception: British Georgian Drama as Social Assemblage (Cambridge University Press, 2013), The Politics of Romantic Theatricality: The Road to the Stage (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), and Theatric Revolution: Drama, Censorship and Romantic Period Subcultures (Oxford University Press, 2006).

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