“Human Thought is crush’d beneath the iron hand of Power”
The poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) is today held in high esteem in his native land.
His art is regarded as among the greatest of the period, his poems such as ‘The Tyger‘ are widely appreciated and the song ‘Jerusalem‘, which uses his words, has become a kind of unofficial English national anthem.
But in his lifetime Blake was an entirely marginal figure, a social, artistic and intellectual misfit who died in poverty and obscurity.
Indeed, he was an outright enemy of the dominant culture and until the end of his days did not “cease from mental fight”, nor did his metaphorical sword sleep in his hand, (1) as he challenged its deepest assumptions.
Blake was very much an opponent of the Industrial Revolution, which already had a firm grip on the England into which he was born.
This “poet of the soul”, as Max Plowman describes him, (2) was of course appalled by the “dark Satanic Mills” (3) which blighted “England’s green & pleasant land”. (4)
In the new cities, he saw:
turrets & towers & domes
Whose smoke destroy’d the pleasant gardens, & whose running kennels
Chok’d the bright rivers.
But his disgust extended beyond the merely physical into the whole way of thinking which underlay industrialism and which had made possible its emergence and its expansion.
Theodore Roszak judges that “Blake was among the first to link scientific sensibility to the killing pressure of the new industrial technology upon the landscape”. (6)
And Kathleen Raine writes: “For Blake, outward events and circumstances were the expressions of states of minds… Man has made his machines in the image of his ideology”. (7)
Blake used the term “single vision” to describe the mechanistic worldview – the “enemy of life” in Raine’s words (8) – which had been pieced together from the bone-dry philosophies of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke.
He saw this narrowing of the intellect as amounting to a spiritual enslavement of the people of Albion, an old name for England, making them fit for nothing more than lives of docile wage-slavery in the capitalist factories that were taking over the land.
This is beautifully expressed in his long poem ‘Jerusalem’:
… O Divine Spirit, sustain me on they wings!
That I may awake Albion from his long & cold repose;
For Bacon & Newton, sheath’d in dismal steel, their terrors hang
Like iron scourges over Albion. Reasoning like vast Serpents
Infold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations.
I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire,
Wash’d by the Water-wheels of Newton; black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
For Blake, all the social evils that he saw around him were merely aspects of one vast problem, a civilization in which “Human Thought is crush’d beneath the iron hand of Power”. (10)
E.P. Thompson, in his fascinating study of Blake’s philosophy, examines the political meaning of the poem ‘London’:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
“Charter’d” clearly refers to commerce, says Thompson, and is perhaps a reference to the East India Company which was becoming increasingly powerful in the British capital city at that time. The mark seen in “every face”, he adds, “is the mark of the Beast, a mark explicitly associated with commercialism”. (12)
But the poem continues:
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
These mind-forg’d manacles are the single vision imposed by Blake’s “tyrant-demon Urizen”, (14) the narrow materialistic mindset at the root of all the misery and poverty.
Undaunted by the enormity of the problem facing him and his beloved Albion, Blake leapt up on to his philosophical chariot of fire to embark on what Raine calls a “prophetic mission” (15) to “pull down a civilization”. (16)
To do so, he created a powerful alternative vision drawn from sources far removed from the arid calculating spirit of the Enlightenment and the commercial world it had spawned.
Blake’s worldview was holistic, emphasising the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life. “Every thing that lives, Lives not alone, nor for itself”, he wrote. (17) And: “Every thing that lives is Holy” (18).
This outlook shines through in his illustrations, which are full of tendrils, roots, skies, clouds and insects, and also in poems such as ‘Auguries of Innocence’.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
In ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, he describes the “Energy” which he feels behind all the various manifestations of glorious living.
1. 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.
2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
Peter Marshall regards Blake’s metaphysics as “a kind of pantheistic idealism” (21) and also as dialectical in nature in that “he saw reality as a constant process of flux and believed that change occurs only through the dynamic interplay of opposing forces”. (22)
In all respects, Blake’s ideas were very much out of place in the society in which he lived and worked.
Like his compatriots John Ruskin and William Morris, those Victorian enemies of the modern commercial system, Blake was inspired by medieval civilisation, as reflected in his “lifelong love of Gothic art”. (23)
He wrote: “Grecian is Mathematical Form: Gothic is living form, Mathematic Form is external in the Reasoning Memory: Living Form is Eternal Existence”. (24)
Blake’s politics were defiantly radical. He was very much inspired by the American and
French revolutions and instinctively opposed to authority, as witnessed by his famous ejection of a soldier from the grounds of his cottage while he was living in Felpham, West Sussex, during which he is alleged to have cursed the king.
He was also deeply offended by the blatant inequality he saw around him in London, as the poem ‘Holy Thursday’ illustrates.
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc’d to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Furthermore, Marshall regards Blake’s awareness of his radical politics as being behind the somewhat obscure direction his work increasingly took.
He writes: “Blake witnessed the government repression of radicals, the censorship of the ‘Gagging Acts’, and the anger of the Church and King mobs who were ready to ransack libraries and throw the disaffected artist or poet in the mud. Blake was obliged to clothe his radical message with allegorical garments”. (26)
However, Blake’s radicalism was built on very different foundations to that of contemporaries such as Thomas Paine or William Godwin, as he himself well realised.
Thompson writes: “Blake had always been decisively alienated from the mechanical materialist epistemology and psychology which he saw as derived from Newton and Locke. And he did not for a moment shed his suspicion of radicalism’s indebtedness to this materialism”. (27)
In addition, unlike other contemporary radicals, Blake believed in innate qualities. In criticising the thinking of the artist Joshua Reynolds, Blake insisted: “Innate Ideas are in Every Man, Born with him; they are truly Himself”. (28)
“The Man who says that the Genius is not Born, but Taught – Is a Knave” (29) he insisted. “Man is Born Like a Garden ready Planted & Sown” (30)
One illustration, “What is Man!”, the frontispiece to The Gates of Paradise (1793) depicts a human baby as a caterpillar in the chrysalis of metamorphosis which will allow it to take wing and fulfil its innate potential.
Raine describes how, in Tiriel, Blake “denounced the current view of childhood – deriving in great measure from Locke, that early forerunner of behaviourism and brain-washing – as a passive state to be ‘formed’ by ‘instruction’. The poem describes with scathing indignation the consequences of ‘forming’ a child according to the laws of mechanistic rationalism, imposed all from outside and regardless of the mysterious formative laws of life itself”. (31)
Some of Blake’s aphorisms on this theme are very similar to those deployed by Chuang Tzu, the Taoist metaphysician.
“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings”, (32) wrote Blake. “The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion the horse, how he shall take his prey”. (33)
Blake brushed aside other radicals’ fears that the notion of innate ideas could be used by conservatives to justify “innate” social inequality. He stressed that for all our differences every single one of us has a divine potential as part of Universal Humanity.
He also differed from many other modern radicals in his interest in archetypes and ideal forms.
“There Exist in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature”, wrote Blake in ‘The Last Judgement’. (34)
He anticipated the work of Carl Jung with his belief in a collective archetypal realm full of “ever Existent images” (35) behind the particularities of the physical world,
Responding to those who criticised the way he represented these abstract forces in bodily form, he commented that they “would do well to consider that the Venus, the Minerva, the Jupiter, the Apollo, which they admire in Greek statues are all of them representatives of spiritual existences, of Gods immortal, to the mortal perishing organ of sight; and yet they are embodied and organized in solid marble”. (36).
There has been much scholarly debate concerning the sources for Blake’s passionately-expressed personal philosophy.
Raine rightly points out that the concept of “ideal form” is very much part of “Neoplatonic – and specifically Plotinian – aesthetics”. (37)
She traces Blake’s thinking not just to Plato and Plotinus, but also to the Hermetica, to Paracelsus and Robert Fludd, to Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg (38) and stresses “Blake’s knowledge of Christian Cabbala, Neoplatonism, and the mystical theology of the Western Esoteric tradition as a whole”. (39)
Marshall puts more emphasis on a radical heritage, seeing Blake as “looking back to the gnostic heresies of the Middle Ages and anticipating modern anarchism and social ecology”. (40)
He describes “an underground heretical tradition” which “finds its roots in the mystical anarchists of the millenarian sect of the Middle Ages; especially the Brethren of the Free Spirit”, then “re-emerged in the extreme Left among Anabaptists, Ranters and Diggers of the English Revolution” and lived on still in the London of Blake’s youth. (41)
This is also the conclusion reached by Thompson, whose detailed research suggests that Blake was not quite as isolated in his thinking as it may appear to us today.
His references and images belong very strongly to the dissenting antinomian tradition of Protestantism, which spurned the worldly power of authority and the law in favour of the inner light in every human being.
This tradition, forced to hide from repression since the heady days of the “quasi-pantheist” radicalism (42) which flourished during the 17th century English Revolution (see Gerrard Winstanley), had been notably kept alive by the Muggletonians.
Thompson says antinomianism’s “Londonish rhetoric” (43) was “consciously anti-hegemonic”, (44) which is to say that opposition to the ruling culture was absolutely central to its worldview.
The antinomianism given voice by Blake existed outside “polite” society with its universities, courts of law, sciences and classical learning and often expressed itself in tones of “class war”, (45) encouraging “a stubborn lack of deference, both social and intellectual”. (46)
Writes Thompson: “Everything in the age of ‘reason’ and ‘elegance’ served to emphasise the sharp distinctions between a polite and a demotic culture. Dress, style, gesture, proprieties of speech, grammar and even punctuation were resonant with the signs of class; the polite culture was an elaborated code of social inclusion and exclusion.
“Classical learning and an accomplishment in the law stood like difficult gates-of-entry into this culture… These accomplishments both legitimated and masked the actualities of brute property and power, interest and patronage”. (47)
Blake presented this conflict in a particular way which is not always easy to understand for a modern reader. His “Spectre” of tyranny, ego, empire, false reason and the Church was contrasted with the “Emanation” of creativity, imagination, forgiveness and inner divinity as personified by Jesus Christ.
But behind the biblical language he and the antinomian tradition as a whole were essentially challenging the power of wealth, the state and its official religious structures in the name of an egalitarian universalism.
Thompson says that when Blake or others declaimed against “Reason”, we might today interpret this as “Ideology” or as the compulsive constraints of the ruling “discourse”.
He adds: “Antinomian doctrine was expressive of a profound distrust of the ‘reasons’ of the genteel and comfortable, and of ecclesiastical and academic institutions, not so much because they produced false knowledges but because they offered specious apologetics (‘serpent reasonings’) for a rotten social order based, in the last resort, on violence and material self-interest”. (48)
In the place of this corrupted England they offered “the Everlasting Gospel”, a new Golden Age in which people would find spiritual freedom and be “liberated from the bondage of Morality and Legality”. (49)
Marshall explains that Blake, like other antinomian radicals, wanted to restore humanity to what he saw as its original state: “He assumed like them that in the Garden of Eden man and woman lived in a state of innocence and wholeness, without private property, class distinctions and human authority”. (50)
It was this “revolutionary anarchist” (51) vision of a possible future which Blake named ‘Jerusalem’ and which he longed to see built “in England’s green & pleasant land”. (52)
Video link: The Life of Poet William Blake (48 mins)
1. William Blake, ‘Milton: A Poem’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1954), p. 110.
2. Max Plowman, ‘Introduction’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. xi.
3. Blake, ‘Milton’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 110.
5. William Blake, Complete Writings, ed by Geoffrey Keynes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 361, cit. Peter Marshall, William Blake: Visionary Anarchist (London: Freedom Press, 2008), p. 39.
6. Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology (New York: Touchstone, 1993), p. 42.
7. Kathleen Raine, William Blake (London: Thames & Hudson, 1977), pp. 73-74.
8. Raine, p. 50.
9. William Blake, ‘Jerusalem’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 177.
10. Blake, ‘Milton’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 137.
11. William Blake, ‘London’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p 31.
12. E.P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 182.
13. Blake, ‘London’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p 31.
14. Raine, p. 76.
15. Raine, p. 111.
16. Raine, p. 171.
17. William Blake, ‘The Book of Thel’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 40.
18. William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 55.
19. William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 333.
20. Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 43.
21. Marshall, p. 24.
22. Marshall, p. 23.
23. Raine, p. 17.
24. William Blake, cit. Raine, p. 17.
25. William Blake, ‘Holy Thursday’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 23.
26. Marshall, pp. 16-17.
27. Thompson, p. 193.
28. Blake, Complete Works, p, 459, cit. Marshall p. 30.
29. Blake, Complete Works, p. 470, cit. Marshall, p. 30.
30. Blake, Complete Works, p. 471, cit. Marshall, p. 30.
31. Raine, p. 47.
32. Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 45.
33. Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 46.
34. William Blake, ‘The Last Judgment’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 358.
35. William Blake, cit. Raine, p. 7.
36. William Blake, cit. Raine, p. 9.
37. Raine, p. 114.
38. Raine, p. 51.
39. Raine, p. 186.
40. Marshall, p. 13.
41. Marshall, p. 22.
42. Thompson, p. 26.
43. Thompson, p. 8.
44. Thompson, p. 109.
45. Thompson, p. xxii.
46. Thompson, p. 112.
47. Thompson, p. 110.
48. Thompson, p. 109.
49. Thompson, p. 6.
50. Marshall, p. 38.
51. Marshall, p. 13.
52. Blake, ‘Milton’, Blake’s Poems and Prophecies, p. 110.