It is very difficult to pin the ideas and beliefs of William Blake (1757-1827) down and label them with any accuracy in terms of being aligned with a particular body of political, social or religious thought and it is perhaps a futile exercise to try.
What Blake appears to have done, is explore numerous areas of thought, extracting segments which appeal to him and coming up with some kind of philosophy of his own.
It is true to say therefore that there have been a great number of influences on Blake, from the Muggletonians with their belief in one god (as opposed to a holy trinity), the tree of knowledge, “Reason” being the evil fruit and the “Fall” occurring when the serpent copulated with eve – to the likes of Emmanuel Swedenborg (Blake was evidently a sympathiser of the Swedenborgian “New Church of Jerusalem”), the Levellers (he was also sympathetic to didgeridoo playing fiddlers), the diggers, Thomas Paine and Mary Wolstonecraft.
It his through his own thought and the influence of so many others that Blake arrived at conclusions concerning the ‘human condition,’ Christ and man, the ‘Divine Image’, the Tree of Good and Evil, Reason and Moral Law, the Old Church and so on.
The two contrary states of the human condition
A great deal of Blake’s work deals, often deliberately, with contradictions. This is perhaps best illustrated by his collection of poems, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience.’ This collection was to reveal the ‘Two Contrary States of the Human Condition’, which were represented both literally and symbolically by innocence and experience as the title suggests. ‘Songs of Innocence’ in its original form may have been written in the tradition of Isaac Watts’, ‘Songs for Children’ (1715) although the intentions were probably very different. Whether this section of the book was inspired by Watts’ work or whether it was a result of a private competition Blake had with the Rev. Joseph Proud to develop songs for the New Jerusalem Church is unsure. Either way they developed from the pastoral convention of presenting a child which consistently rated joy and freedom over discipline and illustrated to the reader one of the human conditions.
The contrary state to this is of course experience, which brings the innocent child figure into a world, which tries to constrain that innocence and where the child symbol comes into contact with such things as ‘Reason’. This therefore creates a multitude of contradictions between all things each state represents – The ‘innocence’ of Christ, faith, arts and senses verses the ‘experience’ of the God of the ten commandments, the Moral Law, science and reason respectively.
As an example of the conflict between these two states, one can look at the poems ‘The Divine Image’ and ‘A Divine Image’. In ‘The Divine Image’, Blake is addressing one of his main radical beliefs of the time, the belief that god is not separate from man but rather god is within all men. This therefore made god the human divine as opposed to a divine human. If god is part of man, it would then follow that god is that state of the human condition that Blake calls innocence.
This view is an understandable one to take at the turn of the century as it was parallel to how people began to view themselves. Until this time, people saw their destiny as being in the hand of an all-powerful god-head. With the advent of industrialisation however, people began to be valued by their labour, which in itself was life consuming. More and more people began to see their destiny as in their own hands and in the hands of society.
This notion clearly caused problems for a number of people, not least for those within the established church and who supported the ‘Moral Law’. Theoretically, if people no longer believed in one omnipotent god and view god as within themselves, then the Christian belief advocated by the church collapses, as does their control and influence. In addition, it was an idea that posed a threat of revolution with people seeing power as in their own hands – now they are ALL god.
As Blake often worked in binary (as I would argue do we all), there had to be a contrary element to the dispersal of god into everyone. Here enters the notion of the fabricated ‘God of the ten commandments’ created by or perhaps represented by the Tree of Good and Evil which the Muggletonians often spoke of as the Tree of Knowledge. It was the elements that surrounded this notion which are visible in ‘A Divine Image’ (originally to be included in Songs of Experience’) as being the contrary state to that presented above. This illustrated the less favourable elements of man, “Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love” , were now replaced by “Cruelty, Jealousy, Terror and Secrecy”.
This was also an attack on the ‘Old Church’ as it was via their Christianity that the tablets of the Commandments were being preached as a foundation for the ‘Moral Law.’ Blake’s contempt for the commandments is evident on plate 23 of ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’,
“I tell you no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments…Jesus was all virtue and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
What Blake offered was a kind of justification by blind faith, something popular amongst radical groups, which of course undermined the establishment in theory, refusing to obey its laws. This was not a religion of obedience but one that was within all and therefore placed spiritual conflict as being within one’s self as opposed to within a church. These notions were obviously at odds with the priests and a large proportion of the ruling classes in England.
A further attack on the church can be seen in the poem, “The Garden of Love”, where he accuses the church of destroying paradise as per the final verse:
“And I saw it was filled with graves
And tomb-stones where flowers should be
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds
And binding with briars my joys and desires.”
This was also an account of how Richard Hindmarsh reformed the New Jerusalem Church for his own self-interest, making himself a high priest of the church which he saw as, “absurdity to say that the sheep have the right and power of choosing and dismissing their shepherd.” Hindmarsh was authoritarian in his conduct of the church which Blake despised believing that “active life perishes in ceremony.” Blake even used “thou shalt not” to mock the original writing over the church, “Nunc Licet”, meaning, “It is now allowable”. Hindmarsh’s church was as binding as the Old Church.
The image of binding was itself a recurring one in Blake’s work. It is used to express the way in which reason and the moral law with its corresponding state of the human condition, constrain and restrain people and in particular, the senses, affections and imagination. Blake felt that, “Without divine spirit or poetic genius in humanity, expressed in the affections and not the understanding, man could never transcend his own material nature.”
It was with this in mind that Blake often attacked people like Isaac Newton who were binding people with reason, laws and systems. Blake referred to this as the “Single vision of Newton’s sleep,” which were, “at fault because they cripple the progression from these contraries of innocence and experience.”
One only has to look at writings like ‘Urizen’ (clearly developed from “Your reason”) to see how strong Blake felt about such issues, which were combined with humanitarian radicalism to provide a harsh criticism of the social climate with the Church and the rationalist being the main perpetrators of unpleasantness.
This is evident in such poems as ‘The Chimney-Sweeper’ in which a boy is left to weep in the snow owed to the fact that his parents, “have gone up to church to pray.” It is in the final line of the first verse that we see Blake’s contempt as it is clear that he is stressing the hypocrisy of a church that would abandon those it implies it is praying for.
The chimney-sweeper becomes, “clothed in clothes of death”, presumably being rags and soot and emphasising the fact that a majority of chimney-sweepers died young whilst those that are responsible, in the words of the sweeper:
“…think they have done me no wrong
And are gone to praise God and priest and king.
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”
It must also be noted that the plight of the chimney-sweeper was becoming an important social issue at the time. Jonas Hanway was campaigning for them just 4 years before the poem was issued. As Bronowski writes in his book ‘Blake and the age of revolution’,
”Hanway had been trying to free apprentices to chimney-sweepers from their dangerous and cancerous work.”
Hanway described a chimney-sweeper as follows:
“He is now twelve years of age, a cripple on crutches, hardly three feet seven inches in stature…His hair felt like a hog’s bristles and his head like a warm cinder.”
It is evident where Blake found some of the imagery and inspiration for his work at a time when such issues were even being raised by the polite classes. The image of the chimney sweeper as a symbol of social and religious degradation was also to appear in “London”,
“How the chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackening church appals”
The church here being appalled by the chimney sweeper as opposed to their plight.
This is but one example of how Blake’s work combined his radical thought, expressed through his notion of the two contrary states as an antinomianist, an artist and a humanitarian, with a great awareness of the social conditions and movements around him. William Blake used his talents to try and raise awareness in others and as with many “Romantics”, this sets him apart from some of the stereotyping attributed to the term today.