“Paracelsus & Behmen appear’d to me”, Blake once confided in a letter to his friend and fellow artist John Flaxman, “before the American Revolution”. Blake’s remark reveals that Boheme – or “Behmen”, as Blake here refers to the German mystic, theologian, and “shoemaker Antichrist” (as one critic splendidly described him, in reference to both his profession and his unorthodox spiritual views) – was a key figure even in his formative years, shaping and transforming the way he saw the world. This post explores the nature of that transformation – and indeed explores the nature of transformation itself, a vital alchemical principle and realisation about the peculiarly fluid, evolving, and self-realising nature of reality and the psyche.
Blake was born in 1757, and since the “American Revolution” didn’t start until 1775 (and the Declaration of Independence signed in 1776), this means that Boehme began to exert his influence on Blake even when he was still a teenager. This deep influence (another key alchemical concept, meaning “in-flow“, and specifically “the flowing in of ethereal fluid affecting human destiny”) lasted his whole life. As Damon notes, “Boehme’s writings affected Blake profoundly, a fact generally overlooked, because Boehme is hard reading. Struggling to record his discoveries, he used the vocabulary of Scripture, astrology (although he was a Copernican), and Paracelsus, thus initiating the school which interpreted alchemy mystically; and at times he was driven to invent terms of his own, which he called ‘the Language of Nature,’ and which we might call subjective philology.”
Indeed, Damon has provided one of the most succinct and illuminating summaries of the key aspects of Boehme’s work and its bearing on Blake’s own complex system of mythology and way of thinking. His observations are useful in laying the foundation for the later exploration and comparison of the visions of both writers that this article will focus on:
What influenced Blake most in these difficult writings was Boehme’s analysis of the psyche and the interaction of its parts. There are, he saw, three worlds. First of all is the Dark Fire-World, which he called Hell and which has since been named the Subconscious. It contains all the basic impulses—all the deadly sins. Although evil, these are the sources of life itself.
Above is the Light World (Heaven). As the evil instincts rise, a certain divine spark transmutes them from Evil to Good. The Deadly Sins become the Virtues: selfishness becomes generosity, lust becomes love, and so on.
These two worlds, Hell and Heaven, are essential to each other; they exist simultaneously in God. Thus there is the Opposition of Contraries in God himself, without which there could be no life.
The third World is the Outer World of Nature. This is a mere “outbirth” of the others, a projection of Man. Boehme has much to say about this “astral” world with its starry wheels, which place Man under the rule of physical laws; but these laws of cause and effect are actually an expression of the spiritual realities underlying them. The human body is part of Nature; the soul within gives it form. Nature is Law; God is Liberty.
The problem of salvation is that of keeping a harmonious balance of the parts. The Fall occurred as a lack of balance, specifically the ambition of Lucifer to dominate the Heart of God (Jesus).
Boehme’s discovery of the Three Worlds solved for Blake the question how a God of Love could create a place of everlasting punishment for his children. God is good; all things that proceed from him are good in essence, nor can that essence ever be corrupted. Therefore “Hell,” which is of God (and this point bothered Boehme) must be good; and the Life Force proceeding from it (the libido, Blake’s “Energy”) cannot be “evil,” and far from being everlasting pain, is “Eternal Delight.” Everything that lives is holy.
Therefore, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake used the words “Heaven” and “Hell,” “Good” and “Evil,” as mere technical terms, without moral meaning of any sort. Boehme had seen clearly but had misunderstood what he saw. His Dark World is indeed the source of life; its flames appear to be “torment and insanity” only to the short-sighted Angels. Boehme’s Light World is Blake’s restraining force, or “Reason” (the superego), which is not creative, and if not itself restrained may easily become a destructive tyrant.
The three worlds correspond to Milton’s (Hell, Heaven, and Earth is the order in which he presents them), also to Swedenborg’s; but both sages overlooked the dynamic relationship of the two and retained the old moral values; for which Blake twitted Milton (MHH 5–6) and reproved Swedenborg (Mil 22:50–54).
Boehme placed the Imagination as man’s central power; it is the creative force. All things are generated out of the Imagination. He constantly attacks “Reason,” which is wholly unable to compete with the directness of actual perception, or Vision.
The activity of the Contraries produces motion in the two Worlds: a contraction, followed by expansion and rotation; their opposed contact produces the divine spark. Urizen’s initial activities are this same contraction, expansion, and rotation (Ur 3:38, 37, 18), though without producing a spark, only a conflagration.
Another Blakish point: Boehme constantly (and particularly in the Aurora) identified the joy of children with the joy of heaven. (Damon, A Blake Dictionary).
This post seeks to lay the visions of both writers side by side, so that the insights of one might act as a catalyst for the other (just as Boehme’s original works acted as a catalyst for Blake’s early thought processes). In this way, the illuminations of one vision act on and help to transform the other – rather like the gleams of the pewter dish that gave rise to Boehme’s original vision into the nature of Being in 1600. As Damon remarks of this remarkable and life-transformative experience, “a ray reflected from a polished metal dish filled him with the light of God and opened to him the mysteries of the universe”. Of this revelatory moment, which apparently only lasted fifteen minutes (at least in terms of quotidian or fallen ‘time’), Boehme himself recalled:
“I saw and knew the Being of all Beings, the Byss (the ground or original foundation), and Abyss (that which is without ground, or bottomless and fathomless); also the birth or eternal generation of the holy Trinity; the descent, and original of this world, and of all creatures, through the divine wisdom; I knew and saw in myself all the three worlds ….” [I.e., the divine; the dark or fiery; and the visible or ‘external’ world]
The following passages from Boehme are chosen not only for their great beauty and profundity but also because of their similarity to some of Blake’s most famous and striking observations.
This juxtaposition of vision thereby hopes to convey a sense of the historical context and lineage for such unusual and mysterious insights, as being part of a far deeper spiritual tradition than that accessed by or marketed through the orthodox churches and sciences of our societies, with their crude and literal theories of “Heaven and Hell”, their equally crude and mechanical theories of “evolution” or self-realisation, and their ubiquitous and relentless subjugation to Vernunft – to the starry, limiting, and deceiving Mills of Rationality.
Seeing Blake next to Boehme necessarily emphasises their correspondences (a very Boehmian term) rather than their differences – and I hope this will be useful for the contemporary reader. But what is remarkable about Blake’s use of Boehme – as with his equally radical reinterpretations of Milton, the Bible, Swedenborg, and many other writers and traditions – is what he makes of them. In particular, it again suggests how remarkably ‘modern’ and adept Blake is in what he choses to accept or reject from his sources. Gone, for instance, are the rather strange and problematic, antiquated references to “bitterness” and “dryness” as key principles of Boehme’s work, or his doctrine of “signatures”, “Tincture”, and the role of “Sophia”. Blake profoundly updates and upgrades Boehme’s vision, expunging the errors and revealing what was hid within.
The Visionary Moment: Gleams without Words
“Sitting one day in his room his eyes fell upon a burnished pewter dish, which reflected the sunshine with such marvellous splendor that he fell into an inward ecstasy, and it seemed to him as if he could now look into the principles and deepest foundations of things” (R.M. Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness)
Boehme’s Text and Blake’s Images
The Serpent of Doubt: Rationality, Adam, and the Rejection of the Transcendent FunctionBoehme: ”For it is lamentable, that since the fall of Adam, we should be so continually cheated and befooled by the devil to think that we are not the children of God, nor of his essence.
He continually putteth the monstrous shape or form into our thoughts, as he did into our mother Eve, which she gazed too much upon, and by her representing it in her imagination, she became a child of the world, wholly naked and vain, and void of understanding.
But do not suffer the lying spirit, the old serpent, to darken our mind, who is the inventor of a thousand tricks … When he seeth that he cannot catch man, by making him doubtful of the mercy of God, then he maketh him careless, so that he accounteth all as nothing.
[For] the earthly Adam knoweth nothing of the Divine heavenly Adam, and therefore there is strife in man, and man is contrary to himself … seeing that we are dead in Adam to the divine essence.
And albeit that reason suggesteth doubts (whereby a sinner is terrified, and stands amazed and astonished at the anger of God), yet let the will only in all simplicity and unfeigned sincerity directly cast itself into the mercy of God, and wholly lie down and shroud itself in the suffering and death of Christ, and surrender itself to God through Christ … you must be born again (that is, we must wholly disclaim and depart from our own reason, and come again into resignation and self-denial … and, as it were, stupefy or mortify our reason).
Therefore I put you in mind as a friend, and exhort you not to hearken after the vain babbling and prating of reason, or to be moved at the proud censure and judgement of the same, so as thereby to condemn or despise the gifts of any man, for he that doth so, contemneth the spirit of God.
It is written, the Natural Man receives not the Things of the Spirit, nor the Mystery of the Kingdom of God, they are Foolishness unto him, neither can he know them … For a Man’s own Reason, without the Light of God, cannot come into the Ground [of them], it is impossible; let his Wit be ever so high and subtle, it apprehends but as it were the Shadow of it in a Glass.
Outward [Rational] Life has no higher understanding and can reach no further than that thing wherein it dwells, namely the Stars and four Elements.
That self-reason (which being void of God’s spirit, is only taught and instructed from the bare letter,) doth cavil, taunt, deride, and despise whatsoever doth not punctually agree and conform to the canons and institutions of the Universities and high schools, which I do not wonder at, for it is from without, and God’s spirit is from within … its understanding is from the stars, and ’tis nothing else but a counterfeit shadow of fancy in comparison of the divine wisdom.
The Angry Angel: The Left Hemisphere Emissary
”What then moved the devil to be angry and evil? … [H]e saw that he was a prince, standing in the first Principle, and so despised the birth of the Heart of God, and the soft and very lovely influence thereof, and meant to be a very potent and terrible lord in the first Principle, and would work in the strength of the fire; he despised the meekness of the Heart of God.
The fiery Darkness is is called Hell, or God’s Anger, wherein the Devils dwell … when the will breaks off from the unity, and will live after its own desire, as the Devils have done … And the Soul comes to be damned thus, when the fiery will breaks itself off from the Love and Unity of God, and enters into its own Natural Propriety, that is, into its Evil properties. [A]nd this is the hellish Fire, and the Anger of God, when it is made manifest, as may be seen in Lucifer.
Now understand right what the ground of Fire is, namely Cold from the Compression, and Heat from the Anguish … Wherefore then doth God suffer such strife and contention to be in this time? The life itself standeth in strife, that it may be made manifest, sensible, and palpable, and that the wisdom may be made separable and known.
For God calleth himself also an angry zealous God; which is not so to be understood, that God is angry in himself, but in the spirit of the creation or creature which kindleth itself; and then God burnt in the first Principle therein, and the spirit of the creation or creature sufferers pain, and not God.
This is as was mentioned before; the harshness is the prima materia, or first matter, which is strong, and very eagerly and earnestly attractive, that is Sal [the alchemical notion of “Salt” described by Boehme elsewhere as “the sharp Magnetical Desire of Nature”; Sal wants – it earnestly wants – hence is the source or correlate of ‘attraction’]: The bitterness is in the strong attracting, for the spirit sharpeneth itself in the strong attracting, so that it becometh wholly aching [anxious or vexed].
Which is the Way: the Left or the Right? Anger or Mercy? Hell or Heaven? Judgment or Forgiveness?
“I judge none, and to condemn any is a false and idle arrogancy, and vain prating; the spirit of God Himself judgeth all things; if that be in us, what need we care for prating, I much rather rejoice at the gifts of my brethren; if they have had other manner of gifts to hold forth than I, should I therefore judge them? Doth any herb, flower, our tree say until the other, thou art sour and dark, I will not stand by thee? Have they not all one mother whence they grow?
Heaven and Hell are within one another … He is in his own essence and substance a twofold man.
God is in heaven, and the heaven is in man … the Union of the Deity and Humanity is very clear.
When the light ascends, one spirit sees the other; and when the sweet spring-water in the light penetrates all the other spirits, then one tastes the other; then all the spirits come alive, and the force of life generates everything; and in the same force, one smells the other, and through this surging and penetrating one feels the other, and everything is a cordial loving, a friendly seeing, sweet smelling, love-feeling, blissful kissing, eating, drinking of one another, and love-strolling. [cf Blake: “Embraces are Comminglings: from the Head even to the Feet: And not a pompous High Priest entering by a Secret Place.”]
This is the blessed bride who takes delight in the bridegroom, wherein is love, joy, and bliss; light and clarity; fragrant small and an amiable and sweet taste. Oh and eternal! How can a celestial creature take the full measure of its joy! Oh love and bliss! You have no end. One sees no end to you; your depth is without measure; you are everywhere but in the grim devils that have corrupted you within themselves.
Thus our flesh before the fall was heavenly, out of the heavenly limbus … a kind of transparent crystalline material property, in spiritual flesh and blood … for man shall be then wholly like the spiritual world, which as yet is hidden.
Nature as the Re-presentation or Similitude of Reality
“For God, who is a spirit, and also a being, hath manifested Himself by the external world in a similitude, that the spirit might see itself in the being essentially, and not only, but that the creature likewise might contemplate and behold the being of God in the figure, and know it.
What then is the body of man? It is the visible world; and image and quintessence, or compound of all that the world is; and the visible world is a manifestation of the inward spiritual world, come out of the eternal light, and out of the eternal darkness, out of the spiritual compaction or connection; and it is also an image or figure of eternity, whereby eternity hath made itself visible; where self-will and resigned will, viz. evil and good, work one with the other. [cf Blake: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”]
His first image stood in paradise, in the angelical world, but he lusted after the external world (that is, after the astral and elemental world), which hath swallowed up and covered the previous image of the internal heaven, and ruleth now in the similitude as in its own property.
We, human as we are, live in the four elements and we ourselves consist of the properties of the four elements. In us these elements are present in a figurative manner: but outside us they exist in a nonfigurative manner, but the elements are one and the same; and so it is with the person of Christ. The whole Angelical world (which is the second principle) is His bodily being or personal essence.The true Divine Chaos, wherein all things lie, namely a Divine Imagination, in which the Ideas of Angels and Souls have been seen from Eternity, in a Divine Type and Resemblance; yet not then as Creatures, but in resemblance, as when a man beholds his face in a Glass therefore the Angelical and human Idea flowed forth from the wisdom, and was formed into an Image … a Subject and Resemblance of the infinite and unreachable Unity [which] forms and models the Divine understanding in the Wisdom; for the Wisdom is the Passive [the imprints, the patterns], and the Spirit of God is the Active, or Life in her [i.e., is the imprinter or imager of the pattern], as the Soul in the Body.
Changing Angels into Dragons: Alchemy and the ‘Trans’ nature of God
“The human dragon must be devoured by the love of Christ, and changed into an angelical image. This dragon (viz., the fiery nature) must be changed with its own will into a love fire, and forego his natural right; but he is unwilling to do it; but he in such a change or transmutation looketh for an own self-power, and yet findeth none, and therefore he beginneth to doubt of grace.
Therefore, O child of man, consider what thou art in this time; esteem not so slightly or poorly of thyself, but consider that you remain in Paradise, and put not out the divine light in you; or else you must hereafter remain in the original source of anger or wrath in the valley of darkness; and your noble image, outside of God, will be turned into a serpent and dragon.
For you must know, that as soon as the divine light went out in the devils, they lost their beauteous form and image, and became like serpents, dragons, worms, and evil beasts; as may be seen by Adam’s serpent; and thus it is also with the damned souls.
Starry Mills: The Domain of Urizen
“Where will you seek God? In the deep above the stars? You will not be able to fid him there. Seek him in your heart, in the centre of the birth of your life, and there you shall find him.
The astral [psychic, rationalising] spirit of man cannot discern it [i.e., cannot discern the “eternal generating” imaginative spirit], much less comprehend it; it only feeleth it, and seeth a glimpse of it in the mind; which mind is the chariot of the soul, upon which it rideth in the first Principle in its own seat in the Father’s eternal generating, and yet it hath the form of the body in its own spiritual form, understand according to the image; which soul, if it be regenerated in the light of God, it seeth in the light of the Father, in the eternal birth, wherein it liveth and remaineth eternally.
For heaven shall now at last evacuate the worldly void which the astral [Urizenic] world has slowly built up in the very nature of man, so that it may not be overcome by the starry heaven, and may avoid ceasing to practice resignation by aiming at other than its appointed end.
For the heavens [der Richter Himmel] are everywhere, even where you stand and walk. If you spirit grasps the innermost birth of God and penetrates the sidereal and fleshly [birth], then it is already in heaven [im Himmel].
And thus human Reason is but a house of the true understanding of the Divine knowledge: none should trust so much in his reason and sharp wit, for it is but the Constellation of the outward Stars, and rather seduces him, than leads him to the unity of God.
The Fundamental Fire: The Nature of God, and the dependence of Light on Darkness
“The Mysterium Magnum is that Chaos, out of which Light and Darkness, that is, the foundation of Heaven and Hell, is flown from Eternity, and made manifest; for that foundation which we now call Hell, being a Principle of itself, is the ground and cause of the Fire in the Eternal Nature; which fire, in God, is only a burning Love; and where God is not manifested in a thing, according to the unity, there is an anguishing, painful, burning fire.
This ground is called Mysterium Magnum, or a Chaos, because good and evil rise out of it, namely Light and Darkness, Life and Death, Joy and Grief, Salvation and Damnation.
I call it the fiery Mercury in the Spirit of this world, for it is the mover of all things, and the separator of the powers and virtues; a former of all shapes, a ground of the outward Life, as to the Motion and Sensibility.
Signs and Signatures: Nature as the ‘external’ (projected) manifestation of internal Form
“There is nothing that is created or born in nature, but it also manifests its internal form externally, for the internal continually labours or works itself forth to manifestation.
Therefore the greatest understanding lies in the signature, wherein man (viz., the image of the greatest virtue) may not only learn to know himself, but therein also he may learn to know the essence of all essences; for by the external form of all creatures, by their instigation, inclination, and desire, also by their sound, voice, and speech which they utter, the hidden spirit is known; for nature has given to everything its language according to its essence and form, for out of the essence the language or sound arises, and the fiat of that essence forms the quality of the essence in the voice or virtue which it sends forth, to the animals in the sound, and to the essentials in smell, virtue, and form.
But Reason will say, To what End has the Creator made this manifestation? I answer, There is no other cause, but that the spiritual world might thereby bring itself into visible form or Image, that the Inward powers and virtues might have a form and Image.
The Inward Eternal working is hidden in the visible world; and it is in every thing, and through every thing, yet not to be comprehended by any thing in the Thing’s own Power; the outward Powers and Virtues are but passive, and in the house in which the Inward work.
Divine Imagination versus Individual Selfhood: The Redemption of the Body
“And that the own will of the soul might be able to do this, viz. that it might break itself off from its selfhood, and willingly enter into the death of its selfhood, and become a nothing in its selfhood, the free will of God, viz. the eternal lubet to the chaos of the soul, which is the eternal Mercury [Imagination] in the power of the majesty, is again entered into the disappeared image of God proceeded from the pure element, viz. into the virgin-like life, and draws the will of the soul to itself, and gives it again out of love and grace the heavenly corporality … That soul which dies to its selfhood, and brings its hunger again into God’s mercy may enjoy this food, whereby it again becomes the first creature in God’s love.
And the desire must resign and cast itself into the grace and love of God, and not regard the opposition and contradiction of the outward reason which saith, it is nothing so. God is afar off. You must search, meditate, and represent Him only to yourself by your apprehension; you must seek after His will, how He hath revealed Himself; so He will be known, and not otherwise; thus the external, historical, astral reason doth judge, and it ruleth also the whole world except a very small number of God’s children.
How could it be that Adam, who was a perfect image of God, did perish in his perfection, and became earthly; did it not come to pass by imagination, because he induced his desire, longing, and lust into the outward, astral, elemental, and earthly kingdom, whereupon he in his desire, lust, and imagination was forthwith impregnated, and became earthly, and thereby he fell into the sleep of the external Magic, and thus it is also with the new birth.
Through imagination, and an earnest serious desire, we become again impregnated of the Deity … and so likewise the earthly Adam knoweth nothing of the Divine heavenly Adam, and therefore there is strife in man, and man is contrary to himself.
The Goal of Creation: Self-Realisation