Not Ceasing From Mental Fight — William Blake’s Mystic Vision
William Blake’s strange collection of poetry and polemic is a striking juxtaposition of form and function. Many of his poems, seen on their own, appear much like the didactic and socially-minded religious pop-poetry of the 18th century. However, the force beind the simple verses was a bizarre intellect, radical even by the standards of his fellow radicals. Understanding Blake’s poetry requires some contextualizing with his then-radical politics, still-radical social views, and complex mythos.
Blake’s political philosophy fast approached anarchism. A fervent opponent to the slavery, Blake equated many social constructs — such as capitalism, organized religion, and monogamy– to the institution. The new English factories are “dark satanic mills” in “And did those feet in ancient time”. Likewise, his “Proverbs of Hell” opens with “Prisons are built with stones of law, Brothels are built with bricks of Religion” (207). But Blake’s denouncement of did not align his religious views with the deism of his fellow radicals, rather he continued to maintain an unusual array of spiritual views. He experienced visions and apparitions throughout his life — biographies mention an important incident in early childhood when God pressed his face against the boy’s window (170). In direct opposition to his political allies, Blake eschewed principles of the Enlightenment and advocated for greater spiritual consciousness over reason. Blake’s later poetry is set a a complex mythical framework with various allusions and similarities to Christian mysticism as well as Kabbalisitic and Gnostic overtones. In his poetic polemic “There Is No Natural Religion”, Blake summarizes his ideology– “Mans [sic] perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception… He who sees the infinite sees God… God becomes as we are that we may be as he is” (175-176).
While Blake saw his spiritual advocacy as intertwined with his social views, only the latter ever gained real traction. His opposition to slavery was partially satisfied in his own lifetime and his re-appraisal of Mary Wollstonecraft foreshadows the efforts of 20th century feminist scholars. But just as his other social views have only briefly reappeared in subcultures, so to has his mythic framework survived only as a literary curiosity or a appreciated by small esoteric groups (Apiryon). But while his personal views have barely survived as intended, the spiritual energy in his works remains compelling. “And did those feet in ancient time”, Blake’s poetic re-appropriation of English Christian folklore, has been further re-appropriated into the nationalist anthem “Jerusalem”. A further reincarnation of the work is seen in socialist folk singer Billy Bragg’s rendition of the song. Drawing on the poem’s anti-industrialization and anti-state perspective, Bragg revives the old political force of the verses while downplaying the religious angle. Blake’s radical views may have mostly died with him, but the energy in his works continues to re-emerge.