‘A Building of Eternal Death’: Blake, Stukeley, and the Meaning of Stonehenge

The Death of God and the Construction of Nature

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Introduction to Blake’s Stonehenge

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Stukeley’s Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d To The British Druids (1740), which made such a profound impression on Blake

The impact of William Stukeley’s work on the origins and spiritual meaning of Stonehenge on William Blake was considerable. Stukeley’s theories and investigations regarding the site have often been dismissed by later archeologists and historians – notably, his conjecture that Stonehenge originated with the Druids and Druidic culture, or antecedents of them. Yet his classic book recounting his discoveries, Stonehenge: A Temple Restor’d To The British Druids (1740), which made such a profound impression on Blake, often feels highly contemporary – both prescient in many of its conjectures, and also immensely thought-provoking in a way that modern, Urizenic treatments of the site rarely are.

Stukeley cites Dr Halley, for example, who studied the site in the early 17th century and conjectured that the construction might be “2 or 3000 years old” – a remarkable assessment for the time (modern archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC).  Stukeley was also centuries ahead of his time in his attention to the geometry and measurements of the structure, notably his observations of its use of the “royal cubit” (or “Druid cubit”), which are again a subject of huge interest today – linking the geometrical mind-set that constructed them to the mind-set and measuring system used by those constructing Solomon’s temple and the Egyptian pyramids. And of course igniting Blake’s interest in these measurements as the signature and cognitive hallmarks of the presence of Urizenic thinking, which Blake believed lay behind the entire creation of Stonehenge.

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The Sleep of Albion and the Fall into Division, by Northrop Frye

How the Sleep of Imagination Produces Dissociation 

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Any attempt to explain Blake’s symbolism will involve explaining his conception of symbolism. To make this clear we need Blake’s own definition of poetry:

Allegory addressed to the Intellectual powers, while it is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding, is My Definition of the Most Sublime Poetry; it is also somewhat in the same manner defined by Plato.

The “corporeal understanding”, according to Blake, cannot do more than elucidate the genuine obscurities, the things requiring special knowledge to understand (such as the contemporary allusions in Dante), or the literal mechanics of a poem (meter, structure, general themes etc). The “intellectual powers” go to work rather differently: they start with the hypothesis that the poem in front of them is an imaginative whole, a unique and irreplaceable event, and work out the implications of that hypothesis. The way that poetry is generally taught in schools therefore, by converting it into “corporeal understanding” – into a form of machinery – completely misses its whole point, like explaining a joke or analysing a dead body to find out what makes it tick.

‘Excrement’: John Keating’s apt description of the corporeal understanding’s approach to poetry

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