The Rebirth of the Right Hemisphere: William Blake’s illustrations of On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

A New Way of Seeing,  A New Way of Being

Introduction: Re-writing the HTML of Culture

Blake’s literary debt to Milton is key to understanding his illustrations of the earlier poet’s writings. In general, Milton: a Poem is a guide to Blake’s idea of Milton: that he possessed true spiritual vision, but fell by his adherence to the moralistic and repressive tenets of puritanism and by his preference for the cruel and distant Jehovah of the Old testament over the redemptive figure of Christ. In that regard the Nativity Ode is to Blake the rebirth of Milton’s poetry into the creative imagination of Christ. Blake also sees a return to prophetic, Christian ideals of poetry, rather than the “pagan” classical aesthetic represented in The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods by the figure of Apollo, who is modeled on the Apollo Belvedere.

Blake’s prophetic book Europe: a Prophecy was especially influenced by On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. In that poem, the messianic Orc, a symbol of pure creative energy, rises against the repressive institutions of Church and state. Orc is part of a doomed cycle – his rebellion is inevitably countered by the increased institutional repression of Urizen. Europe in that light is seen as a pessimistic parody of Milton’s poem. Orc is often associated with fire, and the closest parallel with him is found in The Flight of Moloch, where a child is about to be given to the god of sacrifice. The similarity of the orifice that frames the child to the shape of the stable in the other illustrations underscores the purpose of Christ’s birth, and foreshadows the harrowing of hell.

“The similarity of the orifice that frames the child to the shape of the stable”. The Urizenic compasses, which shape the form of the stable, suggest that the world is defined for us in left-hemsipheric, rationalising, ways which both contain and allows the inner imaginative world to burst forth. These bounding lines can therefore act as both a servant and a shackle to mental evolution, which is why the relationship between the two contraries of Reason and Imagination (“Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate”) is so important. Blake believed that we live in a world of freewheeling Urizenic ‘order’ and hyper-rationality, but that a new way of being, based on more integrated human systems, was awakening.

Blake also sees the rebirth of Milton’s poetry, and the story of the Nativity, as signifying the regeneration and reintegration of the human brain and body, on relational (compassionate and empathic), social (contextually aware and holistic), and imaginative (intuitive, self-transcending, and in touch with the ‘other’) grounds. All of these are aspects and dimensions of what we now know as the ‘right hemisphere’ mode of being-in-the-world.

As McGilchrist observes, it is the right hemisphere of the brain that delivers not only our understanding of metaphor (the left brain is forever trapped within the merely literal) but also our apprehension of transcendence. “The ‘lived’ body, the spiritual sense, and the experience of emotional resonance and aesthetic appreciation are all principally right-hemisphere-mediated” (The Master and his Emissary). These two distinct modes of apprehension or ways of knowing the world – the imaginative and the rationalising – were highlighted by Blake two hundred years ago: “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only”. Interestingly, McGilchrist cites this passage from Blake in order to illustrate hemispheric difference, providing a useful neuroscientific interpretation of it in brackets: “He who sees the Infinite [looks outward to the ever-becoming with the right hemisphere] in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only [looks at the self-defined world brought into being by the left hemisphere] sees himself only [the left hemisphere is self-reflexive].”

Blake’s figure of Jesus is central to this process, both in integrating and mediating the “spiritual sense” – the right-hemisphere mode of seeing – and also in incarnating the ‘lived’ body, the embodiment of right hemisphere values and approaches into human history itself, through the alignment and integration of divinity and humanity. As McGilchrist himself observes:

The Western Church has, in my view, been active in undermining itself. The 2,000-year old Western tradition, that of Christianity, provides, whether one believes in it or not, an exceptionally rich mythos for understanding the world and our relationship with it. It conceives a divine Other that is not indifferent or alien – like James Joyce’s God, refined out of existence and ‘paring his fingernails’ – but on the contrary engaged, vulnerable because of that engagement, and like the right hemisphere rather than the left.

At the centre of this mythos are the images of incarnation, the coming together of matter and spirit, and of resurrection, the redemption of that relationship, as well as of a God that submits to suffer for that process.

 

Integrating the human hemispheres through compassion and imagination: The Overthrow of Left-brain Apollo 

As with meditative practice, Blake’s illustrations are a right-hemispheric world of contextual wholes, relationships, compassion, and nonverbal communication. Dive into these images with your eyes and let them wash over you. As Blake himself said, “If the spectator could enter into these images in his imagination, approaching them on the fiery chariot of his contemplative thought; if he could enter into Noah’s rainbow, could make a friend and companion of one of these images of wonder, then would he arise from the grave, then would he meet the Lord in the air, and then he would be happy” (Vision of the Last Judgment).

The Descent of Peace Hymn, Stanzas 1-3 “It was the winter wild, While the Heav’n-born child, All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies…”

The Annunciation to the Shepherds Hymn, Stanzas 8-12 “At last surrounds their sight A globe of circular light, That with long beams the shame-fac’d Night array’d…”

The Old Dragon Hymn, Stanza 18 “Th’old Dragon under ground, In straiter limits bound, Not half so far casts his usurped sway…”

The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods Hymn, Stanzas 19-23 “Apollo from his shrine Can no more divine, With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving…”

The Flight of Moloch Hymn, Stanza 23 “In vain with cymbals’ ring They call the grisly king, In dismal dance about the furnace blue…”

The Night of Peace Hymn, Stanza 27 “Heav’n’s youngest-teemed star, Hath fix’d her polish’d car, Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending…”

 

To read the full text of Milton’s original poem, please click here.

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