Thursday, December 16, 2010

William Blake’s Religion and Vision

William Blake was a Christian, although he did not conform to any denomination within the Christian faith. He was born and brought up a Baptist. When he was married, he took on board some ideas of the Swedish scientist philosopher and theologian, Swedenbourg, who believed in the idea of God as man. This idea is illustrated in Blake's poem, within the "Songs of Innocence", "The Divine Image" where he asserts that "Where mercy love and pity dwell, there God is dwelling too".

He also says that love is "the human form divine". However, Blake also believes that there are two contrary states to the human soul, that a person makes their own condition, although children are born "naturally good". This runs against religious thought at the time, which suggested that children were "naturally bad" due to Original Sin. The contraries are apparent throughout the "Songs", in Innocence versus Experience. The contrary poem to "The Divine Image" is "A Divine Image" in which Blake claims:

“Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face”
"A Divine Image" is much shorter than "The Divine Image" as it is only two stanzas long; perhaps because "secrecy" is the "human dress" according to "A Divine Image", this may also be a suggestion of sexual restriction. It also emphasizes the contrast more starkly. Children appear alongside religion in the "Holy Thursday" poems (one in Innocence and one of the same name in Experience). In Experience, the reader is asked "Is this a holy thing to see / In a rich and fruitful land, / Babes reduced to misery". In Innocence we meet the old men who are the "wise guardians of the poor", although this is probably an ironic description of these people by Blake, as they benefit from the poverty. Blake was very concerned with the social condition of the Britain that came with the Industrialism. Blake's "Songs", especially "Holy Thursday" (Innocence) show how religion was used to keep the poor "in their place" and to prevent revolution; although ironically, the majority of the poverty-stricken in Blake's day were "children of the Industrial Revolution". He was a revolutionary and asked:

“And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was
Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?”

William Blake was a visionary (but not a dreamer), aware of the realities and complexities of experience, particularly the poverty and oppression of the urban world where he spent most of his life. He had an amazing insight into contemporary economics, politics and culture, and was able to discern the effects of the authoritarianism of church and state as well as what he considered the arid philosophy of a rationalist view of the world which left little scope for the imagination. He abhorred the way in which Christians looked up to a God enthroned in heaven, a view which offered a model for a hierarchical human politics, which subordinated the majority to a (supposedly) superior elite. He also criticised the dominant philosophy of his day which believed that a narrow view of sense experience could help us to understand everything that there was to be known, including God. Blake's own visionary experiences showed him that rationalism ignored important dimensions of human life which would enable people to hope, to look for change, and to rely on more than that which their senses told them. He religious values are more profound than a priest actually practicing religion as he endorses:

“Then cherish pity, lest you drive
an angel from your door”

In the two Holy Thursday poems Blake offers contrasting perspectives on the social situation in England. On the one hand, the poet describes a festive event in St Paul's cathedral, in which children who are recipients of charity come to thank God. On the other, there is a hard-hitting critique of what it's actually like for most children, in "this green and pleasant land", with "Babes reduc'd to misery. Fed with cold and usurous hand". The Holy Thursday poems offer readers the opportunity to meditate upon late 18th-century England through the lens of a particular social event. Here is an example of the focus on the "minute particular", when one event opens up a different perspective on the reality of a wider context. Blake's vision was holistic. He criticised the way in which people (especially those of a religious bent) separated sacred and profane, instead of seeing each person as the place where these massive emotional and political forces were in tension. He insisted in his most outspoken work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that "everything that lives is holy". So, he challenged that view that there was anything special about the Bible, or a religious building, as compared with other literature, or other places, which could equally manifest the divine. His lifework was dedicated to exposing the extent to which infatuation with habits of thought, which sunder and demonize, prevent human flourishing.

“And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy”

The Sick Rose illustrates, again, the horror of repressed sexuality. The rose may be regarded as a symbol for a beautiful girl. In fact it represents a girl restricted by excessive modesty. This quality was to Blake a vice, and a vice which leads to the kind of frustration emphatically illustrated in this poem. The canker-worm destroying the beauty of a rose-bud here symbolizes the repression which eats into the vitals of the girl. The worm here may also refer to the priest as an exponent of the morality that encourages formal, loveless marriages. In any case, a girl who does not give a free scope to her senses is like a sick rose. The main theme of ‘Ah, Sunflower’ is, once again, the need for an uninhibited expression of sexual love. Both the young man and the virgin have been denied a fulfillment of their sexual desires. To all intents and purposes they are dead and buried. To allow one's desire to remain unfulfilled was the worst of crimes in Blake's eyes.

Blake's vision was very different from those who appealed to the past. He was concerned with human beings. The Bible was not to be a kind of holy rule-book, therefore, according to which priests and rulers could police people, but a collection of "sentiments and examples" which engaged the imagination. There was to be no contracting out of responsibility for biblical interpretation to priests and scholars. All people, inside and outside the churches, according to Blake, have the responsibility to attend to the energetic activity of the divine spirit in creation, in history, and in human experience. He wouldn't have wanted his words to become a sacred text, any more than the words of the Bible, but an ongoing stimulus to politics and religion in the struggle to realize man can exist but by brotherhood. Blake does not believe that salvation is possible through priests or through the morality preached by organized religion. The life of the senses should be free, he says. To hinder or to chain to fetter the senses is like murdering the human personality. 

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