The Poems of William Blake

Religious views

Although Blake's attacks on conventional religion were shocking in his own day, his rejection of religiosity was not a rejection of religion per se. His view of orthodoxy is evident in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a series of texts written in imitation of Biblical prophecy. Therein, Blake lists several Proverbs of Hell, among which are the following:

  • Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
  • As the catterpiller [sic] chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys. (8.21, 9.55, E36)

In The Everlasting Gospel, Blake does not present Jesus as a philosopher or traditional messianic figure, but as a supremely creative being, above dogma, logic and even morality:

If he had been Antichrist Creeping Jesus, He'd have done anything to please us: Gone sneaking into Synagogues And not us'd the Elders & Priests like Dogs, But humble as a Lamb or Ass, Obey'd himself to Caiaphas. God wants not Man to Humble himself (55–61, E519–20)

Jesus, for Blake, symbolises the vital relationship and unity between divinity and humanity: "All had originally one language, and one religion: this was the religion of Jesus, the everlasting Gospel. Antiquity preaches the Gospel of Jesus." (Descriptive Catalogue, Plate 39, E543)

Blake designed his own mythology, which appears largely in his prophetic books. Within these he describes a number of characters, including "Urizen", "Enitharmon", "Bromion" and "Luvah". His mythology seems to have a basis in the Bible as well as Greek and Norse mythology,[92][93] and it accompanies his ideas about the everlasting Gospel.

"I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create."

Words uttered by Los in Blake's Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion.

One of Blake's strongest objections to orthodox Christianity is that he felt it encouraged the suppression of natural desires and discouraged earthly joy. In A Vision of the Last Judgment, Blake says that:

Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governd their Passions or have No Passions but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion but Realities of Intellect from which All the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their Eternal Glory. (E564)

His words concerning religion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors. 1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul. 2. That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, called Good, is alone from the Soul. 3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies. But the following Contraries to these are True 1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. 2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. 3. Energy is Eternal Delight. (Plate 4, E34)

Blake does not subscribe to the notion of a body distinct from the soul that must submit to the rule of the soul, but sees the body as an extension of the soul, derived from the 'discernment' of the senses. Thus, the emphasis orthodoxy places upon the denial of bodily urges is a dualistic error born of misapprehension of the relationship between body and soul. Elsewhere, he describes Satan as the 'state of error', and as beyond salvation.[94]

Blake opposed the sophistry of theological thought that excuses pain, admits evil and apologises for injustice. He abhorred self-denial,[95] which he associated with religious repression and particularly sexual repression:[96] "Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. / He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence." (7.4–5, E35) He saw the concept of 'sin' as a trap to bind men's desires (the briars of Garden of Love), and believed that restraint in obedience to a moral code imposed from the outside was against the spirit of life:

Abstinence sows sand all over The ruddy limbs & flaming hair But Desire Gratified Plants fruits & beauty there. (E474)

He did not hold with the doctrine of God as Lord, an entity separate from and superior to mankind;[97] this is shown clearly in his words about Jesus Christ: "He is the only God ... and so am I, and so are you." A telling phrase in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is "men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast". This is very much in line with his belief in liberty and social equality in society and between the sexes.

Enlightenment philosophy

Blake had a complex relationship with Enlightenment philosophy. Due to his visionary religious beliefs, he opposed the Newtonian view of the universe. This mindset is reflected in an excerpt from Blake's Jerusalem:

I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace. (15.14–20, E159)

Blake believed the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which depict the naturalistic fall of light upon objects, were products entirely of the "vegetative eye", and he saw Locke and Newton as "the true progenitors of Sir Joshua Reynolds' aesthetic".[100] The popular taste in the England of that time for such paintings was satisfied with mezzotints, prints produced by a process that created an image from thousands of tiny dots upon the page. Blake saw an analogy between this and Newton's particle theory of light.[101] Accordingly, Blake never used the technique, opting rather to develop a method of engraving purely in fluid line, insisting that:

a Line or Lineament is not formed by Chance a Line is a Line in its Minutest Subdivision[s] Strait or Crooked It is Itself & Not Intermeasurable with or by any Thing Else Such is Job. (E784)

It has been supposed that, despite his opposition to Enlightenment principles, Blake arrived at a linear aesthetic that was in many ways more similar to the Neoclassical engravings of John Flaxman than to the works of the Romantics, with whom he is often classified. However, Blake's relationship with Flaxman seems to have grown more distant after Blake's return from Felpham, and there are surviving letters between Flaxman and Hayley wherein Flaxman speaks ill of Blake's theories of art.[102] Blake further criticized Flaxman's styles and theories of art in his responses to criticism made against his print of Chaucer's Caunterbury Pilgrims in 1810.[103]


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