Wednesday, 27 August 2008

William Blake : Paradise –the Hard Way.

Born in London in 1757 William Blake lived through both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, and witnessed the vicious repression after these events by the British ruling class .Although a deeply spiritual man, he was nevertheless appalled by the conditions of his fellow human beings and laid the blame in his political poems squarely on the twin evils of Church and State.

Blake was part of a group of close-knit skilled artisans who placed more weight on the moral value of their products than the market value. The fierce independence he sought throughout his life manifested itself in his trying to obtain total control over the labour process. He came up with the idea of publishing his own illuminated books, in which the text and illustrations could be printed from a single plate that was etched in relief before being sold direct to the buyers for a fair price. The process was so time consuming that he never gained materially and he never escaped the hated but much needed patronage of patrons.

The other consequence of this desire for independence was his opposition to the encroachments of both Church and State. The evidence for what influenced Blake’s ideas was the appearance of his signature on a document circulated at a Conference of Swedenborgians in Easter 1789. Emmanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish spiritual philosopher. The Swedenborgians stood for a millenarian proclamation of a New Age, hostility to priest craft, a positive view of human sexuality and a visionary reading of the material world. There was a split over the movement’s aim of creating a New Church and Emmanuel Swedenborg’s attitudes to sexuality .(Swedenborg had a vision of an overtly sexual heaven and tolerated concubinage). Blake identified with the expelled minority who opposed this but he also had differences with this expelled minority in turn. He was not a joiner of organisations but stood with the oppressed as an individual.

Opposition to Swedenborg was grouped around his publisher Jacob Johnson and his journal the ‘Analytical review’ .Although all dissenters identified with the French Revolution and Blake was to defend Paine’s Republicanism from reactionary attacks, he also had a lifelong enthusiasm for visionary experiences which gave him a correlative scepticism about the power of Reason .This marked him out from both the Painite Republican Deists and the Johnson circle. Central to the differences were his ideas about the self and his attitudes to sexuality. Blake was willing to put the self into hazard in the interests of his prophetic vision- “Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life” he declared .This contrasted with the Painite idea of the autonomous individual. The modern day equivalent might be a kind of idealist self-help New Age working on oneself in order to liberate humanity.

Blake's Newton (1795) demonstrates his opposition to the "single-vision" of scientific materialism: Newton fixes his eye on a compass (recalling proverbs 8:27, an important passage for Milton) to write upon a scroll which seems to project from his own head.
Blake saw sexuality as unruly and depicted sexual difference as an unstable rather than a fixed part of human nature (See his ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’) What was shared with Paine was a rough handling of the Bible .In Paines’ ‘ Age of Reason’ the Bible was dismissed as a priestly distortion of Hebrew folk tradition. Blake wrote in his Notebook:
“The Hebrew nation did not write it, Avarice and Chastity did shite it”
(Notebook, E 516).

He supported Paine for the latter’s’ attacks on the Bibles- “Perversions of Christ’s words and acts”. But if radical politics abstracted the individual from the sum of human brotherhood in its stress on the autonomy of the reasoning power , then it would perpetuate , in Blokes’ view, a mystery as destructive of human potential as the “ State religion” it wished to replace.

In ‘Visions of the daughter of Albion (1793), which contains Blake's critique of Judeo-Christian values of marriage. Oothoon (centre) and Bromion (left) are chained together, as Bromion has raped Oothoon and she now carries his baby. Theotormon (right) and Oothoon are in love, but Theotormon is unable to act, considering her polluted, and ties himself into knots of indecision.
Many of Blake’s’ most angry poems were published in his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’

In the ‘Chimney Sweeper’ Blake contrasts the drudgery and shocking lives of a child chimney sweep with the intoxicating image of a promised afterlife in Toms’ dream of an Angel- a thinly disguised attack on the Church – if you submit to misery and don’t resist oppression we will give you a dream. Its form and language give a sense of fate for the life of the child slave – so it’s a poem that still matters now given the scale of child and sweatshop labour that still exists in the 21st century.

The Chimney Sweeper

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘ 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!’
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curl'd like a lamb’s back, was shav'd: so I said
‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.’

And so he was quiet, and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!—
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open'd the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run
And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind;
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil'd among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

In ‘Holy Thursday’ Blake describes an annual procession, when thousands of the poorest children in London were marched from Charity schools to St Pauls. There they demonstrate their piety while their patrons look on. There is an ironic attack on the ‘wise guardians of the poor’.

Holy Thursday

Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two in red and blue and green,
Grey headed beadles walking before with wands as white as snow;
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames waters flow.
Oh what a multitude they seemed, those flowers of London town.
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs:
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.
Now like a mighty wind they raise to Heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among.
Beneath them sit the agéd men, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

The Holy Thursday of Experience makes this more explicit-Blake contrasts the bounty of nature in a rich and bountiful land with the poverty and misery of the children .The disbelief of the speaker serves to emphasize the absurdity of plentiful nature and poverty existing side by side reinforcing its unnaturalness. But the children are also seen as a force and the Holy Thursday of Experience uses plainer imagery to suggest that both anger and nature will end this oppression.
‘Babe can never hunger there’ but only in a different system – Blake though charity almost evil- no tinkering – be honest about the causes and eradicate it.
In the ‘Garden of Love’ the innocence and natural development of childhood that took place in the past has been distorted in the present by priests and their draconian church laws. Every element of the poem-its form, language, repetition and syllables contribute to the portrayal of a world that is full of despair and oppression, the poem becoming darker and darker with each line. The Garden reveals a loss of innocence and a denial of natural sexuality with the graves representing the death of pleasure and beauty- (Note how the imagery of the plate reinforces the message.) -namely his complete opposition to chastity, shame and marriage.

The Garden Of Love

And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And "Thou shalt not," writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

‘London’ is another poem full of anger at the state of society.


I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

The poems’ power lies in the juxtaposition of powerful images as Blake wanders through the streets of London- its key words are ‘Mind forg’d Manacles’ – Blake’s equivalent of Marx’s false consciousness.

People are imprisoned by their fears and false beliefs, ’the cop in all our heads’- this leads to fatalism and false despair. In other words mental imprisonment, manipulation and psychological oppression were not abstract concepts for Blake but as much a prison as bars and steel doors. If you couldn’t imagine a society without oppression and exploitation, you really were in a prison .He attacks the monarchy, militarism and imperialism and their hypocrisy and in the last stanza also has a pop at marriage and its corollary –prostitution.

In the ‘Prophetic books’ Blake continues with these themes. ‘America -a prophecy’ dramatises the Revolutionary war in America , Blake seeing the war as a step forward for world wide liberty and an opportunity for the British ruling class to see the futility it’s militaristic policy. His ‘Europe- a prophecy’ progresses onwards from ‘America’ describing war and revolution in Europe, but with plates illuminated in code because of the fierce political repression of those who identified with the French Revolution. The poem tells the British establishment to head the warning of a failed militaristic policy in America.

In Blake’s ‘famine’ a starving child is portrayed intimately and with chilling dignity in Revolutionary France.The Book of Urizen is one of the major prophetic books of the English poet, and was illustrated by Blake's own plates. It was originally published as The First Book of Urizen. Later editions dropped the word "first".

The book takes its name from the character Urizen in Blake’s mythology who represents alienated reason as the source of oppression. The book describes Urizen as the "primeval priest", and describes how he became separated from the other Eternals to create his own alienated and enslaving realm of religious dogma. Los and Enitharmon create a space within Urizen's fallen universe to give birth to their son Orc, the spirit of revolution and freedom. He is symbolic of the French and American revolutions. In form the book is a parody of the Book of Genesis.

Blake moves on from specific instances of oppression and injustice in the Songs to talk about underlying causes. It’s the ruling class that has invented heaven and Church laws with its ‘Thou shall not’ bans , policed by black gowned priests , economic power and slavery in London’s charter’d street, cemented by personal fear and self -imposed limitations in a corrupt world. Fear corrupts the powerful, the individual and society which, in turn, lead to a hardening of the individual and society when the causal repression is not honestly addressed and fought against by us all.

“Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of Religion”. Charity is a crime as it reinforces an unequal status quo and ignores the cause-Capitalism.
“As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys’: ‘Shame is Prides cloak’; ‘A dead body revenges not injuries’; ‘Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by incapacity”.- Proverbs of Hell.

Religion, Patriotism, Commerce and war are all hypocritical excuses for a status quo that exploits the poorest and weakest. Its cause, for Blake, was a lack of vision and imagination and an over-emphasis on Reason at the expense of the former.

The prophetic books present a vision of a dynamic, dialectical process in society,
Blake seeing oppression and division followed by revolution as cyclical.
He gives the different energies, forces and desires that exist within societies at different stages of development coded symbolic names, characteristics and stories and saw change occurring as a product of the unfolding of “contraries”. In doing so he revealed eternal truths abut humanity through the specific injustices of his time making Blake a revolutionary.

“The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”.

Peter Burton
August 08


Aglaia said...

Are you Petrovsky by any chance? You've got some FASCINATING things on this blog... from Blake to American documentary photography! I'm intrigued!

UNITY said...

I am Petrovsky , though
Peter or Pete from Glasgow will do.
Thanks for the comment . Who are You Aglaia? Do you know?