Introduction: The Twenty-Seven States or “Churches” of Human History
“the Twenty-Seven Heavens & their Churches”. The word “church” originally meant “circle” or “circus”, because early congregants gathered in a circle – as in the “church” of Stonehenge. These evolving “churches” denote the progression – like the wheels on a chariot – of human consciousness in its long journey towards liberation and imaginative uncovery. This journey has been recorded and embodied in all of the dominant religions and cultural narratives of human history, from Adam to Luther, suggesting that this story or evolution is both spiritual and political. It its fallen form (ie, to the rationalising, left brain mind and eye), these powerful revolving “heavens” appear to us as the literal, material “heavens” projected into the sky, with their cycles or circles similarly literal. The Babylonian Zodiac was an early and important stage in this fall within perception (zodiac, from Greek zodiakos, circle, and Zoa orzôion, “Living Beasts”, alluding to their true psychological origins within the Imagination).
The Twenty-Seven States, or Heavens, represent dogmatic Christianity in its successive aspects. They are to man’s spiritual life what the Mundane Shell (which contains them) is to his physical being: an enclosure which shuts him from Eternity. They are “Satan & Adam … States Created into Twenty-seven Churches” (Mil 32: 25). They are described in Milton 37:35–43 (after the analysis of paganism as the Twelve Gods of Asia) and in Jerusalem 75:10–26.
There are several accounts of the Fall in Blake but the invariable characteristic of them is Albion’s relapse from active creative energy to passivity. This passivity takes the form of wonder or awe at the world he has created, which in eternity he sees as a woman. The Fall thus begins in Beulah, the divine garden identified with Eden in Genesis.
Once he takes the fatal step of thinking the object-world independent of him, Albion sinks into a sleep symbolizing the passivity of his mind, and his creation separates and becomes the “female will” or Mother Nature, the remote and inaccessible universe of tantalizing mystery we now see. Love, or the transformation of the objective into the beloved, and art, or the transformation of the objective into the created, are the two activities pursued on this earth to repair the damage of the Fall, and they raise our state to Beulah and Eden respectively.
“Albion here is at the stage where patriarchy institutionalizes and encourages the worship of the mother-goddess; Babylon was such a civilization”
Jerusalem and the Origins of Patriarchy
“O Albion why wilt thou Create a Female Will?” Los wails in Jerusalem (30:31). The term “Female Will” here makes its first appearance in Blake’s poetry, though for years critics have used it retroactively to explicate prior works, because it ties together so many of the sinister actions of the women characters of the earlier poetry.
Religion, so Blake believed, was the basic problem of mankind. Early in his life he conceived the idea of a fundamental and universal religion that he developed throughout his life.
He was born in the third – Revolutionary – generation of the eighteenth century. The orthodox Anglican Church had become devoted to place-hunting and was spiritually dead. The Dissenters considered themselves members of this church, but keep apart. Deism had captured the intellectual world and established the “Age of Reason” by denying all miracles and revelations. Generally the public was hostile to all religious controversies, which had been responsible for some of the bloodiest pages in religion. “Enthusiasm” was a term of contempt.
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.