* 28.11.1757 London, † 12.9.1827 London
An engraver by trade, Blake was primarily a self-educated graphic and literary artist whose work reflects the attempt to confront contemporary political and social problems through a philosophically based spiritualism. Although baptized and buried in the Anglican Church, Blake was born into a family of freethinkers, and himself attempted to get back to the pure form of Christianity he believed to have existed before it was corrupted by organized religion.
Blake’s life reflects the conflict between corporeal and spiritual needs. He worked as a commercial artist, engraving illustrations for popular books, including some by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), and, notably, the account of John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). Yet, he was always more interested in executing his own illuminated books, which reflect an increasingly strong influence by the prisca theologia [→ tradition ], a pure form of theology that had developed as a counterpoint to conventional religion. Attempting to address the sometimes contradictory obligations of his materialistic and idealistic needs, Blake experimented with novel paint formulæ and engraving methods (explained to him, in a dream, by his deceased brother Robert), all designed to make his visions commercially viable. Unfortunately, none of the innovations proved financially successful.
Throughout his life, Blake evinced a strong interest in spiritualism. As a child, he experienced religious visions, and as a young man, he circulated among the mystics who frequented London in the 1780s. He met the neoplatonist Thomas Taylor (1758-1835), as well as the artist Henry Füseli (1741-1825); and he engraved the frontispiece for Füseli’s English translation of → Johann Kaspar Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man (1788). Intellectually, he was attracted to the writings of → Emanuel Swedenborg , owning and annotating at least three of Swedenborg’s books – Heaven and Hell, Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, and Divine Providence – and was likely familiar with two others – Earths in the Universe and True Christian Religion. In addition, Blake and his wife both signed the register for the first General Conference of the New Jerusalem Church in 1789. There is no clear evidence, however, that they attended any subsequent meetings, and Blake was eventually disillusioned enough to satirize Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell in his own The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793), transforming Swedenborg’s Memorable Relations into his own Memorable Fancies. Renouncing, for a time, Swedenborg’s influence, Blake claimed that ‘Swedenborgs writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further’ (pl. 22, E 43).
From Swedenborg Blake turned to → Paracelsus , the 16th-century Swiss alchemist, and → Jacob Boehme , the 17th-century German visionary, whose works had been translated by the 18th-century English mystic, → William Law . Although Blake spent his entire life in England, he did leave London for a few years, spending 1800-1803 in Felpham, as a guest of minor poet William Hayley (1745-1820). Although the relationship with the practical-minded Hayley quickly deteriorated, the stay in the country afforded Blake access to an extensive library. More successful was the relationship with Thomas Butts, a minor bureaucrat whose patronage during the first decade of the 19th century enabled Blake to illustrate parts of the Bible and Milton, among other things. Later in life, in 1818, Blake was discovered by John Linnell (1792-1882) and John Varley (1778-1842), two young artists whose own interests in the occult helped reinvigorate Blake’s final works.
These disparate interests all converge in Blake’s own form of a prisca theologia, in which he uses a kabbalistic-like myth as the basis for unifying all of his spiritual interests. His thesis in the early tract, All Religions are One (1788), that ‘The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy’, would lead inexorably to a rejection of any particular religious organization, the Swedenborgian New Church included. As he explained in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental dieties from their objects: thus began Priesthood. / Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. / And at length they pronounced that the Gods had orderd such things. / Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast’ (pl. 11).
Intellectually, Blake agreed with the basic assumptions of → Francis Mercurius van Helmont’s delineation of the prisca theologia, that the universe is an organic, vital, evolving whole, and that humans, having been made in God’s image, are to use their imagination to help restore the post-lapsarian world to its original perfection, through the exercise of their intellect and imagination. In the works leading up to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake applies his spiritual principles to contemporary problems. The early unpublished poem, The French Revolution (1791), focuses on the war in Europe; Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) considers English participation in the slave trade; and various lyrics in the collected Songs of Innocence (1789), and later, the combined Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) explore different forms of social, religious, political and moral hypocrisy.
At the same time that he worked on these exoteric works, Blake also began exploring esoteric themes. There is No Natural Religion, the companion to All Religions are One, is a series of aphorisms that conclude with the Application: ‘He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is’. He also began exploring the dimensions of gnosis in The Book of Thel (1789), a neoplatonic poem in which the soul ultimately chooses to stay in the ‘vales of Har’, Blake’s name for what he sees as the debilitation inherent in pre-lapsarian Eden, rather than become part of the corporeal cosmos where, though contributing to the life cycle, she will die. Similarly, in the unengraved Tiriel (c. 1789), Blake merges exoteric and esoteric themes, condemning contemporary politics for being a function of the erroneous use of reason, as opposed to intellect. To complete this phase of his artistic development, Blake wrote two prophecies – America (1793) and Europe (1794) – in which he presents an apocalyptic interpretation of the American and French Revolutions.
In the mid-1790s, Blake began the decades-long process of rendering his kabbalistic prisca theologia into mythic form. During this period he completed the four “minor prophecies”, in which he worked out specific details of his developing myth. In the first, The Song of Los (1795), Blake traces the progress of organized religion, attributed, in The Book of Urizen (1794), to the consolidation of the rational factor. The problem, as analyzed in The Book of Ahania (1795), is that once consolidated, reason became cut off from its spiritual component. Therefore, as suggested in The Book of Los (1795), the relationship between reason and vision had to be reconfigured. Of key importance to Blake’s thought process at this stage was the commission, worked on in 1795-1796, to help illustrate the popular poem by Edward Young (1683-1765), The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742-45), an extensive meditation based on conventional Christian theology. Even though the commission eventually fell through, the detailed analysis required for the project forced Blake to confront point by point his own attitude towards exoteric theology.
During the next ten years, intermittently from 1796 until 1807, Blake attempted to consolidate his criticism into a full-scale epic that would counter the errors propagated by Young’s Night Thoughts. Page 175 | Top of ArticleThe Four Zoas – or Vala, as it was originally called – is the first major attempt to transform his prisca theologia into narrative form. Written, in many cases, on proof sheets from the Young project, The Four Zoas is an early revision and re-presentation of exoteric Christianity in an esoteric form, its nine “nights” corresponding respectively to the kabbalistic sefirot (emanations) from Malkhut (Kingdom) through Hokhmah (Divine Wisdom), tracing the via mystica back to Keter Elyon, the Supreme Crown. Even though the myth is populated by unique allegorical figures with originally coined names, its structure resembles Francis Mercurius van Helmont’s system of Christian Kabbalism. A major collaborator with → Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) on the Kabbala Denudata (2 vols., Sulzbach, 1677-1684), van Helmont contributed the Adumbratio Kabbalæ Christianæ, a full-length Platonic dialogue between a Kabbalist and a Christian Philosopher, designed to demonstrate the congruence between the myth generated by Jewish mystic Isaac Luria (1534-1572) and Christianity. According to kabbalistic tradition, our existence is part of a larger cycle of creation, the purpose of which is to provide the opportunity for all souls to be purified. In the Adumbratio, van Helmont christianizes the myth, using the Bible to justify his transformation of the Jewish system. In order to add a specifically christological function, he expands what was originally a three-part structure – “Contraction”, “the Breaking of the Vessels”, and “Restoration” – into four phases: “The Primordial Institution”, the Godhead’s original intention for creation; “The State of Destitution”, the fall, as caused by the breaking of the vessels, and the ensuing contamination of souls; “The Modern Constitution”, corporeal existence in which both macrocosm (Christ) and microcosm (man) work, each on his own level, to effect the form of restoration; so that, finally, in “The Supreme Restitution”, Christ can defeat the forces of evil and man can rise.
We do not know Blake’s specific source for Kabbalism. However, in his major prophecies, he generated a universal prisca theologia which incorporates into a Lurianic/van Helmontian base all of his esoteric reading, including the neoplatonists, Boehme and even Swedenborg. The result was a four-fold myth about the nationalistic hero, Albion – ‘His fall into Division & his Resurrection to Unity / His fall into the Generation of Decay & Death & his Regeneration by the Resurrection from the dead’ (n. 1, 4:4-5). In this first attempt at an epic narrative, Blake seems incapable of delineating a non-conventional role for the Saviour.
Available only in a heavily revised manuscript, The Four Zoas reflects the creative process involved in the attempt to transform abstract theory into a fully realized myth. In its earliest form, originally entitled Vala, the epic was apparently intended to focus on the emanation of the spiritual component, her individuation signifying the consolidation of the force that would oppose true vision, and therefore lead inevitably to organized religion. As the poem evolved, however, Blake shifted his focus from the effect to the cause, from Vala to the four zoas, his name for the four psychological components that correspond to the four kabbalistic souls. In its final form, The Four Zoas depicts the initial disorganization of the four zoas, as Urizen (the Rational Soul) usurps the function of vision, causing Urthona (the Immortal Soul) to grow dark and to limp. Throughout the poem, the action delineates the process by which the zoas are ultimately realigned so that Albion can be regenerated. The problem is that at this point, the action leads almost inexorably to an external catalyst – Christian ransom – for its resolution. Although Blake would work on the poem for at least a decade, and would even complete its apocalyptic vision – ‘The war of swords departed now / The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns’ (n. 9, 139:9-10) – he could never integrate within its action a christological function that was not inimical to the concept of free will.
Blake confronts that specific problem in Milton, a brief epic in which the historical John Milton – whose doctrine in Paradise Lost was the source, Blake believed, of subsequent theological misapprehensions – returns to correct his error. As a transmigrating soul, Milton has wandered in heaven for one hundred years, unhappy at the legacy he left on earth. Hearing, in the Bard’s Song, the esoteric account of creation and fall, he identifies himself as the source of the exoteric misconception that has been promulgated on earth – ‘I in my Selfhood am that Satan: I am that Evil One!’ – and returns to correct his error: ‘I go to Eternal Death’ (14:30, 32). Once there, he literally reforms Urizen so that Albion can rise, and all of creation can prepare for ‘the Great Harvest & Vintage of the Nations’.
In delineating gilgul, the process by which the transmigrating soul returns to correct its error, Blake, like van Helmont before him, associates the kabbalistic Adam Kadmon (primordial man) with the christological function, though not as an external Saviour. Instead, he reconfigures Los, the personification that had been associated with the → imagination , into an internal Christ. Becoming Page 176 | Top of Articlewhat Blake will call ‘the vehicular form’ of Urthona (the Immortal Soul), Los is now depicted as having forgotten his originally intended function. But when Milton reforms Urizen, Los ‘recollect[s] an old Prophecy in Eden recorded’ (20:57), and devotes himself to constructing Golgonooza, the lower Eden where transmigrating souls will be purified in preparation for the apocalypse. Instead of sacrificing himself for the sake of mankind, Los creates the structure through which the individual can, of his own free will, save himself.
If Milton creates the form of restoration, Jerusalem, Blake’s final prophecy, enacts the process in the fullest sense. Consistent with the four-part structure delineated by van Helmont, Blake divides the action of Jerusalem into the four-part process ‘Of the Sleep of Ulro! and of the passage through / Eternal Death! and of the awaking to Eternal Life’ (4:1-2). Juxtaposing the corresponding actions of the macrocosm (Adam Kadmon/Los) and the microcosm (Adam Rishon/Albion), Blake divides his epic into four chapters, corresponding respectively to van Helmont’s four sections. In his first chapter, Blake conveys the inverse of van Helmont’s “Primordial Institution”, portraying the prelapsarian state in terms of what was lost as a result of the fall, when Albion chose ‘demonstration’ over ‘faith’. At the same time that Albion lapses into despair, the psychological state that prevents restoration of the microcosm, Los confronts his Spectre, the force of negation that attempts to deter him from effecting restoration on the macro-cosmic level. In the second chapter, Blake depicts van Helmont’s “State of Destitution”, when ‘Every ornament of perfection, and every labour of love, / In all the Garden of Eden, & in all the golden mountains / Was become an envied horror’ (28: 1-3). Even though, in his spiritual blindness, Albion turns his back on the Divine Vision, still, Los labors at his furnace, renovating the form of religion so that Albion will be able to rise. Next, corresponding to van Helmont’s “Modern Constitution”, Albion, the microcosm, confronts the perversions of Christianity that were produced as a result of the fall, while simultaneously, Los, on the macrocosmic level, attempts to align the biblical tribes with Albion’s sons, to prepare for the “Supreme Restitution”, when Los will confront negation at its very source, as he ‘alterd his Spectre & every Ratio of his Reason / ... Till he had completely divided him into a separate space’ (91:50, 52). Finally, ‘Time was Finished! The Breath Divine Breathed over Albion’ (94:18).
Through Jerusalem, which he worked on intermittently from 1804 until the 1820s, Blake was able to conceive a kabbalistic version of Christianity, one that enabled Albion to exercise the free will necessary to save himself, but without sacrificing the christological function of Los, who on the one hand, manipulated the form that Albion would actualize, and on the other, confronted the shards of negation that exist as an obstacle to cosmic restoration. Thus, it was through his verbal art that Blake was able to articulate his system. From that point on, however, he would focus on the visual art for its ultimate expression.
In his last works, Blake used the myth he had developed in the composite art as the standard against which to criticize and artistically revise the Bible and other religious works. He returned to the Book of Job, which he had worked on sporadically throughout his life, this time engraving plates that inverted the focus of the composite books. There, the pictures had been used to illustrate the verbal text; now, he uses words to illuminate what is primarily a visual text. In its completed form, Blake faults Job for constructing a rationalistic interpretation of religion, rather than experiencing God directly through the imagination. The Ghost of Abel (1822), a two-plate response to Byron’s Cain: A Mystery, published in December 1821, is subtitled ‘A Revelation In the Visions of Jehovah / Seen by William Blake’. For Laocoön (c. 1826-1827), his last illuminated work, Blake arranges a vast collection of aphorisms, using Hebrew and Greek, as well as English, all around a statue of Laocoön and his two sons, to convey the disparity between that which is taught and that which is true. Finally, on his deathbed, Blake worked on the 102-water color drawings that criticize and correct → Dante’s Divine Comedy, demonstrating how organized religion had occluded the medieval Italian poet’s true vision.
Tiriel (G.E. Bentley, Jr., ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967 ◆ The Divine Comedy (David Bindman, ed.), Paris: Bibliothèque de l’Image, 2000 ◆ The Illuminated Books (David Bindman, gen. ed.), 6 vols., Princeton: The William Blake Trust and Princeton University Press, 1991-1995 ◆ Illustrations of the Book of Job (Malcolm Cormack, ed.), Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1997 ◆ The William Blake Archive (Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick and Joseph Visconti, eds.), www.blakearchive.org ◆ The Complete Poetry and Prose (David V. Erdman, newly revised ed.), Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1988 ◆ William Blake’s Designs for Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts”: A Complete Edition (John E. Grant, Edward J. Rose, Michael J. Tolley and David V. Erdman, eds.), 2 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980 ◆ The Four Zoas: A Photographic Facsimile of the Manuscript with Commentary on the Illuminations (Cettina Tramontono Magno and David V. Erdman, eds.), Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1987.
Lit.: Peter Ackroyd, Blake, New York: Knopf, 1996 ◆Bryan Aubrey, Watchmen of Eternity: Blake’s Debt to Jacob Boehme, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1986 ◆ G.E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969 ◆ idem, The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake, New Haven & London: Yale University Press 2001 ◆ Allison Coudert, The Impact of the Kabbalah in the Seventeenth Century: The Life and Thought of Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614-1698) (Brill’s Series in Jewish Studies 9), Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1999 ◆ Morton D. Paley, “‘A New Heaven is Begun’: Blake and Sweden-borgianism”, Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly 12 (1979), 64-90 ◆ idem, The Traveller in the Evening: The Last Works of William Blake, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003 ◆ Kathleen Raine, Blake and Tradition (Bollingen Series 35.11), 2 vols., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968 ◆ Sheila A. Spector, “Glorious incomprehensible”: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Language, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2001 ◆ eadem, “Wonders Divine”: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Myth, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2001 ◆ Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
SHEILA A. SPECTOR