The Blake Project: All Religions Are One; There Is No Natural Religion; The Book of Thel; Songs of Innocence and Experience; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
I first studied William Blake in my survey of English literature course at Duke University. To say that I was excited would be a vast understatement: I had a fervent wish to be a writer and believed that, by first studying and mastering all of English and American literature, I would lay the groundwork. I hadn’t realized that I would barely scratch the surface of these traditions, that studying them would be the work of a lifetime. I thought it would all happen in the next few years. I was ready to go.
The class was supposed to have been taught by the great William Blackburn, famous writing teacher of William Styron, Reynolds Price, Anne Tyler, Fred Chappell, Josephine Humphreys, Charlie Smith, and many other lesser lights. But Blackburn had fallen ill, and instead the class was taught by my First Academic, a man whom I would rather not name (though he died recently), but who opened the first class by telling us a dirty joke, told us from the start that he expected us to read critics as well as literature, and, when he got to Blake, let us know that this was one of the great writers of British literature because (he seemed to be saying) of the vast body of intelligent critics he had attracted. He had an anthology of Blake criticism and read from it (with great enthusiasm) frequently, going way over our nineteen years old heads. I wondered sometimes what he himself thought of the poems.
He told us an elaborate theory of how Blake was writing about Innocence, then Experience, to be followed by a Higher Innocence, which Blake himself had achieved. I tried to understand what the man was saying, never quite got it. I began to suspect I wasn’t cut out to be a student of English literature, decided eventually not to get a PhD, though both my brother and cousin did.
When my wife heard I’d be taking up Blake again, she thought I should read a critical biography recently published by a lifelong Blake scholar. I may read it when and if I ever finish this project. But I wanted to confront Blake on my own, read him in the intuitive way I read all religious writing, trusting that, as the Buddha once said, I have the same human capacities that these other critics have, I should be able to see what they see. I didn’t want to be like the First Academic, standing in front of the class lecturing from some book.
What I think is that, in these early works, Blake confronted a common understanding of religion (The Songs of Innocence), which he rejected for its failure to take in certain obvious facts of human experience (The Songs of Experience). Essentially, I think, he was rejecting the Christianity of his day. Then he created his own religion, as he was beginning to create his own mythology. He didn’t inspire many believers; most people in his day thought he was a madman. But the religion he created was “modern” in the way that so many great religious teachings—those of the Taoists, those of the Buddha—seem modern today. They’re startling and true. They’re beyond time.
Blake didn’t think creating a new religion was a big deal because he believed that All Religions Are One, as he proclaimed in his first illuminated book. He said something in his first line which echoes the words of the Buddha in the Kalama Sutta, “The true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences.” He wasn’t interested in blind faith or slavish submission. He was interested in religious experience. He saw the true Man (what a Buddhist might call the True Self) as the Poetic Genius. All of us have Poetic Genius, and “all are alike in the Poetic Genius.” But then particular details work their way through individuals—“all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weakness of every individual”—so differences appear in various belief systems.
The problem—as Blake tells us in the two pieces entitled There Is No Natural Religion—is that man is limited in what he can perceive—“Man cannot naturally Percieve, but through his natural or bodily organs”—but unlimited in what he wishes to perceive. “More! is the cry of a mistaken soul, less than All cannot satisfy man.” And “If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.” That, as far as I’m concerned, is a pretty good explanation of the Buddhist concept of dukkha. We desire that which, by the very nature of things, we cannot have. But Blake holds out another possibility. “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. . . . God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.”
Blake published The Book of Thel in the same year as The Songs of Innocence (1789). It begins with Thel’s Motto: “Does the Eagle know what is in the pit? /Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?” and is a brief but beautiful lament on the fact of impermanence, the same fact, essentially, that started the Buddha on his religious quest. Thel is a sensitive soul—“she in palness sought the secret air”—and the writing is Blake at his best; he seems freed by this longer form. “O life of this our spring! Why fades the lotus of the water?/ Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall.”
So she consults others, not the eagle but the mole, and gets her answers. The lilly tells her, “I am a watry weed . . . Yet I am visited from heaven and he that smiles on all/ walks in the valley, and each morn over me spreads his hand.” She also consults the Cloud, and the Worm, and they all essentially say the same thing: why should she lament her short life, when it is longer than all of theirs, and when, as the Cloud says, “O maid I tell thee, when I pass away,/ It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace, and raptures holy”?
This is the vein in which The Songs of Innocence, beautiful poems themselves, were also written, more or less the context of conventional religion. One of the most famous, perhaps the most beautiful, is the simple lyric The Lamb, which was made into a hymn that I sang in my Presbyterian church. I can remember when I was young, long before I knew who William Blake was, being touched by its beauty.
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
There seems to be a different sensibility standing behind these poems, waiting to express itself. It shows most prominently in the famous—and probably most profound—of all the Songs of Innocence, The Chimney Sweeper. This is a portrait of these terribly abused children, who spend their days doing difficult impossible work and ruining their health. One of them has a vision of an angel who comes and sets them all free, so they have an immortal life. It is essentially a vision of eternity, like what Thel heard from the lilly and the cloud. In this case, though, the boys have the vision to comfort them, but they have to go back to their miserable work and miserable lives. The final line of the poem—“So if all do their duty they need not fear harm”—cannot be read as anything but ironic. Let’s see a Protestant church set that poem to music.
The Songs of Experience is another kind of document altogether. It begins, for one thing, with a proclamation by the poet, which thrilled me even when I was in college and which I’ve remembered ever since.
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future sees
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees.
He is “Calling the lapsed soul,” and seems to be addressing someone who has turned from life, is afraid of life.
Turn away no more
Why wilt thou turn away
The starry floor
The watry shore
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.
The world presented in the Songs of Experience is not the sweet happy pious world of the Songs of Innocence. It is a world full of problems, difficulties, where even beauty has corruption at its core.
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
It is also a word where human beings have become discouraged. These seem to be the lapsed souls that the Bard is speaking to. Blake was a London man, and when he speaks of London, in his poem of that name, he is speaking of the world.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in ever face I meet
Marks, of weakness, marks of woe
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
These mind-forg’d manacles are the problem. In contrast to the Songs of Innocence with their pious sweetness, the Songs of Experience are pointedly anti-religious. There is the whimsical song where The Little Vagabond points out that, “Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,/ But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm,” and there is the more strident The Garden of Love, where Blake shows what has been done to innocent love.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I had never seen:
A Chapel was build 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 turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
Blake isn’t being subtle. One of the strongest themes throughout his early work is the innocence and beauty of sexual love, and he contradicts many religious thinkers of his time by insisting on that. But he also confronts the difficult facts of human existence, the fact that not all God’s creatures are warm and fuzzy like the lamb. In that way the most characteristic, and in some ways the most beautiful of the Songs is also probably the most famous one, and stands in sharp contrast to The Lamb.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Blake is celebrating the sheer power of creation as well as its beauty. Even the stanzas that don’t make logical sense, like the fifth one, have an odd powerful beauty, like Blake’s art work (though his painting of the tiger is rather tame. As his biographer Peter Ackroyd points out, Blake was more adept at drawing people than animals).
Thus we come to the mature work in which Blake united these two visions, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It is an odd document, especially after he had just produced all of these lyrics. It really isn’t a poem at all, except in a few places, and the prose can be a clunky and offhanded. Yet it is in this odd beautiful idiosyncratic work, the one work by Blake that I’ve continued to return to throughout my life, that he most clearly states his deepest feelings about religion. He couldn’t find any religious system that would encompass how he truly felt (he had admired Swedenborg for a while, and pays tribute to him, but eventually discards him).
Blake seems to have been in exactly the same place I was in when I gave up on Christianity. I eventually found Taoism and Buddhism, which answered my questions and enabled me to see Christianity in a new way. Blake had no such recourse. So he created a religion out of whole cloth, but in doing so made many of the discoveries that Eastern religions made. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell itself echoes Eastern teachings, not just The Merging of Difference and Unity (which confronts the same basic conundrum), but also the Heart Sutra, which delights in contraries and paradoxes.
Blake begins with the basic fact which he has observed, and which he expressed so beautifully in his lyrics. “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” It is from these contraries, he says, that religions define good and evil. “Good is the passive that obeys reason. Evil is the active springing from energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
These definitions make religions fall into characteristic errors. He names three. “1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul. 2. That Energy, calld Evil is alone from the Body. & that Reason, called Good, is alone from the Soul. 3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.”
Blake contradicts these principles with his own, and they strikingly resemble the teachings of Soto Zen, and of Buddhism in general. He uses the word Reason where Buddhism would use the word Mind. “1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. 2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason [Mind] is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. 3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”
Reason is only a problem when it tries to control Energy, when it creates the “mind-forgd manacles” that stifle life. Mind needs to follow energy rather than the other way around. Blake pictures himself “walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torments and insanity.” And though Mind is a kind of circumference to Energy, it is not really a boundary. It is infinite.
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
Blake follows this Memorable Fancy (there are five of these in the whole work) with his Proverbs of Hell, the part of his work that I’ve come back to most often. I used one of them as an epigraph to The Autobiography of My Body, my novel about sexual obsession, “If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” I could just as easily have used “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Blake seems in some places to reflect his extraordinary art work. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Or “When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius. lift up thy head!” He suggests why he was so productive. “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” In some places he seems to take his values too far. “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” One in particular could be a coda for all his work. “Exuberance is Beauty.”
Ackroyd tells us that it was nothing for Blake to be walking through London and see Ezekiel sitting under a tree. In one of his Memorable Fancies he dines with Isaiah and Ezekiel, and the things they tell him are astonishing. Blake in general seems to equate the prophet and the poet, and first asks Isaiah if he wasn’t worried he would be misunderstood when he asserted that God spoke to him.
“Isaiah answer’d. I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded & remain confirm’d; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God I cared not for consequences but wrote.”
Blake seems to be talking to himself, gearing himself up for his own career.
“I also asked Isaiah what made him go naked and barefoot three years? he answerd, the same that made our friend Diogenes the Grecian.
“I then asked Ezekiel, why he eat dung, & lay so long on his right & left side? he answerd, the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite this the North American tribes practice.”
I was astonished that Blake had heard of such a thing in 1793.
There are other fascinating moments in the Memorable Fancies—it is well worth reading through the entire work—but I’ll mention one more. Blake encounters a devil—devils and angels are all mixed together; being a devil is not a bad thing—who says that “The Worship of God is, Honouring his gifts in other men each according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best.” An Angel who hears this says that Jesus is the Greatest of men, and gave his sanction to the Ten Commandments, but the devil points out that Jesus broke virtually every one of these commandments, and makes a final statement.
“No virtue can exist without breaking these commandments: Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
He ends the piece with what reads like a final Proverb: “One law for the Lion and Ox is oppression.”
I’m reminded of the statement of Gudo Nishijima, Brad Warner’s teacher, of how the Buddha dealt with ethical commandments.
“Trying to obey the precepts is a hopeless task. The harder we try the more difficult it becomes. Gautama Buddha, Master Dogen, and the great patriarchs all gave up trying to obey the precepts. They found they could not obey the precepts by their conscious efforts so they worked on the problem from another angle. They found that when they practiced zazen every day their lives became simple and clear. They found in fact that they could not disobey the precepts.
In our life we must make our decisions moment by moment. They are instantaneous: they are dependent on the condition of our body and mind at the moment. Therefore when our body and mind are balanced and composed, our action reflects our composure. When we are `right’, our actions will also be right. So the only way to obey the precepts is to change our body and mind through the practice of zazen. When we practice zazen we resume our original nature—our Buddha-nature. We find ourselves in harmony with the Universe at every moment. In such a state it is impossible for us to break the precepts. When we practice zazen we become persons who cannot disobey the precepts.”
It is like the famous statement by St. Augustine, Love God, and do what you will. I’ve always loved that statement, though I could never figure out what it meant to love God. But I believe Nishijima got it right.
When Jesus said, “The Father and I are One,” he was pointing to a truth that all religions proclaim. His road to that understanding is mysterious. The Buddha gave us a path.
 By the following year he had recovered, and I had him for his famous course in Elizabethan literature. I had the choice of taking that or taking Creative Writing, but I’d already had Reynolds Price for writing, and had heard Blackburn was intimidating. He was. But he was a magisterial presence in the classroom, mostly taught poetry by reading it aloud. He was the best reader I’ve ever heard, before or since. He could enable me to understand difficult poems just by reading them.
 I hope it goes without saying that Blake was using this word to designate humankind, and not as a gender reference.
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