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William Blake: Imagination and the Limits of Reason

The central purpose of William Blake’s poetry is to challenge and subvert “conventional” systems of “thought and perception” through a sustained focus on the energetic power of the imagination in contrast to the constraining forces of reason. Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell targets the metaphysical assumptions of orthodox religion, which Blake felt separated man from an abstract, transcendent God and posited arbitrary moral values of “Good” and “Evil.” Blake argues instead, anticipating Nietzsche, that man should transcend these conventional moralities formed by imperfect perceptions, as the great men of history (such as Jesus and Milton) did, and recognise the divinity which resides within himself. Blake also assaults the cultural hegemony of scientific materialism through a sustained critique of Bacon, Newton and Locke, whose strident emphasis on reason and rationality have, according to Blake, limited man’s perceptions merely to his five senses, separating him from the infinite. In all of his works, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience to his final “prophetic” books, Blake conceives of himself as a poet-prophet, whose task is to reveal to society the transcendental truths lying beyond mere sensory perception through his visionary, mystical mode of perceiving the world. Unlike many previous mystics and seers, Blake recognises that a visionary insight into the divinity underlying all material reality is intrinsically linked to a sense of moral indignation at contemporary social ills, such as the slave trade and child labour. Therefore, all of his poetic works have explicit revolutionary implications for the social institutions maintained by false “modes of thought and perception,” which would be toppled and replaced by an Edenic utopia, providing mankind’s ‘doors of perception’ were ‘cleansed’ to reveal ‘everything […] as it is: Infinite.’

Within The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake seeks to subvert conventional notions of morality and the divine through his focus on the primacy of one’s individual unity with God (symbolised through the figure of God in man, Jesus), and his desire to expose the boundaries of “good” and “evil” as constraining and arbitrary. Blake rejects the Judeo-Christian conception of God as a tyrannical law-maker, wholly abstracted and hidden from human lives and concerns, admitting that this creator must be a ‘very cruel Being’ (‘A Vision of The Last Judgement,’ p. 438). As Beer has argued, from the metaphysical assumptions of Judeo-Christian theology, which sees God as the supreme law-giver, ‘it was only logical that further rational interpretation of nature should depict it as a vast machine devised in a similar way,’ as seen in the mechanistic theories of Newton and Bacon. Indeed, Blake parallels this predominance of a coldly materialistic philosophy with the fall of man: ‘Adam shuddered! Noah faded!’ as they watch ‘Urizen give his Laws to the Nations’ (‘The Song of Los,’ p. 109). In contrast to the Judeo-Christian account, Blake offers a genealogy of religion which originates chiefly in imagination of man; it is the ‘ancient Poets,’ with their ‘enlarged and numerous senses,’ who can perceive and ‘animate’ all ‘sensible objects with Gods’ (‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ p. 74). Yet, due to the predominance of reason, (causing a ‘narrowing [of] perceptions’ (‘The Book of Urizen,’ p. 129)), man ‘attempt[ed] to realize’ these ‘mental deities from their objects’ in order to form the rationalistic ‘system’ (‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ p. 74) of institutionalised orthodox religion. In this worldview, God is made independent of the imagination, causing man to easily ‘forg[et] that All deities reside in the human breast’ and thus falsely reason that God had ‘ordered such things’ (ibid., p. 74), rather than man.  From this system of ‘sacred codes,’ (ibid., p. 70) formed by an imperfect perception of a vitalistic, protean universe, Blake sees the source of all too human moral values, such as the arbitrary association of ‘Good’ with ‘the passive that obeys Reason’ and ‘Evil’ with ‘the active springing from Energy’ (ibid., p. 69).

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Blake sees his task as poet to expose the constraining effects of an overly rationalistic theology, which has imposed conventions of morality and thus suppressed an instinctive energy – that of the imagination. This begins, in a typically Nietzschean manner, of “going beyond” such narrow categories of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil,’ by looking to Blake’s representative men of history. Jesus, according to Blake, was ‘all virtue’ only because he ‘acted from impulse,’ rather than the ‘rules’ in the ‘Ten Commandments’ (‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ p. 80); similarly, Blake’s poetic hero Milton was only a ‘true Poet’ because he was ‘of the Devil’s party’ (ibid., p. 71), and therefore not bound to the narrow rules and constraints devised by angels. Blake highlights the pervasiveness of ‘The Net of [merely rational] Religion’ (‘The Book of Urizen,’ p. 128) through his critique of Swedenborg; despite his conviction that he had exposed the ‘folly of churches’ (‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ p. 79), Blake rejects Swedenborg for characterising the spiritual realm in mechanistic, static terms similarly espoused by rationalist philosophers. Whereas Swedenborg argues in Heaven and Hell that ‘[w]ithout equilibrium is no action and reaction,’ Blake counters: ‘[w]ithout Contraries is no progression’ (‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ p. 69), thereby interfusing and marrying that which Swedenborg would keep separate. Blake critique of the religious man who is ‘weak in courage’ yet ‘strong in cunning’ (ibid., p. 73) bears striking resemblances to the powerless ‘slaves’ in the philosophy of another self-proclaimed prophet, Nietzsche. In his Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche’s rejection of ‘the demand for one [normative] morality for all’ as ‘detrimental to […] the higher men,’ parallels Blake’s belief that ‘One law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression’ (ibid., p. 80). Thus, the narrow, conventional perceptions of the religious lead them to negate and ‘restrain’ the vital energy of reality, as a ‘crow’ wishes ‘everything was black’ (ibid., p. 73) since it cannot imagine otherwise. Blake therefore seeks not to judge men by narrow dichotomies of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ but rather as either a ‘fool’ or a ‘wise’ (ibid., p. 72) man, the latter of whom can imaginatively transcend ordinary perception. In contrast to the fool’s negation of reality, Blake advocates for ‘Contraries’ such as ‘Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate,’ as being vital and ‘necessary’ for ‘Human Existence’ (ibid., p. 69). Consequently, Blake does not reject Reason outright; it is only the dominance of the former aforementioned contraries in Blake’s contemporary society that leads him to emphasise the latter in the hope of reinstating the forgotten world of the imagination, alive with constructively warring contraries.

Blake identifies the discoveries of modern science as giving rise to a dangerously false conception of man and of existence. Personified by Nurmi as the ‘unspiritual triumvirate’ of reason, ‘Bacon, Locke, & Newton’ (‘Milton,’ p. 202) are constantly invoked in Blake’s poetry to expose the consequences of a materialistic, coldly rational worldview devoid of imagination. The eponymous protagonist in Blake’s cosmogonic myth of creation, Urizen, resembles the foolish men of The Marriage, since his lack of imagination prevents him from seeing the ‘necessary […] contraries’ (‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ p. 69) of existence. In seeking ‘a joy without pain […] a solid without fluctuation’ (‘The Book of Urizen,’ p. 116), Urizen is forced to impose ‘One command, one joy, one desire’ (ibid., p. 117) on the rest of mankind. Blake repeats ‘one’ nine times to convey the true horror of this monistic vision of conformity and stasis: ‘One King, one God, one Law’ (ibid., p. 117). As a result of this, mankind’s conventional modes of perception were formed; time is now sub-divided into ‘hours, days & years’ (ibid., p. 120) and the space which was once infinite is broken up through Urizen’s use of the scientific method: ‘He formed scales to weigh’ and ‘golden compasses’ (ibid., p. 127). As a result of this desire for reason and order, man’s ‘Senses […] rush’d’ inward and his perceptions ‘narrow[ed]’ causing him to forget his ‘eternal life’ (ibid., 129). Despite this bleak image of man ‘rent from Eternity’ (ibid., p. 119), Blake’s poetry offers an alternative to Bacon’s atomism, Newton’s rigid laws of time and space, and Locke’s empiricism in an attempt to subvert commonly accepted views of reality to open up the possibility for both inward and outward change. Instead of conceding that man could be reduced within a wider, totalising theory of the universe such as Bacon’s atomic theory, Blake emphatically declares ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create’ (‘Jerusalem,’ p. 219) thereby positing the individual’s ‘human form divine’ (‘The Divine Image,’ p. 22) as the irreducible centre of the universe. Blake’s poetry also consistently focuses on infinity and eternity as the true noumenal reality, which has been obscured by man’s knowledge being limited to his ‘organs of perception’ (‘There is No Natural Religion,’ p. 7) alone. Despite Locke’s empirical assertion that man’s only source of knowledge is to be gained through sensory data, Blake subverts this claim, arguing instead that man ‘perceives more than sense […] can discover’ (ibid., p. 7). Blake attests to this himself; in his childhood he saw ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars,’ and thus urges his readers 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’ (‘Auguries of Innocence,’ p. 403), thereby moving towards a contemplation of ‘The Divine Vision’ (‘On Wordsworth’s Poems,’ p. 467). Blake’s poetry therefore has an overtly didactic role; whilst at present the forces of organised religion and scientific materialism has made the world appear ‘finite and corrupt’ to man ‘through [the] narrow chinks of his cavern,’ Blake knew that his poetry would ‘rais[e] other men into a perception of the infinite’ (‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ p. 75).

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What characterises Blake in contrast to other historic mystics and visionaries, and distinguishes him firmly as a “poet-prophet,” is his absolute conviction in the connection between an expanded spiritual perception of the world, and a sense of moral indignation at the stark contrast between horrifying actualities of slave trade and child labour, and the utopian visions of the imagination. Throughout the history of modern scholarship on Blake, there appears to be a near universal consensus on Blake’s ‘great purpose’ to ‘make […] his message [of radical social change] known,’ which distinguishes him from other mystics, who are merely ‘satisfied with [divine] communion.' Blake’s early poetry in Songs of Innocence and of Experience clearly demonstrates the hypocrisy he sees in parents who would see no contradiction in ‘s[elling]’ their children to be ‘lock’d up in coffins of black’ as chimney sweepers, whilst ‘go[ing] up to the church to pray’ (‘The Chimney Sweeper,’ p. 18) with a clean conscience. Blake links social practices such as child labour and the slave trade to a Gramscian analysis of “hegemony,” whereby man creates his own ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ (‘London,’ p. 41) by adhering mindlessly to the dominant discourse. To resolve this, Blake now, having ‘discovered the infinite in everything’ as the Biblical prophets Isiah and Ezekiel had, sees a necessary connection between an expanded sense perception and a refusal to ignore that ‘voice of honest indignation,’ which is ‘the voice of God’ (‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ p. 74). Blake’s task was to liberate man’s imaginative faculties to intuit the infinity underlying all sensible reality, which would necessarily, as Gross argues, precipitate active moral ‘indignation’ at the ‘marks of weakness, marks of woe’ (‘London,’ p. 41) inflicted by repressive social institutions, as opposed to retreating to a transcendent, detached ‘nirvana of pure contemplation’ as other mystics may do. Praxis is central to Blake’s poetry and life, attested to by his participation in the Gordon Riots of 1780 and production of anti-slavery engravings, such as A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows. Despite this, one may accuse Blake’s later “prophetic” works as being characterised by a retreat away from tangible social realities to an elaborate mythopoeia produced by a delusional mind. Yet this analysis ignores Blake’s indirect method of assaulting conventional thought: taking inspiration from ‘[t]he wisest of the Ancients […] Moses, Solomon, Esop, Homer, Plato’ he considers that which is ‘not too Explicit’ as ‘fittest for Instruction’ as it ‘rouzes the faculties to act’ (‘Letter to Rev. Dr John Trusler, August 23 1799,’ p. 470). Given Blake’s awareness of the pervasive power of the hegemony of scientific reductionism in all aspects of language and culture, he realises that his poetic vision of the world could only be conveyed through transcending the narrowly defined, logical and linear language of abstract philosophy. As Yeats saw over a century ago, the reason for Blake’s ‘obscur[ity]’ can only be ‘because he spoke things’ for which he ‘could find no models in the world about him.' It is therefore the very ineffability of his subject matter, rather than his method of writing, which is to blame for any of Blake’s difficulty in comprehension, and should not render his desire for radical social change obsolete.

To conclude, it is clear that all of Blake’s works figure methods to subvert conventional modes of thought and perception derived from a predominance of reason and scientific materialism. Blake employs various poetic techniques to expose the hypocrisies within the social institutions of his time, employing both simple, child-like songs, and elevated poetic diction, with a revolutionary force unparalleled by his other Romantic contemporaries. Given his stark awareness of the damaging effects of a world dominated by science and reason, and the transcendent possibilities that would be afforded to mankind if their imagination could be freed beyond the constraints of their five senses, it is therefore appropriate to envisage Blake’s poetic endeavour as an “assault.” Blake knows that if his poetic project was successful, there would be a metaphysical shift in reality, where man would recognise the divinity within himself and others, and thus cease to establish social institutions on fear, and instead begin founding society on the true Christian virtues of love and forgiveness. It is for this reason that Blake’s life and work continues to be an enduring source of inspiration for various visionaries and social revolutionaries in the two centuries after his death, including notable countercultural icons Aldous Huxley, the rock band The Doors, and the writers of the Beat Generation.



Primary Reading

Blake, William, Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008)

Secondary Reading

Altizer, Thomas J. J., The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1967)

Beer, John, Blake’s Visionary Universe (Manchester: Manchester University Press; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969)

Birenbaum, Harvey, Between Blake and Nietzsche: The Reality of Culture (Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1992)

Bloom, Harold, Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963)

Bowman, Marcia Brown, ‘William Blake: A Study of His Doctrine of Art,’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 10. 1 (1951), 53-66

Bundock, Christopher, Romantic Prophecy and the Resistance to Historicism (University of Toronto Press)

Damon, S. Foster, William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbol (London: Dawsons, 1969)

Frye, Northrop, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947)

Gross, David, ‘Infinite Indignation: Teaching, Dialectical Vision, and Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell,’ College English, 48. 2 (1986), 175-186

—— ‘”Mind-Forg’d Manacles”: Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony in Blake,’ The Eighteenth Century, 27. 1 (1986), 3-25

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. by Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Nurmi, Martin K., William Blake (London: Hutchinson, 1975)

—— Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: A Critical Study (New York, Haskell House Publishers, 1972)

Rix, Robert W., ‘‘In Infernal Love and Faith’: William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,”’ Literature and Theology, 20. 2 (2006), 107-125

White, Wayne, ‘William Blake: Mystic or Visionary?’ CLA Journal, 9. 3 (1966), 284-28

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