Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 2/Prose writings/A Vision of the Last Judgment


The Last Judgment is not fable, or allegory, but vision. Fable, or allegory, is a totally distinct and inferior kind of poetry. Vision, or imagination, is a representation of what actually exists, really and unchangeably. Fable, or allegory, is formed by the daughters of Memory. Imagination is surrounded by the daughters of inspiration, who, in the aggregate, are called Jerusalem. Fable is allegory, but what critics call the fable is vision itself. The Hebrew Bible and the Gospel of Jesus are not allegory, but eternal vision, or imagination, of all that exists. Note here that fable, or allegory, is seldom without some vision. Pilgrim's Progress is full of it; the Greek poets the same. But allegory and vision ought to be known as two distinct things, and so called for the sake of eternal life. The [ancients produce fable] when they assert that Jupiter usurped the throne of his father, Saturn, and brought on an iron age, and begot on Mnemosyne or Memory the great Muses, which are not inspiration, as the Bible is. Reality was forgot, and the varieties of time and space only remembered, and called reality. The Greeks represent Chronos, or Time, as a very aged man. This is fable, but the real vision of Time is an eternal youth. I have, however, somewhat accommodated my figure of Time to the common opinion; as I myself am also infected with it, and my vision is also infected, and I see Time aged—alas! too much so. Allegories are things that relate to moral virtues. Moral virtues do not exist: they are allegories and dissimulations. But Time and Space are real beings, a male and a female; Time is a man, Space is a woman, and her masculine portion is Death. Such is the mighty difference between allegoric fable and spiritual mystery. Let it here be noted that the Greek fables originated in spiritual mystery and real vision, which are lost and clouded in fable and allegory; while the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Gospel are genuine, preserved by the Saviour's mercy. The nature of my work is visionary, or imaginative; it is an endeavour to restore what the ancients called the Golden Age.

Plato has made Socrates say that poets and prophets do not know or understand what they write or utter. This is a most pernicious falsehood. If they do not, pray is an inferior kind to be called 'knowing'? Plato confutes himself.

The Last Judgment is one of these stupendous visions. I have represented it as I saw it. To different people it appears differently, as everything else does.

In eternity one thing never changes into another thing: each identity is eternal. Consequently, Apuleius's Golden Ass, and Ovid's Metamorphoses, and others of the like kind, are fable; yet they contain vision in a sublime degree, being derived from real vision in more ancient writings. Lot's wife being changed into a pillar of salt alludes to the mortal body being rendered a permanent statue, but not changed or transformed into another identity, while it retains its own individuality. A man can never become ass nor horse; some are born with shapes of men who are both; but eternal identity is one thing, and corporeal vegetation is another thing. Changing water into wine by Jesus, and into blood by Moses, relates to vegetable nature also.

The nature of visionary fancy, or imagination, is very little known, and the eternal nature and permanence of its ever-existent images are considered as less permanent than the things of vegetable and generative nature. Yet the oak dies as well as the lettuce; but its eternal image or individuality never dies, but renews by its seed. Just so the imaginative image returns by the seed of contemplative thought. The writings of the prophets illustrate these conceptions of the visionary fancy by their various sublime and divine images as seen in the worlds of vision.

The world of imagination is the world of eternity. It is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation, or vegetation, is finite and temporal. There exist in that eternal world the permanent realities of every thing which we see reflected in this vegetable glass of nature.

All things are comprehended in these eternal forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the true vine of eternity... who appeared to me as coming to judgment among His saints, and throwing off the temporal, that the eternal might be established. Around him were seen the images of existences according to a certain order, suited to my imaginative eye, as follows:—

Jesus seated between the two pillars, Joachin and Boaz, with the word divine of revelation on His knee, and on each side the four-and-twenty elders sitting in judgment; the heavens opening around Him by unfolding the clouds around His throne. The old heavens and the old earth are passing away, and the new heavens and the new earth descending: a sea of fire issues from before the throne. Adam and Eve appear first before the judgment-seat, in humiliation; Abel surrounded by innocents; and Cain, with the flint in his hand with which he slew his brother, falling with the head downwards. From the cloud on which Eve stands, Satan is seen falling head-long, wound round by the tail of the serpent, whose bulk, nailed to the cross round which he wreathes, is falling into the abyss. Sin is also represented as a female bound in one of the serpent's folds, surrounded by her fiends. Death is chained to the cross, and Time falls together with Death, dragged down by a demon crowned with laurel. Another demon, with a key, has the charge of Sin, and is dragging her down by the hair. Beside them a figure is seen, scaled with iron scales from head to feet, precipitating himself into the abyss with the sword and balances: he is Og, king of Bashan.

On the right, beneath the cloud on which Abel kneels, is Abraham, with Sarah and Isaac, also with Hagar and Ishmael on the left. Abel kneels on a bloody cloud, descriptive of those Churches before the Flood, that they were filled with blood and fire and vapour of smoke. Even till Abraham's time the vapour and heat were not extinguished. These states exist now. Man passes on, but states remain for ever: he passes through them like a traveller, who may as well suppose that the places he has passed through exist no more, as a man may suppose that the states he has passed through exist no more: everything is eternal.

Beneath Ishmael is Mahomed: and beneath the falling figure of Cain is Moses, casting his tables of stone into the deeps. It ought to be understood that the persons, Moses and Abraham, are not here meant, but the states signified by those names; the individuals being representatives, or visions, of those states, as they were revealed to mortal man in the series of divine Revelations, as they are written in the Bible. These various states I have seen in my imagination. When distant, they appear as one man; but, as you approach, they appear multitudes of nations, Abraham hovers above his posterity, which appear as multitudes of children ascending from the earth, surrounded by stars, as it was said: 'As the stars of heaven for multitude.' Jacob and his twelve sons hover beneath the feet of Abraham, and receive their children from the earth. I have seen, when at a distance, multitudes of men in harmony appear like a single infant, sometimes in the arms of a female. This represented the Church.

But to proceed with the description of those on the left hand. Beneath the cloud on which Moses kneels are two figures, a male and a female, chained together by the feet. They represent those who perished by the Flood. Beneath them a multitude of their associates are seen falling headlong. By the side of them is a mighty fiend with a book in his hand, which is shut: he represents the person named in Isaiah xxii. c. and 20 v., Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah. He drags Satan down headlong. He is crowned with oak. By the side of the scaled figure, representing Og, king of Bashan, is a figure with a basket, emptying out the varieties of riches and worldly honours. He is Araunah, the Jebusite, master of the threshing-floor. Above him are two figures elevated on a cloud, representing the Pharisees, who plead their own righteousness before the throne: they are weighed down by two fiends. Beneath the man with the basket are three fiery fiends, with grey beards, and scourges of fire: they represent cruel laws. They scourge a group of figures down into the deeps. Beneath them are various figures in attitudes of contention, representing various states of misery, which, alas! every one on earth is liable to enter into, and against which we should all watch. The ladies will be pleased to see that I have represented the Furies by three men, and not by three women. It is not because I think the ancients wrong; but they will be pleased to remember that mine is vision, and not fable. The spectator may suppose them clergymen in the pulpit, scourging sin, instead of forgiving it.

The earth beneath these falling groups of figures is rocky and burning, and seems as if convulsed by earthquakes. A great city, on fire, is seen in the distance. The armies (?) are fleeing upon the mountains. On the foreground Hell is opened, and many figures are descending into it down stone steps, and beside a gate beneath a rock, where Sin and Death are to be closed eternally by that fiend who carries the key in one hand, and drags them down with the other. On the rock, and above the gate, a fiend with wings urges the wicked onward with fiery darts. He is Hazael, the Syrian, who drives abroad all those who rebel against their Saviour. Beneath the steps is Babylon, represented by a king crowned, grasping his sword and his sceptre. He is just awakened out of his grave. Around him are other kingdoms arising to judgment, represented in this picture by single personages, according to the descriptions in the Prophets. The figure dragging up a woman by her hair represents the Inquisition, as do those contending on the sides of the pit; and, in particular, the man strangling a woman represents a cruel Church.

Two persons, one in purple, the other in scarlet, are descending down the steps into the pit. These are Caiaphas and Pilate; two states where all those reside who calumniate and murder under pretence of holiness and justice. Caiaphas has a blue flame, like a mitre, on his head: Pilate has bloody hands, that can never be cleansed. The females behind them represent the females belonging to such states, who are under perpetual terrors and vain dreams, plots, and secret deceit. Those figures that descend into the flames before Caiaphas and Pilate are Judas and those of his class. Achitophel is also here, with the cord in his hand.

Between the figures of Adam and Eve appears a fiery gulph descending from the sea of fire before the throne. In this cataract four angels descend headlong with four trumpets to awake the dead. Beneath these is the seat of the harlot, named Mystery in the Revelations. She is seized by two beings, each with three heads: they represent vegetative existence. As it is written in Revelations, they strip her naked, and burn her with fire. It represents the eternal consumption of vegetable life and death, with its lusts. The wreathed torches in their hands represent eternal fire, which is the fire of generation or vegetation; it is an eternal consummation. Those who are blessed with imaginative vision see this eternal female, and tremble at what others fear not; while they despise and laugh at what others fear. Beneath her feet is a flaming cavern, in which are seen her kings, and councillors, and warriors, descending in flames, lamenting, and looking upon her in astonishment and terror, and Hell is opened beneath her seat; on the left hand, the great Red Dragon with seven heads and ten horns. He has a book of accusations, lying on the rock, open before him. He is bound in chains by two strong demons: they are Gog and Magog, who have been compelled to subdue their master (Ezekiel xxxviii. c. 8 v.) with their hammer and tongs, about to new-create the seven-headed kingdoms. The graves beneath are opened, and the dead awake and obey the call of the trumpet: those on the right hand awake in joy, those on the left in horror. Beneath the Dragon's cavern a skeleton begins to animate, starting into life at the trumpet's sound, while the wicked contend with each other on the brink of perdition. On the right, a youthful couple are awaked by their children; an aged patriarch is awaked by his aged wife: he is Albion, our ancestor, patriarch of the Atlantic Continent, whose history preceded that of the Hebrews, and in whose sleep, or chaos, creation began. The good woman is Britannica, the wife of Albion. Jerusalem is their daughter. Little infants creep out of the flowery mould into the green fields of the blessed, who, in various joyful companies, embrace and ascend to meet eternity.

The persons who ascend to meet the Lord, coming in the clouds with power and great glory, are representations of those states described in the Bible under the names of the Fathers before and after the Flood. Noah is seen in the midst of these, canopied by a rainbow; on his right hand Shem, and on his left Japhet. These three persons represent Poetry, Painting, and Music, the three powers in man of conversing with Paradise which the Flood did not sweep away. Above Noah is the Church Universal, represented by a woman surrounded by infants. There is such a state in eternity: it is composed of the innocent civilised heathen and the uncivilised savage, who, having not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law. This state appears like a female crowned with stars, driven into the wilderness: she has the moon under her feet. The aged figure with wings, having a writing tablet, and taking account of the numbers who arise, is that Angel of the Divine Presence mentioned in Exodus xiv. c. 19 v.

Around Noah, and beneath him, are various figures risen into the air. Among these are three females, representing those who are not of the dead, but of those found alive at the Last Judgment. They appear to be innocently gay and thoughtless, not being among the condemned, because ignorant of crime in the midst of a corrupted age. The Virgin Mary was of this class. A mother meets her numerous family in the arms of their father: these are representations of the Greek learned and wise, as also of those of other nations, such as Egypt and Babylon, in which were multitudes, who shall meet the Lord coming in the clouds.

The children of Abraham, or Hebrew Church, are represented as a stream of figures, on which are seen stars, somewhat like the Milky Way. They ascend from the earth, where figures kneel, embracing above the graves, and represent religion, or civilised life, such as it is in the Christian Church, which is the offspring of the Hebrew. Just above the graves, and above the spot where the infants creep out of the ground (?) stand two—a man and woman: these are the primitive Christians. The two figures in purifying flames, by the side of the Dragon's cavern, represent the latter state of the Church, when on the verge of perdition, yet protected by a flaming sword. Multitudes are seen ascending from the green fields of the blessed, in which a Gothic church is representative of true art (called 'Gothic' in all ages, by those who follow the fashion, as that is called which is without shape or fashion). By the right hand of Noah, a woman with children represents the state called Laban the Syrian: it is the remains of civilisation in the state from whence Adam was taken. Also, on the right hand of Noah, a female descends to meet her lover or husband, representative of that love called friendship, which looks for no other heaven than the beloved, and in him sees all reflected as in a glass of eternal diamond.

On the right hand of these rise the diffident and humble, and on their left a solitary woman with her infant. These are caught up by three aged men, who appear as suddenly emerging from the blue sky for their help. These three aged men represent divine providence, as opposed to and distinct from divine vengeance, represented by three aged men, on the side of the picture among the wicked, with scourges of fire.

If the spectator could enter into these images in his imagination, approaching them on the fiery chariot of his contemplative thought; if he could enter into Noah's rainbow, could make a friend and companion of one of these images of wonder, which always entreat him to leave mortal things (as he must know), then would he arise from the grave, then would he meet the Lord in the air, and then he would be happy. General knowledge is remote knowledge: it is in particulars that wisdom consists, and happiness too. Both in art and in life general masses are as much art as a pasteboard man is human. Every man has eyes, nose, and mouth; this every idiot knows; but he who enters into and discriminates most minutely the manners and intentions, the characters in all their branches, is the alone wise or sensible man; and on this discrimination all art is founded. I entreat, then, that the spectator will attend to the hands and feet; to the lineaments of the countenance: they are all descriptive of character, and not a line is drawn without intention, and that most discriminate and particular. As poetry admits not a letter that is insignificant, so painting admits not a grain of sand, or a blade of grass insignificant—much less an insignificant blur or mark.

Above the head of Noah is Seth. This state, called Seth, is male and female, in a higher state of happiness than Noah, being nearer the state of innocence. Beneath the feet of Seth two figures represent the two seasons of Spring and Autumn, while, beneath the feet of Noah, four seasons represent the changed state made by the Flood.

By the side of Seth is Elijah: he comprehends all the prophetic characters. He is seen on his fiery chariot, bowing before the throne of the Saviour. In like manner the figures of Seth and his wife comprehend the Fathers before the Flood, and their generations: when seen remote, they appear as one man. A little below Seth, on his right, are two figures, a male and a female, with numerous children. These represent those who were not in the line of the Church, and yet were saved from among the antediluvians who perished. Between Seth and these, a female figure represents the solitary state of those who, previous to the Flood, walked with God.

All these rise towards the opening cloud before the throne, led onward by triumphant groups of infants. Between Seth and Elijah three female figures, crowned with garlands, represent Learning and Science, which accompanied Adam out of Eden.

The cloud that opens, rolling apart from before the throne, and before the new heaven and the new earth, is composed of various groups of figures, particularly the four living creatures mentioned in Revelations as surrounding the throne. These I suppose to have the chief agency in removing the old heaven and the old earth, to make way for the new heaven and the new earth, to descend from the throne of God and of the Lamb. That living creature on the left of the throne gives to the seven Angels the seven vials of the wrath of God, with which they, hovering over the deeps beneath, pour out upon the wicked their plagues. The other living creatures are descending with a shout, and with the sound of the trumpet, and directing the combats in the upper elements. In the two corners of the picture: on the left hand, Apollyon is foiled before the sword of Michael; and, on the right, the two witnesses are subduing their enemies.

On the cloud are opened the books of remembrance of life and of death: before that of life, on the right, some figures bow in lamentation; before that of death, on the left, the Pharisees are pleading their own righteousness. The one shines with beams of light, the other utters lightnings and tempests.

A Last Judgment is necessary because fools flourish. Nations flourish under wise rulers, and are depressed under foolish rulers; it is the same with individuals as with nations. Works of art can only be produced in perfection where the man is either in affluence or is above the care of it. Poverty is the fool's rod, which at last is turned on his own back. That is a Last Judgment, when men of real art govern, and pretenders fall. Some people, and not a few artists, have asserted that the painter of this picture would not have done so well if he had been properly encouraged. Let those who think so reflect on the state of nations under poverty, and their incapability of art. Though art is above either, the argument is better for affluence than poverty; and, though he would not have been a greater artist, yet he would have produced greater works of art, in proportion to his means. A Last Judgment is not for the purpose of making bad men better, but for the purpose of hindering them from oppressing the good.

Around the throne, heaven is opened and the nature of eternal things displayed, all springing from the Divine Humanity. All beams from Him: He is the bread and the wine; He is the water of life. Accordingly, on each side of the opening heaven appears an Apostle: that on the right represents Baptism; that on the left represents the Lord's Supper.

All life consists of these two: throwing off error and knaves from our company continually, and receiving truth or wise men into our company continually. He who is out of the Church and opposes it is no less an agent of religion than he who is in it: to be an error, and to be cast out, is a part of God's design. No man can embrace true art till he has explored and cast out false art (such is the nature of mortal things); or he will be himself cast out by those who have already embraced true art. Thus, my picture is a history of art and science, the foundation of society, which is humanity itself. What are all the gifts of the Spirit but mental gifts? Whenever any individual rejects error, and embraces truth, a Last Judgment passes upon that individual.

Over the head of the Saviour and Redeemer, the Holy Spirit, like a dove, is surrounded by a blue heaven, in which are the two cherubim that bowed over the ark; for here the temple is open in heaven, and the ark of the covenant is a dove of peace. The curtains are drawn apart, Christ having rent the veil: the candlestick and the table of shew-bread appear on each side: a glorification of angels with harps surrounds the dove.

The Temple stands on the mount of God. From it flows on each side a river of life, on whose banks grows the Tree of Life, among whose branches temples and pinnacles, tents and pavilions, gardens and groves, display Paradise, with its inhabitants walking up and down, in conversations concerning mental delights. Here they are no longer talking of what is good and evil, or of what is right or wrong, and puzzling themselves in Satan's labyrinth; but are conversing with eternal realities, as they exist in the human imagination.

We are in a world of generation and death, and this world we must cast off if we would be artists (?) such as Raphael, Michael Angelo, and the ancient sculptors. If we do not cast off this world, we shall be only Venetian painters, who will be cast off and lost from art.

Jesus is surrounded by beams of glory, in which are seen all around Him infants emanating from Him: these represent the eternal births of intellect from the divine humanity. A rainbow surrounds the throne and the glory, in which youthful nuptials receive the infants in their hands. In eternity woman is the emanation of man; she has no will of her own; there is no such thing in eternity as a female will.

On the side next Baptism are seen those called in the Bible Nursing Fathers and Nursing Mothers: they represent Education. On the side next the Lord's Supper, the Holy Family, consisting of Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, Zacharias, and Elizabeth, receiving the bread and wine, among other spirits of the Just made perfect. Beneath these, a cloud of women and children are taken up, fleeing from the rolling cloud which separates the wicked from the seats of bliss. These represent those who, though willing, were too weak to reject error without the assistance and countenance of those already in the truth: for a man can only reject error by the advice of a friend, or by the immediate inspiration of God. It is for this reason, among many others, that I have put the Lord's Supper on the left hand of the throne, for it appears so at the Last Judgment for a protection.

The painter hopes that his friends, Anytus, Melitus, and Lycon, will perceive that they are not now in ancient Greece; and, though they can use the poison of calumny, the English public will be convinced that such a picture as this could never be painted by a madman, or by one in a state of outrageous manners; as these bad men both print and publish by all the means in their power. The painter begs public protection, and all will be well.

Men are admitted into heaven, not because they have curbed and governed their passions, or have no passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The treasures of heaven are not negations of passion, but realities of intellect, from which all the passions emanate, uncurbed in their eternal glory. The fool shall not enter into heaven, let him be ever so holy: holiness is not the price of entrance into heaven. Those who are cast out are all those who, having no passions of their own, because no intellect, have spent their lives in curbing and governing other people's by the various arts of poverty, and cruelty of all kinds. The modern Church crucifies Christ with the head downwards. Woe, woe, woe to you, hypocrites! Even murder, which the Courts of Justice (more merciful than the Church) are whispered to allow, is not done in passion, but in cool-blooded design and intention.

Many suppose that, before the Creation, all was solitude and chaos. This is the most pernicious idea that can enter the mind, as it takes away all sublimity from the Bible, and limits all existence to creation and chaos—to the time and space fixed by the corporeal, vegetative eye, and leaves the man who entertains such an idea the habitation of unbelieving demons. Eternity exists, and all things in eternity, independent of creation, which was an act of mercy. I have represented those who are in eternity by some in a cloud, within the rainbow that surrounds the throne. They merely appear as in a cloud, when anything of creation, redemption, or judgment, is the subject of contemplation, though their whole contemplation is concerning these things. The reason they so appear is the humiliation of the reason and doubting selfhood, and the giving all up to inspiration. By this it will be seen that I do not consider either the just, or the wicked, to be in a supreme state, but to be, every one of them, states of the sleep which the soul may fall into in its deadly dreams of good and evil, when it leaves Paradise following the Serpent.

Many persons, such as Paine and Voltaire with some of the ancient Greeks, say: 'We will not converse concerning good and evil; we will live in Paradise and Liberty.' You may do so in spirit, but not in the mortal body, as you pretend till after a Last Judgment. For in Paradise they have no corporeal and mortal body: that originated with the Fall and was called Death, and cannot be removed but by a Last Judgment. While we are in the world of mortality, we must suffer—the whole Creation groans to be delivered.

There will be as many hypocrites born as honest men, and they will always have superior power in mortal things. You cannot have liberty in this world without what you call moral virtue, and you cannot have moral virtue without the subjection of that half of the human race who hate what you call moral virtue.

The nature of hatred and envy, and of all the mischiefs in the world, is here depicted. No one envies or hates one of his own party; even the devils love one another in their own way. They torment one another for other reasons than hate or envy: these are only employed against the just. Neither can Seth envy Noah, or Elijah envy Abraham; but they may both of them envy the success of Satan, or of Og, or Moloch. The horse never envies the peacock, nor the sheep the goat; but they envy a rival in life and existence, whose ways and means exceed their own. Let him be of what class of animals he will, a dog will envy a cat who is pampered at the expense of his own comfort, as I have often seen. The Bible never tells us that devils torment one another through envy; it is through this that they torment the just. But for what do they torment one another? I answer: For the coercive laws of hell, moral hypocrisy. They torment a hypocrite when he is discovered—they punish a failure in the tormentor who has suffered the subject of his torture to escape. In Hell, all is self-righteousness; there is no such thing there as forgiveness of sin. He who does forgive sin is crucified as an abettor of criminals, and he who performs works of mercy, in any shape whatever, is punished and, if possible, destroyed—not through envy, or hatred, or malice, but through self-righteousness, that thinks it does God service, which god is Satan. They do not envy one another: they contemn or despise one another. Forgiveness of sin is only at the judgment-seat of Jesus the Saviour, where the accuser is cast out, not because he sins, but because he torments the just, and makes them do what he condemns as sin, and what he knows is opposite to their own identity.

It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God only.

The player is a liar when he says: 'Angels are happier than men, because they are better.' Angels are happier than men and devils, because they are not always prying after good and evil in one another, and eating the tree of knowledge for Satan's gratification.

The Last Judgment is an overwhelming of bad art and science. Mental things are alone real: what is called corporeal nobody knows of; its dwelling-place is a fallacy, and its existence an imposture. Where is the existence out of mind, or thought?—where is it but in the mind of a fool? Some people flatter themselves that there will be no Last Judgment, and that bad art will be adopted and mixed with good art—that error or experiment will make a part of truth; and they boast that it is its foundation. These people flatter themselves; I will not flatter them. Error is created, truth is eternal. Error or creation will be burned up, and then, and not till then, truth or eternity will appear. It is burned up the moment men cease to behold it. I assert, for myself, that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. 'What!' it will be questioned, 'when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?' Oh! no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host, crying: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!' I question not my corporeal eye, any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it.

The Last Judgment [will be] when all those are cast away who trouble religion with questioning concerning good and evil, or eating of the tree of those knowledges or reasonings which hinder the vision of God, turning all into a consuming fire. When imagination, art, and science, and all intellectual gifts, all the gifts of the Holy Ghost, are looked upon as of no use, and only contention remains to man; then the Last Judgment begins, and its vision is seen by the eye of every one according to the situation he holds.