William Blake on Self and Soul, by Laura Quinney

William Blake and the illusion of Selfhood

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Introduction: Blake the Radical Psychologist

It has always been clear that William Blake was both a political radical and a radical psychologist. The most illuminating interpretations of Blake— by Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Brian Wilkie, and Mary Lynn Johnson, to name a few— emphasize his subtlety and innovation in the understanding of human psychology.

This article addresses what Blake said about a specific aspect of psychology— a reflexive aspect, deeper and stranger in itself than thought and feeling— the subject’s experience of its own interiority. What is the self’s relation to itself?

Blake thought that under certain conditions, it was bound to be anxious and lonely. That is, he thought that if the self is identified with the main consciousness or “I,” especially the “I” as a center of rationality, it will feel solitary and insecure.

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The Urizenic subject: anxious and lonely, through “the subject’s experience of its own interiority”

The greater its insecurity, the more it tries to swell into a false but mighty “Selfhood.” And the larger the Selfhood bulks, the lonelier it grows. As Peter Otto rightly characterizes it, “Fallen existence is a world in which one isolated self is pitted against another”. But why is that so? How does the illusion of Selfhood arise? What damage does it do? Why does the subject cling to it? How can one break its hold? This fundamental inquiry spurs Blake’s development and leads him to some of his most original thinking.

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“The greater its insecurity, the more it tries to swell into a false but mighty ‘Selfhood’.”

In this article I attempt to show that Blake’s psychology of subjectivity is astute, innovative, and complex, to demonstrate that it was a pivotal inquiry he pursued and evolved over the whole course of his writing career, and to suggest that he was prompted in part by self- examination, analyzing and endeavoring to overcome his own loneliness and despair.

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Identity or Quaternity?: The Four Zoas of Self

In Blake’s epic psychomachia The Four Zoas, he has one of his characters voice the anguished self-confusion of Lockean man: “I am like an atom/A Nothing left in darkness yet I am an identity.” This character, Tharmas, understands that as a merely natural being, he is merely a node of solitary consciousness, yet from within the intuition presses on him that he is something grander and more significant, a special being, an “identity.” The demystifying science of empiricism deepens the self’s incoherence to itself. Blake responds by formulating a therapy for the bewilderment of the self. But as he goes on he perceives greater and greater obstacles— in its very nature— to the remaking of subjectivity.

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Of course Blake is not content to reprise another man’s system. He probes all of these philosophies and subjects them to an original psychological analysis. Many books and articles have been written about Blake’s use of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. Some have focused on showing a straightforward pattern of influence and have, therefore, limited themselves to tracing out what they present as Blake’s more or less wholesale “borrowings” from earlier tradition. This is particularly true of pioneering works such as those of Kathleen Raine and George Mills Harper, written in the middle of the twentieth century.

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Within every Philosophy there is embedded a Psychology

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Descartes, whose famous cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) articulated the new sense of self as identified with the main consciousness or “I,” especially the “I” as a center of rationality. The Cartesian self therefore feels profoundly solitary and insecure: Descartes’s whole philosophy is based on anxiety and doubt as to his own existence.

I seek to investigate why Blake was interested in such ideas to begin with, and why he felt compelled to revise them. In every case, it is the representation of subjectivity to which he is alert. Blake analyzes the psychology implicit in the philosophical doctrine and evaluates it, perceiving that under the names of empiricism and Platonism, Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, certain experiences of selfhood have been codified, and that those codes have a self-ratifying effect.

Eventually Blake tries out his own therapeutic formulations. This project draws him into deeper and deeper, more and more detailed study of the psychology of what he calls “Natural Man,” or, as I shall term it, “the empiricist subject.”

Yet none of Blake’s solutions is as plain as his decisive rhetoric might lead us to suppose. Over time, he perceived ever larger obstacles to the psychological salvation he was at work devising.

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Natural Man: A Worm of Sixty Winters 

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And why [are] men bound beneath the heavens in a reptile form

A worm of sixty winters creeping on the dusky ground.


In his first prophetic book, the unengraved Tiriel (1789), Blake portrays the unhappiness of the subject who has internalized the empiricist view of human nature and its subordination to material reality. As Mary Hall observes, Tiriel is “a prototype of ‘the Human Illusion’ … the largest view of man permitted by the natural and mechanical philosophers”. Blake will later call this illusion “Natural Man.”

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The Illusion of Natural Man: “A Worm of Sixty Winters”

He had not yet evolved this term when he wrote Tiriel, but he passionately apprehended the target of his critique; the tragic subject-life of the empiricist. His thoughts and feelings do not have his own endorsement. They even seem pointless to him. In the manner of Hegel’s “unhappy consciousness,” Tiriel is living at odds with his own subject life.

Screen Shot 2021-05-03 at 18.27.48Tiriel has been brought to this pass of self-contempt and self-estrangement because he accepts the materialist ontology of empiricism. He believes he is nothing but “a worm of sixty winters.” Blake will repeat this phrase throughout his poetry; it becomes his icon for the belittling self-definition of Natural Man.

How is it that the subject comes to experience itself in this way, and to think this way about itself? What are the consequences— psychological, social, and intellectual— of this experience of self? Can the subject be taught to think differently? In his early critiques of empiricism (1788–1791), Blake is beginning to reflect on these questions. From Thel and the treatises to Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake’s early work dramatizes his understanding of how empiricism gives rise to despair.

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Natural Empiricism: The Psychology of Despair

Screen Shot 2021-04-29 at 18.39.28In There is No Natural Religion, Blake contemns Lockean empiricism for providing a reductive account of subjective experience. It slights, or even represses, the imaginative component of perception— what Blake calls “the Poetic or Prophetic character,” or, more plainly, “Inspiration and Revelation.”

According to empiricism, we have for our original stimulus only the elements of material reality: the pitiful circle of things, the routines of clock time and nature. If we truly are confined to natural reality, then our subjective experience must be increasingly homogenous. The subject as empiricism conceives it is condemned to monotony and hence to stultification— known in Blake’s poetry as the sleep of Urizen, or, “Forgetfulness, dumbness, necessity!” (The First Book of Urizen). Of such a subject Blake says rightly, “despair must be his eternal lot” (There is No Natural Religion).

Anyone who believes in merely Natural Man must eventually regard himself as a worm of sixty winters, or as a later prophecy puts it, “a poor mortal vegetation/Beneath the moon of Ulro” (Milton). Nature will emerge as an omnipotent reality, possessed of the force of necessity, and will consequently come to seem tyrannical and malicious.  

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“Nature will emerge as an omnipotent reality, possessed of the force of necessity, and will consequently come to seem tyrannical and malicious”

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The Natural World is a World of Death: The Fly

Screen Shot 2021-04-29 at 18.45.44Why should empiricism have such dark psychological consequences? In Fearful Symmetry Northrop Frye paraphrased, with unsurpassable lucidity, what we might call the first order of Blake’s critique. “Empiricism,” “Natural Religion,” and “Deism” exalt into an authoritative philosophical position what is actually a terrible fear haunting humankind: the fear that the natural world is the real world.

Natural Religion and Deism frame this notion in religious terms by proposing that the natural world is part of the Creation, and that it therefore expresses something about the essence of God.

Empirical science says more simply that material reality is the only certain, solid, and knowable reality. In Blake’s argument, these claims come to the same thing and have the same dire implications. The natural world is a world of death; it contains either objects that are merely inert or subjects that are merely short-lived phantoms.

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It is the world of linear time, or inexorable clock-time that brings forth living things only in order to extinguish them and replace them with others in endless, vain cycles of mortality.  Saturn devours his children, as Frye points out. From the laws of nature spring necessity, and surrendering to necessity spells helplessness and despair.


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Wordsworth’s God: “The eloquent descriptions of Nature in Wordsworth’s poems were conclusive proofs of atheism, for whoever believes in Nature, said Blake, disbelieves in God. For Nature is the work of the Devil” (Crabb Robinson, Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence)

How dreadful for us if this is the “reality” because then we must believe that we dwell in a fundamentally hostile world, and that from it the soul will be dismissed to “Non-Entity” or “Eternal Death.”  

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Sacrificed to Nature: The God of This World

Christianity ought to give us some relief from this terror insofar as it imagines that God made both this world and a better one: but Blake suggests that nobody who believes in the divine origin of natural reality can believe without doubt in the afterlife. For if God made this world, if it is a reality expressing his being, then he is a monster from whom we have every reason to dread the worst.

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Natural Religion: note the blood-streaked veil that Enitharmon/Nature wears and weaves, towering above Stonehenge, a “building of eternal death”. It was the monolithic builders who for Blake first shifted man’s vision from imaginative eternity to solar cycles and natural laws and processes, shrinking man’s perception of the infinite and filling him with dread of death, and solar religious gods to appease and subject themselves to. We still live in their world, in their eyes.

From this dark suspicion arises the concept of a punitive God whom we need to appease by means of sacrifice, for if he is a death-loving God only blood can please him. All the deep crimes humanity commits against itself— all the nightmares of “War & Religion”— follow this sacrificial logic, by which an incurable despair frantically spends itself in idle violence.

Nature worship, although it seems benign, actually conceals submission to the truth of Eternal Death, and a submission of this kind, however tacit, leads to self-centered anxiety and desperation. It also leads to a philosophical and psychological quandary: What is the purpose of consciousness in a world where only matter is real?

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Thel’s Dilemma: The Hard Problem of Consciousness 

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Thel’s Dilemma: A Material Girl in a Material World. Are we really just part of Nature?

The Book of Thel dramatizes the experience of consciousness finding itself to be an anomaly in the material world, and attempting to rationalize its predicament in purely naturalistic terms. These turn out to be quite inadequate. How can a thinking being be integrated into a world that apparently has no use for thought?

The natural phenomena who offer Thel their consolation— the Lilly, the Cloud, the Worm, and the matron Clod of Clay— are not able to set her mind at rest because they never quite address themselves to this question, and how could they?

The Lilly points out that, although she is merely “a watery weed,” yet she is “visited from heaven and he that smiles on all /Walks in the valley and each morn over me spreads his hand”. She answers that she does not participate in the natural cycle in the way they do: “I fear I am not like thee … all shall say, without a use this shining woman liv’d,/Or did she only live to be at death the food of worms”.

Blake’s satirical intelligence flares at this, as the Cloud seizes on Thel’s plaint, replying:

Then if thou art the food of worms. O virgin of the skies,

How great thy use, how great thy blessing.

It would be a mistake to think that Blake endorses this idea.

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The Lilly’s view of Existence: Nature is one vast Recycling Bin, and we should just fit in with it and become yet another component part in its machine.

Thel is on her way to becoming reconciled to the order of nature. But precisely because she has been lulled into acceptance, she is due for a cruel shock. However benevolent and appealing the maternal Clod of Clay, she is nonetheless a natural being whose philosophy of existence will not work for Thel. The Clod of Clay invites her to “enter my house,” that is, the sod or essence of matter, and also the clay of which the body is made. The scene immediately reverses from pastoral to infernal. Thel finds herself in a dark catacomb of human suffering, where the “dead” instead of resting are tormented.

Thel enter’d in & saw the secrets of the land unknown;

She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous roots

Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:

A land of sorrows & tears where never smile was seen.

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“The Clod of Clay invites her to ‘enter my house,’ that is, the sod or essence of matter”. This is what underlies and underwrites materialism, the hyper-rationalistic philosophy of “Natural Man, buried alive by materiality”

Blake sets the template here for a pattern of imagery that will recur in many later poems. The dim subterranean land where the dead are infixed, twisting and turning in their anguish, reappears at crucial moments in The Four Zoas and Jerusalem (among other works), where it figures the suffering of the empiricist subject or Natural Man, buried alive by materiality. That is what Thel is witnessing here: the despair to which the empiricist subject— anyone who believes that he or she is the creature of a merely natural order—will ultimately fall prey.

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“Thel attempts to find meaning for humanity within a purely natural order, and her attempt fails”

Thel travels through the psychological underworld, observing the strange community of Natural Man in which everyone undergoes the same suffering in isolation from everyone else: “She wanderd in the land of clouds thro’ the valleys dark, listning/Dolours & lamentations … Till to her own grave plot she came”.  Now Thel rejoins her own experience, as one of the myriad suffocating “subjects” of empiricism, compelled to live at odds with their own subjectivity— longing for transcendence but persuaded to disown their longing.

Thel attempts to find meaning for humanity within a purely natural order, and her attempt fails. She may arrive at a comforting theory, but in actual experience the theory breaks down, and consciousness deprived of agency frets itself away into psychological miasma. What is at stake is happiness, and Blake means to demonstrate that Natural Man cannot be happy. Sooner or later the disappointment of agency, and the paranoia of nature, will come home to him, and for these troubles the empiricist framework offers no therapy.

Blake’s exhilaration with the depth of his argument as an intellectual and spiritual paradigm can be felt in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (begun in 1790), and it is in this poem that he first presents a worthy alternative to the despair of empiricism. Error must be attacked at the root: “first the notion that man has a body extinct from his soul is to be expunged”.

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Contemporary revolutionary movements represent the awakening from centuries of Christianity and materialism. All this time humanity has been—to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens— asleep in its own life: “Eighteen hundred years: Man was a Dream!” (a “Human Illusion”; Europe).

But now that Newton has blown the “Trump” of doom, error comes to a head and the delusion implodes. Orc arises and contests with Urizen, the spirit of tyranny and reaction, the false God, whose punitive character parallels the frightfulness of the nature he is supposed to have created. It is specifically Enitharmon who has dreamt the “dream-Man” of the last eighteen-hundred years: that is to say, the false concept of “Mother Nature” fosters a false concept of humanity.

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‘Hecate, or The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy’. This image might perhaps be titled ‘The Sleep of Imagination produces Nature’. “It is specifically Enitharmon who has dreamt the ‘dream-Man’ of the last eighteen-hundred years: that is to say, the false concept of “Mother Nature” fosters a false concept of humanity.” We are still living in her Night Mare.

What is wrong and damaging about this conception of nature? In the materialist paradigm, nature has wholly made us, and she is all that sustains and nourishes us— she is “mother” in this sense— but she is a devious and capricious mother, capable of causing undeserved harm at any moment; and in an act of supreme treachery, she made us mortal. How are we to regard this strange mother? With fear and trembling.

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As Emma Jung notes, “the concept or designation of the ‘devouring mother’ is a well-known theme in myth and fairy-tale. This aspect is depicted in terrible mother-goddesses such as Astarte and Cybele in Asia Minor, the Ishtar of the Gilgamesh epic, the Irish Scotch who at the same time is a goddess of war, and Kali, still venerated in India today.” Mother Nature is above all a Devouring Mother, literally.

In Europe Enitharmon is shown exulting in her power; this exultation reflects at once the cruelty that has to be attributed to the fictitious Mother Nature and the truly malign triumph of the delusion itself. Later, in Milton, Blake will write the definitive version of the “shadowy female’s” malicious monologue. Her sadism movingly illustrates the panic of Natural Man.

In Europe Blake combines this psychological critique with a social one. In intervolving sexuality with sin and judgment, and imposing a cult of chastity on women in particular, Christian culture in the West has skewered the relations between men and women, reducing female sexuality to a mode of manipulation and forcing women into devious exertions of agency.

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“In Europe Enitharmon is shown exulting in her power; this exultation reflects at once the cruelty that has to be attributed to the fictitious Mother Nature and the truly malign triumph of the delusion itself.”

Enitharmon’s speech of triumph links the malformation of the Female Will with the humiliation of the human being in materialism and in Christian doctrine:

Arise O Rintrah thee I call! & Palamabron thee!

Go! Tell the human race that Womans love is Sin!

That an Eternal Life awaits the worms of sixty winters

In an allegorical abode where existence hath never come

in this speech we see Blake’s assertion that a certain set of religious and social formations are dialectically related: the displacement of divinity out of humanity (into the God beyond); the consequent reduction in the status of the human being; the subjection to sin, judgment, and punishment; the deferral of Eternal Life; the association of sex with sin; the rise of the cult of chastity; the pathologizing of sex and gender relations. He had adumbrated some of these connections in the Songs of Experience, but here he is able to sum them up as elements of one consistent program.

The triumph of Enitharmon, or the Female Will, represents the role that the concept of Mother Nature plays in encouraging people to cooperate in their own degradation.

This degradation promotes fatalism: Nature arrogates to herself the power of Necessity, and human beings, in their ontological diminishment, lack any counterforce. Fatalism of this kind then invades the social sphere, motivating conservatism and passivity. In Europe, Blake shows more plainly that the shadowy female is Orc’s projection, stipulating in the opening line of the Preludium that “The nameless shadowy female arose from out the breast of Orc”.

Screen Shot 2021-04-29 at 20.33.24In Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Theotormon utters the anxiety of the empiricist subject bewildered by his own thoughts, which seem autonomous and alien: “Tell me what is a thought? & of what substance is it made?/Tell me what is a joy? & in what gardens do joys grow?/And in what rivers swim the sorrows?” (Visions of the Daughters of Albion). His materialist vocabulary is clearly inadequate for describing what he intuits about his mental life.

He has been told that all thoughts are derived from experience, and, therefore, is left wondering at their strange power and provenance. This power cannot be ascribed to the “might” of the soul. Therefore thoughts are not under the control of the experiencing subject, the “I,” but seem to exert some uncanny self- determination.

Where goest thou O thought to what remote land is thy flight?

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Atomic Selfhood: The Modern Abstraction of Self

As Blake proceeds he goes deeper and deeper into a psychological analysis of the experience of selfhood that empiricism codifies. For empiricism did not invent the misconception of humanity; rather, it brings an age-old pattern to its culmination. Eventually Blake extends his critique back to the Greeks, the first “natural philosophers.” To accept the reality of the natural world is automatically to be plunged into despair and paranoia about the status of the self: What am I?

To Blake, the engorgement of Reason launched in ancient Greece was a disaster, not only a social and cultural disaster but also a psychic disaster, because it isolates and reifies one aspect of the self while subjugating others, and this can only produce internal distortion and tormenting self-alienation. All models of faculty psychology from Plato onward that oppose Reason to something else in the self— passion, imagination, appetite, and so forth— propagate a noxious concept. 

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“All models of faculty psychology from Plato onward that oppose Reason to something else in the self— passion, imagination, appetite, and so forth— propagate a noxious concept.” Plato’s noxious (hyper left hemispheric) view of the supposedly “civilised’ rationalising Ego trying to control wayward or barbaric “animal” impulses, has driven Western psychology for 2000 years, including sadly Freud’s equally noxious model of the psyche. Thus in relation to the “id”, Freud argued that the ego “is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse … But only too often there arises between the ego and the id the not precisely ideal situation of the rider being obliged to guide the horse along the path by which it itself wants to go” (The Ego and the Id). As Charles Rycroft rightly notes, Freud’s model “presupposes as normal a split between mind and body, between will and desire, which can itself be regarded as pathological”.

To Blake, the enshrinement of Reason appallingly isolates and exalts the “legal” or logical mental processes, the aspect of mind that, although conscious, most resembles the sinister Necessity of nature with its Newtonian regulation and monotony.

Exalting Reason equals exalting the aspect of conscious mind most like a mechanism; this is sheer paradox to Blake. The mind that cows itself with obedience to laws— the laws of nature and, just as bad, its own laws or the laws of logic— pledges itself to stultification. Enlightenment Reason is perversely self-limiting, or self-enclosing and self-englobing.

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“Enlightenment Reason is perversely self-limiting, or self-enclosing and self-englobing”

There is in every respect a great leap from the Urizen books to The Four Zoas. In style, form, and content, the development is so profound that it is a wonder Blake made it all at once. With The Book of Urizen, Blake discovers an interest in dissecting the deformed psyche. The topic seems suddenly to open up as one he has the means to explicate in detail through his critical ideas and his mythological method. He can create a new psychological discourse. This is the electric recognition that gives rise to The Four Zoas. Because Blake was adventuring in this long poem, thinking things through, the work is passionate, exploratory, sometimes tentative. It is important and thrilling writing. Northrop Frye was right to call its abandonment “a major cultural disaster”.

The first version of The Four Zoas, titled Vala, began with the opening lines of what subsequently became “Night the Second”:

Rising upon his Couch of Death Albion beheld his Sons

Turning his Eyes outward to Self. losing the Divine Vision

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Laura Quinney is Professor of English, Brandeis University. Professor Quinney teaches Romanticism, poetry and poetics, and philosophical approaches to literature. She has published several scholarly books, including Literary Power and the Criteria of Truth (UP Florida, 1995), The Poetics of Disappointment (UP Virginia, 1999) and William Blake on Self and Soul (Harvard, 2010), from which the above excerpt is taken. To find out more about the book please click here.  

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