Blake as Visionary


In order to start to come to terms with Blake’s poetry it is important first of all to understand Blake’s characteristic ‘ways of seeing’. Blake’s visionary perspective which transforms reality may be unusual but this does not mean that he fails to see the material world accurately and clearly. This is especially true when he is describing social abuses.


Twas on a Holy Thursday, those innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two in red and blue and green,
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow.


In this example, Blake’s description is more than documentary. His own capacity for imaginative insight was superior to the scientific perspective which relied on the eye to see and the reason to weigh and measure the physical world. Blake blamed this limited way of seeing on Newton:


… May God us keep
From single vision and Newton’s sleep!

(Letter in the form of a poem, to Thomas Butts, 22nd November 1802)


Elsewhere, in the same poem Blake claims that there are even more complex ways of seeing:

Now I a fourfold vision see,
And  a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold always.


‘Here Blake describes different levels of imaginative perception. While we must always reject the single vision of the scientists and cultivate twofold vision, there are other levels of perception which enable us to envisage an earthly paradise (Beulah) - the threefold vision which comes to us in dreams – and best of all the fourfold vision which vouchsafes a glimpse of the supreme unity of heaven.


In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for example, the threefold vision creates a union of rationality and imagination (i.e. heaven and hell). The result is that we get a glimpse of an earthly paradise. In this case the liberation of humanity from the tyranny of Church and Stale. Crucially, Blake believed it was insufficient to rely on the eye to see the world as the scientists and materialists did. The eye was a useful tool but insufficient unless working in combination with the creative imagination which could transform mere sensory impressions and conjure up the visionary levels.


The fourfold vision is the supreme Insight which reconciles all of the other levels offering an almost mystical insight into the nature of the cosmos. The point is made in the wonderful lines which open the poem entitled Auguries of Innocence. The Imagination, says Blake, can help us:


To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.


In Songs of Innocence there is a repeated pattern in which the poet’s perception first sees then transforms the material world (twofold vision), then projects an earthly paradise watched over by a loving God (threefold vision) while conceiving the whole in terms of a mystical joy immanent throughout the universe (fourfold vision). An understanding of this, of course, also helps us by contrasts to come to terms with the evils and corruptions of the fallen, rationalist and materialist world described in Songs of Experience.


It is easier to find examples of different visionary dimensions in Songs of Innocence, for example in The Echoing Green. The Lamb, Laughing Song, A Cradle Song, Night, and A Dream and you can see the ways in which Blake evokes the particular scene, an ideal and a harmonious universe. However, Experience poems such as The Little Girl Lost and The Little Girl Found and The Tyger, for example, also reveal the same process at work.



Blake’s symbolism

A characteristic feature of Blake’s imaginative vision is his ability to ‘think’ in symbols and images. Because of this, at first glance it might appear that he is out of touch with everyday life but this would not be true - and indeed he had a lively awareness of the social and political realities of his time. As a child, Blake had vivid dreams and nightmares which evolved into a way of seeing which depended on a complex set of symbols, and it was through this that he expressed his radical philosophy of life. He dramatized his ideas by drawing on this symbol system. Properly speaking, this is what we mean when we describe Blake as a visionary.


Blake’s personal symbol system was derived from many sources, including his childhood dreams and nightmares, and from his reading in literature, politics and philosophy. Central to successful ways of reading Blake, to is to be alert to the novel way in which he employed some familiar symbols and images. You cannot take it for granted in Blake’s poems that the symbol means what you expect it to mean. This is one of the ways in which Blake challenged the conventional values of his time. For example in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘heaven’ stands for rationalism, materialism, lack of faith, lack of true humility, repression; ‘hell’ on the other hand, stands for imagination, energy, engagement, freedom, true spirituality. He even depicts Satan as an heroic, revolutionary figure.


London from Songs of Experience is an important poem which highlights the complexity of Blake’s symbolism. As in other poems, a reader needs to be aware of levels of meaning and the application of new, sometimes quite shocking, meanings to familiar symbols. The title announces that this is going to be a poem about London, which the end of the eighteenth century was becoming a great financial and commercial centre of world significance. ‘London’, however, becomes a symbol not only of the city Itself, but also of the state of English society and the human condition. By the end of the poem, Blake has completely revised any complacent ideas a reader might have about London as a centre of civilisation.


By careful use of symbolism, the poem develops from specific observations into a disturbing vision of a society in crisis. Blake achieves this partly through repetition of words which take on new levels of symbolic meaning each time they appear.


For example, the first reference to ‘chartered’ sounds innocuous enough and may indeed suggest something worthy - commercial enterprise, the rights of citizens and so on. But when it is repeated, in the second line, as a description of the Thames, the reader becomes aware of other possible meanings which are much less positive. When applied lo a flowing river, ‘chartered’ may simply mean mapping its course, but could also imply restraint and constriction, the inhibition of natural vitality. This then leads the reader to wonder whether Blake is talking about the state of mind of the inhabitants, whom we meet in the very next line.


The poem seems to hinge on the central symbol of the ‘mind-forged manacles’. In this very powerful symbol, Blake at once explains the sufferings of the people (their cries and marks) and begins to open up the causes of their oppression. And while the physical suffering is real, Blake suggests that the more profound source of the problem lies in attitudes of mind which are inimical to freedom of thought and imagination. The manacles signify a prison of contemporary ideologies located in the Church and State which Blake now goes onto illuminate.


Whenever you read a poem by Blake you have to explore the symbolism. Some poems will give up their meaning more easily than others, but some remain elusive and this is part of their power. Their elusive nature depends crucially on their use of symbolism.



Blake’s Dialectics

In addition to the symbols themselves, Blake devised particular notions of the nature of symbolic thinking or ways of thinking in symbols. Blake saw human experience as a constant battle between two forces, which he called the Spectre and the Emanation. The Spectre was, all of those things that Blake hated and which he saw as active in late eighteenth-century life: centrally, the tyranny of the intellect, reason and mechanistic thinking, all of which gave rise to political oppression and repressive religion.  The Emanation, on the other hand, arose from that which Blake saw as positive: the God-like power of the imagination, instinct and freedom - all the things that enable human beings to fulfil their potential. These were the qualities that Blake hoped would be released by the American and French Revolutions and which he promoted in his own writings.


Blake’s way of seeing is contingent upon his recognition of the continuing struggle between these opposing forces. This is what we understand by Blake’s, dialectics: an idea can only be defined by the existence of its opposite. Thus the dialectical thinker has a love of paradox, rejects categorisation, and accepts the inevitability of conflict and change. New perceptions arise from the series of conflicts that arise when opposing ideas clash. The difference between Blake and what he saw as the oppressors in eighteenth century England was that he welcomed difference, whereas the Church and the State sought to suppress it.


This is dearly illustrated in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell where Blake introduces the doctrine of contraries: without contraries there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence. 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.


Blake believed that the French Revolution marked the beginning of a new era, a new heaven on earth, a heaven of liberty and equality. This had been initiated, however, by the ‘hell’ of the revolutionary energies released. The old order of State and Church would certainly view these events as ‘hell’. Paradoxically, Blake’s vision sees these ‘Infernal’ energies as creating a true ‘heaven’, i.e. the marriage of heaven and hell.


In Songs of Innocence and of Experience Blake goes onto give poetic expression to some of these more abstract ideas. In the light of the above, we begin to develop an understanding of Blake’s motives in pairing collections of poems of ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’. Blake wants to heighten the reader’s awareness of the two ‘contrary states of the human soul’ by playing them off against each other. His dialectical habit of mind is not only evident across the collections, but also within individual poems in each collection. There are some obviously paired poems which examine the contrary states but equally, many of the individual poems in each collection show an awareness of the contrary state, i.e. some poems in Songs of Innocence, hint at the perils of experience, while some poems in Songs of Experience resonate with a sense of the absence of innocence, a sense of loss.