Few could deny that Wil­li­am Blake sup­por­ted the rad­ic­al polit­ics of his time, yet revolu­tion­ary ideas were not an adjunct to his vis­ion­ary geni­us, but the liv­ing heart of it as a poet.

Under­pin­ning his pop­ular­ity today is the fact that the received Wil­li­am Blake is a man of many per­son­al­it­ies, mean­ing dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent people. Very few, how­ever, read WIl­li­am Blake as a revolu­tion­ary poet, in the sense of being a poet of revolu­tion. The dimen­sions of his thought are peeled apart to be giv­en a dif­fer­ent emphas­is by dif­fer­ent read­ers. Those who want to present Blake as a mys­tic, in con­stant com­mu­nion with the angels, or as a Neo­pla­ton­ist philo­soph­er address­ing the eth­er­ic world of forms, are espe­cially prone to shear­ing away the polit­ic­ally revolu­tion­ary dimen­sion of his thought.

This ampu­ta­tion of his polit­ic­al thought does a dis­ser­vice to Blake the man by mis­rep­res­ent­ing his views. More than that it dis­torts those views, because his idea of poet­ic vis­ion is in fact insep­ar­able from his views of law and the polit­ic­al order.

It is impossible for any­one to flatly deny that Blake was aligned with and sup­port­ive of the rad­ic­al polit­ics of his time, but it has proved remark­ably attract­ive to some to ignore the cent­ral­ity of revolu­tion­ary ideas to Blake’s thought — not an adjunct to his vis­ion­ary geni­us, but the heart of it. One example of this neu­ter­ing of Blake occurs in Tobi­as Churton’s Jer­u­s­alem: The Real Life of Wil­li­am Blake, which some­times reads as though the author sees it as his mis­sion to wrest Blake away from polit­ics entirely. Groun­ded in the pop­u­lar cul­tur­al upsurge of the 60s him­self, and prone to throw­ing around quotes from The Beatles and The Doors, Churton nev­er­the­less has no time for the polit­ic­al rad­ic­al­ism and protest that was surely the oth­er half of this cul­tur­al efflorescence.

With aston­ish­ing per­sever­ance [Blake] con­tin­ued to address his remarks ‘To the Pub­lic’ who paid no atten­tion.

Accord­ing to Churton, Blake would have opposed not only social­ism spe­cific­ally but any kind of col­lect­iv­ism at all. We are told that he would have scorned the idea of equal­ity, and that he would have recog­nised soci­ety merely as a “frightened gang, full of ‘accusers’”, and class struggle as “a tale of jeal­ousy and envy for the embittered”.1 Churton’s shots at muni­cip­al social demo­cracy would be bet­ter aimed if he had not con­fused that social demo­cracy and vari­ous oth­er exist­ing forms of polit­ics as rep­res­ent­at­ive of polit­ics as such, as if anoth­er form of polit­ics were not pos­sible. Cer­tainly his polit­ic­al cri­ti­cisms would be more plaus­ible if he did­n’t tend toward a view of oth­er people as essen­tially a herd — a per­spect­ive every bit as polit­ic­al as the views he objects to.

Churton’s mis­take is a simple one of see­ing spir­it as a wholly private mat­ter. It is not so. Spir­it may primar­ily be exper­i­enced only sub­ject­ively, ‘from the inside’, but Spir­it itself is uni­ver­sal, and even poten­tially col­lect­ive. Peter Fish­er (of whom more later) notes that “With aston­ish­ing per­sever­ance [Blake] con­tin­ued to address his remarks ‘To the Pub­lic’ who paid no atten­tion.”2 One won­ders why Blake would do this if it was­n’t in the ser­vice of a col­lect­ive polit­ic­al endeav­our or shared pur­pose. In par­tic­u­lar, one won­ders how oth­er­wise to explain, e.g., Blake’s sup­port for Paine and the French Revolu­tion. Even Churton’s pre­ferred sex magic as the means of achiev­ing gnos­is is usu­ally con­sidered to be more than a solo pursuit.

Jokes about ‘solo sexu­al gnos­is’ apart, the point is that in sexu­al mys­ti­cism the act of sex is seen as a form of uni­on that mod­els uni­on with God. Is it that hard for a sup­port­er of such gnos­is to ima­gine forms of social solid­ar­ity and — let’s call it — com­mu­nion to have sim­il­ar rela­tion to the divine?

France, Amer­ica and Wil­li­am Blake as a Revolu­tion­ary Poet

The coher­ence of Blake’s thought — the way it inex­tric­ably weaves togeth­er the per­son­al and the social, the spi­titu­al, the polit­ic­al and the per­son­al — became clear­er to me recently while read­ing two of Blake’s illu­min­ated manu­scripts from the year 1784 — Amer­ica a Proph­ecy and Europe a Proph­esy — which present a con­tinu­ous account of Blake’s vis­ion of the world and its pro­spects at the time (‘proph­esy’).

Amer­ica begins (plates 1&2, The Pre­lu­di­um) by con­sid­er­ing the basic rela­tion of human­ity and nature (“The shad­owy daugh­ter of Urthona”), which itself some­how gives rise to Orc, the spir­it of desire and revolu­tion. This idea is prob­ably indebted to Jac­ob Boehme’s vis­ion of prim­or­di­al Desire: 

In the [Divine] Desire, is the Ori­gin­al of Dark­ness; and in the [Divine] Fire, the Etern­al unity is made mani­fest with the Light, in the fiery Nature… The Dark­ness becomes sub­stan­tial in itself; and the Light becomes also sub­stan­tial in the fiery Desire: these two make two Prin­ciples, namely God’s Anger in the Dark­ness, and God’s Love the Light, each of them works in itself, and there is only such a dif­fer­ence between them, as between Day and Night, and yet both of them have but one only Ground, and the one is always a cause of the oth­er, and that the oth­er becomes mani­fest and known in it as Light from Fire.

Jac­ob Boehme, The Clav­is3

Blake’s repeated images of Orc envel­oped in flames are surely based in some­thing very like this con­cep­tion of Boehme’s, how­ever Blake arrived at it him­self. These flames and fire are the same fires of hell that Blake speaks of in The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell, where he went walk­ing among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoy­ments of Geni­us; which to Angels look like tor­ment and insan­ity”,4 and which are described so wonde­fully by Milton in Para­dise Lost, in which “storms of fire” envel­op and ‘tor­ment’ the rebel angels in hell. Orc is cer­tainly among these angels, for Orcus was a Lat­in god of the under­world.

Blake then moves on to a retell­ing of the events of the Amer­ic­an War of Inde­pend­ence in plates 3–7.5

Then in the exhil­ar­at­ing plate 8, Blake ima­gines Orc going on from polit­ic­al con­flict to finally throw off reli­gion and mor­al ‘law’, guilt and hypo­crisy alto­geth­er in a pro­cess crowned by sexu­al lib­er­a­tion (“the soul of sweet delight can nev­er be defil’d”):

The ter­ror answerd: I am Orc, wreath’d round the accursed tree:
The times are ended; shad­ows pass the morn­ing gins to break;
The fiery joy, that Urizen per­ver­ted to ten com­mands,
What night he led the starry hosts thro’ the wide wil­der­ness:
That stony law I stamp to dust: and scat­ter reli­gion abroad
To the four winds as a torn book, & none shall gath­er the leaves;
But they shall rot on desart sands, & con­sume in bot­tom­less deeps;
To make the desarts blos­som, & the deeps shrink to their foun­tains,
And to renew the fiery joy, and burst the stony roof.
That pale reli­gious letch­ery, seek­ing Vir­gin­ity,
May find it in a har­lot, and in coarse-clad hon­esty
The undefil’d tho’ rav­ish’d in her cradle night and morn:
For every thing that lives is holy, life delights in life;
Because the soul of sweet delight can nev­er be defil’d.


 Blake, Amer­ica a Proph­esy pl 8

The struggle rages on through plates 9–16, where the text con­cludes and Blake’s story reaches its cli­max in Orc’s tri­umph and a vis­ion of an apo­ca­lypse that unshackles the ‘five gates’ of the senses and allows access to the infinite:

Stiff shud­der­ings shook the heav’nly thrones! France Spain & Italy
In ter­ror view’d the bands of Albion, and the ancient Guard­i­ans
Faint­ing upon the ele­ments, smit­ten with their own plagues
They slow advance to shut the five gates of their law-built heav­en
Filled with blast­ing fan­cies and with mil­dews of des­pair
With fierce dis­ease and lust, unable to stem the fires of Orc;
But the five gates were con­sum’d, & their bolts and hinges melted
And the fierce flames burnt round the heav­ens, & round the abodes of men

Blake, Amer­ica a Proph­ecy, pl 16

A Call to Revolution

In the telling of this story, not only are these ele­ments of polit­ic­al struggle, sexu­al lib­er­a­tion and cos­mic apo­ca­lypse all present, but they are woven tightly togeth­er in the struc­ture of Blake’s telling. The action hap­pens in the space of a few pages (16 plates). There is no fat in this account of things: everything that hap­pens is a neces­sary part of a single movement.

In Europe a Proph­ecy the story is reprised, but set now in the con­text of Bri­tain and Europe, in the light of the French Revolu­tion, rather than Bri­tain and Amer­ica and the War of Inde­pend­ence. This brings the story up to date but with the same ele­ments in play. The remark­able thing here is the con­clu­sion, which seems to me to be a blatant call to revolution.

To set the scene, remem­ber that the ‘morn­ing in the east’ is the French Revolu­tion, whose fury is expressed in its vine­yards — an image of the tramp­ling of men in war and the res­ult­ing shed­ding of blood. Enithar­mon here is partly the embod­i­ment of spir­itu­al beauty, and party Blake’s wife Cath­er­ine. Los as a char­ac­ter is the voice of the cre­at­ive ima­gin­a­tion and proph­ecy, who routinely stands in for Blake himself.

But ter­rible Orc, when he beheld the morn­ing in the east,
Shot from the heights of Enithar­mon;
And in the vine­yards of red France appear’d the light of his fury.
The Sun glow’d fiery red!

The furi­ous ter­rors flew around!
On golden chari­ots raging, with red wheels drop­ping with blood;
The Lions lash their wrath­ful tails!
The Tigers catch upon the prey & suck the ruddy tide:
And Enithar­mon groans and cries in anguish and dismay.

Then Los arose his head he reard in snaky thun­ders clad:
And with a cry that shook all nature to the upmost pole,
Called all his sons to the strife of blood.

Finis



Blake, Europe a Proph­ecy, pl 15–6

There will always be some who argue that the ‘strife of blood’ Blake speaks of here is merely the ‘men­tal fight’ he calls us to in the hymn Jer­u­s­alem (I will not cease from Men­tal FightNor shall my Sword sleep in my hand”)6painted in more vivid col­ours. Some will object that the views expressed by the char­ac­ters in Blake’s poems are not neces­sar­ily those of Blake him­self, which is cer­tainly true. But to me this cli­max is where Blake him­self, in the form of Los, the char­ac­ter with which he iden­ti­fied most closely, calls his read­ers to revolution.In his com­ment­ary on these clos­ing lines from Europe a Proph­ecy, hymning the rising Orc and his fires of revolu­tion, Har­old Bloom noted that they were in fact best illus­trated not by the plate on which they appear, but rather, appro­pri­ately enough, in plate 10 of Amer­ica a Proph­ecy.7 He is right, and that is why this image of Orc is used on the home page of this blog — because it encap­su­lates the most fun­da­ment­al qual­ity of Blake’s thought, which is that it mani­fests Orc’s revolu­tion­ary fire. Orc’s pos­ture here, in his arms at least, is also that of the cru­ci­fied Christ, which is appro­pri­ate as Blake saw Christ as one of the forms of Orc, mak­ing the lead­er of Hell Christ-like, and Christ a revolu­tion­ary. It is doubly iron­ic that Churton should use pre­cisely this image on the cov­er of a book that attempts to sep­ar­ate Blake once and for all from Orc’s revolu­tion­ary energy.

Wil­li­am Blake
Amer­ica a Proph­ecy Pl 10

Reading William Blake as a Revolutionary Poet

In con­clu­sion I would like to quote at length from a book I first came upon only this week, Peter Fish­er­’s The Val­ley of Vis­ion: Blake as Proph­et and Revolu­tion­ary, in the open­ing pages of which the author beau­ti­fully encap­su­lates the fun­da­ment­ally revolu­tion­ary nature of Blake’s view. This at last sees Blake’s view as coher­ent — not a jumble of polit­ic­al and spir­itu­al pos­tures but an integ­rated view of all the aspects of exist­ence. This sense of the integ­rity of Blake’s vis­ion is surely the pre­con­di­tion for any ser­i­ous com­ment­ary on Blake:

Wil­li­am Blake was born once in Lon­don in 1757. He was born again in the spir­it of revolt. His inner revolt became a proph­et­ic protest against the abso­lute law of either God or man when it pre­ten­ded to estab­lish the lim­its of human pos­sib­il­it­ies. His out­er revolt became the revolu­tion­ary protest against arbit­rary polit­ic­al power exer­cised in the name of this kind of law. He expressed in both his life and his thought what some might call the extreme lim­it of the Chris­ti­an prin­ciple that neither doc­trine nor ritu­al, nor even mor­al sanc­tity, con­sti­tutes any ulti­mate basis for indi­vidu­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion. In fact, he went bey­ond the notion of jus­ti­fic­a­tion to that of rebirth and regen­er­a­tion-ideas which occu­pied the same place in his inner life that revolt did in his response to his social envir­on­ment. Eth­ic­ally, Blake gave no quarter to any mor­al pre­scrip­tion, polit­ic­al pro­gramme or ration­al the­ory, but relied solely on his exper­i­ence of the essen­tial source of human life and on the regen­er­a­tion of the individual.

He was the pro­fessed oppon­ent of the Greek spir­it of com­prom­ise and adjust­ment between the state of nature and soci­ety. For he con­sidered the ration­al­ism of the philo­soph­ers a dis­guised attempt to dis­cred­it the inspired insight of the seer and provide instead some kind of extern­al stand­ard of know­ledge and beha­viour. Polit­ic­ally, he found in Greek ration­al­ism the begin­ning of the uto­pi­an of soci­ety which pre­ten­ded to be a pro­tec­tion against the titan­ism of the des­pot and the tra­gic sin of hybris. But this kind of think­ing seems to him to lead to the the­or­et­ic­al rule of reas­on in the con­duct of affairs and the tyr­an­nic­al use of law as an abso­lute back­ground to the very kind of polit­ic­al power which the the­ory was sup­posed to pre­vent. Here were the ori­gins, in Blake’s opin­ion, of the unholy uni­on of priest and king‑a uni­on which threatened to des­troy the roots of indi­vidu­al self-real­isa­tion in human soci­ety and estab­lish an organ­ised decep­tion to ‘save the appear­ances.’ It was this organ­ized decep­tion in mor­al­ity and in the struc­ture of soci­ety which Blake attacked in his\[p 4\] dual role of proph­et and revolu­tion­ary. Con­vinced that he had been born into the val­ley of the shad­ow of this death, the proph­et­ic revolu­tion­ary strove to dis­pel the shad­ow and trans­form the death, and it was in this way that his val­ley became a val­ley of vis­ion.
Both as revolu­tion­ary and proph­et Blake stood apart from his con­tem­por­ar­ies, but the isol­a­tion was accep­ted unwill­ingly, and he was without the mask of the eccentric.

Peter Fish­er8

Andy Wilson: The Bril­liant New Her­cules: A Blake Read­er
Unkant, 2015
Hard­back: 210 pp, full col­our throughout.

“Wilson rereads Blake’s eso­ter­i­cism as a prac­tic­al pro­gramme for lib­er­a­tion, unit­ing oth­er­wise trivi­al frag­ments of soci­ety’s detrit­us into anim­ated, throb­bing life … Wilson’s col­lages coagu­late into a renewed myth­o­poeia, tran­scrib­ing Blake’s vis­ions onto the death throes of late cap­it­al­ism, where rad­ic­al sub­jectiv­ity ren­dez­vous with object­ive chance & explodes in kal­eido­scop­ic class war­fare.” Michael Ten­cer

“The most admir­able thing about the fant­ast­ic is that the fant­ast­ic does­n’t exist, everything is real.” André Bre­ton

Notes

  1. Tobi­as Churton, Jer­u­s­alem: The Real Life of Wil­li­am Blake, Lon­don: Watkins Media (2014), 2015, p 7.
  2. Peter Fish­erThe Val­ley of Vis­ion: Blake as Proph­et and Revolu­tion­ary, Uni­ver­sity of Toronto, 1961, p 4.
  3. Jac­ob Boehme, The ‘Key’ of Jac­ob Boehme / The Clav­is (An Explan­a­tion of Some Prin­cip­al Points and Expres­sions in His Writ­ings) (1624), Grand Raids: Phanes Press, 1991, p 50. There is anoth­er, slightly dif­fer­ent trans­la­tion of the text here online.
  4. Blake, A Mem­or­able Fancy, The Mar­riage of Heav­en and Hell pl 6, Erman, p35
  5. Dav­id Erman tracks many of the details in Blake’s work as a whole in, Proph­et Against Empire (New York: Dover Pub­lic­a­tions, 1954), arguing, for example, that Blake’s talk of the mach­in­a­tions of ‘The Red Dragon’ could well be rooted in the details of the deploy­ment of the Brit­ish Dra­goons (named pre­cisely after a ‘dragon’ — a type of fire­arm like a blun­der­bus), in their red uni­forms, as part of hos­til­it­ies toward revolu­tion­ary France.
  6. Blake,  Pre­face , Milton, in Erd­man p 95.
  7. Har­old Bloom, Com­ment­ary, in Dav­id Erd­manThe Com­plete Poetry and Prose of Wil­li­am Blake (1965), New York: Ran­dom House, 1988, p 905.
  8. Peter Fish­er, ibid, pp 3–4.