William Blake in an 1807 portrait
by Thomas Phillips.

William Blake (1757-1827)

From his childhood Blake was a strange, eccentric, brilliant visionary. When he walked the streets of London or in the fields beyond the city, Blake actually saw and spoke to angels and spirits. He drew pictures of these spirits copied from his visionary world. His poems, he claimed, were narrated to him by angels. At age four, he saw God staring at him through a window in his bedroom. At eight, he drew a picture of a tree full of singing angels. Later in his life, after his beloved younger brother had died, Blake insisted that he was able to hold conversations with him from beyond the other side.

People thought Blake was mad, but Blake thought that the world was mad, mad with its anxiety and bloodshed, its repressive morality, and its selfish lovelessness. Blake thought that the modern world was ruled by a race of Druids, people who used human sacrifice as the basis of its hold on power. Any society that could turn children into chimney sweeps could not be regarded as civilized.

At the core of society’s problems Blake saw a failure of the imagination: man had enslaved himself to reason. Blake’s life work as a poet and artist was to show how the Golden Age could be restored in England (quote from Milton.) When revolution broke out in France, Blake believed the millennium was at hand. The Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789-1796) were written in protest against contemporary society, and read imaginatively, they describe a possible path to a New Jerusalem in England.

For Blake, the possibility of salvation lay in the human imagination. He disdained the scientific and materialist bent in English intellectual thought throughout the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Bacon, Newton and Locke (as well as the Deists) had rejected biblical revelation and derived their religious beliefs from scientific observation of the harmonious machine of nature. Blake also disagreed with the growing adherents of the philosophy of utilitarianism: utilitarians believed that a moral choice could be calculated by measuring how an action would benefit the greatest good for the greatest number of people in society. (The poor always seem to get left out in that deal.)

Blake's conception of metaphysics and morality was very different from the mechanistic universe imagined by the philosophes. He believed that reality is not external to the observer; it actually is composed by the mind. Through imagination we perceive objects, and our thoughts and feelings blend with the object to create an individual reality. What we see reflects our inner life. Through using the imagination we reach beyond the scientific world to experience a truth reflecting an eternal order. When we must make a moral choice, there frequently is no logical and rational path to take. We must exercise our moral imagination to resolve the paradox. This action strengthens our moral faculty and provides a tool which can be used to transform society for the better.

In Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake pairs poems with seemingly contradictory messages, To resolve the paradox, we must rely upon our imagination, that eternal part of our nature, and thus achieve moral experience.


Check out The Blake Archive


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