Fearful Symmetry

Blake by Peter Ackroyd.  Knopf.  399 pp.

My re-kindled interest in Blake began, weirdly enough, when I ordered some copies of Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior for some inmates and noticed that the most perceptive Amazon review was written by a woman named Laurie from New Zealand.  I clicked to see the rest of her reviews—something I almost never do—and found that, in the year 2008, she reviewed any number of major important books.  She can’t have read them all in that year; she must have sat down to review her favorites.  I didn’t agree with everything she said, but found her reviews fascinating.  I don’t get all starry-eyed about the Internet, certainly not about Amazon, but considered it astounding that I was in communication with a random New Zealand woman in this way.

About the Complete Illuminated Books of William Blake she said a couple of things that caught my eye.  “William Blake’s longer poems, the so-called Prophetic Books, are legendary in their difficulty. Each of the two great epics, ‘Milton’ and ‘Jerusalem,’ is a world in itself, taking years or decades to explore. Everyone who has made the effort considers it time well spent.”  She went on to say how much better it was to read the Illuminated Books than it was just to read just the text.  “If a book I admire gets five stars, this one deserves fifteen. It’s a marvel, a rectangular treasure, one of the most precious books ever printed.”[1]

I also had the opinion of the great Francesca Freemantle, whose Luminous Emptiness is one of the most intelligent and best written Buddhist books I’ve ever read.  She was discussing the subject of Tantra—Vajryana Buddhism—and said that in some ways it’s more an attitude toward experience than a philosophy.  She regards Blake as the English Tantric, and cites two of his famous statements (both from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in itself a very Buddhist title) as typical of the Tantric attitude: “Everything that lives is holy.”  And “Energy is Eternal Delight.”[2]

I’m not a stranger to Blake, or to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  I’ve poured over that astonishing document many times since I first read it, and used another of its sayings as an epigram for my fourth novel[3].  “If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”  Blake is one of those writers who was part of a spiritual awakening in me before I realized it was a spiritual awakening.  I just knew he didn’t sound like anyone else I’d ever read.

But I’d always been cowed by the thought of the longer poems.  I’d heard of their legendary difficulty, also heard from people who didn’t think the difficulty worth it; Blake created a new mythology when he already had several at his disposal.  But I also read an opinion somewhere that the longer poems aren’t bad if you don’t get caught up in the weird names.  Blake created a new mythology, but out of the same old archetypes.  There only are so many.

I was also won over by Laurie’s enthusiasm.  How often do you come across a statement like this?  “Blake’s aim was nothing less than ‘to open the immortal Eyes/ Of Man into the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity/ Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.’  Astonishingly this is not exaggeration nor plain craziness: he can actually do this.”

I don’t intend now to sit down and plow through the Illuminated Books (which took me eight months to get from Amazon).  I’ll intersperse Blake with other things.  And I thought I’d begin by re-reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the man.

Blake was not conventionally educated, nor did he have classical training as an artist.  He was first and foremost an engraver, and did a great deal of engraving for other clients, in addition to producing his own work.  He was a tradesman, of the dissenting class, and had the politics and attitudes of such people.  He also had dissenting views on religion, and was influenced in particular by Swedenborg—whom he eventually rejected—Paracelsus, and Jacob Boehme.

Boehme—with whom I was not familiar, to say the least—seems a particular influence, if we can judge by some of the writings Ackroyd quotes.  “He to whom time is the same as eternity, and eternity the same as time, is free from all adversity.”  And further, “Our whole doctrine is nothing else but an injunction to show how man may create a kingdom of light within himself. . . . He in whom this spring of divine power flows, carries within himself the divine image and the celestial substantiality.  In him is Jesus born from the Virgin, and he will not die in eternity.”

Some of Boehme’s teaching weirdly echoes Dogen, though  Dogen of course would not have used the word God.  “If thou conceivest a small minute Circle, as small as a Grain of Mustard-seed, yet the Heart of God is wholly and perfectly therein: and if thou art born in God, then there is, in thyself, (in the Circle of thy Life) the whole Heart of God undivided.”

Blake did not believe these things because he read them; he believed them because they accorded with his experience.  Through his life he seemed to see eternity and time at once—it was nothing for him to walk through the streets of London and see Ezekiel sitting beneath a tree—and after his beloved younger brother died, he felt he was in constant communication with him, taking dictation every day.  These sound like the opinions of a saint or a madman, and Blake seems to have been a little bit of both.  His contemporaries saw his talent but were as often offended by his art as they were appreciative, not just by what he said but by what he drew and the manner in which he drew it.

Blake wasn’t a systematic thinker; he contradicts himself throughout his writing, even within a single work; it can be hard to reconcile various statements in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with one another, but I think he would say that even contradictory statements have their own kind of truth.  He seemed to understand, for instance, that sexual and spiritual energy are one, and seemed in places to advocate free love (“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”), but Ackryoyd finds no evidence that he acted on such views, or that he was ever unfaithful to his wife Catherine, who was an important helper in his work and whose stillness was a counter to his fiery temperament.

The arc of Blake’s career is a sad one; he was one of the promising young artists when he was young, but he alienated people by his subject matter and his temperament; he endured real poverty as he got older, became more and more isolated.  There was eventually a group of young admirers who surrounded him, but they couldn’t improve his financial situation much.  A few major patrons were important throughout his life.

I’ll recount a couple of my favorite Blake stories from memory.  In one he was sitting beside a young man at a dinner party, and at the end of the evening said something the young man would always remember.  “I hope God makes the world as beautiful for you as he has made it for me.”

The other story also comes from Blake’s old age.  The young biographer Crabbe Robinson greatly admired the man and wanted to prove to the world that he wasn’t mad.  In those days, acknowledging the Divinity of Christ was considered a proof of sanity.  So it was with some trepidation that Robinson asked the older man’s opinion on that subject.  “He is the only God,” Blake said, and Robinson must have breathed a sigh of relief.  Then Blake went on.  “And so am I, and so are you.”

Everything was the living God.  That was Blake’s madness, also his greatness.

[1] The Blake review is here.  http://www.amazon.com/gp/review/RK8P2207KX9KL?ref_=glimp_1rv_cl  Laurie’s collected reviews are here.  http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A1NO2UEAEBYEF6/ref=cm_cr_rdp_pdp

[2] https://buddhismnow.com/2013/09/28/tantric-attitude-to-life-by-francesca-fremantle/

[3] http://www.amazon.com/Autobiography-My-Body-David-Guy/dp/0525249745/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1463752596&sr=1-1&keywords=autobiography+of+my+body+david+guy