Blake

2001-08-12

In between my readings of Ibsen and ancient Greek history and such, I recently read some selected poems by William Blake. The main reason I picked Blake for reading, other than the fact I'm working my way through all the poetry books I own, is that the editor of this volume is Jacob Bronowski, whom I admire a great deal and want to write an essay on one of these years. Since Blake was a favorite of Bronowski, I figured he can't be all bad.

And it turns out he isn't all bad. While Blake is best known for his early, more lyrical poems (especially "The Tyger"), the bulk of his output consists of what are usually referred to as his prophetic poems. Based on my reading of Bronowski's selections from the prophetic poems, I must say it often seems that Blake was doing some serious drugs! Yet there are some wonderful passages here, especially from the perspective of rediscovering the meaning of gnosticism. Blake's gnosticism is of the old-time Manichean variety, with a stark contrast between the good and evil forces in the world (both of which are quite real to Blake). Blake is also deeply Christian in his outlook: he firmly believes in the Christ myth. So he is strongly critical of any viewpoint that would call into question the Christ myth and the divinity of Jesus. Specifically, he excoriates the deists and proto-atheists of his time, and heaps scorn upon scientists, rationalists, and Enlightenment thinkers such as Bacon, Newton, Locke, and Voltaire. Yet on the same page (Jerusalem, sections 90-91) that he can label as "beautiful witchcrafts" the views of those "denying in private, mocking god and eternal life, and in public collusion calling themselves deists, worshipping the maternal humanity, calling it nature and natural religion", one can find Blake saying that "the worship of God is honouring his gifts in other men and loving the greatest men best, each according to his genius which is the Holy Ghost in man; there is no other God than that God who is the intellectual fountain of humanity." And Blake repeatedly voices the fine gnostic/humanist thought that "everything that lives is holy" (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, America: A Prophecy, Vala or the Four Zoas, etc.).

I think Blake's gnosticism is best expressed in a passage from The Everlasting Gospel:

God wants not Man to Humble himself:
This is the trick of the ancient Elf.
This is the Race that Jesus ran:
Humble to God, Haughty to Man,
Cursing the Rulers before the People
Even to the temple's highest steeple;
And when he Humbled himself to God,
Then descended the Cruel Rod.
"If thou humblest thyself, thou humblest me;
Thou also dwell'st in Eternity.
Thou art a Man, God is no more,
Thy own humanity learn to adore,
For that is my Spirit of Life.
Awake, arise to Spiritual Strife..."

So does Blake have God address Jesus, and by extension all human beings, calling humankind to a recognition of its own divinity. For:

Humility is only doubt,
And does the Sun and Moon blot out,
Rooting over with thorns and stems
The buried Soul and all its Gems.


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