William Blake was an English poet, painter, print maker, and visionary of the Romantic period. He has influenced and inspired the work of such artists as William Butler Yeats, composers Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and counter-culture poets and songwriters of the 1960s like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison. Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, considers Blake a major influence in his own philosophy and work. Most online bios of Blake note that though he was considered mad in his time for his unusual ideas, now he is lauded as a magnificent luminary and genius. As in, those people back then just thought he was crazy but now we, a more enlightened people, recognize and appreciate him for what he was.
I don’t stand in judgement of who is crazy and who isn’t, but I’m willing to bet that most of these Blake fans, if they had the opportunity to have lunch with him today, for example, would come away thinking the man’s got a screw loose. William Blake started seeing visions at age 8 and continued to see visions very frequently, almost daily, throughout his life. He claimed to converse on a regular basis with angels and demons. How does that sit with you?
Blake saw the above “ghost of a flea” during a seance one night. Blake claimed the flea told him, “fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess.” In Blake’s time, a belief in the supernatural was not considered as idiosyncratic as it is now, so I wonder if he was considered mad more for his religious and political views.
When I was fifteen or sixteen I found in our bookshelves a copy of Blake’s Poetry and Designs. I found it mesmerizing and shocking. At that time I was obsessed with feminism and social justice, so I quickly picked up on those themes in his work. But as a believing Mormon, I found his religious ideas confusing and some of his artwork extremely unsettling.
His artwork was so powerful and arresting I couldn’t stop looking at it, but I didn’t understand it. About ten years later I bought a copy of Blake’s Poetry and Designs and I continued looking at the images and reading the poetry, thought I don’t know that I came much closer to understanding it. I didn’t know whether I liked it or not, but I had to have it. Unfortunately I left the book back in the US when I moved to Spain.
A few days ago researching creative vision brought me back to William Blake, and I wish I had the book with me. I’ve spent the past three days with whatever I can find of him online. I could write many more posts about all things Blake, but for now, this. What he thought about seeing. He sent the following lines to a friend in a letter:
Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God uskeep
From Single vision and Newtonssleep!
Let’s start with single vision, the dreaded Newtonssleep. Blake was not an Isaac Newton fan, and single vision represented the purely rational, logical, scientific way of seeing. Blake dreaded this literal view of the world, divorced of all emotion, empathy, and intuition. Twofold vision would include both reason and emotion, and an ability to contextualize and imagine. At the threefold level you have access to poetic, creative inspiration at Beulah, a place in Blake’s mythology “where Contrarieties are equally True.” It’s the subconscious. It’s where Blake goes Jungian. (In Beulah, it seems, the sexes “blissfully converse in shameless selflessness.” Sign me up!) Fourfold vision is mystical bliss. Ecstasy. Revelation. Visions.
For Blake the purpose of reason is to give form to imagination. Allowing contrary truths to coexist without one repressing the other is the ideal explored in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He believed the paradoxes of human existence should be allowed and in fact it is from these paradoxes that creative energy springs.
“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and
Repulsion, reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are
necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call
Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason.
Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
Harvey Birenbaum wrote of Blake’s Songs of Innocence: “The tensions of the world resolve here, appropriately–not in rest, however, but in play, a fluency of energy in absolute delight,” “…thus the meaning of life itself is not a philosophical problem but the function of a process or activity–properly a dramatic or a mythic problem.”
I am fascinated by the idea that we don’t create meaning in our lives by buying into a certain belief system imposed from outside ourselves, like formal religion and science, but rather through our way of seeing, of experiencing and enjoying creative energy. I agree with Philip Pullman, who says, “Single vision is deadly. Those who exalt reason over every other faculty, who condemn those who don’t respond to life with logic but allow themselves to be swayed by emotion, or who maintain that other ways of seeing (the imaginative, the poetic, etc) are fine in their place but the scientific is the only true one, find this position ridiculous. But no symphony, no painting, no poem, no art at all was ever reasoned into existence […]”
On my to-read list are:
Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake by Northrop Frye