Ideas of Good and Evil, by W. B. Yeats
Introduction: Future Tense
There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times. William Blake was one of these men, and if he spoke confusedly and obscurely it was because he spoke things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world about him.
He announced the religion of art, of which no man dreamed in the world about him; and he understood it more perfectly than the thousands of subtle spirits who have received its baptism in the world about us, because, in the beginning of important things – in the beginning of love, in the beginning of the day, in the beginning of any work, there is a moment when we understand more perfectly than we understand again until all is finished.
In his time educated people believed that they amused themselves with books of imagination but that they “made their souls” by listening to sermons and by doing or by not doing certain things. When they had to explain why serious people like themselves honoured the great poets greatly they were hard put to it for lack of good reasons.
In our time we are agreed that we “make our souls” out of some one of the great poets of ancient times, or out of Shelley or Wordsworth, or Goethe or Balzac, or Flaubert, or Count Tolstoy, in the books he wrote before he became a prophet and fell into a lesser order, or out of Mr. Whistler’s pictures, while we amuse ourselves, or, at best, make a poorer sort of soul, by listening to sermons or by doing or by not doing certain things.
We write of great writers, even of writers whose beauty would once have seemed an unholy beauty, with rapt sentences like those our fathers kept for the beatitudes and mysteries of the Church; and no matter what we believe with our lips, we believe with our hearts that beautiful things, as Browning said in his one prose essay that was not in verse, have “lain burningly on the Divine hand,” and that when time has begun to wither, the Divine hand will fall heavily on bad taste and vulgarity. When no man believed these things William Blake believed them, and began that preaching against the Philistine, which is as the preaching of the Middle Ages against the Saracen.
Imagination as the First Emanation from God
He had learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that imagination was the first emanation of divinity, “the body of God,” “the Divine members,” and he drew the deduction, which they did not draw, that the imaginative arts were therefore the greatest of Divine revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ.
The reason, and by the reason he meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing us our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts.
He cried again and again that every thing that lives is holy, and that nothing is unholy except things that do not live – lethargies, and cruelties, and timidities, and that denial of imagination which is the root they grew from in old times. Passions, because most living, are most holy – and this was a scandalous paradox in his time – and man shall enter eternity borne upon their wings.
And he understood this so literally that certain drawings to Vala, had he carried them beyond the first faint pencillings, the first faint washes of colour, would have been a pretty scandal to his time and to our time. The sensations of this “foolish body,” this “phantom of the earth and water,” were in themselves but half-living things, “vegetative” things, but passion that “eternal glory” made them a part of the body of God.
This philosophy kept him more simply a poet than any poet of his time, for it made him content to express every beautiful feeling that came into his head without troubling about its utility or chaining it to any utility. Sometimes one feels, even when one is reading poets of a better time – Tennyson or Wordsworth, let us say – that they have troubled the energy and simplicity of their imaginative passions by asking whether they were for the helping or for the hindrance of the world, instead of believing that all beautiful things have “lain burningly on the Divine hand.”
But when one reads Blake, it is as though the spray of an inexhaustible fountain of beauty was blown into our faces, and not merely when one reads the Songs of Innocence, or the lyrics he wished to call “The Ideas of Good and Evil,” but when one reads those “Prophetic Works” in which he spoke confusedly and obscurely because he spoke of things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world about him.
He was a symbolist who had to invent his symbols; and his counties of England, with their correspondence to tribes of Israel, and his mountains and rivers, with their correspondence to parts of a man’s body, are arbitrary as some of the symbolism in the Axël of the symbolist Villiers de L’Isle-Adam is arbitrary, while they mix incongruous things as Axël does not.
He was a man crying out for a mythology, and trying to make one because he could not find one to his hand. Had he been a Catholic of Dante’s time he would have been well content with Mary and the angels; or had he been a scholar of our time he would have taken his symbols where Wagner took his, from Norse mythology; or have followed, with the help of Prof Rhys, that pathway into Welsh mythology which he found in Jerusalem; or have gone to Ireland – and he was probably an Irishman – and chosen for his symbols the sacred mountains, along whose sides the peasant still sees enchanted fires, and the divinities which have not faded from the belief, if they have faded from the prayers of simple hearts; and have spoken without mixing incongruous things because he spoke of things that had been long steeped in emotion; and have been less obscure because a traditional mythology stood on the threshold of his meaning and on the margin of his sacred darkness.
If “Enitharmon” had been named Freia, or Gwydeon, or Danu, and made live in Ancient Norway, or Ancient Wales, or Ancient Ireland, we would have forgotten that her maker was a mystic; and the hymn of her harping, that is in Vala, would but have reminded us of many ancient hymns.
The joy of woman is the death of her beloved,
Who dies for love of her,
In torments of fierce jealousy and pangs of adoration.
The lover’s night bears on my song,
And the nine spheres rejoice beneath my powerful control.
They sing unwearied to the notes of my immortal hand.
The solemn, silent moon
Reverberates the long harmony sounding upon my limbs.
The birds and beasts rejoice and play,
And every one seeks for his mate to prove his inmost joy.
Furious and terrible they rend the nether deep,
The deep lifts up his rugged head,
And lost in infinite hovering wings vanishes with a cry.
The fading cry is ever dying,
The living voice is ever living in its inmost joy.
Noah’s Rainbow: Blake and Symbolism
William Blake was the first writer of modern times to preach the indissoluble marriage of all great art with symbol. There had been allegorists and teachers of allegory in plenty, but the symbolic imagination, or, as Blake preferred to call it, “vision,” is not allegory, being “a representation of what actually exists really and unchangeably.”
A symbol is indeed the only possible expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame; while allegory is one of many possible representations of an embodied thing, or familiar principle, and belongs to fancy and not to imagination: the one is a revelation, the other an amusement. It is happily no part of my purpose to expound in detail the relations he believed to exist between symbol and mind, for in doing so I should come upon not a few doctrines which, though they have not been difficult to many simple persons, ascetics wrapped in skins, women who had cast away all common knowledge, peasants dreaming by their sheepfolds upon the hills, are full of obscurity to the man of modern culture; but it is necessary to just touch upon these relations, because in them was the fountain of much of the practice and of all the precept of his artistic life.
If a man would enter into “Noah’s rainbow,” he has written, and “make a friend” of one of “the images of wonder” which dwell there, and which always entreat him “to leave mortal things,” “then would he arise from the grave and meet the Lord in the air”; and by this rainbow, this sign of a covenant granted to him who is with Shem and Japhet, “painting, poetry and music,” “the three powers in man of conversing with Paradise which the flood “of time and space” did not sweep away,” Blake represented the shapes of beauty haunting our moments of inspiration: shapes held by most for the frailest of ephemera, but by him for a people older than the world, citizens of eternity, appearing and reappearing in the minds of artists and of poets, creating all we touch and see by casting distorted images of themselves upon “the vegetable glass of nature”; and because beings, none the less symbols, blossoms, as it were, growing from invisible immortal roots, hands, as it were, pointing the way into some divine labyrinth.
If “the world of imagination” was “the world of eternity,” as this doctrine implied, it was of less importance to know men and nature than to distinguish the beings and substances of imagination from those of a more perishable kind, created by the phantasy, in uninspired moments, out of memory and whim; and this could best be done by purifying one’s mind, as with a flame, in study of the works of the great masters, who were great because they had been granted by divine favour a vision of the unfallen world from which others are kept apart by the flaming sword that turns every way; and by flying from the painters who studied “the vegetable glass” for its own sake, and not to discover there the shadows of imperishable beings and substances, and who entered into their own minds, not to make the unfallen world a test of all they heard and saw and felt with the senses, but to cover the naked spirit with “the rotten rags of memory” of older sensations.
The struggle of the first part of his life had been to distinguish between these two schools, and to cleave always to the Florentine, and so to escape the fascination of those who seemed to him to offer the sleep of nature to a spirit weary with the labours of inspiration; but it was only after his return to London from Felpham in 1804 that he finally escaped from “temptations and perturbations” which sought to destroy “the imaginative power” at “the hands of Venetian and Flemish Demons.”
“The spirit of Titian” – and one must always remember that he had only seen poor engravings, and what his disciple, Palmer, has called “picture-dealers’ Titians” – “was particularly active in raising doubts concerning the possibility of executing without a model; and when once he had raised the doubt it became easy for him to snatch away the vision time after time”; and Blake’s imagination “weakened” and “darkened” until a “memory of nature and of the pictures of various schools possessed his mind, instead of appropriate execution” flowing from the vision itself.
But now he wrote, “O glory, and O delight! I have entirely reduced that spectrous fiend to his station” – he had overcome the merely reasoning and sensual portion of the mind – “whose annoyance has been the ruin of my labours for the last twenty years of my life…. I speak with perfect confidence and certainty of the fact which has passed upon me. Nebuchadnezzar had seven times passed over him, I have had twenty; thank God I was not altogether a beast as he was…. Suddenly, on the day after visiting the Truchsessian Gallery of pictures” – this was a gallery containing pictures by Albert Dürer and by the great Florentines – “I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which had for exactly twenty years been closed from me, as by a door and window shutters…. Excuse my enthusiasm, or rather madness, for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or graver in my hand, as I used to be in my youth.”
This letter may have been the expression of a moment’s enthusiasm, but was more probably rooted in one of those intuitions of coming technical power which every creator feels, and learns to rely upon; for all his greatest work was done, and the principles of his art were formulated, after this date.
Except a word here and there, his writings hitherto had not dealt with the principles of art except remotely and by implication; but now he wrote much upon them, and not in obscure symbolic verse, but in emphatic prose, and explicit if not very poetical rhyme. In his ‘Descriptive Catalogue’, in ‘The Address to the Public’, in the notes on Sir Joshua Reynolds, in ‘The Book of Moonlight’ – of which some not very dignified rhymes alone remain – in beautiful detached passages in ‘The MS. Book’, he explained spiritual art, and praised the painters of Florence and their influence, and cursed all that has come of Venice and Holland.
The limitation of his view was from the very intensity of his vision; he was a too literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature; and because he believed that the figures seen by the mind’s eye, when exalted by inspiration, were “eternal existences,” symbols of divine essences, he hated every grace of style that might obscure their lineaments. To wrap them about in reflected lights was to do this, and to dwell over-fondly upon any softness of hair or flesh was to dwell upon that which was least permanent and least characteristic, for “The great and golden rule of art, as of life, is this: that the more distinct, sharp and wiry the boundary-line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism and bungling.”
Inspiration was to see the permanent and characteristic in all forms, and if you had it not, you must needs imitate with a languid mind the things you saw or remembered, and so sink into the sleep of nature where all is soft and melting. “Great inventors in all ages knew this. Protogenes and Apelles knew each other by their line. Raphael and Michael Angelo and Albert Dürer are known by this and this alone. How do we distinguish the owl from the beast, the horse from the ox, but by the bounding outline? How do we distinguish one face or countenance from another but by the bounding-line and its infinite inflections and movements? What is it that builds a house and plants a garden but the definite and determinate? What is it that distinguished honesty from knavery but the hard and wiry line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions? Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; and all is chaos again, and the line of the Almighty must be drawn out upon it before man or beast can exist.”
He even insisted that “colouring does not depend upon where the colours are put, but upon where the light and dark are put, and all depends upon the form or outline” – meaning, I suppose, that a colour gets its brilliance or its depth from being in light or in shadow. He does not mean by outline the bounding-line dividing a form from its background, as one of his commentators has thought, but the line that divides it from surrounding space, and unless you have an overmastering sense of this you cannot draw true beauty at all, but only “the beauty that is appended to folly,” a beauty of mere voluptuous softness, “a lamentable accident of the mortal and perishing life,” for “the beauty proper for sublime art is lineaments, or forms and features capable of being the receptacles of intellect,” and “the face or limbs that alter least from youth to old age are the face and limbs of the greatest beauty and perfection.”
His praise of a severe art had been beyond price had his age rested a moment to listen, in the midst of its enthusiasm for Correggio and the later Renaissance, for Bartolozzi and for Stothard; and yet in his visionary realism, and in his enthusiasm for what, after all, is perhaps the greatest art, and a necessary part of every picture that is art at all, he forgot how he who wraps the vision in lights and shadows, in iridescent or glowing colour, having in the midst of his labour many little visions of these secondary essences, until form be half lost in pattern, may compel the canvas or paper to become itself a symbol of some not indefinite because unsearchable essence; for is not the Bacchus and Ariadne of Titian a talisman as powerfully charged with intellectual virtue as though it were a jewel-studded door of the city seen on Patmos?
The Morality of the Colour Scheme
To cover the imperishable lineaments of beauty with shadows and reflected lights was to fall into the power of his “Vala,” the indolent fascination of nature, the woman divinity who is so often described in “the prophetic books” as “sweet pestilence,” and whose children weave webs to take the souls of men; but there was yet a more lamentable chance, for nature has also a “masculine portion” or “spectre” which kills instead of merely hiding, and is continually at war with inspiration.
To “generalize” forms and shadows, to “smooth out” spaces and lines in obedience to “laws of composition,” and of painting; founded, not upon imagination, which always thirsts for variety and delights in freedom, but upon reasoning from sensation which is always seeking to reduce everything to a lifeless and slavish uniformity; as the popular art of Blake’s day had done, and as he understood Sir Joshua Reynolds to advise, was to fall into “Entuthon Benithon,” or “the Lake of Udan Adan,” or some other of those regions where the imagination and the flesh are alike dead, that he names by so many resonant phantastical names. “General knowledge is remote knowledge,” he wrote:
It is in particulars that wisdom consists, and happiness too. Both in art and life general masses are as much art as a pasteboard man is human. Every man has eyes, nose and mouth; this every idiot knows. But he who enters into and discriminates most minutely the manners and intentions, the characters in all their branches, is the alone wise or sensible man, and on this discrimination all art is founded…. As poetry admits not a letter that is insignificant, so painting admits not a grain of sand or a blade of grass insignificant, much less an insignificant blot or blur.
Against another desire of his time, derivative also from what he has called “corporeal reason,” the desire for a “tepid moderation,” for a lifeless “sanity in both art and life,” he had protested years before with a paradoxical violence. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” and we must only “bring out weight and measure in time of dearth.”
This protest, carried, in the notes on Sir Joshua Reynolds, to the point of dwelling with pleasure on the thought that “The Lives of the Painters say that Raphael died of dissipation,” because dissipation is better than emotional penury, seemed as important to his old age as to his youth. He taught it to his disciples, and one finds it in its purely artistic shape in a diary written by Samuel Palmer, in 1824: “Excess is the essential vivifying spirit, vital spark, embalming spice of the finest art. There are many mediums in the means – none, oh, not a jot, not a shadow of a jot, in the end of great art. In a picture whose merit is to be excessively brilliant, it can”t be too brilliant, but individual tints may be too brilliant. … We must not begin with medium, but think always on excess and only use medium to make excess more abundantly excessive.”
These three primary commands, to seek a determinate outline, to avoid a generalized treatment, and to desire always abundance and exuberance, were insisted upon with vehement anger, and their opponents called again and again “demons” and “villains,” “hired” by the wealthy and the idle; but in private, Palmer has told us, he could find “sources of delight throughout the whole range of art,” and was ever ready to praise excellence in any school, finding, doubtless, among friends, no need for the emphasis of exaggeration.
There is a beautiful passage in Jerusalem in which the merely mortal part of the mind, “the spectre,” creates “pyramids of pride,” and “pillars in the deepest hell to reach the heavenly arches,” and seeks to discover wisdom in “the spaces between the stars,” not “in the stars,” where it is, but the immortal part makes all his labours vain, and turns his pyramids to “grains of sand,” his “pillars” to “dust on the fly’s wing,” and makes of “his starry heavens a moth of gold and silver mocking his anxious grasp.” So when man’s desire to rest from spiritual labour, and his thirst to fill his art with mere sensation and memory, seem upon the point of triumph, some miracle transforms them to a new inspiration; and here and there among the pictures born of sensation and memory is the murmuring of a new ritual, the glimmering of new talismans and symbols.
It was during and after the writing of these opinions that Blake did the various series of pictures which have brought him the bulk of his fame. He had already completed the illustrations to Young’s Night Thoughts – in which the great sprawling figures, a little wearisome even with the luminous colours of the original water-colour, became nearly intolerable in plain black and white – and almost all the illustrations to “the prophetic books,” which have an energy like that of the elements, but are rather rapid sketches taken while some phantasmic procession swept over him, than elaborate compositions, and in whose shadowy adventures one finds not merely, as did Dr. Garth Wilkinson, “the hells of the ancient people, the Anakim, the Nephalim, and the Rephaim … gigantic petrifactions from which the fires of lust and intense selfish passion have long dissipated what was animal and vital”; not merely the shadows cast by the powers who had closed the light from him as “with a door and window shutters,” but the shadows of those who gave them battle.
He did now, however, the many designs to Milton’s works, of which I have only seen those to ‘Paradise Regained’; the reproductions of those to ‘Comus’, published, I think, by Mr. Quaritch; and the three or four to ‘Paradise Lost’, engraved by Bell Scott – a series of designs which one good judge considers his greatest work; the illustrations to Blair’s Grave, whose gravity and passion struggle with the mechanical softness and trivial smoothness of Schiavonetti’s engraving; the illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil, whose influence is manifest in the work of the little group of landscape-painters who gathered about him in his old age and delighted to call him master.
The member of the group, whom I have already so often quoted, has alone praised worthily these illustrations to the first eclogue: “There is in all such a misty and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world. They are like all this wonderful artist’s work, the drawing aside of the fleshly curtain, and the glimpse which all the most holy, studious saints and sages have enjoyed, of the rest which remains to the people of God.”
Now, too, he did the great series, the crowning work of his life, the illustrations to The Book of Job and the illustrations to The Divine Comedy. Hitherto he had protested against the mechanical “dots and lozenges” and “blots and blurs” of Woollett and Strange, but had himself used both “dot and lozenge,” “blot and blur,” though always in subordination “to a firm and determinate outline”; but in Marc Antonio, certain of whose engravings he was shown by Linnell, he found a style full of delicate lines, a style where all was living and energetic, strong and subtle.
And almost his last words, a letter written upon his death-bed, attack the “dots and lozenges” with even more than usually quaint symbolism, and praise expressive lines. “I know that the majority of Englishmen are bound by the indefinite … a line is a line in its minutest particulars, straight or crooked. It is itself not intermeasurable by anything else … but since the French Revolution” – since the reign of reason began, that is – “Englishmen are all intermeasurable with one another, certainly a happy state of agreement in which I do not agree.”
The Dante series occupied the last years of his life; even when too weak to get out of bed he worked on, propped up with the great drawing-book before him. He sketched a hundred designs, but left all incomplete, some very greatly so, and partly engraved seven plates, of which the “Francesca and Paolo” is the most finished. It is not, I think, inferior to any but the finest in the Job, if indeed to them, and shows in its perfection Blake’s mastery over elemental things, the swirl in which the lost spirits are hurried, “a watery flame” he would have called it, the haunted waters and the huddling shapes. In the illustrations of Purgatory there is a serene beauty, and one finds his Dante and Virgil climbing among the rough rocks under a cloudy sun, and in their sleep upon the smooth steps towards the summit, a placid, marmoreal, tender, starry rapture.
All in this great series are in some measure powerful and moving, and not, as it is customary to say of the work of Blake, because a flaming imagination pierces through a cloudy and indecisive technique, but because they have the only excellence possible in any art, a mastery over artistic expression. The technique of Blake was imperfect, incomplete, as is the technique of well-nigh all artists who have striven to bring fires from remote summits; but where his imagination is perfect and complete, his technique has a like perfection, a like completeness.
He strove to embody more subtle raptures, more elaborate intuitions than any before him; his imagination and technique are more broken and strained under a great burden than the imagination and technique of any other master. “I am,” wrote Blake, “like others, just equal in invention and execution.” And again, “No man can improve an original invention; nor can an original invention exist without execution, organized, delineated and articulated either by God or man … I have heard people say, ‘Give me the ideas; it is no matter what words you put them into;’ and others say, ‘Give me the designs; it is no matter for the execution.’ … Ideas cannot be given but in their minutely appropriate words, nor can a design be made without its minutely appropriate execution.” Living in a time when technique and imagination are continually perfect and complete, because they no longer strive to bring fire from heaven, we forget how imperfect and incomplete they were in even the greatest masters, in Botticelli, in Orcagna, and in Giotto.
The errors in the handiwork of exalted spirits are as the more phantastical errors in their lives; as Coleridge’s opium cloud; as Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s candidature for the throne of Greece; as Blake’s anger against causes and purposes he but half understood; as the flickering madness an Eastern scripture would allow in august dreamers; for he who half lives in eternity endures a rending of the structures of the mind, a crucifixion of the intellectual body.
The Tree of Life: Blake’s Opinions on Dante
As Blake sat bent over the great drawing-book, in which he made his designs to The Divine Comedy, he was very certain that he and Dante represented spiritual states which face one another in an eternal enmity.
Dante, because a great poet, was “inspired by the Holy Ghost”; but his inspiration was mingled with a certain philosophy, blown up out of his age, which Blake held for mortal and the enemy of immortal things, and which from the earliest times has sat in high places and ruled the world. This philosophy was the philosophy of soldiers, of men of the world, of priests busy with government, of all who, because of the absorption in active life, have been persuaded to judge and to punish, and partly also, he admitted, the philosophy of Christ, who in descending into the world had to take on the world; who, in being born of Mary, a symbol of the law in Blake’s symbolic language, had to “take after his mother,” and drive the money-changers out of the Temple.
Opposed to this was another philosophy, not made by men of action, drudges of time and space, but by Christ when wrapped in the divine essence, and by artists and poets, who are taught by the nature of their craft to sympathize with all living things, and who, the more pure and fragrant is their lamp, pass the further from all limitations, to come at last to forget good and evil in an absorbing vision of the happy and the unhappy. The one philosophy was worldly, and established for the ordering of the body and the fallen will, and so long as it did not call its “laws of prudence” “the laws of God,” was a necessity, because “you cannot have liberty in this world without what you call moral virtue”; the other was divine, and established for the peace of the imagination and the unfallen will, and, even when obeyed with a too literal reverence, could make men sin against no higher principality than prudence.
He called the followers of the first philosophy pagans, no matter by what name they knew themselves, because the pagans, as he understood the word pagan, believed more in the outward life, and in what he called “war, princedom, and victory,” than in the secret life of the spirit; and the followers of the second philosophy Christians, because only those whose sympathies had been enlarged and instructed by art and poetry could obey the Christian command of unlimited forgiveness.
Blake had already found this “pagan” philosophy in Swedenborg, in Milton, in Wordsworth, in Sir Joshua Reynolds, in many persons, and it had roused him so constantly and to such angry paradox that its overthrow became the signal passion of his life, and filled all he did and thought with the excitement of a supreme issue.
Its kingdom was bound to grow weaker so soon as life began to lose a little in crude passion and naïve tumult, but Blake was the first to announce its successor, and he did this, as must needs be with revolutionists who have “the law” for “mother,” with a firm conviction that the things his opponents held white were indeed black, and that the things they held black, white; with a strong persuasion that all busy with government are men darkness and “something other than human life”; one is reminded of Shelley, who was the next to take up the cry, though with a less abundant philosophic faculty, but still more of Nietzsche, whose thought flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.
The kingdom that was passing was, he held, the kingdom of the Tree of Knowledge; the kingdom that was coming was the kingdom of the Tree of Life: men who ate from the Tree of Knowledge wasted their days in anger against one another, and in taking one another captive in great nets; men who sought their food among the green leaves of the Tree of Life condemned none but the unimaginative and the idle, and those who forget that even love and death and old age are an imaginative art.
In these opposing kingdoms is the explanation of the petulant sayings he wrote on the margins of the great sketch-book, and of those others, still more petulant, which Crabb Robinson has recorded in his diary. The sayings about the forgiveness of sins have no need for further explanation, and are in contrast with the attitude of that excellent commentator, Herr Hettinger, who, though Dante swooned from pity at the tale of Francesca, will only “sympathize” with her “to a certain extent,” being taken in a theological net.
“It seems as if Dante,” Blake wrote, “supposes God was something superior to the Father of Jesus; for if He gives rain to the evil and the good, and His sun to the just and the unjust, He can never have builded Dante’s Hell, nor the Hell of the Bible, as our parsons explain it. It must have been framed by the dark spirit itself, and so I understand it.” And again, “Whatever task is of vengeance and whatever is against forgiveness of sin is not of the Father but of Satan, the accuser, the father of Hell.” And again, and this time to Crabb Robinson, “Dante saw devils where I saw none. I see good only.” “I have never known a very bad man who had not something very good about him.”
This forgiveness was not the forgiveness of the theologian who has received a commandment from afar off, but of the poet and artist, who believes he has been taught, in a mystical vision, “that the imagination is the man himself,” and believes he has discovered in the practice of his art that without a perfect sympathy there is no perfect imagination, and therefore no perfect life. At another moment he called Dante “an atheist, a mere politician busied about this world, as Milton was, till, in his old age, returned to God whom he had had in his childhood.” “Everything is atheism,” he has already explained, “which assumed the reality of the natural and unspiritual world.”
Dante, he held, assumed its reality when he made obedience to its laws a condition of man’s happiness hereafter, and he set Swedenborg beside Dante in misbelief for calling Nature “the ultimate of Heaven,” a lowest rung, as it were, of Jacob’s ladder, instead of a net woven by Satan to entangle our wandering joys and bring our hearts into captivity.
There are certain curious unfinished diagrams scattered here and there among the now separated pages of the sketch-book, and of these there is one which, had it had all its concentric rings filled with names, would have been a systematic exposition of his animosities and of their various intensity. It represents Paradise, and in the midst, where Dante emerges from the earthly Paradise, is written “Homer,” and in the next circle “Swedenborg,” and on the margin these words: “Everything in Dante’s Paradise shows that he has made the earth the foundation of all, and its goddess Nature, memory,” memory of sensations, “not the Holy Ghost…. Round Purgatory is Paradise, and round Paradise vacuum. Homer is the centre of all, I mean the poetry of the heathen.”
The statement that round Paradise is vacuum is a proof of the persistence of his ideas, and of his curiously literal understanding of his own symbols; for it is but another form of the charge made against Milton many years before in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “In Milton the Father is destiny, the son a ratio of the five senses,” Blake’s definition of the reason which is the enemy of the imagination, “and the Holy Ghost vacuum.”
Dante, like other medieval mystics, symbolized the highest order of created beings by the fixed stars, and God by the darkness beyond them, the Primum Mobile. Blake, absorbed in his very different vision, in which God took always a human shape, believed that to think of God under a symbol drawn from the outer world was in itself idolatry, but that to imagine Him as an unpeopled immensity was to think of Him under the one symbol furthest from His essence – it being a creation of the ruining reason, “generalizing” away “the minute particulars of life.”
Instead of seeking God in the deserts of time and space, in exterior immensities, in what he called “the abstract void,” he believed that the further he dropped behind him memory of time and space, reason builded upon sensation, morality founded for the ordering of the world; and the more he was absorbed in emotion; and, above all, in emotion escaped from the impulse of bodily longing and the restraints of bodily reason, in artistic emotion; the nearer did he come to Eden’s “breathing garden,” to use his beautiful phrase, and to the unveiled face of God.
No worthy symbol of God existed but the inner world, the true humanity, to whose various aspects he gave many names, “Jerusalem,” “Liberty,” “Eden,” “The Divine Vision,” “The Body of God,” “The Human Form Divine,” “The Divine Members,” and whose most intimate expression was art and poetry. He always sang of God under this symbol:
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God Our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is man, His child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart;
Pity a human face;
And Love the human form divine;
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine –
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
Whenever he gave this symbol a habitation in space he set it in the sun, the father of light and life; and set in the darkness beyond the stars, where light and life die away, Og and Anak and the giants that were of old, and the iron throne of Satan.
A Pulsation of the Artery
By thus contrasting Blake and Dante by the light of Blake’s paradoxical wisdom, and as though there was no important truth hung from Dante’s beam of the balance, I but seek to interpret a little-understood philosophy rather than one incorporate in the thought and habits of Christendom.
Every philosophy has half its truth from times and generations; and to us one-half of the philosophy of Dante is less living than his poetry, while the truth Blake preached and sang and painted is the root of the cultivated life, of the fragile perfect blossom of the world born in ages of leisure and peace, and never yet to last more than a little season; the life those Phæacians, who told Odysseus that they had set their hearts in nothing but in “the dance and changes of raiment, and love and sleep,” lived before Poseidon heaped a mountain above them; the lives of all who, having eaten of the Tree of Life, love, more than did the barbarous ages when none had time to live, “the minute particulars of life,” the little fragments of space and time, which are wholly flooded by beautiful emotion because they are so little they are hardly of time and space at all.
“Every space smaller than a globule of man’s blood,” he wrote, “opens into eternity of which this vegetable earth is but a shadow.” And again, “Every time less than a pulsation of the artery is equal” in its tenor and value “to six thousand years, for in this period the poet’s work is done, and all the great events of time start forth, and are conceived: in such a period, within a moment, a pulsation of the artery.”
Dante, indeed, taught, in the “Purgatorio,” that sin and virtue are alike from love, and that love is from God; but this love he would restrain by a complex eternal law, a complex external Church. Blake upon the other hand cried scorn upon the whole spectacle of external things, a vision to pass away in a moment, and preached the cultivated life, the internal Church which has no laws but beauty, rapture and labour.
I know of no other Christianity, and of no other gospel, than the liberty, both of body and mind, to exercise the divine arts of imagination, the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow, and in which we shall live in our eternal or imaginative bodies when these vegetable mortal bodies are no more. The Apostles knew of no other gospel. What are all their spiritual gifts? What is the divine spirit? Is the Holy Ghost any other than an intellectual fountain? What is the harvest of the gospel and its labours? What is the talent which it is a curse to hide? What are the treasures of heaven which we are to lay up for ourselves? Are they any other than mental studies and performances? What are all the gifts of the gospel, are they not all mental gifts? Is God a spirit who must be worshipped in spirit and truth? Are not the gifts of the spirit everything to man?
O ye religious! discountenance every one among you who shall pretend to despise art and science. I call upon you in the name of Jesus! What is the life of man but art and science? Is it meat and drink? Is not the body more than raiment? What is mortality but the things relating to the body which dies? What is immortality but the things relating to the spirit which lives immortally? What is the joy of Heaven but improvement in the things of the spirit? What are the pains of Hell but ignorance, idleness, bodily lust, and the devastation of the things of the spirit?
Answer this for yourselves, and expel from amongst you those who pretend to despise the labours of art and science, which alone are the labours of the gospel. Is not this plain and manifest to the thought? Can you think at all, and not pronounce heartily that to labour in knowledge is to build Jerusalem, and to despise knowledge is to despise Jerusalem and her builders? And remember, he who despises and mocks a mental gift in another, calling it pride, and selfishness, and sin, mocks Jesus, the giver of every mental gift, which always appear to the ignorance-loving hypocrites as sins. But that which is sin in the sight of cruel man is not sin in the sight of our kind God. Let every Christian as much as in him lies engage himself openly and publicly before all the world in some mental pursuit for the building of Jerusalem.
I have given the whole of this long passage because, though the very keystone of his thought, it is little known, being sunk, like nearly all of his most profound thoughts, in the mysterious prophetic books. Obscure about much else, they are always lucid on this one point, and return to it again and again. “I care not whether a man is good or bad,” are the words they put into the mouth of God, “all I care is whether he is a wise man or a fool. Go put off holiness and put on intellect.” This cultivated life, which seems to us so artificial a thing, is really, according to them, the laborious re-discovery of the golden age, of the primeval simplicity, of the simple world in which Christ taught and lived, and its lawlessness is the lawlessness of Him “who being all virtue, acted from impulse and not from rules,”
And his seventy disciples sent
Against religion and government.
The historical Christ was indeed no more than the supreme symbol of the artistic imagination, in which, with every passion wrought to perfect beauty by art and poetry, we shall live, when the body has passed away for the last time; but before that hour man must labour through many lives and many deaths.
Men are admitted into heaven not because they have curbed and governed their passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The treasures of heaven are not negations of passion but realities of intellect from which the passions emanate uncurbed in their eternal glory. The fool shall not enter into heaven, let him be ever so holy. Holiness is not the price of entering into heaven. Those who are cast out are all those who, having no passions of their own, because no intellect, have spent their lives in curbing and governing other people’s lives by the various arts of poverty and cruelty of all kinds. The modern Church crucifies Christ with the head downwards. Woe, woe, woe to you hypocrites.
After a time man has “to return to the dark valley whence he came and begin his labours anew,” but before that return he dwells in the freedom of imagination, in the peace of the “divine image,” “the divine vision,” in the peace that passes understanding and is the peace of art. “I have been very near the gates of death,” Blake wrote in his last letter, “and have returned very weak and an old man, feeble and tottering but not in spirit and life, not in the real man, the imagination which liveth for ever. In that I grow stronger and stronger as this foolish body decays…. Flaxman is gone, and we must all soon follow, every one to his eternal home, leaving the delusions of goddess Nature and her laws, to get into freedom from all the laws of the numbers,” the multiplicity of nature, “into the mind in which every one is king and priest in his own house.”
The phrase about the king and priest is a memory of the crown and mitre set upon Dante’s head before he entered Paradise. Our imaginations are but fragments of the universal imagination, portions of the universal body of God, and as we enlarge our imagination by imaginative sympathy, and transform with the beauty and peace of art, the sorrows and joys of the world, we put off the limited mortal man more and more and put on the unlimited “immortal man.”
As the seed waits eagerly watching for its flower and fruit, anxious its little soul looks out into the clear expanse to see if hungry winds are abroad with their invisible array, so man looks out in tree, and herb, and fish, and bird, and beast, collecting up the fragments of his immortal body into the elemental forms of everything that grows…. In pain he sighs, in pain he labours in his universe, sorrowing in birds over the deep, or howling in the wolf over the slain, and moaning in the cattle, and in the winds.
Mere sympathy for living things is not enough because we must learn to separate their “infected” from their eternal, their satanic from their divine part; and this can only be done by desiring always beauty, the one mask through which can be seen the unveiled eyes of eternity. We must then be artists in all things, and understand that love and old age and death are first among the arts. In this sense he insists that “Christ’s apostles were artists,” that “Christianity is Art,” and that “the whole business of man is the arts.”
Dante, who deified law, selected its antagonist, passion, as the most important of sins, and made the regions where it was punished the largest. Blake, who deified imaginative freedom, held “corporeal reason” for the most accursed of things, because it makes the imagination revolt from the sovereignty of beauty and pass under the sovereignty of corporeal law, and this is “the captivity in Egypt.” True art is expressive and symbolic, and makes every form, every sound, every colour, every gesture, a signature of some unanalyzable imaginative essence. False art is not expressive but mimetic, not from experience but from observation, and is the mother of all evil, persuading us to save our bodies alive at no matter what cost of rapine and fraud. True art is the flame of the last day, which begins for every man, when he is first moved by beauty, and which seeks to burn all things until they “become infinite and holy.”
The late Mr. John Addington Symonds wrote – in a preface to certain Dante illustrations by Stradanus, a sixteenth-century artist of no great excellence, published in phototype by Mr. Unwin in 1892 – that the illustrations of Gustave Doré, “in spite of glaring artistic defects, must, I think, be reckoned first among numerous attempts to translate Dante’s conceptions into terms of plastic art.”
One can only account for this praise of a noisy and demagogic art by supposing that a temperament, strong enough to explore with unfailing alertness the countless schools and influences of the Renaissance in Italy, is of necessity a little lacking in delicacy of judgment and in the finer substances of emotion. It is more difficult to account for so admirable a scholar not only preferring these illustrations to the work of what he called “the graceful and affected Botticelli,” – although “Doré was fitted for his task, not by dramatic vigour, by feeling for beauty, or by anything sternly in sympathy with the supreme poet’s soul, but by a very effective sense of luminosity and gloom,” – but preferring them because “he created a fanciful world, which makes the movement of Dante’s dramatis personæ conceivable, introducing the ordinary intelligence into those vast regions thronged with destinies of souls and creeds and empires.”
When the ordinary student finds this intelligence in an illustrator, he thinks, because it is his own intelligence, that it is an accurate interpretation of the text, while work of the extraordinary intelligences is merely an expression of their own ideas and feelings. Doré and Stradanus, he will tell you, have given us something of the world of Dante, but Blake and Botticelli have builded worlds of their own and called them Dante’s – as if Dante’s world were more than a mass of symbols of colour and form and sound which put on humanity, when they arouse some mind to an intense and romantic life that is not theirs; as if it was not one’s own sorrows and angers and regrets and terrors and hopes that awaken to condemnation or repentance while Dante treads his eternal pilgrimage; as if any poet or painter or musician could be other than an enchanter calling with a persuasive or compelling ritual, creatures, noble or ignoble, divine or dæmonic, covered with scales or in shining raiment, that he never imagined, out of the bottomless deeps of imaginations he never foresaw; as if the noblest achievement of art was not when the artist enfolds himself in darkness, while he casts over his readers a light as of a wild and terrible dawn.
Let us therefore put away the designs to The Divine Comedy, in which there is “an ordinary intelligence,” and consider only the designs in which the magical ritual has called up extraordinary shapes, the magical light glimmered upon a world, different from the Dantesque world of our own intelligence in its ordinary and daily moods, upon a difficult and distinguished world.
Most of the series of designs to Dante, and there are a good number, need not busy any one for a moment. Genelli has done a copious series, which is very able in the “formal” “generalized” way which Blake hated, and which is spiritually ridiculous. Penelli has transformed the “Inferno” into a vulgar Walpurgis night, and a certain Schuler, whom I do not find in the biographical dictionaries, but who was apparently a German, has prefaced certain flaccid designs with some excellent charts, while Stradanus has made a series for the “Inferno,” which has so many of the more material and unessential powers of art, and is so extremely undistinguished in conception, that one supposes him to have touched in the sixteenth century the same public Doré has touched in the nineteenth.
Though with many doubts, I am tempted to value Flaxman’s designs to the “Inferno,” the “Purgatorio,” and the “Paradiso,” only a little above the best of these, because he does not seem to have ever been really moved by Dante, and so to have sunk into a formal manner, which is a reflection of the vital manner of his Homer and Hesiod.
His designs to The Divine Comedy will be laid, one imagines, with some ceremony in that immortal wastepaper-basket in which Time carries with many sighs the failures of great men. I am perhaps wrong, however, because Flaxman even at his best has not yet touched me very deeply, and I hardly ever hope to escape this limitation of my ruling stars.
That Signorelli does not seem greatly more interesting except here and there, as in the drawing of “The Angel,” full of innocence and energy, coming from the boat which has carried so many souls to the foot of the mountain of purgation, can only be because one knows him through poor reproductions from frescoes half mouldered away with damp.
A little-known series, drawn by Adolph Stürler, an artist of German extraction, who was settled in Florence in the first half of this century, are very poor in drawing, very pathetic and powerful in invention, and full of most interesting pre-Raphaelitic detail. There are admirable and moving figures, who, having set love above reason, listen in the last abandonment of despair to the judgment of Minos, or walk with a poignant melancholy to the foot of his throne through a land where owls and strange beasts move hither and thither with the sterile content of the evil that neither loves nor hates, and a Cerberus full of patient cruelty. All Stürler’s designs have, however, the languor of a mind that does its work by a succession of delicate critical perceptions rather than the decision and energy of true creation, and are more a curious contribution to artistic methods than an imaginative force.
The only designs that compete with Blake’s are those of Botticelli and Giulio Clovio, and these contrast rather than compete; for Blake did not live to carry his “Paradiso” beyond the first faint pencillings, the first thin washes of colour, while Botticelli only, as I think, became supremely imaginative in his “Paradiso,” and Clovio never attempted the “Inferno” and “Purgatorio” at all.
The imaginations of Botticelli and Clovio were overshadowed by the cloister, and it was only when they passed beyond the world or into some noble peace, which is not the world’s peace, that they won a perfect freedom. Blake had not such mastery over figure and drapery as had Botticelli, but he could sympathize with the persons and delight in the scenery of the “Inferno” and the “Purgatorio” as Botticelli could not, and could fill them with a mysterious and spiritual significance born perhaps of mystical pantheism. The flames of Botticelli give one no emotion, and his car of Beatrice is no symbolic chariot of the Church led by the gryphon, half eagle, half lion, of Christ’s dual nature, but is a fragment of some mediæval pageant pictured with a merely technical inspiration.
Clovio, the illuminator of missals, has tried to create with that too easy hand of his a Paradise of serene air reflected in a little mirror, a heaven of sociability and humility and prettiness, a heaven of women and of monks; but one cannot imagine him deeply moved, as the modern world is moved, by the symbolism of bird and beast, of tree and mountain, of flame and darkness. It was a profound understanding of all creatures and things, a profound sympathy with passionate and lost souls, made possible in their extreme intensity by his revolt against corporeal law, and corporeal reason, which made Blake the one perfectly fit illustrator for the “Inferno” and the “Purgatorio”: in the serene and rapturous emptiness of Dante’s Paradise he would find no symbols but a few abstract emblems, and he had no love for the abstract, while with the drapery and the gestures of Beatrice and Virgil, he would have prospered less than Botticelli or even Clovio.
This is an edited version of ‘William Blake and the Imagination’ and ‘William Blake and His Illustrations of the Divine Comedy’ by W. B. Yeats. To read the full article please click here.