The Eye Altering: William Blake and the Nature of Observation, by Naomi Billingsley

The Jesus Field: Observation, Participation, and how Images alter the Observer

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Introduction: Jesus and the Human Imagination

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In All Religions are One (1788) Blake declared “That the Poetic Genius is the true Man. and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius” (Principle 1st). Blake here is drawing attention to the great, hidden secret of both reality and the nature of God, which is Form. Forms are not ‘things’ but processes or organising movements. Forms are rooted in and expressions of (creations of) an underlying “former”, which in Blake’s early work he called the “Poetic Genius” to signify its formative aspect, a term which is derived from the same root as the word from which we also get “genesis” and indeed “genetic”. According to Blake it is this that gives each body its individual as well as generic “form”. In contrast to almost all other spiritual traditions, Blake understood that forms are not temporary and unimportant but eternal, continually creating and recreating themselves. They are vast invisible forming fields, similar to what Rupert Sheldrake has more recently termed “morphogenetic fields”.

William Blake believed that Christianity is art and that Jesus Christ was an artist, who is both the model and the source of artistic activity. These ideas are central to his artistic and religious vision, and are expressed in various forms throughout his career: from the early account of the Poetic Genius in All Religions are One, to the late aphorisms of the Laocoön plate.

This article examines why Blake identified Christ as artist and Christianity as art. My central argument is that Blake expresses this theory – or theology – of art through his visual representations of Christ. Blake did not mean that Jesus produced works of fine art, nor that one must do so in order to be Christian; rather, Christ’s identity is Imagination, and as such all his acts and all activity in him are art. Thus, I examine Blake’s depictions of Jesus’ life and ministry, and show that Blake represents these themes as analogous to the work of the artist because Jesus changes the way that we perceive the world.

As Morris Eaves highlights at the end of Blake’s Theory of Art, for Blake, Jesus’ art was his public ministry – his parables and miracles were acts of self-expression, which sought to create a new social order. So too Blake seeks, through his art, to engender a community of Imagination. This community is the Divine Body, which is Jesus, who is Imagination – as expressed in the Laocoön aphorism quoted below:

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Thus, Blake’s depictions of Christ are also representations of artistic activity; they include not only images of Jesus’ public ministry, but also of his birth, death and resurrection, as an apocalyptic agent, and in extra-biblical roles.

Whilst Blake’s vision of Christ as the supreme type of the artist was by no means a static concept, it emerged in his works as early as All Religions are One and can be found in works from throughout his career. This article explores how Blake envisaged the life of Christ as manifesting the principles of art through case studies that examine five major themes in Blake’s depictions of Christ in key pictorial projects in his oeuvre: art as regeneration, art as inspiration, art as facilitator, art as eternal, and art as iconoclastic. Imagination alters the way we see the world, and our relationship with it: that is to say, since observed and observed are fundamentally entwined and interdependent (or “entangled”, in the language of modern quantum field theory), imagination alters, or restores, the nature of reality itself – to a unified and integrated (“holistic”) whole, or “vision”.

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Yeats on Blake: William Blake and the Human Imagination

Ideas of Good and Evil, by W. B. Yeats

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Introduction: Future Tense

“Hear the voice of the Bard! Who Present, Past, & Future sees”. This sense of the poet as participating in a non-temporal or multi-temporal domain was also recognised by Shelley, who notes in A Defence of Poetry that “A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not.” It is for this reason, he adds, that poets are also prophets: those who can see into the present.

There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times. William Blake was one of these men, and if he spoke confusedly and obscurely it was because he spoke things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world about him.

He announced the religion of art, of which no man dreamed in the world about him; and he understood it more perfectly than the thousands of subtle spirits who have received its baptism in the world about us, because, in the beginning of important things – in the beginning of love, in the beginning of the day, in the beginning of any work, there is a moment when we understand more perfectly than we understand again until all is finished.

In his time educated people believed that they amused themselves with books of imagination but that they “made their souls” by listening to sermons and by doing or by not doing certain things. When they had to explain why serious people like themselves honoured the great poets greatly they were hard put to it for lack of good reasons.

In our time we are agreed that we “make our souls” out of some one of the great poets of ancient times, or out of Shelley or Wordsworth, or Goethe or Balzac, or Flaubert, or Count Tolstoy, in the books he wrote before he became a prophet and fell into a lesser order, or out of Mr. Whistler’s pictures, while we amuse ourselves, or, at best, make a poorer sort of soul, by listening to sermons or by doing or by not doing certain things.

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‘The Human Form Divine’: Radicalism and Orthodoxy in William Blake, by Rowan Williams

The Human Imagination and the Eternal Body

 

Priests promoting Conflict and Soldiers promoting Peace

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight

Return their thankfulness.

 

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is Man, his child and care.

 

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.

 

Then every man, of every clime,

That prays in his distress,

Prays to the human form divine,

Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

 

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, Turk, or Jew;

Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.

Blake might have been surprised to learn that these verses, ‘The Divine Image’, from Songs of Innocence, are sometimes printed – and sung – as a hymn. On their own, they are indeed a touchingly direct statement of a certain kind of Christian humanism, apparently optimistic and universalist – a suitable text for the enlightened, perhaps rather Tolystoyan, Christian who looks to Blake as part of his or her canon.

But Blake is a dialectical writer, to a rare and vertiginous degree, and to understand what a text like this means we also have to read his own reply to it – indeed, his own critique of it. The textual history of this dialogue is itself intriguing, as if he could not easily settle on how he was to ‘voice’ the necessary riposte. His first attempt, not finally included in the Songs of Experience, survives in a design from 1791 or 1792:

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