William Blake, a critical essay/The prophetic books
III.—THE PROPHETIC BOOKS.
Before entering upon any system of remark or comment on the Prophetic Books, we may set down in as few and distinct words as possible the reasons which make this a thing seriously worth doing; nay, even requisite to be done, if we would know rather the actual facts of the man's nature than the circumstances and accidents of his life. Now, first of all, we are to recollect that Blake himself regarded these works as his greatest, and as containing the sum of his achieved ambitions and fulfilled desires: as in effect inspired matter, of absolute imaginative truth and eternal import. We shall not again pause to rebut the familiar cry of response, to the effect that he was mad and not accountable for the uttermost madness of error. It must be enough to reply here that he was by no means mad, in any sense that would authorise us in rejecting his own judgment of his own aims and powers on a plea which would be held insufficient in another man's case. Let all readers and all critics get rid of that notion for good—clear their minds of it utterly and with all haste; let them know and remember, having once been told it, that in these strangest of all written books there is purpose as well as power, meaning as well as mystery. Doubtless, nothing quite like them was ever pitched out headlong into the world as they were. The confusion, the clamour, the jar of words that half suffice and thoughts that half exist—all these and other more absolutely offensive qualities—audacity, monotony, bombast, obscure play of licence and tortuous growth of fancy—cannot quench or even wholly conceal the living purport and the imperishable beauty which are here latent.
And secondly we are to recollect this; that these books are not each a set of designs with a text made by order to match, but are each a poem composed for its own sake and with its own aim, having illustrations arranged by way of frame or appended by way of ornament. On all grounds, therefore, and for all serious purpose, such notices as some of those given in this biography are actually worse than worthless. Better have done nothing than have done this and no more. All the criticism included as to the illustrative parts merely, is final and faultless, nothing missed and nothing wrong; this could not have been otherwise, the work having fallen under hands and eyes of practical taste and trained to actual knowledge, and the assertions being therefore issued by authority. So much otherwise has it fared with the books themselves, that (we are compelled in this case to say it) the clothes are all right and the body is all wrong. Passing from some phrase of high and accurate eulogy to the raw ragged extracts here torn away and held up with the unhealed scars of mutilation fresh and red upon them, what is any human student to think of the poet or his praisers? what, of the assertion of his vindicated sanity with such appalling counterproof thrust under one's eyes? In a word, it must be said of these notices of Blake's prophetic books (except perhaps that insufficient but painstaking and well-meant chapter on the Marriage of Heaven and Hell) that what has been done should not have been done, and what should have been done has not been done.
Not that the thing was easy to do. If any one would realize to himself for ever a material notion of chaos, let him take a blind header into the midst of the whirling foam and rolling weed of this sea of words. Indeed the sound and savour of these prophecies constantly recall some such idea or some such memory. This poetry has the huge various monotonies, the fervent and fluent colours, the vast limits, the fresh sonorous strength, the certain confusion and tumultuous law, the sense of windy and weltering space, the intense refraction of shadow or light, the crowded life and inanimate intricacy, the patience and the passion of the sea. By no manner of argument or analysis will one be made able to look back or forward with pure confidence and comprehension. Only there are laws, strange as it must sound, by which the work is done and against which it never sins. The biographer once attempts to settle the matter by asserting that Blake was given to contradict himself, by mere impulse if not by brute instinct, to such an extent that consistency is in no sense to be sought for or believed in throughout these works of his: and quotes, by way of ratifying this quite false notion, a noble sentence from the Proverbs of Hell, aimed by Blake with all his force against that obstinate adherence to one external opinion which closes and hardens the spirit against all further message from the new-grown feelings or inspiration from the altering circumstances of a man. Never was there an error more grave or more complete than this. The expression shifts perpetually, the types blunder into new forms, the meaning tumbles into new types; the purpose remains, and the faith keeps its hold.
There are certain errors and eccentricities of manner and matter alike common to nearly all these books, and distinctly referable to the character and training of the man. Not educated in any regular or rational way, and by nature of an eagerly susceptible and intensely adhesive mind, in which the lyrical faculty had gained and kept a preponderance over all others visible in every scrap of his work, he had saturated his thoughts and kindled his senses with a passionate study of the forms of the Bible as translated into English, till his fancy caught a feverish contagion and his ear derived a delirious excitement from the mere sound and shape of the written words and verses. Hence the quaint and fervent imitation of style, the reproduction of peculiarities which to most men are meaningless when divested of their old sense or invested with a new. Hence the bewildering catalogues, genealogies, and divisions which (especially in such later books as the Jerusalem) seem at first invented only to strike any miserable reader with furious or lachrymose lunacy. Hence, though heaven knows by no fault of the originals, the insane cosmogony, blatant mythology, and sonorous aberration of thoughts and theories. Hence also much of the special force and supreme occasional loveliness or grandeur in expression. Conceive a man incomparably gifted as to the spiritual side of art, prone beyond all measure to the lyrical form of work, incredibly contemptuous of all things and people dissimilar to himself, of an intensely sensitive imagination and intolerant habit of faith, with a passionate power of peculiar belief, taking with all his might of mental nerve and strain of excitable spirit to a perusal and reperusal of such books as Job and Ezekiel. Observe too that his tone of mind was as far from being critical as from being orthodox. Thus his ecstacy of study was neither on the one side tempered and watered down by faith in established forms and external creeds, nor on the other side modified and directed by analytic judgment and the lust of facts. To Blake either form of mind was alike hateful. Like the Moses of Rabbinical tradition, he was "drunken with the kisses of the lips of God." Rational deism and clerical religion were to him two equally abhorrent incarnations of the same evil spirit, appearing now as negation and now as restriction. He wanted supremacy of freedom with intensity of faith. Hence he was properly neither Christian nor infidel: he was emphatically a heretic. Such men, according to the temper of the times, are burnt as demoniacs or pitied as lunatics. He believed in redemption by Christ, and in the incarnation of Satan as Jehovah. He believed that by self-sacrifice the soul should attain freedom and victorious deliverance from bodily bondage and sexual servitude; and also that the extremest fullness of indulgence in such desire and such delight as the senses can aim at or attain was absolutely good, eternally just, and universally requisite. These opinions, and stranger than these, he put forth in the cloudiest style, the wilfullest humour, and the stormiest excitement. No wonder the world let his books drift without caring to inquire what gold or jewels might be washed up as waifs from the dregs of churned foam and subsiding surf. He was the very man for fire and faggot; a mediæval inquisitor would have had no more doubt about him than a materialist or "theophilanthropist " of his own day or of ours.
A wish is expressed in the Life that we could accompany the old man who appears entering an open door, star in hand, at the beginning of the Jerusalem, and thread by his light those infinite dark passages and labyrinthine catacombs of invention or thought. In default of that desirable possibility, let us make such way as we can for ourselves into this submarine world, along its slippery and unpaven ways, under its roof of hollow sound and tumbling storm.
"We shall see, while above us
The waves roar and whirl,
A ceiling of amber,
A pavement of pearl."
At the entrance of the labyrinth we are met by huge mythologic figures, created of fire and cloud. Titans of monstrous form and yet more monstrous name obstruct the ways; sickness or sleep never formed such savage abstractions, such fierce vanities of vision as these: office and speech they seem at first to have none: but to strike or clutch at the void of air with feeble fingers, to babble with vast lax lips a dialect barren of all but noise, loud and loose as the wind. Slowly they grow into something of shape, assume some foggy feature and indefinite colour: word by word the fluctuating noise condenses into music, the floating music divides into audible notes and scales. The sound which at first was as the mere collision of cloud with cloud is now the recognizable voice of god or demon. Chaos is cloven into separate elements; air divides from water, and earth releases fire. Upon each of these the prophet, as it were, lays hand, compelling the thing into shape and speech, constraining the abstract to do service as a man might. These and such as these make up the personal staff or executive body of his prophecies. But it would be waste of time to conjecture how or why he came to inflict upon them such incredible names. These hapless energies and agencies are not simply cast into the house of allegoric bondage, and set to make bricks without straw, to construct symbols without reason; but find themselves baptized with muddy water and fitful fire, by names inconceivable, into a church full of storm and vapour; regenerated with a vengeance, but disembodied and disfigured in their resurrection. Space fell into sleep, and awoke as Enitharmon: Time suffered eclipse, and came forth as Los. The Christ or Prometheus of this faith is Orc or Fuzon; Urizen takes the place of "Jehovah, Jove, or Lord." Hardly in such chaotic sounds can one discern the slightest element of reason gone mad, the narrowest channel of derivation run dry. In this last word, one of incessant recurrence, there seems to flicker a thin reminiscence of such names as Uranus, Uriel, and perhaps Urien; for the deity has a diabolic savour in him, and Blake was not incapable of mixing the Hellenic, the Miltonic, and the Celtic mythologies into one drugged and adulterated compound. He had read much and blindly; he had no leaning to verbal accuracy, and never acquired any faculty of comparison. Any sound that in the dimmest way suggested to him a notion of hell or heaven, of passion or power, was significant enough to adopt and register. Commentary was impossible to him: if his work could not be apprehended or enjoyed by an instinct of inspiration like his own, it was lost labour to dissect or expound; and here, if ever, translation would have been treason. He took the visions as they came; he let the words lie as they fell. These barbarous and blundering names are not always without a certain kind of melody and an uncertain sort of meaning. Such as they are, they must be endured; or the whole affair must be tossed aside and thrown up. Over these clamorous kingdoms of speech and dream some few ruling forces of supreme discord preside: and chiefly the lord of the world of man; Urizen, God of cloud and star, "Father of jealousy," clothed with a splendour of shadow, strong and sad and cruel; his planet faintly glimmers and slowly revolves, a horror in heaven; the night is a part of his thought, rain and wind are in the passage of his feet; sorrow is in all his works; he is the maker of mortal things, of the elements and sexes; in him are incarnate that jealousy which the Hebrews acknowledged and that envy which the Greeks recognized in the divine nature; in his worship faith remains one with fear. Star and cloud, the types of mystery and distance, of cold alienation and heavenly jealousy, belong of right to the God who grudges and forbids: even as the spirit of revolt is made manifest in fiery incarnation—pure prolific fire, "the cold loins of Urizen dividing." These two symbols of "cruel fear" or "starry jealousy" in the divine tyrant, of ardent love or creative lust in the rebellious saviour of man, pervade the mystical writings of Blake. Orc, the manchild, with hair and flesh like fire, son of Space and Time, a terror and a wonder from the hour of his birth, containing within himself the likeness of all passions and appetites of men, is cast out from before the face of heaven; and falling upon earth, a stronger Vulcan or Satan, fills with his fire the narrowed foreheads and the darkened eyes of all that dwell thereon; imprisoned often and fed from vessels of iron with barren food and bitter drink, a wanderer or a captive upon earth, he shall rise again when his fire has spread through all lands to inflame and to infect with a strong contagion the spirit and the sense of man, and shall prevail against the law and the commandments of his enemy. This endless myth of oppression and redemption, of revelation and revolt, runs through many forms and spills itself by strange straits and byways among the sands and shallows of prophetic speech. But in these books there is not the substantial coherence of form and reasonable unity of principle which bring within scope of apprehension even the wildest myths grown out of unconscious idealism and impulsive tradition. A single man's work, however exclusively he may look to inspiration for motive and material, must always want the breadth and variety of meaning, the supple beauty of symbol, the infectious intensity of satisfied belief, which grow out of creeds and fables native to the spirit of a nation, yet peculiar to no man or sect, common yet sacred, not invented or constructed, but found growing and kept fresh with faith. But for all the dimness and violence of expression which pervert and darken the mythology of these attempts at gospel, they have qualities great enough to be worth finding out. Only let none conceive that each separate figure in the swarming and noisy life of this populous dæmonic creation has individual meaning and vitality. Blake was often taken off his feet by the strong currents of fancy, and indulged, like a child during its first humour of invention, in wild byplay and erratic excesses of simple sound; often lost his way in a maze of wind-music, and transcribed as it were with eyes closed and open ears the notes caught by chance as they drifted across the dream of his subdued senses. Alternating between lyrical invention and gigantic allegory, it is hard to catch and hold him down to any form or plan. At one time we have mere music, chains of ringing names, scattered jewels of sound without a thread, tortuous network of harmonies without a clue; and again we have passages, not always unworthy of an Æschylean chorus, full of fate and fear; words that are strained wellnigh in sunder by strong significance and earnest passion; words that deal greatly with great things, that strike deep and hold fast; each inclusive of some fierce apocalypse or suggestive of some obscure evangel. Now the matter in hand is touched with something of an epic style; the narrative and characters lose half their hidden sense, and the reciter passes from the prophetic tripod to the seat of a common singer; mere names, perhaps not even musical to other ears than his, allure and divert him; he plays with stately cadences, and lets the wind of swift or slow declamation steer him whither it will. Now again he falls with renewed might of will to his purpose; and his grand lyrical gift becomes an instrument not sonorous merely but vocal and articulate. To readers who can but once take their stand for a minute on the writer's footing, look for a little with his eyes and listen with his ears, even the more incoherent cadences will become not undelightful; something of his pleasure, with something of his perception, will pass into them; and understanding once the main gist of the whole fitful and high-strung tune, they will tolerate, where they cannot enjoy, the strange diversities and discords which intervene.
Among many notable eccentricities we have touched upon but two as yet; the huge windy mythology of elemental dæmons, and the capricious passion for catalogues of random names, which make obscure and hideous so, much of these books. Akin to these is the habit of seeing or assuming in things inanimate or in the several limbs and divisions of one thing, separate forms of active and symbolic life. This, like many other of Blake's habits, grows and swells enormously by progressive indulgence. At first, as in Thel, clouds and flowers, clods and creeping things, are given speech and sense; the degree of symbolism is already excessive, owing to the strength of expression and directness of dramatic vision peculiar to Blake; but in later books everything is given a soul to feel and a tongue to speak; the very members of the body become spirits, each a type of some spiritual state. Again, in the prophecies of Europe and America, there is more fable and less allegory, more overflow of lyrical invention, more of the divine babble which sometimes takes the place of earthly speech or sense, more vague emotion with less of reducible and amenable quality than in almost any of these poems. In others, a habit of mapping out and marking down the lines of his chaotic and Titanic scenery has added to Blake's other singularities of manner this above all, that side by side with the jumbled worlds of Tharmas and Urthona, the whirling skies and plunging planets of Ololon and Beulah, the breathless student of prophecy encounters places and names absurdly familiar; London streets and suburbs make up part of the mystic antediluvian world; Fulham and Lambeth, Kentish Town and Poland Street, cross the courses and break the metres of the stars. This apparent madness of final absurdity has also its root in the deepest and soundest part of Blake's mind and faith. In the meanest place as in the meanest man he beheld the hidden spirit and significance of which the flesh or the building is but a type. If continents have a soul, shall suburbs or lanes have less? where life is, shall not the spirit of life be there also? Europe and America are vital and significant; we mean by all names somewhat more than we know of; for where there is anything visible or conceivable, there is also some invisible and inconceivable thing. This is but the rough grotesque result of the tenet that matter apart from spirit is non-existent. Launched once upon that theory, Blake never thought it worth while to shorten sail or tack about for fear of any rock or shoal. It is inadequate and even inaccurate to say that he allotted to each place as to each world a presiding dæmon or deity. He averred implicitly or directly, that each had a soul or spirit, the quintessence of its natural life, capable of change but not of death; and that of this soul the visible externals, though a native and actual part, were only a part, inseparable as yet but incomplete. Thus whenever, to his misfortune and ours, he stumbles upon the proper names of terrene men and things, he uses these names as signifying not the sensual form or body but the spirit which he supposed to animate these, to speak in them and work through them. In America the names of liberators, in Jerusalem the names of provinces, have no separate local or mundane sense whatever; throughout the prophecies "Albion" is the mythical and typical fatherland of human life, much what the East might seem to other men: and by way of making this type actual and prominent enough, Blake seizes upon all possible divisions of the modern visible England in town or country, and turns them in his loose symbolic way into minor powers and serving spirits. That he was wholly unconscious of the intolerably laughable effect we need not believe. He had all the delight in laying snares and giving offence, which is proper to his kind. He had all the confidence in his own power and right to do such things and to get over the doing of them which accompanies in such men the subtle humour of scandalizing. And unfortunately he had not by training, perhaps not by nature, the conscience which would have reminded him that whether or not an artist may allowably play with all other things in heaven and earth, one thing he must certainly not play with; the material forms of art: that levity and violence are here prohibited under grave penalties. Allowing however for this, we may notice that in the wildest passages of these books Blake merely carries into strange places or throws into strange shapes such final theories as in the dialect of calmer and smaller men have been accounted not unreasonable.
Further preface or help, however loudly the subject might seem to call for it, we have not in this place to give; and indeed more words would possibly not bring with them more light. What was explicable we have endeavoured to explain; to suggest where a hint was profitable; to prepare where preparation was feasible: but many voices might be heard crying in this wilderness before the paths were made straight. The pursuivant would grow hoarse and the outrider saddle-sick long before the great man's advent; and for these offices we have no further taste or ability. Those who will may now, with what furtherance they have here, follow us through some brief revision of each book in its order.The Book of Thel, first in date and simplest in tone of the prophecies, requires less comment than the others. This poem is as the one sister, feeblest if also fairest, among that Titanic brotherhood of books. It has the clearness and sweetness of spring-water; they have in their lips the speech, in their limbs the pulses of the sea. In this book, as in the illustrations to Blair, the poet attempts to comfort life through death; to assuage by spiritual hope the fleshly fear of man. The "shining woman," youngest and mortal daughter of the angels of God, leaving her sisters to tend the flocks and close the folds of the stars, fills herself with the images of perishable things; she feeds upon the sorrow that comes of beauty, the heathen weariness of heart, that is sick of life because death will come, seeing how "our little life is rounded with a sleep." Let all these things go, for they are mortal; but if I die with the flowers, let me also die as they die. This is the end of all things, to sleep; but let me fall asleep softly, not without the lulling sound of God's voice audible in my ears. The flower makes answer; does God not care for the least of these? they shall not die, they shall all be changed. She answers again; the flower is serviceable to God's creatures, giving food to the pasturing lambs and flavour to the honey of the gleaning bees: but her beauty is barren as a lighted cloud's; wherefore should she live? She is bidden to seek counsel then of the cloud; and of him she asks the secret of his glad ephemeral life; for she, not less ephemeral, has no such joy of her life. Here again she is shown that life and permanence are twain; the cloud has drunk at the springs of the sun, whence all hours are renewed; and shall not die though he pass away; for his falling drops find out the living flowers, and are wedded to the dew in these; and they are made one before the sun, and kept alive to feed other flowers: and all these are as women and men, having souls and senses, capable of love and prayer. But she answers, that of her fair body no cloud or bird gets food, but the worm only; why should anything survive of her who has been helpful to nothing? The worm therefore is called to witness; and appears in an infant's likeness, inarticulate, naked, weeping; but upon it too the divine earth has mercy, and the clay finds a voice to speak for it; this likewise is not the sad unprofitable thing it seems; for the very earth, baser and liker death than the least thing bred of it, is the bride of God, a fruitful mother of all his children. "We live not for ourselves;" else indeed were earth and the worm of earth things mournful and fruitless. The secret of creation is sacrifice; the very act of growth is a sacrament: and through this eternal generation in which one life is given for another and shed into new veins of existence, each thing is redeemed from perpetual death by perpetual change. This secret once made evident to Thel, her fear is in a measure removed; for the very deathbed of earth in which she must lie is now revealed as a mother's bosom, warm and giving warmth, living and prodigal of life. That God would care for the least thing he made she knew always; but now knows also that in the least thing there is something of God's life infused, which makes it substantially imperishable. So far one may say the poem is as fluent and translucent as the merest sermon on faith, hope, and charity could well be: and not less inoffensive. The earth, who has overheard and gathered up all the flitting sighs of this unwedded Eve, now unveils to her the mysteries of the body, bred in the grave whither all sorrows tend and whence all tears arise. The forces of material nature give way before her; passing to her own grave, she hears thence a voice lamenting over the nature of all the senses, their sweet perilous gifts and strange limits, and all their offices which fill and discolour the days of mortal life. To this, the question lying at the root of life and under the shadow of death, nothing makes answer; as though no word spoken upon earth or under could explain the marvel of the flesh, the infinite beauty and delight of it, the infinite subtlety and danger; its prodigalities and powers, its wide capacity and utter weakness. Set face to face with this bodily mystery, and affrighted at the sudden nakedness of natural life, the soul recoils; and Thel regains the common air and quiet light of earth. Such, cut short and melted down, is the purport of this poem: a prophecy as literally as any other of Blake's, being professedly an inspired exposition of material things; for none of course pretend to be prophecies in the inaccurate and vulgar sense of prediction. It is full of small sweet details, bright and soft as summer grass, regular to monotony in its cadence until the last division, where the tone suddenly strengthens and deepens. There and not for the last time the strong imagination of Blake wrestles with the great questions of physical life, constraining the mute rebellious flesh as in a fervent and strenuous grasp of spirit, if perchance it will yield up the heart of its mystery. Throughout the book his extreme and feminine tenderness of faith speaks more softly and shows a simpler face than elsewhere. One might almost say that Thel had overmuch of this gracious and delicate beauty; that the intense faith and compassion which thus animate all matter give a touch of almost dubious and effeminate sweetness to the thought and style. Not however justly; for there is a firm body of significance in the poem, and the soft light leaves in which the fruit lies wrapped are solid as well as sweet.
It is well worth while to compare any average copy of Thel with the smaller volume of designs now in the British Museum, which reproduces among others the main illustrations of this book. The clear, sweet, pallid colour of the fainter version will then serve to throw into full effect the splendour of the more finished work. Especially in the separate copy of the frontispiece, the sovereignty of colour and glorious grace of workmanship double and treble its original beauty; give new light and new charm to the fervent heaven, to the bowing figure of the girl, to the broad cloven blossoms whose flickering and sundering petals release the bright leaping forms of loving spirits, raindrop and dewdrop wedded before the sun; and again, where Thel sees the worm in likeness of a newborn child, the colours of tree and leaf and sky are of a more excellent and lordly beauty than in any copy known to me of the book itself; though in all good copies these designs appear full of great and gracious qualities. Of the book of designs here referred to more must not now be said; not even of the twelfth plate where the mother-goddess and her fiery first-born child exult with flying wingless limbs through splendid spaces of the infinite morning, coloured here like opening flowers and there like climbing fire, where all the light and all the wind of heaven seem to unite in fierce gladness as of a supreme embrace and exultation; for to these better praise than ours has been already given at p. 374 of the Life, in words of choice and incomparable sufficiency, not less bright and sweet, significant and subtle, than the most tender or perfect of the designs described.In 1790 Blake produced the greatest of all his books; a work indeed which we rank as about the greatest produced by the eighteenth century in the line of high poetry and spiritual speculation. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell gives us the high-water mark of his intellect. None of his lyrical writings show the same sustained strength and radiance of mind; none of his other works in verse or prose give more than a hint here and a trace there of the same harmonious and humorous power, of the same choice of eloquent words, the same noble command and liberal music of thought; small things he could often do perfectly, and great things often imperfectly; here for once he has written a book as perfect as his most faultless song, as great as his most imperfect rhapsody. His fire of spirit fills it from end to end; but never deforms the body, never singes the surface of the work, as too often in the still noble books of his later life. Across the flicker of flame, under the roll and roar of water, which seem to flash and to resound throughout the poem, a stately music, shrill now as laughter and now again sonorous as a psalm, is audible through shifting notes and fitful metres of sound. The book swarms with heresies and eccentricities; every sentence bristles with some paradox, every page seethes with blind foam and surf of stormy doctrine; the humour is of that fierce grave sort, whose cool insanity of manner is more horrible and more obscure to the Philistine than any sharp edge of burlesque or glitter of irony; it is huge, swift, inexplicable; hardly laughable through its enormity of laughter, hardly significant through its condensation of meaning; but as true and thoughtful as the greatest humourist's. The variety and audacity of thoughts and words are incomparable: not less so their fervour and beauty. "No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings." This proverb might serve as motto to the book: it is one of many "Proverbs of Hell," as forcible and as finished.
It was part of Blake's humour to challenge misconception, conscious as he was of power to grapple with it: to blow dust in their eyes who were already sandblind, to strew thorns under their feet who were already lame. Those whom the book in its present shape would perplex and repel he knew it would not in any form have attracted; and how such readers may fare is no concern of such writers; nor in effect need it be. Aware that he must at best offend a little, he did not fear to offend much. To measure the exact space of safety, to lay down the precise limits of offence, was an office neither to his taste nor within his power. Those who try to clip or melt themselves down to the standard of current feeling, to sauce and spice their natural fruits of mind with such condiments as may take the palate of common opinion, deserve to disgust themselves and others alike. It is hopeless to reckon how far the timid, the perverse, or the malignant irrelevance of human remarks will go; to set bounds to the incompetence or devise landmarks for the imbecility of men. Blake's way was not the worst; to indulge his impulse to the full and write what fell to his hand, making sure at least of his own genius and natural instinct. In this his greatest book he has at once given himself freer play and set himself to harder labour than elsewhere: the two secrets of great work. Passion and humour are mixed in his writing like mist and light; whom the light may scorch or the mist confuse it is not his part to consider.
In the prologue Blake puts forth, not without grandeur if also with an admixture of rant and wind, a chief tenet of his moral creed. Once the ways of good and evil were clear, not yet confused by laws and religions; then humility and benevolence, the endurance of peril and the fruitful labour of love, were the just man's proper apanage; behind his feet the desert blossomed; by his toil and danger, by his sweat and blood, the desolate places were made rich and the dead bones clothed with flesh as the flesh of Adam. Now the hypocrite has come to reap the fruits, to divide and gather and eat; to drive forth the just man and to dwell in the paths which he found perilous and barren, but left safe and fertile. Churches have cast out apostles; creeds have rooted out faith. Henceforth anger and loneliness, the divine indignation of spiritual exile, the salt bread of scorn and the bitter wine of wrath, are the portion of the just man; he walks with lions in the waste places, not worth making fertile that others may reap and feed. "Rintrah," the spirit presiding over this period, is a spirit of fire and storm; darkness and famine, wrath and want, divide the kingdoms of the world. "Prisons are built with stones of Law; brothels with bricks of Religion." "As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys." In a third proverb the view given of prayer is no less heretical; "As the plough follows words, so God rewards prayers." This was but the outcome or corollary of his main doctrine; as what we have called his "evangel of bodily liberty" was but the fruit of his belief in the identity of body with soul. The fear which restrains and the faith which refuses were things as ignoble as the hypocrisy which assumes or the humility which resigns. Veils and chains must be lifted and broken. "Folly is the cloak of knavery; shame is pride's cloak." Again; "He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence." "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires." The doctrine of freedom could hardly run further or faster. Translated into rough practice, and planted in a less pure soil than that of the writer's mind, this philosophy might bring forth a strange harvest. Together with such width of moral pantheism as will hardly admit a "tender curb," leave "a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire," there is a vehemence of faith in divine wrath, in the excellence of righteous anger and revenge, to be outdone by no prophet or Puritan. "A dead body revenges not injuries." Sincerity and plain dealing at least are virtues not to be thrown over; Blake indeed could not conceive an impulse to mendacity, a tortuous habit of mind, a soul born crooked. This one quality of falsehood remains damnable in his sight, to be consumed with all that comes of it. In man or beast or any other part of God he found no native taint or birthmark of this. Upon all else the divine breath and the divine hand are sensible and visible.
"The pride of the peacock is the glory of God;
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God;
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God;
The nakedness of woman is the work of God."
All form and all instinct is sacred; but no invention or device of man's. All crafts and creeds of theirs are "the serpent's meat:" and that a man should be born cruel and false is barely imaginable. "If the lion was advised by the fox he would be cunning." Such counsel was always wasted on the high clear spirit and stainless intellect of Blake.We have given some of the most subtle and venturous "Proverbs of Hell"—samples of their depth of doctrine and plainness of speech. But even here Blake rarely indulges in such excess and exposure. There are jewels in this treasure-house neither set so roughly nor so sharply cut as these; they may be seen in the Life, taken out and reset, so as to offend no customer. And these sayings must themselves be read by the light of Blake's life and weighed against others of his words not less weighty than they. Apology shall now and always remain as far from us as it was in life from Blake himself; to excuse and to explain are different offices. To plead for his acquittal on the base and foolish ground that he meant no harm, knew not what he did, had no design or desire to afflict or offend, is no office for his counsel; who must strive at least to speak not less frankly and clearly than did Blake when he could speak in his own cause. Neither have we to approve or condemn; but only to endeavour that we may see the right and deliver the truth as to this man and his life. "That I cannot live," he says, in the Butts correspondence, "without doing my duty to lay up treasures in heaven, is certain and determined, and to this I have long made up my mind. And why this should be made an objection to me, while drunkenness, lewdness, gluttony, and even idleness itself does not hurt other men, let Satan himself explain. The thing I have most at heart—more than life, or all that seems to make life comfortable without (it)—is the interest of true religion and science." His one fear is to "omit any duty to my station as a soldier of Christ;" a fear that "gives him the greatest torments;" for "if our footsteps slide in clay, how can we do otherwise than fear and tremble?" And such books as these were part of his spiritual taskwork. From whencesoever the inspiration of them came, inspiration it was and no invention. He is content with that knowledge; and if it please the hearer to call it diabolic, diabolic it shall be. If he has a devil, he will make the most and the best of him. If
these things come from hell, let us look to it and hold them fast, that we may see what it is that divides hell from heaven.
"As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent: the Eternal Hell revives. And lo! Swedenborg is the Angel sitting at the tomb : his writings are the linen clothes folded up. Now is the dominion of Edom, and the return of Adam into Paradise; see Isaiah xxxiv. and xxxv. chap.
"Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human exisence.
"From these Contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason.
"Evil is the active springing from Energy.
"Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
"THE VOICE OF THE DEVIL.
"All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
"1. That man has two real existing principles - viz., a Body and a Soul.
"2. That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, called Good, is alone from the Soul.
"3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
"But the following contraries to these are True.
"1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned 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 is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
"3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
"Those who restrain desire to do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer, or reason, usurps its place and governs the unwilling.
"And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.
"The history of this is written in ' Paradise Lost,' and the Governor, or Reason, is called Messiah.
"And the original Archangel, or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is called the Devil or Satan, and his children are called Sin and Death.
"But in the Book of Job Milton's Messiah is called Satan.
"For this history has been adopted by both parties.
"It indeed appeared to Reason as if Desire was cast out; but the Devil's account is, that the Messiah fell, and formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.
"This is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire, that Reason may have Ideas to build on, the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he who dwells in flaming fire. Know that after Christ's death, he became Jehovah.
"But in Milton the Father is Destiny, the Son a Ratio of the five Senses, and the Holy Ghost, Vacuum.
"Note.—The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it."
Something of these high matters we have seen before, and should now be able to allow for the subtle intricate fashion in which Blake labours to invert the weapons of his antagonists upon themselves. Neither can the banns of marriage be published between heaven and hell with the voice of a parish clerk. This prophet came to do what Swedenborg his precursor had left undone, being but the watchman by the empty sepulchre, and his writings as the grave-clothes cast off by the risen Christ. Blake's estimate of Swedenborg, right or wrong, was, as we shall see, distinct and consistent; to this effect; that his inspiration was limited and timid, superficial and derivative; that he was content with leaves and husks, and had not the courage to examine the root and the kernel of things; that he clove to the heaven and shrank from the hell of other men; whereas, to men in whom "a new heaven is begun," the one must not be terrible nor the other desirable. To them the "flaming fire" wherein dwells a God whom men call devil, must seem a purer element of life than the starry and cloudy space wherein dwells a devil whom they call God. It must be remembered that Blake uses the current terms of religion, now as types of his own peculiar faith, now in the sense of ordinary preachers: impugning therefore at one time what at another he will seem to vindicate. Vague and violent as this overture may appear, it must be followed with care, that the writer's intensity of spiritual faith may be hereafter kept in sight. The senses, "the chief inlets of soul in this age" of brute doubt and brute belief, are worthy only as parts of the soul. This, it cannot be too much repeated and insisted on, this and no prurience of porcine appetite for rotten apples, no vulgarity of porcine adoration for unctuous wash, is what lies at the root of Blake's sensual doctrine. Let no reader now or ever forget, that while others will admit nothing beyond the body, the mystic will admit nothing outside the soul. That the two extremes, if reduced to hard practice, might run round and meet, not without lamentably curious consequences, those may assert who will; it is none of our business to decide. Even granting that the result will be about equivalent if one man does for his soul's sake all that another would do for his body's sake, we might plead that the difference of thought and eye between these two would remain great and important. Indulgence bracketed to faith and vivified by that vigorous contact with things divine is not (we might say) the same, whether seen from the actual side of life or from the speculative, as indulgence cut loose and left to decompose. But these pleas we will leave the mystic to advance, if it please him, on his own behalf.
"A Memorable Fancy.
"As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs: thinking that as the sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell show the nature of the Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments. When I came home, on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat-sided steep frowns over the present world, I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of the rock; with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence, now perceived by the minds of men, and read by them on earth:—
"'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?'"
Here follow the "Proverbs of Hell," which give us the quintessence and the most fine gold of Blake's alembic. Each, whether earnest or satirical, slight or great in manner, is full of that passionate wisdom and bright rapid strength proper to the step and speech of gods. The simplest give us a measure of his energy, as this: "Think in the morning, act in the noon, eat in the evening, sleep in the night." The highest have a light and resonance about them, as though in effect from above or beneath; a spirit which lifts thought upon the high levels of verse.
From the ensuing divisions of the book we shall give full extracts; for these detached sections have a grace and coherence which we shall not always find in Blake; and the crude excerpts given in the Life are inadequate to help the reader much towards a clear comprehension of the main scheme.
"The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive.
"And, particularly, they studied the genius of each city and country, placing it under its mental deity.
"Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood,
"Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales;
"And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things.
"Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast."
From this we pass to higher tones of exposition. The next passage is one of the clearest and keenest in the book, full of faith and sacred humour, none the less sincere for its dramatic form. The subtle simplicity of expression is excellently subservient to the intricate force of thought.
"A Memorable Fancy.
"The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition.
"Isaiah answered, "I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite or organical perception; but my senses discovered the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded, I remain confirmed, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God. I cared not for consequences, but wrote.'
"Then I asked, 'Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?'
"He replied, 'All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains. But many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.'
"Then Ezekiel said, "The philosophy of the East taught the first principles of human perception. Some nations held one principle for the origin and some another. We of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle, and all the others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests and Philosophers of other countries, and prophesying that all Gods would at last be proved to originate in ours, and to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius. It was this that our great poet King David desired so fervently and invokes so pathetically, saying by this he conquers enemies and governs kingdoms; and we so loved our God, that we cursed in his name all the deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had rebelled; from these opinions the vulgar came to think that all nations would at last be subject to the Jews.
"'This,' said he, 'like all firm persuasions, is come to pass, for all nations believe the Jews' code and worship the Jews' God, and what greater subjection can be?'
"I heard this with some wonder, and must confess my own conviction. After dinner, I asked Isaiah to favour the world with his lost works. He said none of equal value was lost. "Ezekiel said the same of his.
"I also asked Isaiah what made him go naked and barefoot three years? He answered, the same that made our friend Diogenes the Grecian.
"I then asked Ezekiel, why he eat dung, and lay so long on his right and left side? he answered, the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite. This the North American tribes practise; and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience, only for the sake of present ease or gratification?"
The doctrine of perception through not with the senses, beyond not in the organs, as also of the absolute existence of things thus apprehended, is again directly enforced in our next excerpt; in praise of which we will say nothing, but leave the words to burn their way in as they may.
"The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.
"For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life; and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite and holy, whereas it now appears finite and corrupt.
"This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.
"But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.
"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
"For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern."
"The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence, and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life and the sources of all activity; but the chains are, the cunning of weak and tame minds, which have power to resist energy; according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.
"Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring; to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains; but it is not so; he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
"But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific, unless the Devourer as a sea received the excess of his delights.
"Some will say, Is not God alone the Prolific?
"I answer, God only Acts and Is in existing beings or Men.
"These two classes of men are always upon earth, and they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them, seeks to destroy existence.
"Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.
"Note.—Jesus Christ did not wish to unite but to separate them, as in the Parable of sheep and goats! and he says I came not to send Peace but a Sword.
"Messiah or Satan or Tempter was formerly thought to be one of the Antediluvians who are our Energies."
These are hard sayings; who can hear them? At first sight also, as we were forewarned, this passage seems at direct variance with that other in the overture, where our prophet appears at first sight, and only appears, to speak of the fallen "Messiah" as the same with the Christ of his belief. Verbally coherent we cannot hope to make the two passages; but it must be remarked and remembered that the very root or kernel of this creed is not the assumed humanity of God, but the achieved divinity of Man; not incarnation from without, but development from within; not a miraculous passage into flesh, but a natural growth into godhead. Christ, as the type or sample of manhood, thus becomes after death the true Jehovah; not, as he seems to the vulgar, the extraneous and empirical God of creeds and churches, human in no necessary or absolute sense, the false and fallen phantom of his enemy, Zeus in the mask of Prometheus. We are careful to note and as far as may be to correct any apparent slips or shortcomings in expression, only because if left without a touch of commentary they may seem to make worse confusion than they do actually make. Subtle, trenchant and profound as is this philosophy, there is no radical flaw in the book, no positive incongruity, no inherent contradiction. A single consistent principle keeps alive the large relaxed limbs, makes significant the dim great features of this strange faith. It is but at the opening that the words are even partially inadequate and obscure. Revision alone could have righted and straightened them; and revision the author would not give. Impatient of their insufficiency, and incapable of any labour that implies rest, he shook them together and flung them out in an irritated hurried manner, regardless who might gather them up or let them lie.
In the next and longest division of the book, direct allegory and imaginative vision are indivisibly mixed into each other. The stable and mill, the twisted root and inverted fungus, are transparent symbols enough: the splendid and stormy apocalypse of the abyss is a chapter of pure vision or poetic invention. Why "Swedenborg's volumes" are the weights used to sink the travellers from the "glorious clime" to the passive and iron void between the fixed stars and the coldest of the remote planets, will be conceivable in due time.
"A Memorable Fancy.
"An Angel came to me and said, 'O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! Consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such career.'
"I said, 'Perhaps you will be willing to show me my eternal lot and we will contemplate upon it and see whether your lot or mine is most desirable.'
"So he took me through a stable and through a church and down into the church vault at the end of which was a mill; through the mill we went, and came to a cave; down the winding cavern we groped our tedious way, till a void, boundless as a nether sky, appeared beneath us, and we held by the roots of trees and hung over this immensity; but I said, 'If you please, we will commit ourselves to this void, and see whether Providence is here also; if you will not, I will.'
"But he answered, 'Do not presume, O young man, but as we here remain, behold thy lot, which will soon appear when the darkness passes away.'
"So I remained with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak; he was suspended in a fungus, which hung with the head downward into the deep.
"By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us at an immense distance was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolved vast spiders, crawling after their prey; which flew or rather swam in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; and the air was full of them, and seemed composed of them; these are Devils, and are called Powers of the air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? he said, between the black and white spiders.
"But now, from between the black and white spiders a cloud and fire burst and rolled through the deep blackening all beneath, so that the nether deep grew black as a sea and rolled with a terrible noise: beneath us was nothing now to be seen but a black tempest, till looking east between the clouds and the waves, we saw a cataract of blood mixed with fire, and not many stones' throw from us appeared and sunk again the scaly fold of a monstrous serpent; at last, to the east, distant about three degrees, appeared a fiery crest above the waves; slowly it reared, like a ridge of golden rocks, till we discovered two globes of crimson fire, from which the sea fled away in clouds of smoke: and now we saw it was the head of Leviathan; his forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple, like those on a tiger's forehead: soon we saw his mouth and red gills hang just above the raging foam, tinging the black deep with beams of blood, advancing toward us with all the fury of a spiritual existence.
"My friend the Angel climbed up from his station into the mill; I remained alone, and then this appearance was no more; but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moonlight, hearing a harper who sung to the harp, and his theme was, The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.
"But I arose, and sought for the mill, and there I found my Angel, who, surprised, asked me how I escaped?
"I answered, 'All that we saw was owing to your metaphysics: for when you ran away, I found myself on a bank by moonlight hearing a harper. But now we have seen my eternal lot, shall I show you yours?' He laughed at my proposal: but I by force suddenly caught him in my arms, and flew westerly through the night, till we were elevated above the earth's shadow: then I flung myself with him directly into the body of the sun; here I clothed myself in white, and taking in my hand Swedenborg's volumes, sunk from the glorious clime, and passed all the planets till we came to Saturn: here I staid to rest, and then leaped into the void, between Saturn and the fixed stars.
"'Here,' said I, 'is your lot, in this space, if space it may be called.' Soon we saw the stable and the church, and I took him to the altar and opened the Bible, and lo! it was a deep pit, into which I descended, driving the Angel before me; soon we saw seven houses of brick; one we entered; in it were a number of monkeys, baboons, and all of that species chained by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but withheld by the shortness of their chains; however, I saw that they sometimes grew numerous, and then the weak were caught by the strong and, with a grinning aspect, first coupled with and then devoured, by plucking off first one limb and then another, till the body was left a helpless trunk; this, after grinning and kissing it with seeming kindness, they devoured too; and here and there I saw one savourily picking the flesh off of his own tail. As the stench terribly annoyed us both, we went into the mill, and I in my hand brought the skeleton of a body, which in the mill was Aristotle's 'Analytics.'
"So the Angel said; 'Thy phantasy has imposed upon me, and thou oughtest to be ashamed.'
"I answered; 'We impose on one another, and it is but lost time to converse with you, whose works are only Analytics.'"
The "seven houses of brick" we may take to be a reminiscence of the seven churches of St. John; as indeed the traces of former evangelists and prophets are never long wanting when we track the steps of this one. Lest however we be found unawares on the side of these hapless angels and baboons, we will abstain with all due care from any not indispensable analysis. It is evident that between pure "phantasy" and mere "analytics" the great gulf must remain fixed, and either party appear to the other deceptive and deceived. That impulsive energy and energetic faith are the only means, whether used as tools of peace or as weapons of war, to pave or to fight our way toward the realities of things, was plainly the creed of Blake; as also that these realities, once well in sight, will reverse appearance and overthrow tradition: hell will appear as heaven, and heaven as hell. The abyss once entered with due trust and courage appears a place of green pastures and gracious springs: the paradise of resignation once beheld with undisturbed eyes appears a place of emptiness or bondage, delusion or cruelty. On the humorous beauty and vigour of these symbols we need not expatiate; in these qualities Rabelais and Dante together could hardly have excelled Blake at his best. What his meaning is should by this time be as clear as the meaning of a mystic need be; it is but partially expressible by words, as (to borrow Blake's own symbol) the inseparable soul is yet but incompletely expressible through the body. Whether it be right or wrong, foolish or wise, we will neither inquire nor assert: the autocercophagous monkeys of the mill may be left to settle that for themselves with "Urizen."
We come now to a chapter of comments, intercalated between two sufficiently memorable "fancies."
"I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.
"Thus Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new, though it is only the Contents or Index of already published books.
"A man carried a monkey about for a show, and because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conceived himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg: he shows the folly of churches and exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious and himself the single one on earth that ever broke a net.
"Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth.
"Now hear another: He has written all the old falsehoods.
"And now hear the reason: He conversed with Angels who are all religious and conversed not with Devils who all hate religion; for he was incapable, through his conceited notions.
"Thus Swedenborg's writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further.
"Hear now another plain fact: Any man of mechanical talents may, from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg's; and from those of Dante or Shakespeare, an infinite number. But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine."
This also we will leave for those to decide who please, and attend to the next and final vision. That the fire of inspiration should absorb and convert to its own nature all denser and meaner elements of mind, was the prophet's sole idea of redemption: the dead cloud of belief consumed becomes the vital flame of faith.
"A Memorable Fancy.
"Once I saw a Devil in a flame of fire, who arose before an Angel that sat on a cloud, and the Devil uttered these words.
"The worship of God is: Honouring his gifts in other men, each according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best; those who envy or calumniate great men hate God, for there is no other God.
"The Angel hearing this became almost blue, but mastering himself, he grew yellow, and at last white, pink, and smiling; and then replied, Thou Idolater, is not God one? and is not he visible in Jesus Christ? and has not Jesus Christ given his sanction to the law of ten commandments? and are not all other men fools, sinners, and nothings?
"The Devil answered; Bray a fool in a mortar with wheat, yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him: if Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love him in the greatest degree; now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of the ten commandments: did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath's God? murder those who were murdered, because of him? turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? steal the labour of others to support him? bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? covet when he prayed for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.
"When he had so spoken, I beheld the Angel who stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire, and he was consumed, and arose as Elijah.
"Note.—This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend: we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world shall have if they behave well.
"I have also the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have, whether they will or no."
Under this title at least the world was never favoured with it; but we may presumably taste some savour of that Bible in these pages. After this the book is wound up in a lyric rapture, not without some flutter and tumour of style, but full of clear high music and flame-like aspiration. Epilogue and prologue are both nearer in manner to the dubious hybrid language of the succeeding books of prophecy than to the choice and noble prose in which the rest of this book is written. The overture must be read by the light of its meaning; of the mysterious universal mother and her son, the latest birth of the world, we have already taken account. The date of 1790 must here be kept in mind, that all may remember what appearances of change were abroad, what manner of light and tempest was visible upon earth, when the hopes of such men as Blake made their stormy way into speech or song.
1. The Eternal Female groan'd! it was heard over all the Earth.
2. Albion's coast is sick silent; the American meadows faint!
3. Shadows of Prophecy shiver along by the lakes and the rivers, and mutter across the ocean. France, rend down thy dungeon;
4. Golden Spain, burst the barriers of old Rome;
5. Cast thy keys, Rome, into the deep down falling, even to eternity down falling;
6. And weep.
7. In her trembling hands she took the new-born terror howling:
8. On those infinite mountains of light now barred out by the Atlantic sea, the new-born fire stood before the starry King!
9. Flag'd with grey-browed snows and thunderous visages the jealous wings waved over the deep.
10. The speary hand burned aloft, unbuckled was the shield, forth went the hand of jealousy among the flaming hair, and hurled the new-born wonder thro' the starry night.
11. The fire, the fire is falling!
12. Look up! look up! O citizen of London, enlarge thy countenance: O Jew, leave counting gold! return to thy oil and wine; O African! black African! (go, winged thought, widen his forehead.)
13. The fiery limbs, the flaming hair, shot like the sinking sun into the western sea.
14. Waked from his eternal sleep, the hoary element roaring fled away.
15. Down rushed, beating his wings in vain, the jealous King; his grey-browed councillors, thunderous warriors, curled veterans, among helms and shields, and chariots, horses, elephants; banners, castles, slings and rocks;
16. Falling, rushing, ruining! buried in the ruins, on Urthona's dens;
17. All night beneath the ruins, then their sullen flames faded emerge round the gloomy King.
18. With thunder and fire, leading his starry hosts thro' the waste wilderness, he promulgates his ten commands, glancing his beamy eyelids over the deep in dark dismay;
19. Where the son of fire in his eastern cloud, while the morning plumes her golden breast,
20. Spurning the clouds written with curses, stamps the stony law to dust, loosing the eternal horses from the dens of night, crying, Empire is no more! and now the lion and the wolf shall cease.
Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn no longer in deadly black with hoarse note curse the sons of joy; Nor his accepted brethren, whom, tyrant, he calls free, lay the bound or build the roof; Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity that wishes but acts not;
For everything that lives is Holy."
The decorations of this great work, though less large and complete than those of the subsequent prophecies, are full of noble and subtle beauty. Over every page faint fibres and flickering threads of colour weave a net of intricate design. Skies cloven with flame and thunder, half-blasted trees round which huddled forms of women or men cower and cling, strange beasts and splendid flowers, alternate with the engraved text; and throughout all the sunbeams of heaven and fires of hell shed fiercer or softer light. In minute splendour and general effect the pages of Blake's next work fall short of these; though in the Visions of the Daughters of Albion the separate designs are fuller and more composed. This poem, written in a sort of regular though quasi-lyrical blank verse, is more direct and lucid in purpose than most of these books; but the style is already laxer, veers more swiftly from point to point, stands weaker on its feet, and speaks with more of a hurried and hysterical tone. With "formidable moral questions," as the biographer has observed, it does assuredly deal; and in a way somewhat formidable. This, we are told, "the exemplary man had good right to do" Exemplary or not, he in common with all men had undoubtedly such a right; and was not slow to use it. Nowhere else has the prophet so fully and vehemently set forth his doctrine of indulgence; too Albigensian or antinomian this time to be given out again in more decorous form. Of pure mythology there is happily little; of pure allegory even less. "The eye sees more than the heart knows;" these words are given on the title-page by way of motto or key-note. Above this inscription a single design fills the page; in it the title is written with characters of pale fire upon cloud and rainbow; the figure of the typical woman, held fast to earth but by one foot, seems to soar and yearn upwards with straining limbs that flutter like shaken flame: appealing in vain to the mournful and merciless Creator, whose sad fierce face looks out beyond and over her, swathed and cradled in bloodlike fire and drifted rain. In the prologue we get a design expressive of plain and pure pleasure; a woman gathers a child from the heart of a blossom as it breaks, and the sky is full of the golden stains and widening roses of a sundawn. But elsewhere, from the frontispiece to the end, nothing meets us but emblems of restraint and error; figures rent by the beaks of eagles though lying but on mere cloud, chained to no solid rock by the fetters only of their own faiths or fancies; leafless trunks that rot where they fell; cold ripples of barren sea that break among caves of bondage. The perfect woman, Oothoon, is one with the spirit of the great western world; born for rebellion and freedom, but half a slave yet, and half a harlot. "Bromion," the violent Titan, subject himself to ignorance and sorrow, has defiled her; "Theotormon," her lover, emblem of man held in bondage to creed or law, will not become one with her because of her shame; and she, who gathered in time of innocence the natural flower of delight, calls now for his eagles to rend her polluted flesh with cruel talons of remorse and ravenous beaks of shame: enjoys his infliction, accepts her agony, and reflects his severe smile in the mirrors of her purged spirit.
"sits wearing the threshold hard
With secret tears; beneath him sound like waves on a desert shore
The voice of slaves beneath the sun, and children bought with money."
From her long melodious lamentation we give one continuous excerpt here. Sweet, and lucid as Thel, it is more subtle and more strong; the allusions to American servitude and English aspiration, which elsewhere distract and distort the sense and scheme of the poem, are here well cleared away.
"I cry Arise, O Theotormon; for the village dog
Barks at the breaking day; the nightingale has done lamenting;
The lark does rustle in the green corn, and the eagle returns
From nightly prey and lifts his golden beak to the pure east;
Shaking the dust from his immortal pinions, to awake
The sun that sleeps too long. Arise my Theotormon, I am pure
Because the night is gone that closed me in its deadly black.
They told me that the night and day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to enclose me up,
And they enclosed my infinite beam into a narrow circle,
And sank my heart into the abyss, a red round globe hotburning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased:
Instead of morn arises a bright shadow like an eye
In the eastern cloud; instead of night a sickly charnel-house.
But Theotonnon hears me not: to him the night and morn
Are both alike; a night of sighs, a morning of fresh tears.
And none but Bromion can hear my lamentations.
With what sense is it that the chicken shuns the ravenous hawk?
With what sense does the tame pigeon measure out the expanse?
With what sense does the bee form cells? have not the mouse and frog
Eyes and ears and sense of touch? yet are their habitations
And their pursuits as different as their forms and as their joy.
Ask the wild ass why he refuses burdens, and the meek camel
Why he loves man: is it because of eye, ear, mouth or skin,
Or breathing nostrils? no: for these the wolf and tiger have.
Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave and why her spires
Love to curl around the bones of death: and ask the ravenous snake
Where she gets poison; and the winged eagle why he loves the sun;
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old.
Silent I hover all the night, and all day could be silent,
If Theotormon once would turn his loved eyes upon me;
How can I be denied when I reflect thy image pure?
Sweetest the fruit that the worm feeds on, and the soul prey'd on by woe;
The new-washed lamb tinged with the village smoke, and the bright swan
By the red earth of our immortal river; I bathe my wings
And I am white and pure to hover round Theotormon's breast.
Then Theotormon broke his silence, and he answered;
Tell me what is the night or day to one overflowed with woe?
Tell me what is a thought? and of what substance is it made?
Tell me what is joy? and in what gardens do joys grow?
And in what rivers swim the sorrows? and upon what mountains
Wave shadows of discontent? and in what houses dwell the wretched
Drunken with woe forgotten, and shut up from cold despair?
Tell me where dwell the thoughts forgotten till thou call them forth?
Tell me where dwell the joys of old? and where the ancient loves?
And when will they renew again and the night of oblivion be past?
That I might traverse times and spaces far remote and bring
Comfort into a present sorrow and a night of pain!
Where goest thou, O thought? to what remote land is thy flight?
If thou returnest to the present moment of affliction
Wilt thou bring comforts on thy wings and dews and honey and balm
Or poison from the desert wilds, from the eyes of the envier?"
After this Bromion, with less musical lamentation, asks whether for all things there be not one law established? "Thou knowest that the ancient trees seen by thine eyes have fruit; but knowest thou that trees and fruits flourish upon the earth to gratify senses unknown, in worlds over another kind of seas?" Are there other wars, other sorrows, and other joys than those of external life? But the one law surely does exist "for the lion and the ox," for weak and strong, wise and foolish, gentle and fierce; and for all who rebel against it there are prepared from everlasting the fires and the chains of hell. So speaks the violent slave of heaven; and after a day and a night Oothoon lifts up her voice in sad rebellious answer and appeal.
"O Urizen, Creator of men! mistaken Demon of heaven!
Thy joys are tears: thy labour vain, to form man to thine image;
How can one joy absorb another? are not different joys
Holy, eternal, infinite? and each joy is a Love.
Does not the great mouth laugh at a gift? and the narrow eyelids mock
At the labour that is above payment? and wilt thou take the ape
For thy counsellor, or the dog for a schoolmaster to thy children?
* * * * * *
Does the whale worship at thy footsteps as the hungry dog?
Or does he scent the mountain prey, because his nostrils wide
Draw in the ocean? does his eye discern the flying cloud
As the raven's eye? or does he measure the expanse like the vulture?
Does the still spider view the cliffs where eagles hide their young?
Or does the fly rejoice because the harvest is brought in?
Does not the eagle scorn the earth and despise the treasures beneath?
But the mole knoweth what is there, and the worm shall tell it thee."
Perhaps there is no loftier note of music and of thought struck anywhere throughout these prophecies. For the rest, we must tread carefully over the treacherous hot ashes strewn about the latter end of this book: which indeed speaks plainly enough for once, and with high equal eloquence; but to no generally acceptable effect. The one matter of marriage laws is still beaten upon, still hammered at with all the might of an insurgent prophet: to whom it is intolerable that for the sake of mere words and mere confusions of thought "she who burns with youth and knows no fixed lot" should be "bound by spells of law to one she loathes," should "drag the chain of life in weary lust," and "bear the wintry rage of a harsh terror driven to madness, bound to hold a rod over her shrinking shoulders all the day, and all the night to turn the wheel of false desire;" intolerable that she should be driven by "longings that wake her womb" to bring forth not men but some monstrous "abhorred birth of cherubs," imperfect, artificial, abortive; counterfeits of holiness and mockeries of purity; things of barren or perverse nature, creatures inhuman or diseased, that live as a pestilence lives and pass away as a meteor passes; "till the child dwell with one he hates, and do the deed he loathes, and the impure scourge force his seed into its unripe birth ere yet his eyelids can behold the arrows of the day:" the day whose blinding beams had surely somewhat affected the prophet's own eyesight, and left his eyelids lined with strange colours of fugitive red and green that fades into black. However, all these things shall be made plain by death; for "over the porch is written Take thy bliss, man! and sweet shall be thy taste, and sweet thy infant joys renew." On the one hand is innocence, on the other modesty; infancy is "fearless, lustful, happy;" who taught it modesty, "subtle modesty, child of night and sleep?" Once taught to dissemble, to call pure things impure, to "catch virgin joy, and brand it with the name of whore and sell it in the night;" once corrupted and misled, "religious dreams and holy vespers light thy smoky fires: once were thy fires lighted by the eyes of honest morn." Not pleasure but hypocrisy is the unclean thing; Oothoon is no harlot, but "a virgin filled with virgin fancies, open to joy and to delight wherever it appears; if in the morning sun I find it, there my eyes are fixed in happy copulation:" and so forth—further than we need follow.
"Is it because acts are not lovely that thou seekest solitude
Where the horrible darkness is impressed with reflections of desire?—
Father of Jealousy, be thou accursed from the earth!
Why hast thou taught my Theotormon this accursed thing?
Till beauty fades from off my shoulders, darkened and cast out,
A solitary shadow wailing on the margin of non-entity;"
as in a later prophecy Ahania, cast out by the jealous God, being the type or embodiment of this sacred natural love "free as the mountain wind."
"Can that be love which drinks another as a sponge drinks water?
That clouds with jealousy his nights, with weepings all the days?
* * * * * *
Such is self-love, that envies all; a creeping skeleton
With lamp-like eyes watching around the frozen marriage-bed."
But instead of the dark-grey "web of age" spun around man by self-love, love spreads nets to catch for him all wandering and foreign pleasures, pale as mild silver or ruddy as flaming gold; beholds them without grudging drink deep of various delight, "red as the rosy morning, lustful as the first-born beam." No single law for all things alike; the sun will not shine in the miser's secret chamber, nor the brightest cloud drop fruitful rain on his stone threshold; for one thing night is good and for another thing day: nothing is good and nothing evil to all at once.
"'The sea-fowl takes the wintry blast for a covering to her limbs,
And the wild snake the pestilence, to adorn him with gems and gold;
And trees and birds and beasts and men behold their eternal joy.
Arise, you little glancing wings, and sing your infant joy!
Arise and drink your bliss! For everything that lives is holy.'
Thus every morning wails Oothoon, but Theotormon sits
Upon the margined ocean, conversing with shadows dire.
The daughters of Albion hear her woes, and echo back her sighs."
It may be feared that Oothoon has yet to wait long before Thetoormon will leave off "conversing with shadows dire;" nor is it surprising that this poem won such small favour; for had it not seemed inexplicable it must have seemed unbearable. Blake, as evidently as Shelley, did in all innocence believe that ameliorated humanity would be soon qualified to start afresh on these new terms after the saving advent of French and American revolutions. "All good things are in the West;" thence in the teeth of "Urizen" shall human deliverance come at length. In the same year Blake's prophecy of America came forth to proclaim this message over again. Upon this book we need not dwell so long; it has more of thunder and less of lightning than the former prophecies; more of sonorous cloud and less of explicit fire. The prelude, though windy enough, is among Blake's nobler myths: the divine spirit of rebellious redemption, imprisoned as yet by the gods of night and chaos, is fed and sustained in secret by the "nameless" spirit of the great western continent; nameless and shadowy, a daughter of chaos, till the day of their fierce and fruitful union.
"Silent as despairing love and strong as jealousy,
The hairy shoulders rend the links, free are the wrists of fire."
At his embrace "she cast aside her clouds and smiled her first-born smile, as when a black cloud shows its lightnings to the silent deep."
"Soon as she saw the terrible boy then burst the virgin's cry;
I love thee; I have found thee, and I will not let thee go.
Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa,
And thou art fallen to give me life in regions of dark death."
Then begins the agony of revolution, her frost and his fire mingling in pain; and the poem opens as with a sound and a light of storm. It is throughout in the main a mere expansion and dilution of the "Song of Liberty" which we have already heard; and in the interludes of the great fight between Urizen and Orc the human names of American or English leaders fall upon the ear with a sudden incongruous clash: not perhaps unfelt by the author's ear also, but unheeded in his desire to make vital and vivid the message he came to deliver. The action is wholly swamped by the allegory; hardly is it related how the serpent-formed "hater of dignities, lover of wild rebellion and transgressor of God's Law," arose in red clouds, "a wonder, a human fire;" "heat but not light went from him;" "his terrible limbs were fire; "his voice shook the ancient Druid temple of tyranny and faith, proclaiming freedom and "the fiery joy that Urizen perverted to ten commands;" the "punishing demons" of the God of jealousy
"Crouch howling before their caverns deep like skins dried in the wind;
"Thus wept the angel voice" of the guardian-angel of Albion; but the thirteen angels of the American provinces rent off their robes and threw down their sceptres and cast in their lot with the rebel; gathered together where on the hills
"called Atlantean hills,
Because from their bright summits you may pass to the golden world,
An ancient palace, archetype of mighty emperies,
Hears its immortal pinnacles, built in the forest of God
By Ariston the king of beauty for his stolen bride."
A myth of which we are to hear no more, significant probably of the rebellion of natural beauty against the intolerable tyranny of God, from which she has to seek shelter in the darkest part of his creation with the angelic or daemonic bridegroom (one of the descended "sons of God") who has wedded her by stealth and built her a secret shelter from the strife of divine things; where at least nature may breathe freely and take pleasure; whither also in their time congregate all other rebellious forces and spirits at war with the Creator and his laws. But the speech of "Boston's angel" we will at least transcribe: not without a wish that he had never since then spoken more incoherently and less musically.
"Must the generous tremble and leave his joy to the idle, to the pestilence,
This is perhaps the finest and clearest passage in the book; and beyond this point there is not much extractable from the clamorous lyrical chaos. Here again besides the mere outward violence of battle, the visible plague and fire of war, we have sight of a subtler and wider revolution.
"For the female spirits of the dead pining in bonds of religion
Run from their fetters reddening and in long-drawn arches sitting.
They feel the nerves of youth renew, and desires of ancient times."
Light and warmth and colour and life are shed from the flames of revolution not alone on city and valley and hill, but likewise
"Over their pale limbs, as a vine when the tender grape appears;
* * * * * *
The heavens melted from north to south; and Orizen who sat
Above all heavens in thunders wrapt, emerged his leprous head
From out his holy shrine; his tears in deluge piteous
Falling into the deep sublime."
Notwithstanding for twelve years it was fated that "angels and weak men should govern o'er the strong, and then their end should come when France received the demon's light:" and the ancient European guardians "slow advance to shut the five gates of their law-built heaven, filled with blasting fancies and with mildews of despair, with fierce disease and lust;" but these gates were consumed in the final fire of revolution that went forth upon the world. So ends the poem; and of the decoration we have barely space to say enough. On one page are the visions of the renewed world, on another the emblems of oppression and war: children sleeping nestled in the fleece of a sleeping ram with heavy horns and quiet mouth pressing the soft ground, while overhead shapely branches droop and gracious birds are perched; or what seems the new-born body of Orc cast under the sea, enmeshed in a web of water whose waves are waves of corn when you come to look; maidens and infants that bridle a strong dragon, and behind them a flight of birds through the clouds of a starry moonlit night, where a wild swan with vast wings and stretching neck is bestridden by a spirit looking eagerly back as he clutches the rein; eagles that devour the dead on a stormy sea-beach, while underneath fierce pikes and sharks make towards a wrecked corpse that has sunk without drifting, and seasnakes wind about it in soft loathsome coils; women and children embrace in bitter violence of loving passion among ripples of fruitful flame, out of which rise roots and grasses of the field and laden branches of the vine. Of all these we cannot hope to speak duly; nor can we hope to give more than a glimpse of the work they illustrate.
Throughout the Prophecy of Europe the fervent and intricate splendours of text and decoration are whirled as it were and woven into spreading webs or twining wheels of luminous confusion. The Museum copy, not equal in nobility of colour to some others, is crowded with MS. notes and mottos of some interest and significance. To the frontispiece a passage of Milton is appended; to the first page is prefixed a transcript of some verses by Mrs. Radcliffe concerning a murdered pilgrim, sufficiently execrable and explanatory; and so throughout. These notes will help us at least to measure the amount of connexion between the text and the designs; an amount easily measurable, being in effect about the smallest possible. Fierce fluctuating wind and the shaken light of meteors flutter or glitter upon the stormy ways of vision; serving rather for raiment than for symbol. The outcast gods of star and comet are driven through tempestuous air: "forms without body" leap or lurk under cloud or water; War, a man coated with scales of defiled and blackening bronze, handling a heavy sword-hilt, averts his face from appealing angels; Famine slays and eats her children; fire curls about the caldron in which their limbs are to be sodden for food; starved plague-stricken shapes of women and men fall shrieking or silent as the bell-ringer, a white-haired man with slouched hat drawn down and long straight cassock, passes them bell in hand; a daughter clings to her father in the dumb pain of fear, while he with arms thrust out in repulsion seems to plead against the gathering deluges that "sweep o'er the yellow year;" mildews are seen incarnate as foul flushed women with strenuous limbs contorted, blighting ears of corn with the violent breath of their inflated mouths; "Papal Superstition," with the triple crown on a head broader across cheek and jowl than across the forehead, with bat's wings and bloodlike garments dripping and rent, leers across the open book on his knees; behind his reptile face a decoration as of a cleft mitre, wrought in the shape of Gothic windows that straiten as it ascends, shows grey upon the dead black air; this is "Urizen seen on the Atlantic; and his brazen book that kings and priests had copied on earth, expanded from north to south;" all the creeping things of the prison-house, bloated leaf and dropping spider, crawl or curl above a writhing figure overgrown with horrible scurf of corruption as with network; the gaoler leaves his prisoner fast bound by the ankles, with limbs stained and discoloured; (the motto to this is from "The Two Noble Kinsmen," Act ii., Sc. 1., "The vine shall grow, but we shall never see it," &c.); snakes and caterpillars, birds and gnats, each after their own kind take their pleasure and their prey among the leaves and grasses they defile and devour; flames chase the naked or swooning fugitives from a blazing ruin. The prelude is set in the frame of two large designs; one of the assassin waiting for the pilgrim as he turns round a sharp corner of rock; one of hurricane and storm in which "Horror, Amazement and Despair" appear abroad upon the winds. A sketch of these violent and hideously impossible figures is pasted into the note-book on a stray slip of paper. The MS. mottos are mostly from Milton and Dryden; Shakespeare and Fletcher, Rowe and Mason, are also dragged into service. The prophecy itself is full of melody and mist; of music not wholly unrecognisable and vapour not wholly impermeable. In a lull of intermittent war, the gods of time and space awake with all their children; Time bids them "seize all the spirits of life and bind their warbling joys to our loud strings, bind all the nourishing sweets of earth to give us bliss." Orc, the fiery spirit of revolution, first-born of Space, his father summons to arise; "and we will crown thy head with garlands of the ruddy vine; for now thou art bound; and I may see thee in the hour of bliss, my eldest born." Allegory, here as always, is interfused with myth in a manner at once violent and intricate; but in this book the mere mythologic fancy of Blake labours for the most part without curb or guide. Enitharmon, the universal or typical woman, desires that "woman may have dominion" for a space over all the souls upon earth; she descends and becomes visible in the red light of Orc; and she charges other spirits born of her and Los to "tell the human race that woman's love is sin," for thus the woman will have power to refuse or accede, to starve or satiate the perverted loves and lives of man; "that an eternal life awaits the worms of sixty winters, in an allegorical abode where existence hath never come; forbid all joy, and from her childhood shall the little female spread nets in every secret path." To this end the goddess of Space calls forth her chosen children, the "horned priest" of animal nature, the "silver-bowed queen" of desolate places, the "prince of the sun" with his innumerable race "thick as the summer stars; each one, ramping, his golden mane shakes, and thine eyes rejoice because of strength, O Rintrah, furious King." Moon and sun, spirit and flesh, all lovely jealous forces and mysteries of the natural world are gathered together under her law, that throughout the eighteen Christian centuries she may have her will of the world. For so long nature has sat silent, her harps out of tune; the goddess herself has slept out all those years, a dream among dreams, the ghostly regent of a ghostly generation. The angels of Albion, satellites once of the ancient Titan, are smitten now with their own plagues, crushed in their own council-house, and rise again but to follow after Rintrah, the fiery minister of his mother's triumph. Him the chief "Angel" follows to "his ancient temple serpent-formed," ringed round with Druid oaks, massive with pillar and porch built of precious stones; "such eternal in the heavens, of colours twelve, few known on earth, give light in the opaque."
"Placed in the order of the stars, when the five senses whelmed
In deluge o'er the earth-born man: then bound the flexile eyes
Into two stationary orbs concentrating all things:
The ever-varying spiral ascents to the heaven of heavens
Were bended downward, and the nostril's golden gates shut,
Turned outward, barred and petrified against the infinite.
Thought changed the infinite to a serpent; that which pitieth
To a devouring flame; and man fled from its face and hid
In forests of night; then all the eternal forests were divided
Into earths rolling in circles of space, that like an ocean rushed
And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh.
Then was the serpent temple formed, image of (the) infinite
Shut up in finite revolutions, and man became an Angel;
Heaven a mighty circle turning; God a tyrant crowned."
Thus again recurs the doctrine that the one inlet left us for spiritual perception—that namely of the senses—is but one and the least of many inlets and channels of communication now destroyed or perverted by the creative demon; a tenet which once well grasped and digested by the disciple will further his understanding of Blake more than anything else can: will indeed, pushed to the full extreme of its logical results, elucidate and justify much that seems merely condemnable and chaotic. To resume our somewhat halting and bewildered fable: the southern porch of this temple, "planted thick with trees of blackest leaf, and in a vale obscure, enclosed the stone of night; oblique it stood, o'erhung with purple flowers and berries red;" image of the human intellect "once open to the heavens" as the south to the sun; now, as the head of fallen man, "overgrown with hair and covered with a stony roof;" sunk deep "beneath the attractive north," where evil spirits are strongest, where the whirlpool of speculation sucks in the soul and entombs it. Standing on this, as on a watch-tower, the "Angel" beholds Religion enthroned over Europe, and the pale revolution of cloud and fire through the night of space and time; beholds "Albion," the home once of ancient freedom and faith, trodden underfoot by laws and churches, that the God of religion may have wherewithal to "feed his soul with pity." At last begins the era of rebellion and change; the fires of Orc lay hold upon law and gospel; yet for a little while the ministers of his mother have power to fight against him, and she, allied now and making common cause with the God alien to her children, "laughs in her sleep," seeing through the veil and vapour of dreams the subjection of male to female, the false attribute of unnatural power given to women by faith and fear. Not as yet can the Promethean fire utterly dissolve the clouds of Urizen, though the flesh of the ministering angel of religion is already consumed or consuming; nor as yet can the trumpet of revolution summon the dead to judgment. That first blast of summons must be blown by material science, which destroys the letter of the law and the text of the covenant. When the "mighty spirit" of Newton had seized the trumpet and blown it,
"Yellow as leaves of Autumn the myriads of Angelic hosts
Fell thro' the wintry skies seeking their graves,
Rattling their hollow bones in howling and lamentation;"
as to this day they do, and did in Blake's time, throughout whole barrowfuls of controversial "apologies" and "evidences." Then the mother-goddess awoke from her eighteen centuries of sleep, the "Christian era" being now wellnigh consummated, and all those years "fled as if they had not been;" she called her children around her, by many monstrous names and phrases of chaotic invocation; comfort and happiness here, there sweet pestilence and soft delusion; the "seven churches of Leutha" seek the love of "Antamon," symbolic of Christian faith reconciled to "pagan" indulgence and divorced from Jewish prohibition; even as we find in the prophet himself equal faith in sensual innocence and spiritual truth. Of "the soft Oothoon" the great goddess asks now "Why wilt thou give up woman's secrecy, my melancholy child? Between two moments bliss is ripe." Last she calls upon Orc; "Smile, son of my afflictions; arise and give our mountains joy of thy red light."
"She ceased; for all were forth at sport beneath the solemn moon,
Waking the stars of Urizen with their immortal songs,
That nature felt thro' all her pores the enormous revelry.
Till morning oped her eastern gate;
Then every one fled to his station; and Enitharmon wept."
But with the dawn of that morning Orc descended in fire, "and in the vineyards of red France appeared the light of his fury." The revolution begins; all space groans; and lion and tiger are gathered together after their prey: the god of time arises as one out of a trance,
"And with a cry that shook all nature to the utmost pole
Called all his sons to the strife of blood."
Our study of the Europe might bring more profit if we could have genuine notes appended to the text as well as to the designs. Such worth or beauty as the poem has burns dim and looms distant by comparison; but there is in it more of either than we have here time or means to indicate. At least the prelude so strangely selected for citation and thrown loose upon the pages of the biography in so crude and inexplicable a manner, may now be seen to have some tangible or presumable sense. The spirit of Europe rises revealed in the advent of revolution, sick of time and travail; pleading with the mother-goddess, Cybele of this mythology; wrapping about her veils of water and garments of cloud, in vain; "the red sun and moon and all the overflowing stars rain down prolific pains." Out of her overlaboured womb arise forms and forces of change, fugitive fires of wrath, sonorous shapes of fear; and they take substance in space, but bring to their mother no help or profit, no comfort or light; to the virgin daughter of America freedom has come and fruitful violence of love, but not to the European mother. She has no hope in all the infinity of space and time; "who shall bind the infinite with an eternal band, to compass it with swaddling bands?" By comparison of the two preludes the relations of the two kindred poems may be better understood: the one is plaintive as the voice of a world in pain, and decaying kingdom by kingdom; the other fierce and hopeful as the cry of a nation in travail, whose agony is not that of death, but rather that of birth.
The First Book of Urizen is perhaps more shapeless and chaotic at a first glimpse than any other of these prose poems. Clouds of blood, shadows of horror, worlds without form and void, rise and mingle and wane in indefinite ways, with no special purpose or appreciable result. The myth here is of an active but unprolific God, warring with shapes of the wilderness, and at variance with the eternals: beaten upon by Time, who figures always in all his various shapes and actions as the saviour and friend of man. "Earth was not, nor globes of attraction; the will of the Immortal expanded or contracted at will his all-flexible senses. Death was not; but eternal life sprang." (1. Urizen, ii. 1.) Urizen, the God of restraint, creator of prohibition, whose laws are forbearance and abstinence, is for ages divided from Eternity and at war with Time; "long periods in burning fires labouring, till hoary, and age-broken, and aged, in despair and the shadows of death." (1. Urizen, iii. 6.) In time the formless God takes form, creating and assuming feature by feature; bones, heart, eyes, ears, nostrils, throat with tongue, hands with feet; an age of agony being allotted to each of the seven created features; still toiling in fire and beset by snares, which the Time-Spirit kindles and weaves to avert and destroy in its birth the desolate influence of the Deity who forbids and restrains. These transformations of Urizen make up some of Blake's grandest and strangest prophetic studies. First the spinal skeleton, with branch work of rib and savage nudity of joint and clavicle, shaped mammoth-wise, in grovelling involution of limb. In one copy at least these bones are touched with dim green and gold colour; such a faint fierce tint as one might look for on the cast scales or flakes of dragons left astrand in the ebb of a deluge. Next a huge fettered figure with blind shut eyes overflowing into tears, with convulsed mouth and sodden stream of beard: then bones painfully gathering flesh, twisted forms round which flames break out fourfold, tortured elemental shapes that plunge and writhe and moan. Until Time, divided against himself, brings forth Space, the universal eternal female element, called Pity among the gods, who recoil in fear from the dawn of human creation and division. Of these two divinities, called in the mythology Los and Enitharmon, is born the man-child Orc. "The dead heard the voice of the child and began to awake from sleep; all things heard the voice of the child and began to awake to life." (vii. 5.) Here again we may spare a word or two for that splendid figure (p. 20) of the new-born child falling aslant through cloven fire that curls and trembles into spiral blossoms of colour and petals of feverish light. And the children of Urizen were Thiriel, born from cloud; Utha, from water; Grodna, from earth; Fuzon, "first-begotten, last-born," from fire—"and his daughters from green herbs and cattle, from monsters and worms of the pit. He cursed both sons and daughters; for he saw that no flesh nor spirit could keep his iron laws one moment." (viii. 3, 4.) Then from his sorrows for these his children begotten on the material body of nature, the web of religion begins to unwind and expand, "throwing out from his sorrowing soul, the dungeon-like heaven dividing" (viii. 6)—and the knotted meshes of the web to involve all races and cities. "The Senses inward rushed shrinking beneath the dark net of infection: till the shrunken eyes, clouded over, discerned not the woven hypocrisy; but the streaky slime in their heavens, brought together by narrowing perceptions, appeared transparent air; for their eyes grew small like the eyes of a man. Six days they shrank up from existence, and the seventh day they rested, and they blessed the seventh day, in sick hope; and forgot their eternal life." (1. Urizen, ix. 1, 2, 3.) Hence grows the animal tyranny of gravitation, and hence also the spiritual tyranny of law; "they lived a period of years, then left a noisome body to the jaws of devouring darkness; and their children wept, and built tombs in the desolate places; and formed laws of prudence and called them the eternal laws of God." (ix. 4, 5.) Seeing these his brethren degraded into life and debased into flesh, the son of the fire, Fuzon, called together "the remaining children of Urizen; and they left the pendulous earth: they called it Egypt, and left it. And the salt ocean rolled englobed." (ix. 8, 9.) The freer and stronger spirits left the world of men to the dominion of earth and water; air and fire were withdrawn from them, and there were left only the heaviness of imprisoning clay and the bitterness of violent sea.
This is a hurried and blotted sketch of the main myth, which is worth following up by those who would enter on any serious study of Blake's work; all that is here indicated in dim hints being afterwards assumed as the admitted groundwork of later and larger myths. In this present book (and in it only) the illustrative work may be said almost to overweigh and stifle the idea illustrated. Strange semi-human figures, clad in sombre or in fiery flesh, racing through fire or sinking through water, allure and confuse the fancy of the student. Every page vibrates with light and colour; on none of his books has the artist lavished more noble profusion of decorative work. It is worth observing that while some copies are carefully numbered throughout "First Book," in others the word "First" is erased from every leaf: as in effect the Second Book never was put forth under that title. Next year however the Book of Ahania came out if one may say as much of a quarto of six leaves which has hardly yet emerged into sight of two or three readers. This we may take—or those may who please—to be the Second Book of Urizen. It is among the choicer spoils of Blake, not as yet cast into the public treasury; for the Museum has no copy, though possessing (in its blind confused way) duplicates of America, Albion, and Los. Some day, one must hope, there will at least be a complete accessible collection of Blake's written works arranged in rational order for reference. Till the dawn of that day people must make what shift they can in chaos.
In Ahania, though a fine and sonorous piece of wind-music, we have not found many separate notes worth striking. Formless as these poems may seem, it is often the floating final impression of power which makes them memorable and valuable, rather than any stray gleam of purple or glitter of pearl on the skirt. Thus the myth runs—to the best of its power; but the tether of it is but short.
Fuzon, born of the fiery part of the God of nature, in revolt against his father, divides him in twain as with a beam of fire; the desire of Urizen is separated from him; this divided soul, "his invisible lust," he sees now as she is apart from himself, and calls Sin; seizes her on his mountains of jealousy; kisses and weeps over her, then casts her forth and hides her in cloud, in dumb distance of mysterious space; "jealous though she was invisible." Divided from him, she turns to mere shadow "unseen, unbodied, unknown, the mother of Pestilence." But the beam cast by Fuzon was light upon earth—light to "Egypt," the house of bondage and place of captivity for the outcast human children of Urizen. Thus far the book floats between mere allegory and creative myth; not difficult however to trace to the root of its purport. From this point it grows, if not wilder in words, still mistier in build of limb and shape of feature. Fuzon, smitten by the bow of Urizen, seems to typify dimly the Christian or Promethean sacrifice; the revolted God or son of God, who giving to men some help or hope to enlighten them, is slain for an atonement to the wrath of his father: though except for the mythical sonship Prometheus would be much the nearer parallel. The bow, formed in secresy of the nerves of a slain dragon "scaled and poisonous-horned," begotten of the contemplations of Urizen and destroyed by him in combat, must be another type, half conceived and hardly at all wrought out, of the secret and jealous law of introspective faith divided against itself and the god of its worship, but strong enough to smite the over-confident champion of men even in his time of triumph, when he "thought Urizen slain by his wrath: I am God, said he, eldest of things." (II. 8.) Suddenly the judgment of the jealous wrath of God falls upon him; the rock hurled as an arrow "enters his bosom; his beautiful visage, his tresses that gave light to the mornings of heaven, were smitten with darkness.—But the rock fell upon the earth, Mount Sinai, in Arabia:" being indeed a type of the moral law of Moses, sent to destroy and suppress the native rebellious energies and active sins of men. Here one may catch fast hold of one thing—the identity of Blake's "Urizen," at least for this time, with the Deity of the earlier Hebrews; the God of the Law and Decalogue rather than of Job or the Prophets. "On the accursed tree of mystery" that shoots up under his heel from "tears and sparks of vegetation" fallen on the barren rock of separation, where "shrunk away from Eternals," alienated from the ancient freedom of the first Gods or Titans, averse to their large and liberal laws of life, the jealous God sat secret—on the topmost stem of this tree Urizen "nailed the corpse of his first-begotten." Thenceforward there fell upon the half-formed races of men sorrow only and pestilence, barren pain of unprofitable fruit and timeless burden of desire and disease. One need not sift the myth too closely; it would be like winnowing water and weighing cloud with scale or sieve. The two illustrations, it may here be said, are very slight—mere hints of a design, and merely touched with colour. In the frontispiece Ahania, divided from Urizen, floats upon a stream of wind between hill and cloud, with haggard limbs and straightened spectral hair; on the last leaf a dim Titan, wounded and bruised, lies among rocks flaked with leprous lichen and shaggy with bloodlike growths of weed and moss. One final glimpse we may take of Ahania after her division—the love of God, as it were, parted from God, impotent therefore and a shadow, if not rather a plague and blight; mercy severed from justice, and thus made a worse thing than useless. Such may be the hinted meaning, or at least some part of it; but the work, it must be said, holds by implication dim and great suggestions of something more than our analytic ingenuities can well unravel by this slow process of suggestion. Properly too Ahania seems rather to represent the divine generative desire or love, translated on earth into sexual expression; the female side of the creative power—mother of all things made.
"The lamenting voice of Ahania weeping upon the void and round the Tree of Fuzon. Distant in solitary night her voice was heard, but no form had she; but her tears from clouds eternal fell round the Tree. And the voice cried 'Ah Urizen! Love! Flower of morning! I weep on the verge of non-entity: how wide the abyss between Ahania and thee! I lie on the verge of the deep, I see thy dark clouds ascend; I see thy black forests and floods, a horrible waste to my eyes. Weeping I walk over the rocks, over dens, and through valleys of death. Why dost thou despise Ahania, to cast me from thy bright presence into the world of loneness? I cannot touch his hand; nor weep on his knees; nor hear his voice and bow; nor see his eyes and joy; nor hear his footsteps, and my heart leap at the lovely sound; I cannot kiss the place where his bright feet have trod: but I wander on the rocks with hard necessity. Where is my golden palace? where my ivory bed? where the joy of my morning hour? where the sons of eternity singing to awake bright Urizen my king to arise to the mountain sport, to the bliss of eternal valleys, to awake my king in the morn, to embrace Ahania's joy on the breath of his open bosom; from my soft cloud of dew to fall in showers of life on his harvest? When he gave my happy soul to the sons of eternal joy; when he took the daughters of life into my chambers of love; when I found babes of bliss on my beds and bosoms of milk in my chambers, filled with eternal seed. O! eternal births sung round Ahania in interchange sweet of their joys; swelled with ripeness and fat with fatness, bursting in clouds my odours, my ripe figs and rich pomegranates, in infant joy at thy feet, Urizen, sported and sang: then thou with thy lap full of seed, with thy hand full of generous fire, walkedst forth from the clouds of morning, on the virgins of springing joy, on the human soul, to cast the seed of eternal science. The sweat poured down thy temples, to Ahania returned in evening; the moisture awoke to birth my mother's joys sleeping in bliss. But now alone over rocks, mountains—cast out from thy lovely bosom—cruel jealousy! selfish fear! self-destroying! how can delight renew in these chains of darkness, where bones of beasts are strewn on the bleak and snowy mountains, where bones from the birth are buried before they see the light?'"—Ahania, ch. v., v. 1—14.
With the prolonged melody of this lament the Book of Ahania winds itself up; one of the most musical among this crowd of singing shadows. In the same year the last and briefest of this first prophetic series was engraved. The Song of Los, broken into two divisions headed Africa and Asia, has more affinity to Urizen and Ahania than to Europe and America. The old themes of delusion and perversion are once again re-handled; not without vigorous harmonies of choral expression. The illustrations are of special splendour, as though designed to atone for the lean and denuded form in which Ahania had been sent forth. In the frontispiece a grey old giant, clothed from the waist only with heavy raiment of livid and lurid white, bows down upon a Druid altar before the likeness of a darkened sun low-hung in heaven, filled with sombre and fiery forms of things, and shooting out upon each quarter a broad reflected ray like the reflection struck by sunlight from a broad bare sword-blade, but touched also, as with strange infection, with flakes of deadly colour that vibrate upon the starless solid ground of an intolerable night. Less of menace with more of sadness is in the landscape and sky on the title-page: a Titan, with one weighty hand lying on a gigantic skull, rests at the edge of a green sloping moor, himself seeming a grey fragment of moorland rock; brown fire of waste grass or rusted flower stains crag and bent all round him; the sky is all night and fire, bitter red and black. On the first page a serpent, splendid with blood-red specks and scales of greenish blue, darts the cloven flame of its tongue against a brilliant swarm of flies; and again throughout the divided lines a network of fair tortuous things, of flickering leaf and sinuous tendril and strenuous root, flashes and curls from margin to margin.
This song is the song of Time, sung to the four harps of the world, each continent a harp struck by Time as by a harper. In brief dim words it celebrates the end of the world of the patriarchs where faith and freedom were one, the advent of the iron laws and ages, when God the Accuser gave his laws to the nations by the hands of the children of time: when to the extreme east was given mere abstract philosophy for faith instead of clear pure belief, and man became slave to the elements, the slave and not the lord of the nature of things; but not yet was philosophy a mere matter of the five senses. Thus they fared in the east; meantime the spirits of the patriarchal world shrank beneath waters or fled in fires, Adam from Eden, Noah from Ararat; and "Moses beheld upon Mount Sinai forms of dark delusion." Over each religion, Indian and Jewish and Grecian, some special demon or god of the mythology is bidden preside; Christianity, the expression of human sorrow, human indulgence and forgiveness, was given as gospel to "a man of sorrows" by the two afflicted spirits who typify man and woman, in whom the bitter errors and the sore needs of either several sex upon earth are reproduced in vast vague reflection; to them therefore the gentler gospel belongs as of right. Next comes Mahometanism, to give some freedom and fair play to the controlled and abused senses; but northwards other spirits set on foot a code of war to satiate their violent delight. So on all sides is the world overgrown with kingdoms and churches, codes and creeds; inspiration is crushed and erased; the sons of Time and Space reign alone; Har and Heva, the spirits of loftier and purer kind who were not as the rest of the Titan brood that "lived in war and lust," are fled and fallen, become as mere creeping things; and the world is ripe to bring forth for its cruel and mournful God the final fruit of reason debased and faith distorted.
"Thus the terrible race of Los and Enitharmon gave
Laws and Religions to the sons of Har, binding them more
And more to Earth, closing and restraining;
Till a Philosophy of Five Senses was complete;
Urizen wept, and gave it into the hands of Newton and Locke."
These "terrible sons" of time and space are the presiding demons of each creed or code; the sons of men are in their hands now, for the father and mother of men are fallen gods, oblivious and transformed: and these minor demons are all subservient to the Creator, whose soul, sorrowful but not merciful, animates the whole pained world. So, with cloud of menace and fire of wrath shed out about the deceased gods and the new philosophies, the first part ends. In the second part the clouds have broken and the fire has come forth; revolution has begun in Europe; the ancient lords of Asia are startled from their dens and cry in bitterness of soul for help of the old oppressions; for councillors and for taxes, for plagues and for priests, "to turn man from his path; to restrain the child from the womb; to cut off the bread from the city, that the remnant may learn to obey: that the pride of the heart may fail; that the lust of the eye may be quenched; that the delicate ear in its infancy may be dulled, and the nostrils closed up; to teach mortal worms the path that leads from the gates of the grave." At their cry Urizen arose, the lord of Asia from of old, ever since he cast down the patriarchal law and set up the Mosaic code; "his shuddering waving wings went enormous above the red flames," to contend with the rekindled revolution, "the thick-flaming thought- creating fires of Orc;"
"His books of brass, iron, and gold
Melted over the land as he flew,
Heavy-waving, howling, weeping.
And he stood over Judea,
And stayed in his ancient places,
And stretched his clouds over Jerusalem.
For Adam, a mouldering skeleton,
Lay bleached on the garden of Eden;
And Noah, as white as snow,
On the mountains of Ararat."
Thus, with thunder from eastward and fire from westward, the God of jealousy and the Spirit of freedom met together; earth shrank at the meeting of them.
"Forth from the dead dust rattling bones to bones
Came; shaking, convulsed, the shivering clay breathes;
And all flesh naked stands; Fathers and Friends;
Mothers and Infants; Kings and Warriors;
The Grave shrieks with delight, and shakes
Her hollow womb, and clasps the solid stem;
Her bosom swells with wild desire;
And milk and blood and glandous wine
In rivers rush and shout and dance
On mountain, dale and plain.
The Song of Los is ended.
So much for the text; which has throughout a contagious power of excitement in the musical passion of its speech. For these books, above all, it is impossible to read continuously and not imbibe a certain half-nervous enjoyment from their long cadences and tempestuous undulations of melody. Such passion went to the writing of them that some savour of that strong emotion infects us also in reading pages which seem still hot from the violent touch of the poet. The design of Har and Heva flying from their lustful and warlike brethren across green waste land before a late and thunder-coloured sky, he grasping her with convulsive fear, she looking back as she runs with lifted arm and flame-like hair and fiery flow of raiment; and that succeeding where they reappear fallen to mere king and queen of the vegetable world, themselves half things of vegetable life; are both noble if somewhat vehement and reckless. In this latter, the deep green-blue heaven full of stars like flowers is set with sweet and deep effect against the darkening green of the vast lily-leaves supporting the fiery pallor of those shapely chalices which enclose as the heart of either blossom the queen lying at her length, and the king sitting with bright plucked-out pistil in hand by way of sceptre or sword; and below them the dim walls of the world alone are wholly black: his robes of soft shot purple and red, her long chrysalid shell or husk of tarnished gold, are but signs of their bondage and fall from deity; they are fallen to be mere flowers. More might be said of the remaining designs; the fierce glory of sweeping branches and driven leaves in a strong wind, the fervent sky and glimmering hill, the crouching figures above and under, the divine insane luxuriance of cloudy and flowery colour which makes twice luminous the last page of the poem; the strange final design where a spirit with huge childlike limbs and lifted hair seems to smite with glittering mallet the outer rim of a huger blood-red sun; but for this book we have no more space; and much laborious travel lies ahead of us yet.
With the Song of Los the first or London series of prophecies came to a close not unfit or unmelodious. As their first word had been Revelation, their last was Revolution. We have now to deal with the two later and larger books written at Felpham, but not put forth till 1804. To one of these at least we must allow some tolerably full notice. The Milton shall here take precedence. This poem, though sufficiently vexatious to the human sense at first sight, is worth some care and some admiration. Its preface must here be read in full.
"The stolen and perverted writings of Homer and Ovid, of Plato and Cicero, which all men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the sublime of the Bible; but when the New Age is at leisure to pronounce, all will be set right, and those grand works of the more ancient and
And did those feet in ancient time
'Would to God that all the Lord's people were prophets.'—Numbers xi. 29."
After this strange and grand prelude, which, though taken in the letter it may read like foolishness, is in the spirit of it certainty and truth for all time, we pass again under the shadow and into the land that shifts and slips under our feet. Something however out of the chaos of fire and wind and stormy colour may be caught at by fits and stored up for such as can like it. Thus the poem opens, with not less fervour and splendour of sound than usual.
"Daughters of Beulah! Muses who inspire the Poet's Song!
Record the journey of immortal Milton thro' your realms
Of terror and mild moony lustre, in soft sexual delusions
Of varied beauty, to delight the wanderer and repose
His burning thirst and freezing hunger! Come into my hand,
By your mild power descending down the Nerves of my right arm
From out the Portals of my Brain, where by your ministry
The Eternal Great Humanity Divine planted his Paradise
And in it caused the Spectres of the Dead to take sweet forms
In likeness of himself."
(Observe here the answer by anticipation to the old foolish charge of madness and belief in mere material visions; a charge indeed refuted and confuted at every turn we take. Thus, and no otherwise, did Blake believe in his dead visitors and models: as spectres formed into new and significant shape by God, after his own likeness; not called up as by some witch of Endor and reclothed with the rags and rottenness of their dead old bodies; creatures existing within the brain and imagination of the workman, not as they were once externally and by accident, but as they will be for ever by the essence and substance of their nature. For the "vegetated shadow" or "human vegetable" no mystic ever had deeper or subtler contempt than Blake; nor was ever a man less likely to care about raising or laying it after death.)
"Tell also of the False Tongue! vegetated
Beneath your land of shadows; of its sacrifices, and
Its offerings: even till Jesus, the image of the Invisible God,
Became its prey; a curse, an offering, and an atonement
For Death Eternal, in the heavens of Albion, and before the gates
Of Jerusalem his Emanation, in the heavens beneath Beulah."
"But when Jesus was crucified,
Then was perfected his galling pride.
In three days he devoured his prey,
And still he devours the body of clay;
For dust and clay is the serpent's meat,
Which never was meant for man to eat."
That is, the spirit must be eternally at work consuming and destroying the likeness of things material and the religions made out of them. This over-fervent prophet of freedom for the senses as well as the soul would have them free, one may say, only for the soul's sake: talking as we see he did of redemption from the body and salvation by the spirit at war with it, in words which literally taken would hardly have misbecome a monk of Nitria.
Returning to the Milton, we are caught again in the mythologic whirlpools and cross-currents of symbol and doctrine; our ears rung deaf and dazed by the hammers of Los (Time) and our eyes bewildered by the wheels and woofs of Enitharmon (Space): "her looms vibrate with soft affections, weaving the Web of Life out from the ashes of the Dead." This is a fragment of the main myth, whose details Los and Enitharmon themselves for the present forbid our following out.
"The Three Classes of men regulated by Los's hammer, and woven
By Enitharmon's Looms, and spun beneath the Spindle of Tirzah:
The first: The Elect from before the foundation of the World;
The second: The Redeemed. The Third: the Reprobate and formed
To destruction from the mother's womb."
Into the myth of the harrow and horses of Palamabron, more Asiatic in tone than any other of Blake's, and full of the vast proportion and formless fervour of Hindoo legends, we will not haul any reluctant reader. Let him only take enough by way of extract to understand how thoroughly one vein of fiery faith runs through all the prophetic books, and one passionate form of doctrine is enforced and beaten in upon the disciple again and again; not hitherto with much material effect.
"And in the midst of the Great Assembly Palamabron prayed;
God, protect me from my friends that they have not power over me;
Thou hast given me power to protect myself from my bitterest enemies."
Then the wrath of Eintrah, the most fiery of the spirits who are children of Time, having entered by lot into Satan, who was of the Elect from the first, "seeming a brother, being a tyrant, even thinking himself a brother while he is murdering the just," "with incomparable mildness," believing "that he had not oppressed"—a symbolic point much insisted on—
"He created Seven deadly Sins, drawing out his infernal scroll
Of moral laws and cruel punishments upon the clouds of Jehovah,
To pervert the divine voice in its entrance to the earth
With thunders of war and trumpet's sound, with armies of disease;
Punishments and deaths mustered and numbered; saying, I am God alone,
There is no other; let all obey my principles of moral individuality
have brought them from the uppermost innermost recesses
Of my Eternal Mind; transgressors I will rend off for ever;
As now I rend this accursed Family from my covering."
This is the Satan of Blake, sufficiently unlike the Miltonic. Of himself he cannot conceive evil and bring forth destruction; the absolute Spirit of Evil is alien from this mythology; he must enter into the body of a law or system and put on the qualities of spirits strange to himself (Rintrah); he is divided, inconsistent, a mystery and error to himself; he represents Monotheism with its stringent law and sacerdotal creed, Jewish or Christian, as opposed to Pantheism whereby man and God are one, and by culture and perfection of humanity man makes himself God. The point of difference here between Blake and many other western Pantheists is that in his creed self-abnegation (in the mystic sense, not the ascetic—the Oriental, not the Catholic) is the highest and only perfect form of self-culture: and as Satan (under "names divine"—see the Epilogue to the Gates of Paradise) is the incarnate type of Monotheism, so is Jesus the incarnate type of Pantheism. To return to our myth; the stronger spirit rears walls of rocks and forms rivers of fire round them;
"And Satan, not having the Science of Wrath but only of Pity,
Rent them asunder; and Wrath was left to Wrath, and Pity to Pity."
This is Blake's ultimate conception of active evil; not wilful wrong-doing by force of arm or of spirit; but mild error, tender falsehood innocent of a purpose, embodied in an external law of moral action and restrictive faith, and clothed with a covering of cruelty which adheres to and grows into it (Decalogue and Law). A subtle and rather noble conception, developing easily and rapidly into what was once called the Manichean doctrine as to the Old Testament.
"If the guilty should be condemned, he must be an Eternal Death,
And one must die for another throughout all Eternity;
Satan is fallen from his station and can never be redeemed,
But must be new-created continually moment by moment,
And therefore the class of Satan shall be called the Elect, and those
Of Rintrah the Reprobate, and those of Palamabron the Redeemed;
For he is redeemed from Satan's law, the wrath falling on Rintrah.
And therefore Palamabron cared not to call a solemn Assembly
Till Satan had assumed Rintrah's wrath in the day of mourning,
In a feminine delusion of false pride self-deceived."
The words of the text recur not unfrequently in the prophetic books. A single final act of redemption by sacrifice and oblation of one for another is not admitted as sufficient, or even possible. The favourite dogma is this, of the eternity of sacrifice; endless redemption to be bought at no less a price than endless self-devotion. To this plea of "an Eternal" before the assembly succeeds the myth of Leutha "offering herself a ransom for Satan:" a myth, not an allegory; for of allegory pure and simple there is scarcely a trace in Blake.
"I formed the Serpent
Of precious stones and gold turned poison on the sultry waste.
To do unkind things with kindness; with power armed, to say
The most irritating things in the midst of tears and love;
These are the stings of the Serpent."
This whole myth of Leutha is splendid for colour, and not too subtle to be thought out: the imaginative action of the poem plays like fire and palpitates like blood upon every line, as the lips of caressing flame and the tongues of cleaving light in which the text is set fold and flash about the margins.
"The Elect shall meet the Redeemed, on Albion's rocks they shall meet,
Astonished at the Transgressor, in him beholding the Saviour.
And the Elect shall say to the Redeemed; We behold it is of Divine
Mercy alone, of free gift and Election, that we live;
Our Virtues and cruel Goodnesses have deserved Eternal Death."
Forgiveness of sin and indulgence, the disciple perceives, is not enough for this mythology; it must include forgiveness of virtue and abstinence, the hypocritic holiness made perfect in the body of death for six thousand years under the repressive and restrictive law called after the name of the God of the Jews, who "was leprous." Thus prophesies Blake, in a fury of supra-Christian dogmatism.
Here ends the "Song of the Bard" in the First Book. "Many condemned the high-toned song, saying, Pity and Love are too venerable for the imputation of guilt. Others said, If it is true!" Let us say the same, and pass on: listening only to the Bard's answer:—
"I am inspired! I know it is Truth! for I sing
According to the Inspiration of the Poetic Genius
Who is the Eternal all-protecting divine Humanity
To whom be Glory and Power and Dominion evermore. Amen."
Then follows the incarnation and descent into earth and hell of Milton, who represents here the redemption by inspiration, working in pain and difficulty before the expiration of the six thousand Satanic years. His words are worth quoting:—
"When will the Resurrection come, to deliver the sleeping body
From corruptibility? O when, Lord Jesus, wilt thou come?
Tarry no longer; for my soul lies at the gates of death:
I will arise and look forth for the morning of the grave:
I will go down to the sepulchre and see if morning breaks.
I will go down to self-annihilation and eternal death
Lest the Last Judgment come and find me unannihilate
And I be seized and given into the hands of my own selfhood."
This grand dogma, that personal love and selfishness make up the sin which defies redemption, is in a manner involved in that former one of the necessary "eternity of sacrifice," for
"I in my selfhood am that Satan; I am that Evil One;
He is my Spectre."
Now by the light of these extracts let any student examine the great figure at p. 13, where "he beheld his own Shadow—and entered into it." Clothed in the colours of pain, crowned with the rays of suffering, it stands between world and world in a great anguish of transformation and change: Passion included by Incarnation. Erect on a globe of opaque shadow, backed by a sphere of aching light that opens flower-wise into beams of shifting colour and bitter radiance as of fire, it appeals with a doubtful tortured face and straining limbs to the flat black wall and roof of heaven. All over the head is a darkness not of transitory cloud or night that will some time melt into day; recalling that great verse: "Neither could the bright flames of the stars endure to lighten that horrible night."
"As when a man dreams he reflects not that his body sleeps,
Else he would wake; so seemed he entering his Shadow; but
With him the Spirits of the Seven Angels of the Presence
Entering, they gave him still perceptions of his Sleeping Body
Which now arose and walked with them in Eden, as an Eighth
Image, Divine tho' darkened, and tho' walking as one walks
In Sleep; and the Seven comforted and supported him."
The whole passage is full of a deep and dim beauty which grows clearer and takes form of feature to those only who bring with them eyes to see and patience to desire it. Take next this piece of cosmography, worth comparing with Dante's vision of the worlds:—
"The nature of infinity is this; That everything has its
One curious piece of symbolism may be extracted from the myth, as the one reference to anything actual:—
"Then Milton knew that the Three Heavens of Beulah were beheld
By him on earth in his bright pilgrimage of sixty years
In those three Females whom his Wives, and those three whom his Daughters
Had represented and contained, that they might be resumed
By giving up of Selfhood."
But of Milton's flight, of the cruelties of Ulro, of his journey above the Mundane Shell, which "is a vast concave earth, an immense hardened shadow of all things upon our vegetated earth, enlarged into dimension and deformed into indefinite space," we will take no more account here; nor of the strife with Urizen, "one giving life, the other giving death, to his adversary;" hardly even of the temptation by the sons and daughters of Kahab and Tirzah, when
"The twofold Form Hermaphroditic, and the Double-sexed,
The Female-male and the Male-female, self-dividing stood
Before him in their beauty and in cruelties of holiness."
(Compare the beautiful song "To Tirzah," in the Songs of Experience.) This Tirzah, daughter of Rahab the holy, is "Natural Religion" (Theism as opposed to Pantheism), which would fain have the spiritual Jerusalem offered in sacrifice to it.
"Let her be offered up to holiness: Tirzah numbers her:
She numbers with her fingers every fibre ere it grow:
Where is the Lamb of God? where is the promise of his coming?
Her shadowy sisters form the bones, even the bones of Horeb
Around the marrow; and the orbed scull around the brain;
She ties the knot of nervous fibres into a white brain;
She ties the knot of bloody veins into a red-hot heart;
She ties the knot of milky seed into two lovely heavens,
Two yet but one; each in the other sweet reflected; these
Are our Three Heavens beneath the shades of Beulah, land of rest."
Here and henceforward the clamour and glitter of the poem become more and more confused; nevertheless every page is set about with jewels; as here, in a more comprehensible form than usual:—
"God sent his two servants Whitfield and Wesley; were they prophets?
Or were they idiots and madmen? 'Show us Miracles'?
Can you have greater Miracles than these? Men who devote
Their life's whole comfort to entire scorn, injury, and death?"
Take also these scraps of explanation mercifully vouch-safed us:—
"Bowlahoola is named Law by Mortals: Tharmas founded it
Because of Satan * * * *
But Golgonooza is named Art and Manufacture by mortal men.
In Bowlahoola Los's Anvils stand and his Furnaces rage.
Bowlahoola thro' all its porches feels, tho' too fast founded
Its pillars and porticoes to tremble at the force
Of mortal or immortal arm; * * *
The Bellows are the Animal Lungs; the Hammers the Animal Heart;
The Furnaces the Stomach for digestion;"
(Here we must condense instead of transcribing. While thousands labour at this work of the Senses in the halls of Time, thousands "play on instruments stringed or fluted" to lull the labourers and drown the painful sound of the toiling members, and bring forgetfulness of this slavery to the flesh: a myth of animal life not without beauty, and to Blake one of great attraction.)
"Los is by mortals named Time, Enitharmon is named Space;
But they depict him bald and aged who is in eternal youth
All-powerful, and his locks nourish like the brows of morning;
He is the Spirit of Prophecy, the ever-apparent Elias.
Time is the mercy of Eternity; without Time's swiftness
Which is the swiftest of all things, all were eternal torment."
At least this last magnificent passage should in common charity and sense have been cited in the biography, if only to explain the often-quoted words Los and Enitharmon. Neither blindness to such splendour of symbol, nor deafness to such music of thought, can excuse the omission of what is so wholly necessary for the comprehension of extracts already given, and given (as far as one can see) with no available purpose whatever.
The remainder of the first book of the Milton is a vision of Nature and prophecy of the gathering of the harvest of Time and treading of the winepress of War; in which harvest and vintage work all living things have their share for good or evil.
"How red the sons and daughters of Luvah! here they tread the grapes,
Laughing and shouting, drunk with odours; many fall o'erwearied,
Drowned in the wine is many a youth and maiden; those around
Lay them on skins of Tigers and of the spotted Leopard and the wild Ass
Till they revive, or bury them in cool grots, making lamentation.
This Winepress is called War on Earth; it is the printing-press
Of Los, there he lays his words in order above the mortal brain
As cogs are formed in a wheel to turn the cogs of the adverse wheel."
All kind of insects; of roots and seeds and creeping things—"all the armies of disease visible or invisible"—are there;
"The slow slug; the grasshopper that sings and laughs and drinks
(Winter comes, he folds his slender bones without a murmur);"
wasp and hornet, toad and newt, spider and snake,
"They throw off their gorgeous raiment; they rejoice with loud jubilee
Around the winepresses of Luvah, naked and drunk with wine.
There is the nettle that stings with soft down; and there
The indignant thistle whose bitterness is bred in his milk;
Who feeds on contempt of his neighbour; there all the idle weeds
That creep around the obscure places show their various limbs
Naked in all their beauty, dancing round the winepresses.
But in the winepresses the human grapes sing not nor dance,
They howl and writhe in shoals of torment, in fierce flames consuming;"
tortured for the cruel joy and deadly sport of Luvah's sons and daughters;
"They dance around the dying and they drink the howl and groan;
They catch the shrieks in cups of gold, they hand them one to another;
These are the sports of love, and these the sweet delights of amorous play;
Tears of the grape, the death-sweat of the cluster; the last sigh
Of the mild youth who listens to the luring songs of Luvah."
Take also this from the speech of Time to his reapers.
"You must bind the sheaves not by nations or families,
You shall bind them in three classes; according to their classes
So shall you bind them, separating what has been mixed
Since men began to be woven into nations. * *
* * * The Elect is one class; you
Shall bind them separate; they cannot believe in eternal life
Except by miracle and a new birth. The other two classes,
The Reprobate who never cease to believe, and the Redeemed
Who live in doubts and fears, perpetually tormented by the Elect,
These you shall bind in a twin bundle for the consummation."
The constellations that rise in immortal order, that keep their course upon mountain and valley, with sound of harp and song, "with cups and measures filled with foaming wine;" that fill the streams with light of many visions and leave in luminous traces upon the extreme sea the peace of their passage; these too are sons of Los, and labour in the vintage. The gorgeous flies on meadow or brook, that weave in mazes of music and motion the delight of artful dances, and sound instruments of song as they touch and cross and recede; the trees shaken by the wind into sound of heavy thunder till they become preachers and prophets to men; these are the sons of Los, these the visions of eternity; and we see but as it were the hem of their garments.
A noble passage follows, in which are resumed the labours of the sons of time in fashioning men and the stations of men. They make for doubts and fears cabinets of ivory and gold; when two spectres "like lamps quivering" between life and death stand ready for the blind malignity of combat, they are taken and moulded instead into shapes fit for love, clothed with soft raiment by softer hands, drawn after lines of sweet and perfect form. Some "in the optic nerve" give to the poor infinite wealth of insight, power to know and enjoy the invisible heaven, and to the rich scorn and ignorance and thick darkness. Others build minutes and hours and days;
"And every moment has a couch of gold for soft repose
There is much more of the same mythic sort concerning the duration of time, the offices of the nerves (e.g., in the optic nerve sleep was transformed to death by Satan the father of sin and death, even as we have seen sensual death re-transformed by Mercy into sleep), and such-like huge matters; full, one need not now repeat, of subtle splendour and fanciful intensity. But enough now of this over-careful dredging in such weedy waters; where nevertheless, at risk of breaking our net, we may at every dip fish up some pearl.
At the opening of the second book the pearls lie close and pure. From this (without explanation or reference) has been taken the lovely and mutilated extract at p. 197 of the Life. Thus it stands in Blake's text:—
"Thou nearest the nightingale begin the song of spring;
(This is a vision of the lamentation of Beulah over Ololon.)
Thou perceivest the flowers put forth their precious odours,
Such is a vision of the lamentation of Beulah over Ololon."
This Beulah is "a place where contrarieties are equally true;" "it is a pleasant lovely shadow where no dispute can come because of those who sleep:" made to shelter, before they "pass away in winter," the temporary emanations "which trembled exceedingly neither could they live, because the life of man was too exceeding unbounded." Of the incarnation and descent of Ololon, of the wars and prophecies of Milton, and of all the other Felpham visions here put on record, we shall say no more in this place; but all these things are written in the Second Book. The illustrative work is also noble and worth study in all ways. One page for example is covered by a design among the grandest of Blake's. Two figures lie half embraced, as in a deadly sleep without dawn of dream or shadow of rest, along a bare slant ledge of rock washed against by wintry water. Over these two stoops an eagle balanced on the heavy-laden air, with stretching throat and sharpened wings, opening beak, and eyes full of a fierce perplexity of pity. All round the greenish and black slope of moist sea-cliff the weary tidal ripple plashes and laps, thrusting up as it were faint tongues and listless fingers tipped with foam. On an earlier page, part of the text of which we have given, crowd and glitter all shapes and images of insect or reptile life, sprinkling between line and margin keen points of jewel-coloured light and soft flashes as of starry or scaly brilliance.
The same year 1804 saw the huge advent of Jerusalem. Of that terrible "emanation," hitherto the main cornerstone of offence to all students of Blake, what can be said within any decent limit? or where shall any traveller find a rest for feet or eyes in that noisy and misty land? It were a mere frenzy of discipleship that would under- take by force of words to make straight these crooked ways or compel things incoherent to cohere. Supra hanc petram—and such a rock it is to begin any church-building upon! Many of the unwary have stumbled over it and broken their wits. Seriously, one cannot imagine that people will ever read through this vast poem with pleasure enough to warrant them in having patience with it.Several things, true in the main of all the prophetic books, are especially true and memorable with regard to those written or designed during the "three years' slumber" at Felpham. They are the results of intense and active solitude working upon the capricious nerves and tremulous brain of a man naturally the most excitable and receptive of men. They are to be read by the light of his earlier work in the same line; still more perhaps by the light of those invaluable ten letters printed in Vol. II. of the Life, for which one can hardly give thanks enough. The incredible fever of spirit under the sting and stress of which he thought and laboured all his life through, has left marks of its hot and restless presence as clearly on this short correspondence as on the voluminous rolls of prophecy. The merit or demerit of the work done is never in any degree the conscious or deliberate result of a purpose. Possessed to the inmost nerve and core by a certain faith, consumed by the desire to obey his instinct of right by preaching that faith, utterly regardless of all matters lying outside of his own inspiration, he wrote and engraved as it was given him to do, and no otherwise. As to matter and argument, the enormous Jerusalem is simply a fervent apocalyptic discourse on the old subjects—love without law and against law, virtue that stagnates into poisonous dead matter by moral isolation, sin that must exist for the sake of being forgiven, forgiveness that must always keep up with sin—must even maintain sin that it may have something to keep up with and to live for. Without forgiveness of sins, the one thing necessary, we lapse each man into separate self-righteousness and a cruel worship of natural morality and religious law. For nature, oddly enough as it seems at first sight, is assumed by this mystical code to be the cruellest and narrowest of absolute moralists. Only by worship of imaginative impulse, the grace of the Lamb of God, which admits infinite indulgence in sin and infinite forgiveness of sin—only by some such faith as this shall the world be renewed and redeemed. This may be taken as the rough result, broadly set down, of the portentous book of revelation. Never, one may suppose, did any Oriental heretic drive his deductions further or set forth his conclusions in obscurer form. Never certainly did a man fall to his work with keener faith and devotion. Sin itself is not so evil—but the remembrance and punishment of sin! "Injury the Lord heals; but vengeance cannot be healed." Next or equal in hatefulness to the division of qualities into evil and good (see above, Marriage of Heaven and Hell) is the separation of sexes into male and female: hence jealous love and personal desire, that set itself against the mystical frankness of fraternity: hence too (contradictory as it may seem till one thinks it out) the hermaphroditic emblem is always used as a symbol seemingly of duplicity and division, perplexity and restraint. The two sexes should not combine and contend; they must finally amalgamate and be annihilated. All this is of course more or less symbolic, and not to be taken in literal coarseness or folly of meaning. The whole stage is elemental, the scheme one of patriarchal vapour, and the mythologic actors mere Titans outlined in cloud. Reserving this always, we shall not be far out in interpreting Blake's dim creed somewhat as above. One distinction it is here possible to make, and desirable to keep in mind: Blake at one time speaks of Nature as the source of moral law, "the harlot virgin-mother," "Rahab," "the daughter of Babylon," origin of religious restrictions and the worship of abstinence; mother of "the harlot modesty," and spring of all hypocrisies and prohibitions; to whom the religious and moral of this world would fain offer up in sacrifice the spiritual Jerusalem, the virgin espoused, named among men Liberty, forbidding nothing and enjoying all, but therefore clean and not unclean: by whom comes indulgence, after whom follows redemption. At another time this same prophet will plead for freedom on behalf of "natural" energies, and set up the claims of nature to energetic enjoyment and gratification of all desires, against the moral law and government of the creative and restrictive Deity—"Urizen, mistaken Demon of Heaven." With a like looseness of phrase he uses and transposes the words "God" and "Satan," even to an excess of laxity and consequent perplexity; not, it may be suspected, without a grain of innocent if malign pleasure at the chance of inflicting on men of conventional tempers bewilderment and offence. But as to this question of the term "Nature" the case seems to lie thus: when, as throughout the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he uses it in the simple sense of human or physical condition as opposed to some artificial state of soul or belief, he takes it as the contrary of conventional ideas and habits (of religion and morality as vulgarly conceived or practised); but when, as throughout the Milton and Jerusalem, he speaks of nature as opposed to inspiration, it must be taken as the contrary of that higher and subtler religious faith which he is bent on inculcating, and which itself is the only perfect opposite and efficient antagonist to the conventional faith and (to use another of his quasi-technical terms) the "deistical virtue" which he is bent on denying. Blake, one should always remember, was not infidel but heretic; his belief was peculiar enough, but it was not unbelief; it was farther from that than most men's. To him, though for quite personal reasons and in a quite especial sense, much of what is called inspired writing was as sacred and infallible as to any priest of any church. Only before reading he inverted the book.
"Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read'st black where I read white."
(Everlasting Gospel, MS.)
Thus, by his own showing, in the recorded words of Christ he found authority for his vision and sympathy with his faith; in the published creed of reason or rationalism, he found negation of his belief and antipathy to his aims. Hence in his later denunciation he brackets together the Churches of Rome and England with the Churches of Ferney and Lausanne; it was all uninspired—all "nature's cruel holiness—the deceits of natural religion"; all irremediably involved, all inextricably interwoven with the old fallacies and the old prohibitions.Such points as these do, above most others, deserve, demand, and reward the trouble of clearing up; and these once understood, much that seemed the aimless unreflecting jargon of crude or accidental rhetoric assumes a distinct if unacceptable meaning. It is much otherwise with the external scheme or literal shell of the Jerusalem. Let no man attempt to define the post or expound the office of the "terrible sons and daughters." These, with all their flock of emanations and spectrous or vegetating shadows, let us leave to the discretion of Los; who has enough on his hands among them all. Neither let any attempt to plant a human foot upon the soil of the newly-divided shires and counties, partitioned though they be into the mystic likeness of the twelve tribes of Israel. Nor let any questioner of arithmetical mind apply his skill in numbers to the finding of flaws or products in the twelves, twenty-fours, and twenty-sevens which make up the sum of their male and female emanations. In earnest, the externals of this poem are too incredibly grotesque—the mythologic plan too incomparably tortuous—to be fit for any detailed coherence of remark. Nor indeed were they meant to endure it. Such things, and the expression of such things, as are here treated of, are not to be reasoned out; the matter one may say is above reasoning; the manner (taken apart from the matter) is below it: the spirit of the work is too strong and its form too faulty for any rule or line. It will upon the whole suffice if this be kept in mind; that to Blake, in a literal perhaps as well as a mystical sense, Albion was as it were the cradle and centre of all created existence; he even calls on the Jews to recognize it as the parent land of their history and their faith. Its incarnate spirit is chief among the ancient giant-gods, Titans of his mythology, who were lords of the old simple world and its good things, its wise delights and strong sweet instincts, full of the vigorous impulse of innocence; lords of an extinct kingdom, superseded now and transformed by the advent of moral fear and religious jealousy, of pallid faith and artificial abstinence. In this manner Albion is changed and overthrown; hence at length he dies, stifled and slain by his children under the new law. His one friend, not misled or converted to the dispensations of bodily virtue and spiritual restraint, but faithful from of old and even after his change and conversion to moral law, is Time; whose Spectre, or mere outside husk and likeness, is indeed (as it must needs be) fain to range itself on the transitory side of things, fain to follow after the fugitive Emanation embodied in these new forms of life and allied to the faith and habit of the day against the old liberty; but for all the desire of his despair and fierce entreaties to be let go, he is yet kept to work, however afflicted and rebellious, and compelled to labour with Time's self at the building up within every man of that spiritual city which is redemption and freedom for all men (ch. i.). All the myth of this building of "Golgonooza," (that is, we know, inspired art by which salvation must come) is noticeable for sweet intricacy of beauty; only after a little some maddening memory (surely not pure inspiration this time, but rather memory?) of the latter chapters of Ezekiel, with their interminable inexplicable structures and plans, seizes on Blake's passionate fancy and sets him at work measuring and dividing walls and gates in a style calculated to wear out a hecatomb of scholiasts, for whole pages in which no subtilized mediaeval intellect, though trained under seraphic or cherubic doctors, could possibly find one satisfactory hair to split. For it merely trebles the roaring and rolling confusion when some weak grain of symbolism is turned up for a glimpse of time in the thick of a mass of choral prose consisting of absolute fancy and mere naked sound.
Not that there is here less than elsewhere of the passion and beauty which redeem so much of these confused and clamorous poems. The merits and attractions of this book are not such as can be minced small and served up in fragments. To do justice to its melodious eloquence and tender subtlety, we should have to analyze or transcribe whole sections: to give any fair notion of the grandeur and variety of its decorations would take up twice the space we can allow to it. Let this brief prologue stand as a sample of the former qualities.
"Reader! lover of books! lover of heaven
"We who dwell on earth," adds the prophet, speaking of the measure and outward fashion of his poem, "can do nothing of ourselves; everything is conducted by Spirits no less than digestion or sleep." It is to be wished then that the spirits had on this occasion spoken less like somnambulists and uttered less indigested verse. For metrical oratory the plea that follows against ordinary metre may be allowed to have some effective significance; however futile if applied to purer and more essential forms of poetry.
It will be enough to understand well and bear well in mind once for all that the gist of this poem, regarded either as a scheme of ethics or as a mythological evangel, is simply this: to preach, as in the Saviour's opening invocation, the union of man with God:—("I am not a God afar off;—Lo! we are One; forgiving all evil; not seeking recompense"): to confute the dull mournful insanity of disbelief which compels "the perturbed man" to avert his ear and reject the divine counsellor as a "Phantom of the over-heated brain." This perverted humanity is incarnate in Albion, the fallen Titan, imprisoned by his children; the "sons of Albion" are dæmonic qualities of force and faith, the "daughters" are reflex qualities or conditions which emanate from these. As thus; reason supplants faith, and law, moral or religious, grows out of reason; Jerusalem, symbol of imaginative liberty, emanation of his unfallen days, is the faith cast out by the "sons" or spirits who substitute reason for faith, the freedom trodden under by the "daughters" who substitute moral law for moral impulse: "Vala," her Spectre, called "Tirzah" among men, is the personified form in which "Jerusalem" becomes revealed, the perverted incarnation, the wrested medium or condition in which she exists among men. Thus much for the scheme of allegory with which the prophet sets out; but when once he has got his theogony well under way and thrown it well into types, the antitypes all but vanish: every condition or quality has a god or goddess of its own; every obscure state and allegorical gradation becomes a personal agent: and all these fierce dim figures threaten and complain, mingle and divide, struggle and embrace as human friends or foes. The main symbols are even of a monotonous consistency; but no accurate sequence of symbolic detail is to be looked for in the doings and sayings of these contending giants and gods. To those who will remember this distinction and will make allowance for the peculiar dialect and manner of which some account has already been taken, this poem will not seem so wholly devoid of reason or of charm.
For its great qualities are much the same in text as in design: plenteous, delicate, vigorous. There is a certain real if rough and lax power of dramatic insight and invention shown even in the singular divisions of adverse symbol against symbol; in such allegories as that which opposes the "human imagination in which all things exist"—do actually exist to all eternity—and the reflex fancy or belief which men confound with this; nay, which they prefer to dwell in and ask comfort from. These two the poet calls the "states" of Beulah and Jerusalem. As the souls of men are attracted towards that "mild heaven" of dreams and shadows where only the reflected image of their own hopes and errors can abide, the imagination, most divine and human, most actual and absolute, of all things, recedes ever further and further among the clouds of smoke, vapours of "abstract philosophy," and is caught among the "starry wheels" of religion and law, whose restless and magnetic revolution attracts and absorbs her.
"O what avail the loves and tears of Beulah's lovely daughters?
They hold the immortal form in gentle bands and tender tears,
But all within is opened into the deeps "—
the deeps of "a dark and unknown night" in which "philosophy wars against imagination." Here also the main myth of the Europe is once more rehandled; to "create a female will," jealous, curious, cunning, full of tender tyranny and confusion, this is "to hide the most evident God in a hidden covert, even in the shadows of a woman and a secluded holy place, that we may pry after him as after a stolen treasure, hidden among the dead and mured up from the paths of life." Thus is it with the Titan Albion and all his race of mythologic men, when for them "Vala supplants Jerusalem," the husk replaces the fruit, the mutable form eclipses the immutable substance.
But into these darker parts of the book we will not go too deep. Time, patience, and insight on the part of writer and reader might perhaps clear up all details and lay bare much worth sight and study; but only at the expense of much labour and space. It is feasible, and would be worth doing; but not here. If the singular amalgam called Blake's works should ever get published, and edited to any purpose, this will have to be done by an energetic editor with time enough on his hands and wits enough for the work. We meantime will gather up a few strays that even under these circumstances appear worth hiving. In the address (p. 27) to the Jews, &c., Blake affirms that "Britain was the primitive seat of the patriarchal religion": therefore, in a literal as well as in a mystical sense, Jerusalem was the emanation of the giant Albion. (This it should seem was, according to the mythology, before the visible world was created; in the time when all things were in the divine undivided world of the gods.) "Ye are united, O ye inhabitants of Earth, in one Religion: the most Ancient, the Eternal, and the Everlasting Gospel. The Wicked will turn it to Wickedness; the Righteous, to Righteousness." If there be truth in the Jewish tradition, he adds further on, that man anciently contained in his mighty limbs all things in heaven and earth, "and they were separated from him by cruel sacrifices; and when compulsory cruel sacrifices had brought Humanity into a feminine tabernacle in the loins of Abraham and David, the Lamb of God, the Saviour, became apparent on earth as the prophets had foretold: the return of Israel is a return to mental sacrifice and war," to noble spiritual freedom and labour, which alone can supplant "corporeal war" and violence of error.
The second address (p. 52) "to the Deists" is more singular and more eloquent. Take a few extracts given not quite at random. "He," says Blake, "who preaches natural religion or morality is a flatterer who means to betray, and to perpetuate tyrant pride and the laws of that Babylon which he foresees shall shortly be destroyed with the spiritual and not the natural sword; he is in the state named Rahab." The prophet then enforces his law that "man is born a spectre or Satan and is altogether an Evil," and "must continually be changed into his direct contrary." Those who persuade him otherwise are his enemies. For "man must and will have some religion; if he has not the religion of Jesus he will have the religion of Satan." Again, "Will any one say, Where are those who worship Satan under the name of God?—where are they? Listen. Every religion that preaches vengeance for sin is the religion of the enemy and avenger, and not of the forgiver of sin: and their God is Satan named by the Divine Name." This, he says, must be at root the religion of all who deny revelation and adore nature; for mere nature is Satanic. Adam the first man was created at the same time with Satan, when the earth-giant Albion was cast into a trance of sleep: the first man was a part of the universal fluent nature made opaque; the first fiend, a part contracted; and only by these qualities of opacity and contraction can man or devil have separate natural existence. Those, the prophet adds in his perverse manner, who profess belief in natural virtue are hypocrites; which those cannot be who "pretend to be holier than others, but confess their sins before all the world." Therefore there was never a religious hypocrite! "Rousseau thought men good by nature; he found them evil, and found no friend. Friendship cannot exist without forgiveness of sins continually." And so forth.
At p. 66 is a passage recalling the myth of the "Mental Traveller," and which seems to bear out the interpretation we gave to that misty and tempestuous poem. This part of the prophecy, describing the blind pitiful cruelty of divided qualities set against each other, is full of brilliant and noble passages. Even the faint symbolic shapes of Tirzah and all her kind assume now and then a splendour of pathos, utter words of stately sound, complain and appeal even to some recognizable purpose. So much might here be cited that we will prefer to cite nothing but this slight touch of myth. In the world of time "they refuse liberty to the male: not like Beulah,
Where every female delights to give her maiden to her husband."
The female searches sea and land for gratification to the male genius, who in return clothes her in gems and gold and feeds her with the food of Eden: hence all her beauty beams. But this is only in the "land of dreams," where dwell things "stolen from the human imagination by secret amorous theft:" and when the spectres of the dead awake in that land, "all the jealousies become murderous:—forming a commerce to sell loves with moral law; an equal balance, not going down with decision: therefore—mutual hate returns and mutual deceit and mutual fear." In fact, the divorce batteries are here open again.
The third address "to the Christians" is too long to transcribe here; and should in fairness have been given in the biography. Its devout passion and beauty of words might have won notice, and earned tolerance for the more erratic matter in which it lies embedded. "What is the joy of heaven but improvement in the things of the spirit? What are the pains of hell but ignorance, bodily lust, idleness, and devastation of the things of the spirit?" Mental gifts, given of Christ, "always appear to the ignorance-loving hypocrite as sins; but that which is a sin in the sight of cruel man is not so in the sight of our kind God." Every Christian after his ability should openly engage in some mental pursuit; for "to labour in knowledge is to build up Jerusalem; and to despise knowledge is to despise Jerusalem and her builders." A little before he has said: "I know of no other Christianity and no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the divine arts of imagination." God being a spirit, and to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, are not all his gifts spiritual gifts? "The Christians then must give up the religion of Caiaphas, the dark preacher of death, of sin, of sorrow, and of punishment, typified as a revolving wheel, a devouring sword; and recognize that the labours of Art and Science alone are the labours of the Gospel." As to religion, "Jesus died because he strove against the current of this wheel—opposing nature; it is natural religion. But Jesus is the bright preacher of life, creating nature from this fiery law, by self-denial and forgiveness of sin." So speaks to the prophet "a Watcher and a Holy One;" bidding him
"Go therefore, cast out devils in Christ's name,
Much might also be said, had one leave of time, of the last chapter; of the death of the earth-giant through jealousy, and his resurrection when the Saviour appeared to him revealed in the likeness and similitude of Time: of the ultimate deliverance of all things, chanted in a psalm of high and tidal melody; a resurrection wherein all things, even "Tree, Metal, Earth and Stone," become all
"Human forms identified; living, going forth, and returning wearied
Into the planetary lives of years, months, days, and hours: reposing
And then awaking into his bosom in the life of immortality.
And I heard the name of their emanations: they are named Jerusalem."
We will add one reference, to pp. 61-62, where God shows to Jerusalem in a vision "Joseph the carpenter in Nazareth, and Mary his espoused wife." Through the vision of their story the forgiveness of Jerusalem also, when she has gone astray from her Lord, is made manifest to her.
"And I heard a voice among the reapers saying, 'Am I Jerusalem the lost adulteress? or am I Babylon come up to Jerusalem?' And another voice answered saying, 'Does the voice of my Lord call me again? am I pure through his mercy and pity? am I become lovely as a virgin in his sight, who am indeed a harlot drunken with the sacrifice of idols?—O mercy, O divine humanity, forgiveness and pity and compassion, if I were pure I should never have known thee: if I were unpolluted I should never have glorified thy holiness, or rejoiced in thy great salvation.'" The whole passage—and such are not so unfrequent as at first glimpse they seem—is, if seen with equal eyes, whether its purport be right or wrong, "full of wisdom and perfect in beauty." But we will dive after no more pearls at present in this huge oyster-bed; and of the illustrations we can but speak in a rough swift way. These are all generally noble: that at p. 70 is great among the greatest of Blake's. Spires of serpentine cloud are seen before a strong wind below a crescent moon; Druid pillars enclose as with a frame this stormy division of sky; outside them again the vapour twists and thickens; and men standing on desolate broken ground look heavenward or earthward between the pillars. Of others a brief and admirable account is given in the Life, more final and sufficient than we can again give; but all in fact should be well seen into by those who would judge fitly of Blake's singular and supreme gift for purely imaginative work. Flowers sprung of earth and lit from heaven, with chalices of floral fire and with flower-like women or men growing up out of their centre; fair large forms full of labour or of rest; sudden starry strands and reaches of breathless heaven washed by drifts of rapid wind and cloud; serrated array of iron rocks and glorious growth of weedy lands or flowering fields; reflected light of bows bent and arrows drawn in heaven, dividing cloud from starlit cloud; stately shapes of infinite sorrow or exuberant joy; all beautiful things and all things terrible, all changes of shadow and of light, all mysteries of the darkness and the day, find place and likeness here: deep waters made glad and sad with heavy light that comes and goes; vast expansion of star-shaped blossom and swift aspiration of laborious flame; strong and sweet figures made subject to strange torture in dim lands of bondage; mystic emblems of plumeless bird and semi-human beast; women like the daughters of giants, with immense shapeliness and vigour of lithe large limbs, clothed about with anguish and crowned upon with triumph; their deep bosoms pressed against the scales of strong dragons, their bodies and faces strained together in the delight of monstrous caresses; similitudes of all between angel and reptile that divide illimitable spaces of air or defile the overlaboured furrows upon earth.
It is easier to do complete justice to the minor prophecies than to give any not inadequate conception of this great book, so vast in reach, so repellent in style, so rich, vehement, and subtle beyond all other works of Blake; the chosen crown and treasured fruit of his strange labours. Extracts of admirable beauty might be gathered up on all hands, more eligible it may be than any here given; none I think more serviceable by way of sample and exposition, as far as such can at all be attained. That the book contains much of a personal kind referring in a wild dim manner to his own spiritual actions and passions, is evident: but even by the new light of the Felpham correspondence one can hardly see where to lay finger on these passages and separate them decisively from the loose floating context. Not without regret, yet not with any sense of wilful or scornful oversight, we must be content now to pass on, and put up with this insufficient notice.
The only other engraved work of a prophetic kind did not appear for eighteen years more. This last and least in size, but not in worth, of the whole set is so brief that it may here be read in full.
THE GHOST OF ABEL.
A REVELATION IN THE VISIONS OF JEHOVAH.
Seen by William Blake.
To Lord Byron in the "Wilderness.—What dost thou here, Elijah?
Can a Poet doubt the Visions of Jehovah? Nature has no Outline:
But Imagination has. Nature has no Time; but Imagination has.
Nature has no Supernatural, and dissolves; Imagination is Eternity.
SCENE.—A rocky Country. Eve fainted over the dead body of Abel which lays near a grave. Adam kneels by her. Jehovah stands above.
Adam. It is in vain: I will not hear thee more, thou Spiritual Voice.
Is this Death?
Adam.It is in vain; I will not hear thee
Henceforth. Is this thy Promise that the Woman's Seed
Should bruise the Serpent's Head? Is this the Serpent? Ah!
Seven times, Eve, thou hast fainted over the Dead. Ah! Ah!
Eve. Is this the Promise of Jehovah? O it is all a vain delusion, This Death and this Life and this Jehovah.Jehovah.Woman, lift thine eyes.
(A Voice is heard coming on.)
Voice. O Earth, cover not thou my blood! cover not thou my blood!
(Enter the Ghost of Abel.)
Eve. Thou visionary Phantasm, thou art not the real Abel.
Abel. Among the Elohim a Human Victim I wander: I am their House,
Prince of the Air, and our dimensions compass Zenith and Nadir.
Vain is thy Covenant, O Jehovah: I am the Accuser and Avenger
Of Blood; Earth, cover not thou the blood of Abel.
Jehovah. What vengeance dost thou require?Abel. Life for Life! Life for Life!
Jehovah. He who shall take Cain's life must also die, O Abel;
And who is he? Adam, wilt thou, or Eve, thou, do this?
Adam. It is all a vain delusion of the all- creative Imagination.
Eve, come away, and let us not believe these vain delusions.
Abel is dead, and Cain slew him; We shall also die a death
And then—what then? be as poor Abel, a Thought; or as
This? O what shall I call thee, Form Divine, Father of Mercies,
That appearest to my Spiritual Vision? Eve, seest thou also?
Eve. I see him plainly with my mind's eye: I see also Abel living;
Tho' terribly afflicted, as we also are: yet Jehovah sees him
Alive and not dead; were it not better to believe Vision
With all our might and strength, tho' we are fallen and lost?
Adam. Eve, thou hast spoken truly; let us kneel before his feet.
(They kneel before Jehovah.)
Abel. Are these the sacrifices of Eternity, O Jehovah? a broken spirit
And a contrite heart? O, I cannot forgive; the Accuser hath
Entered into me as into his house, and I loathe thy Tabernacles.
As thou hast said so is it come to pass: My desire is unto Cain
And he doth rule over me: therefore my soul in fumes of blood
Cries for vengeance: Sacrifice on Sacrifice, Blood on Blood.
Jehovah. Lo, I have given you a Lamb for an Atonement instead
Of the Transgressor, or no Flesh or Spirit could ever live.
Abel. Compelled I cry, O Earth, cover not the blood of Abel.
(Abel sinks down into the grave, from which arises Satan armed in glittering scales with a crown and a spear.)
Satan. I will have human blood and not the blood of bulls or goats,
And no Atonement, Jehovah; the Elohim live on Sacrifice
Of men: hence I am God of men; thou human, Jehovah.
By the rock and oak of the Druid, creeping mistletoe and thorn,
Cain's city built with human blood, not blood of bulls and goats,
Thou shalt thyself be sacrificed to me thy God on Calvary.
Jehovah. Such is my will—(Thunders)—that thou thyself go to Eternal Death
In self-annihilation, even till Satan self-subdued put off Satan
Into the bottomless abyss whose torment arises for ever and ever.
(On each side a Chorus of Angels entering sing the following.)
The Elohim of the Heathen swore Vengeance for Sin! Then thou stood'st
Forth, O Elohim Jehovah, in the midst of the darkness of the oath all clothed
In thy covenant of the forgiveness of Sins. Death, O Holy! is this Brotherhood?
The Elohim saw their oath eternal fire; they rolled apart trembling over the
Mercy-Seat, each in his station fixed in the firmament, by Peace, Brother-hood, and Love.
The Curtain falls.
(1822. W. Blake's original stereotype was 1788.)
On the skirt of a figure, rapid and "vehemently sweeping," engraved underneath (recalling that vision of Dion made memorable by one of Wordsworth's nobler poems) are inscribed these words—"The Voice of Abel's Blood," The fierce and strenuous flight of this figure is as the motion of one "whose feet are swift to shed blood," and the dim face is full of hunger and sorrowful lust after revenge. The decorations are slight but not ineffective; wrought merely in black and white. This small prose lyric has a value beyond the value of its occasional beauty and force of form; it is a brief comprehensible expression of Blake's faith seen from its two leading sides; belief in vision and belief in mercy. Into the singular mood of mind which made him inscribe it to the least imaginative of all serious poets we need by no means strive to enter; but in the trustful admiration and the loyal goodwill which this quaint inscription seems to imply, there must be something not merely laughable: as, however rough and homespun the veil of eccentric speech may seem to us at first, we soon find it interwoven with threads of such fair and fervent colour as make the stuff of splendid verse; so, beyond all apparent aberrations of relaxed thought which offend us at each turn, a purpose not ignoble and a sense not valueless become manifest to those who will see them.
Here then the scroll of prophecy is finally wound up; and those who have cared to unroll and decipher it by such light as we can attain or afford may now look back across the tempest and tumult, and pass sentence, according to their pleasure or capacity, on the message delivered from this cloudy and noisy tabernacle. The complete and exalted figure of Blake cannot be seen in full by those who avert their eyes, smarting and blinking, from the frequent smoke and sudden flame. Others will see more clearly, as they look more sharply, the radical sanity and coherence of the mind which put forth its shoots of thought and faith in ways so strange, at such strange times. Faith incredible and love invisible to most men were alone the springs of this turbid and sonorous stream. In Blake, above all other men, the moral and the imaginative senses were so fused together as to compose the final artistic form. No man's fancy, in that age, flew so far and so high on so sure a wing. No man's mind, in that generation, dived so deep or gazed so long after the chance of human redemption. To serve art and to love liberty seemed to him the two things (if indeed they were not one thing) worth a man's life and work; and no servant was ever trustier, no lover more constant than he. Knowing that without liberty there can be no loyalty, he did not fear, whether in his work or his life, to challenge and to deride the misconstruction of the foolish and the fraudulent. It does not appear that he was ever at the pains to refute any senseless and rootless lie that may have floated up during his life on the muddy waters of rumour, or drifted from hand to hand and mouth to mouth along the putrescent weed-beds of tradition. Many such lies, I am told, were then set afloat, and have not all as yet gone down. One at least of these may here be swept once for all out of our way. Mr. Linnell, the truest friend of Blake's age and genius, has assured me—and has expressed a wish that I should make public his assurance—that the legend of Blake and his wife, sitting as Adam and Eve in their garden, is simply a legend—to those who knew them, repulsive and absurd; based probably, if on any foundation at all, on some rough and rapid expression of Blake's in the heat and flush of friendly talk, to the effect (it may be) that such a thing, if one chose to do it, would be in itself innocent and righteous,—wrong or strange only in the eyes of a world whose views and whose deeds were strange and wrong. So far Blake would probably have gone; and so far his commentators need not fear to go. But one thing does certainly seem to me loathsome and condemnable; the imputation of such a charge as has been brought against Blake on this matter, without ground and without excuse. The oral flux of fools, being as it is a tertian or quotidian malady or ague of the tongue among their kind, may deserve pity or may not, but does assuredly demand rigid medical treatment. The words or thoughts of a free thinker and a free speaker, falling upon rather than into the ear of a servile and supine fool, will probably in all times bring forth such fruit as this. By way of solace or compensation for the folly which he half perceives and half admits, the fool must be allowed his little jest and his little lie. Only when it passes into tradition and threatens to endure, is it worth while to set foot on it. It seems that Blake never cared to do this good office for himself; and in effect it can only seem worth doing on rare occasions to any workman who respects his work. This contempt, in itself noble and rational, became injurious when applied to the direct service of things in hand. Confidence in future friends, and contempt of present foes, may have induced him to leave his highest achievements impalpable and obscure. Their scope is as wide and as high as heaven, but not as clear; clouds involve and rains inundate the fitful and stormy space of air through which he spreads and plies an indefatigable wing. There can be few books in the world like these; I can remember one poet only whose work seems to me the same or similar in kind; a poet as vast in aim, as daring in detail, as unlike others, as coherent to himself, as strange without and as sane within. The points of contact and sides of likeness between William Blake and Walt Whitman are so many and so grave, as to afford some ground of reason to those who preach the transition of souls or transfusion of spirits. The great American is not a more passionate preacher of sexual or political freedom than the English artist. To each the imperishable form of a possible and universal Republic is equally requisite and adorable as the temporal and spiritual queen of ages as of men. To each all sides and shapes of life are alike acceptable or endurable. From the fresh free ground of either workman nothing is excluded that is not exclusive. The words of either strike deep and run wide and soar high. They are both full of faith and passion, competent to love and to loathe, capable of contempt and of worship. Both are spiritual, and both democratic; both by their works recall, even to so untaught and tentative a student as I am, the fragments vouchsafed to us of the Pantheistic poetry of the East. Their casual audacities of expression or speculation are in effect wellnigh identical. Their outlooks and theories are evidently the same on all points of intellectual and social life. The divine devotion and selfless love which make men martyrs and prophets are alike visible and palpable in each. It is no secret now, but a matter of public knowledge, that both these men, being poor in the sight and the sense of the world, have given what they had of time or of money, of labour or of love, to comfort and support all the suffering and sick, all the afflicted and misused, whom they had the chance or the right to succour and to serve. The noble and gentle labours of the one are known to those who live in his time; the similar deeds of the other deserve and demand a late recognition. No man so poor and so obscure as Blake appeared in the eyes of his generation ever did more good works in a more noble and simple spirit. It seems that in each of these men at their birth pity and passion, and relief and redress of wrong, became incarnate and innate. That may well be said of the one which was said of the other: that "he looks like a man." And in externals and details the work of these two constantly and inevitably coheres and coincides. A sound as of a sweeping wind; a prospect as over dawning continents at the fiery instant of a sudden sunrise; a splendour now of stars and now of storms; an expanse and exultation of wing across strange spaces of air and above shoreless stretches of sea; a resolute and reflective love of liberty in all times and in all things where it should be; a depth of sympathy and a height of scorn which complete and explain each other, as tender and as bitter as Dante's; a power, intense and infallible, of pictorial concentration and absorption, most rare when combined with the sense and the enjoyment of the widest and the highest things; an exquisite and lyrical excellence of form when the subject is well in keeping with the poet's tone of spirit; a strength and security of touch in small sweet sketches of colour and outline, which bring before the eyes of their student a clear glimpse of the thing designed—some little inlet of sky lighted by moon or star, some dim reach of windy water or gentle growth of meadow-land or wood; these are qualities common to the work of either. Had we place or time or wish to touch on their shortcomings and errors, it might be shown that these too are nearly akin; that their poetry has at once the 'melody and the laxity of a fitful storm-wind; that, being oceanic, it is troubled with violent groundswells and sudden perils of ebb and reflux, of shoal and reef, perplexing to the swimmer or the sailor; in a word, that it partakes the powers and the faults of elemental and eternal things; that it is at times noisy and barren and loose, rootless and fruitless and informal; and is in the main fruitful and delightful and noble, a necessary part of the divine mechanism of things. Any work or art of which this cannot be said is superfluous and perishable, whatever of grace or charm it may possess or assume. Whitman has seldom struck a note of thought and speech so just and so profound as Blake has now and then touched upon; but his work is generally more frank and fresh, smelling of sweeter air, and readier to expound or expose its message, than this of the prophetic books. Nor is there among these any poem or passage of equal length so faultless and so noble as his "Voice out of the Sea," or as his dirge over President Lincoln—the most sweet and sonorous nocturn ever chanted in the church of the world. But in breadth of outline and charm of colour, these poems recall the work of Blake; and to neither poet can a higher tribute of honest praise be paid than this.
We have now done what in us lay to help the works of a great man on their way towards that due appreciation and that high honour of which in the end they will not fail. Much, it need not be repeated, has been done for them of late, and admirably done; much also we have found to do, and have been compelled to leave undone still more. If it should now appear to any reader that too much has been made of slight things, or too little said of grave errors, this must be taken well into account: that praise enough has not as yet been given, and blame enough can always be had for the asking; that when full honour has been done and full thanks rendered to those who have done great things, then and then only will it be no longer an untimely and unseemly labour to map out and mark down their shortcomings for the profit or the pleasure of their inferiors and our own; that however pleasant for common palates and feeble fingers it may be to nibble and pick holes, it is not only more profitable but should be more delightful for all who desire or who strive after any excellence of mind or of achievement to do homage wherever it may be due; to let nothing great pass unsaluted or unenjoyed; but as often as we look backwards among past days and dead generations, with glad and ready reverence to answer the noble summons—"Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers who were before us." Those who refuse them that are none of their sons; and among all these "famous men, and our fathers," no names seem to demand our praise so loudly as theirs who while alive had to dispense with the thanksgiving of men. To them doubtless, it may be said, this is now more than ever indifferent; but to us it had better not be so. And especially in the works and in the life of Blake there is so strong and special a charm for those to whom the higher ways of work are not sealed ways that none will fear to be too grudging of blame or too liberal of praise. A more noble memory is hardly left us; and it is not for his sake that we should contend to do him honour.
BRADBURY, EVANS, AND CO., PRINTERS, WHITEFRIARS.
- It should not be overlooked that this part of his work was left unfinished, all but untouched, by the author of the Life. Without as long a study and as deep a sympathy as his, it would seem to any follower, however able and zealous, the most toilsome as well as the most sterile part of the task in hand. The fault therefore lies with chance or fate alone. Less than I have said above could not here be said; and more need not be. I was bound at starting to register my protest against the contempt and condemnation which these books have incurred, thinking them as I do not unworthy the trouble of commentary; but no word was designed to depreciate the careful and admirable labour which has completed a monument cut short with the life of the sculptor, joined now in death to the dead whom he honoured.
- Something like this may be found in a passage of Werner translated by Mr. Carlyle, but mixed with much of meaner matter, and debased by a feebleness and a certain spiritual petulance proper to a man so much inferior. The German mystic, though ingenious and laborious, is also tepid, pretentious, insecure; half terrified at his own timid audacities, half choked by the fumes of his own alembic. He labours within a limit, not fixed indeed, but never expansive; narrowing always at one point as it widens at another: his work is weak in the head and the spine; he ventures with half a heart and strikes with half a hand; throughout his myth of Phosphorus he goes halting and hinting; not ungracefully, nay with a real sense of beauty, but never like a man braced up for the work requisite; he labours under a dull devotion and a cloudy capacity. Above all, he can neither speak nor do well, being no artist or prophet; and so makes but a poor preacher or essayist. The light he shows is thick and weak; Blake's light, be it meteor or star, rises with the heat and radiance of fire or the morning.
- A word in passing may here be spared to the singular MS. of Tiriel. This little poem or mythical episode is evidently a growth of the crude Ossianic period; in style it is somewhat weak and inadequate to any grave or subtle expression of thought: a few noticeable lines intervene, but the general execution is heavy, faint, and rough even for a sketch. Here however (if I am not incorrect in referring it to a date earlier than the earliest of the prophetic books) we may see the dull dawn of a day full of fiery presage, of the light and vapour of tempestuous revelation. The name of Tiriel king of the West, father of a rebellious race of children who perish by his curse, hardly reappears once as "Thiriel" the cloud-born son of Urizen; Har and Heva, the gentler father and mother of the great eastern family, who in the Song of Los are seen flying before the windy flames of a broad-blown sunset, chased over Asia with fire and sword by the divine tyrant and his tributary kings, are here seen forsaken of their sons in extreme and childish age, but tended by "Mutha" their mother; "they are holy and forgiving, filled with loving mercy, forgetting the offences of their most rebellious children." Into the story or subject-matter we need not go far; but it is worth notice that the series of twelve designs classified in the catalogue, section B., No. 156, pp. 253-4 of vol. 2, must evidently (as is there half suggested) be a set of illustrations to this Tiriel. In one of these any reader will recognize the serpentine hair which at her father's imprecation rose and hissed around the brows of "Hela" (Tiriel, ch. 6); but these designs have as evidently fallen out of order; thus the one lettered (k) appears to illustrate the very first lines of the poem; and others seem equally misarranged. In this faint allegory of the blind discrowned king with his two brothers, the mad invulnerable giant of the woods and the fettered dotard dwelling in caves, some fresh incomplete symbol is discernible of tyranny and error, of strength made insane or perverse and weakness made cruel or imbecile by oppression of the spirit or the flesh; the "eloquent" outcast oppressor might then be the uninspired intellect, against whose errors and tyrannies its own children revolt, and perish by the curse of their perishing father and mother, blind reason and powerless faith: but from such shallow and sandy soil the conjectural Muse of commentary can reap little worth her pains to garner, and at every sweep of her sickle must risk being blinded by the sand blown into her eyes. Some stray verses might be gathered up, perhaps worth a place in the gleaner's loose sheaf; such as these:
"And aged Tiriel stood and said: Where does the thunder sleep?
Where doth he hide his terrible head? and his swift and fiery daughters,
Where do they shroud their fiery wings and the terrors of their hair?"
Anything better worth citation than such crude sonorous snatches of lyric style I have not found here, except in chap. vii., where the dying Tiriel lays his final curse on Har—"weak mistaken father of a lawless race," whose "laws and Tiriel's wisdom end together in a curse." Here, in words afterwards variously repeated and enlarged, he appeals against the laws of mere animal life, the narrowed senses and material bondage of men upon earth; against unnatural training and abstinence through which "milk is cut off from the weeping mouth with difficulty and pain," when first "the little lids are lifted and the little nostrils opened;" against "hypocrisy, the idiot's wisdom and the wise man's folly," by which men are "compelled to pray repugnant and to handle the immortal spirit" till like Tiriel they become as subtle serpents in a paradise which they consume fruit by fruit and flower by flower till at its fall they themselves are left desolate. Thus too he inveighs against faith in matter and "respect of persons" under their perishable and finite forms: "Can wisdom be put in a silver rod or love in a golden bowl? is the son of a king warmed without wool? or does he cry with a voice of thunder? does he look upon the sun and laugh, or stretch his little hands into the depths of the sea?" Much of this has been half erased, probably with a view to remoulding the whole: for here alone does anything in tone or thought recall the nobler mysticism of Blake's later writings.
- Before we dismiss the matter from view, it may be permissible to cast up in a rough and rapid way the sum of Blake's teaching in these books, if only because this was also the doctrine or moral of his entire life and life's work. I will therefore, as leave has been given, append a note extracted from a manuscript now before me, which attempts to embody and enforce, if only by dint of pure and simple exposition, the pantheistic evangel here set forth in so strange a fashion. Thus at least I read the passage; if misinterpreted, my correspondent has to thank his own laxity of expression. "These poems or essays at prophecy" (he says) "seem to me to represent in an obscure and forcible manner the real naked question to which all theologies and all philosophies must in the end be pared down. Strained and filtered clear of extraneous matter, pruned of foreign fruit and artificial foliage, this radical question lies between Theism and Pantheism. When the battles of the creeds have been all fought out, this battle will remain to fight. I do not see much likelihood on either hand of success or defeat. Faith and reason, evidence and report, are alike inadequate to decide the day. This prophet or that prophet, this God or that God, is not here under debate. Histories, religions, all things born of rumour or circumstance, accident or change, are out of court; are, for the moment, of necessity set aside. Gentile or Jew, Christian or Pagan, Eastern or Western, can but be equal to us for the moment. No single figure, no single book, stands out for special judgment or special belief. On the right hand, let us say (employing the old figure of speech), is the Theist the 'man of God,' if you may take his own word for it; the believer in a separate or divisible deity, capable or conceivably capable of existence apart from ours who conceive of it; a conscious and absolute Creator. On the left hand is the Pantheist; to whom such a creed is mainly incredible and wholly insufficient. His creed is or should be much like that of your prophet here;" (I must observe in passing that my correspondent seems so unable to conceive of a comment apart from the text, an exponent who is not an evangelist,—so inclined to confuse the various functions of critic and of disciple, and assume that you must mean to preach or teach whatever doctrine you may have to explain—in a word, so obtuse or perverse on this point that he might be taken for a professional man-of-letters or sworn juryman of the press; but I will hope better things of him, though anonymous;) "and that creed, as I take it, is simply enough expressible in Blake's own words, or deducible from them; that 'all deities reside in the human breast'; that except humanity there is no divine thing or person. Clearly therefore, in the eyes of a Theist, he lies open to the charge of atheism or antitheism. The real difference is perhaps this; God appears to a Theist as the root, to a Pantheist as the flower of things. It does not follow logically or actually that to this latter all things are alike. For us (he might say), for us, within the boundaries of time and space, evil and good do really exist, and live no empirical life—for a certain time, and within a certain range. 'There is no God unless man can become God.' That is no saying for an Atheist. 'There is no man unless the child can become a man'; is that equivalent to a denial of manhood? But if a man is to be born into the world, the mother must abstain from the drugs that produce abortion, the child from strong meats and drinks, the man from poisons. So it is in the spiritual world; tyranny and treachery, indolence and dulness, cannot but impede and impair the immutable law of nature and necessary growth. These and their like must be and must pass away; the eternal body of things must change. As the fanatic abstains through fear of God or of hell, the free-thinker abstains from what he sees or thinks to be evil (i. e., adverse or alien to his nature at its best) through respect for what he is and reverence for what he may be. Pantheism therefore is no immoral creed, and cannot be, if only because it is based upon faith in nature and rooted in respect for it. By faith in sight it attains to sight through faith. It follows that pure Theism is more immediately the contrary of this belief, more unacceptable and more delusive in the eyes of its followers, than any scheme of doctrine or code of revelation. These, as we see by your Blake" (again), "the Pantheist may seize and recast in the mould of his own faith. But Theism, but the naked distinct figure of God, whether or not he assume the nature of man, so long as this is mere assumption and not the essence of his being—the clothes and not the body, the body and not the soul—this is to him incredible, the source of all evil and error. Grant such a God his chance of existence, what reason has the Theist to suppose or what right to assume his wisdom or his goodness? why this and not that? whence his acceptance and whence his rejection of anything that is? 'Shall the clay demand of the potter, why hast thou made me thus?' Shall it not? and why? Of whom else should a man ask? and if sure of his God, what better should he do? Theism is not expansive, but exclusive: and the creeds begotten or misbegotten on this lean body of belief are 'Satanic' in the eyes of a Pantheist, as his faith is in the eyes of their followers." There is much more, but it were superfluous to mix a narcotic over strong: and in pursuit of his flying "faith" my friend's ideal "Pantheist" is apt to become heretical.
- That is, woman has become subject to oppression of customs; suffers violence at the hands of marriage laws and other such condemnable things. "Emancipation" and the cognate creeds of which later days have heard so much never had a more violent and vehement preacher. Not love, not the plucking of the flower, but error, fear, submission to custom and law, is that which "defiles" a woman in the sight of our prophet.
- Even thus told, the myth is plain enough; a word or two of briefer translation may serve also to light up future allusions. "I plucked Leutha's flower," says Oothoon in the prelude of this poem, "and I was not ashamed;" the flower that brings forth a child, which nature permits and desires her to gather:
Leutha is the spirit emblematic of physical pleasure, of sensual impulse and indulgence, from whom comes the "loose Bible" of Mahomet (Song of Los). But crossing the seas eastward to find her lover, the strong enslaved spirit of Europe, she, type of womanhood and freedom, is caught and chained as he by the force of conventional error and tyrannous habit, which makes her seem impure in his eyes; so they sit bound back to back, afraid to love; the eagles that tear her flesh are emblems of her lover's scorn; vainly, a virgin at heart, she appeals to all the fair and fearless face of nature against her rival, the prurient modesty of custom, a virgin in face, a harlot at heart; against unnatural laws of restraint upon youths and maidens, whose inevitable outcome is in the licentious alternative not less unnatural; he will not answer but with vain and vague lamentation, will not turn himself and love her for all her crying: the mystery of things and thoughts, the tyranny of times and laws, is heavy upon them to the end. All forms of life but these are free to be fair and happy: only from east to west the prison-houses are full of the wailing of women.
- Night, or the darkness of worlds yet undivided and chaotic, is always typified by Blake as a "forest" dark with involved and implicated leaf or branch. Compare "The Tiger."
- Along this page a serpent of imperious build rears the strong and sinuous length of his dusky glittering body, and spits forth keen undulating fire.
- It is possible that Blake intended here some grotesque emblematic reference to the riots witnessed by himself, in which Lord Mansfield's house and MSS. were destroyed by fire. At all events, here alone is there any visible allusion to a matter of recent history.
- That is, being unable to reconcile qualities, to pass beyond the legal and logical grounds of good and evil into the secret places where they are not. The whole argument hinges on this difference between Pantheism, which can, and Theism, which cannot, and is therefore no surer or saner than a mere religion based on Church or Bible, nor less incompetent to include, to expound, to redeem the world.
- Compare, for the doctrine as to delusion and jealousy being feminine principles (destructive by their weakness, not by their strength), this strange expostulation with God, recalling the tone of earlier prophets:
"Why art thou silent and invisible,
Father of Jealousy?
Why dost thou hide thyself in clouds
From every searching eye?
Why darkness and obscurity
In all thy words and laws,
That none dare eat the fruit but from
The wily serpent's jaws?
Or is it because Jealousy[†]
Gives feminine applause?"
^ † (This word, half rubbed off in the MS., may be "secrecy"; and the point would remain the same.)
- Leutha, the spirit or guardian goddess of natural pleasure and physical beauty, is sacrificed as a ransom to redeem the spirit or guardian god of prohibitive law or judicial faith; to him she is sacrificed that through her he may be saved. Thus, in the Visions of the Daughters of Albion, the maiden who "plucks Leutha's flower," who trusts and indulges Nature, has her "virgin mantle torn in twain by the terrible thunders" of religious and moral law: woman was sacrificed and man "fast bound in misery" during the eighteen centuries—through which the mother goddess lay asleep, to weep over her children at her waking; as in the Prophecy of Europe Time the father and Space the mother of men are afflicted and spell-bound until the sleep of faith be slept out. There again the emblematic name of Leutha recurs in passing.
- That is of course the reprobate according to theology, such as the heretical prophet himself: the class of men upon which is laid the burden of the sins of the elect, as Satan's upon Rintrah in the myth.
- This line appears to have been too much for the writer in the Life, who here breaks his quotation short off by the head, annihilating with a quite ingenious violence at once grammar, sense, and sound. It is but a small nut to have broken his critical tooth upon; the evident meaning being simply this: that within the centre of everything living by animal or vegetative life there is by way of kernel something imperishable; the fleshly or material life of form contains the infinite spiritual life, lurking under leaf or latent under limb: man and flower and beast have each the separate secret of a soul or divisible indestructible spirit (compare even the Songs of Innocence); but while the earthly and fleshly form remains there stand as wardens of the ways the two material giants, Strength and Force, binding the soul in the body with chains of flesh and sex, the spirit in the petals with bonds of vegetable form, fashioned fastenings of chalice and anther, sprinklings of dusty gold on leaf or pistil; always, without hammer or rivet of Vulcanic forging, able to hold fast Prometheus in blind bondage to the flesh and form of things; so that except by inspiration there can be no chance of seeing what does exist and work in man or beast or flower; only by vision or by death shall one be brought safe past the watch guarded by the sentinels of material form and bodily life, the crude tributary "Afrites" (as in the Æschylean myth) of the governing power which fashions and fetters life in men and things. And thus this, the singing of birds and dancing of flowers, the springing of colour and kindling of music at each day's dawn, is a symbol—"a vision of the lamentation of Beulah over Ololon"—of the dwellers in that milder and moonlight-coloured world of reflex mortal spirits over the imperishable influences of a higher spiritual world, which descending upon earth must be clothed with material mystery and become subject to sensuous form and likeness in the body of the shadow of death. This glorious passage, almost to be matched for wealth of sound, for growth and gradation of floral and musical splendour, for mastery of imperial colour, even against the great interlude or symphony of flowers in Maud, was not cast at random into the poem, but has also a "soul" or meaning in it—though the ways of seeing and understanding are somewhat too closely guarded by "Og and Anak." Heading it as an excerpt indeed one need hardly wish to see beyond the form or material figure. That "innumerable dance" of tree and flower and herb is not unfit for comparison with the old ἀνήριθμον γέλασμα of the waves of the sea.
- One may fear that some such symbolic stuff as this is really at the root of the admirable poem christened by its editor with the name of Broken Love: which I gravely suspect was meant for insertion in some fresh instalment of prophetic rhapsody by way of complement or sequel to Jerusalem. The whole tone of it, and especially that of some rejected stanzas, is exactly in the elemental manner of the scenes (where scene is none) between Albion, Jerusalem, and Vala the Spectre of Jerusalem (books 1st and 2nd):—
"Thou hast parted from my side—
Once thou wast a virgin bride:
Never shalt thou a true love find—
My Spectre follows thee behind.
"When my love did first begin,
Thou didst call that love a sin;
Secret trembling, night and day,
Driving all my loves away."
These two stanzas (recalling so many other passages where Blake has enforced his doctrines as to the fatal tendency of the fears and jealousies, the abstinence and doubt, produced by theoretic virtue and hatched by artificial chastity) stood originally as third and fourth in the poem. They are cancelled in Blake's own MS.; but in that MS. the poem ends as follows, in a way (I fear) conclusive as to the justice of my suggestion; I mark them conjecturally, as I suppose the dialogue to stand, by way of helping the reader to some glimpse of the point here and there."When wilt thou return and view
My loves and them to life renew?
When wilt thou return and live?
When wilt thou pity as I forgive?""Never, never, I return;
Still for victory I burn.Night and morn the flight renew."
Living, thee alone I'll have;
And when dead I'll be thy grave.
"Through the heaven and earth and hell
Thou shalt never, never quell:
I will fly and thou pursue;
(This I take to be the jealous lust of power and exclusive love speaking through the incarnate "female will." See Jerusalem again.)
"And I, to end thy cruel mocks,
Annihilate thee on the rocks,
And another form create
To be subservient to my fate.
"Till I turn from female love
And root up the infernal grove,
I shall never worthy be
To step into eternity."
(This stanza ought probably to be omitted; but I retain it as being carefully numbered for insertion by Blake: though he by some evident slip of mind or pen has put it before the preceding one.)
"Let us agree to give up love
And root up the infernal grove,
Then shall we return and see
The worlds of happy eternity.
"And throughout all eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me;
As our dear Redeemer said,
This the wine and this the bread."
That is perfect Jerusalem both for style and matter. The struggle of either side for supremacy—the flight and pursuit—the vehemence and perversion—the menace and the persuasion—the separate Spectre or incarnation of sex "annihilated on the rocks" of rough law or stony circumstance and necessity—the final vision of an eternity where the jealous divided loves and personal affections "born of shame and pride" shall be destroyed or absorbed in resignation of individual office and quality—all this belongs but too clearly to the huge prophetic roll. Few however will be desirous, and none will be wise, to resign for these gigantic shadows of formless and baseless fancy the splendid exposition given by the editor (p. 76 of vol. ii). Seen by that new external illumination, though it be none of the author's kindling, his poem stands on firmer feet and is clothed with a nearer light.
- In the mythologic scheme, also, Los god of time and Albion father of the races of men are rival powers; and the "Spectre" or satellite deity reproaches his lord with resignation of the world and all its ways and generations (which should have been subject only to the Time-Spirit) to the guidance of the nations sprung from the patriarch Albion (called in Biblical records after Jewish names, here spoken of by their English or other titles, more or less burlesque and barbaric) who have taken upon themselves to subdue even Time himself to this work and divide his spoils. So closely is the bare mythical construction enwound with the symbolic or doctrinal passages which are meant to give it such vitality and such coherence as they may.
- Who adore nature as she appears to the Deist, who select this and reject that, assume and presume according to moral law and custom, instead of accepting the Pantheistic revelation which consecrates all things and absorbs all contraries.