Blake’s Christian Polytheism
Blake’s pantheon, renamed and given the modern dress of his time and nation, is native not only in Blake’s imagination, but in those of his countrymen and contemporaries, down to this day. He restored to the English nation a long-lacked pantheon, those gods whom he saw at their immortal tasks in South Moulton Street, Lambeth, Battersea, and Hampstead, in Wordsworth’s Lake District, and on “Snowdon sublime”.
It maybe said that all imaginative poets are polytheists insofar as they personify those energies of the soul which antiquity named gods. The imaginative polytheism of Shelley and Keats is explicit, of Milton and Spenser and Coleridge, implicit. But Blake is perhaps unique in the explicit nature of his Christian polytheism. He restored the gods to England, Christianized one and all.
The Holy Quality of His Visions
Blake combined the imaginative genius of the poet with the symbolic learning of tradition and the psychological insight of modern mankind. His attitude towards his vision partakes more of the intellectual truthfulness of the 20th century than of the pious obsurantism of the religion against which he had so much to say. But the visions retain that holy quality which has at all times characterized the religious thought of mankind. He stands as a bridge between the institutional religion of the past and the tendency of the present time to seek the celestial powers within the soul
His Theory of the Imagination
He admired Law and Wesley, and was himself, as a young man, a follower of Swedenborg. As an old man his respect for the Catholic religion grew, perhaps through his love of Dante (whose poem he so sublimely illustrated during the last years of his life). But his religion is of the indwelling Logos, the imagination. He used synonymously “Jesus, the Imagination”, the “Bosom of God”, the “Saviour”, and the “Divine Humanity”, and declared himself to have been at all times a “worshipper of Jesus”. The imagination is, for Blake as for Coleridge, the divine presence in man; and his theory of the imagination is thus one that makes him, in the only significant sense, a religious genius. His spiritual aim was the widening of consciousness and the destruction of the “Satanic” kingdom of the selfhood or ego.
Views on Morality
To Blake conventional morality seemed almost entirely unrelated to the true nature of man. Good and evil, as we conceive them, have little meaning in the world of the gods and goddesses, of the unconscious regions of the psyche, that obey laws unknown to reason and convention. Blake therefore became, as Swedenborg had never become, the courageous prophet of a new morality, a “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, of “reason” and “energy”, or we might say, of the conscious and the unconscious halves of man’s original wholeness. Legalistic morality is, for Blake, the greatest of spiritual evils. His Jesus is the Divine Humanity—the potential human Self that lies beyond the conscious ego and its moral formulations.
Imaginative Interpretation of Christianity
Painting, music, and poetry were for Blake man’s “three ways of conversing with Paradise”. Jesus and his disciples were for him; “all artists” since they spoke from and to the imagination. There are many who are prepared to accept Blake’s imaginative interpretation of Christianity in an age when theology has become discredited in the light of reason. Imagination, so he believed, communicates its wisdom from a deeper source than reason; and the poet, rather than the theologian, communicates knowledge of holy mysteries.
Regarded as artist, poet, or religions revolutionary, Blake is a figure whose stature is greater than that of any but the greatest men of genius that England has produced.
Biblical Imagery and Rhythms
Some time between 1796 and 1800, the political undertone fades from Blake’s poetry and its mood becomes more and more Christian. About this time, his imagery and his rhythms, for example in Vala or The Four Zoos, take on the Biblical airs, the visionary warnings, and the unending swell which mark his later poems.
View of God and of Christ
Blake’s later poems have given him the reputation of a Christian hermit who lived remote from the world and was lost in his own mystic vision. Yet this picture of Blake is not strictly true. His form of Christianity was heretical, for it identified Christ the Son with all spiritual goodness and made God the Father a symbol of terror and tyranny. God to Blake personified absolute authority, and Christ personified the human character; and Blake was on the side of man against authority, at the end of his life when he called the authority Church and God as much as at the beginning when he called it State and King. To him all virtue is human virtue, and in his most religious poems he acknowledges no other Christianity:
The Worship of God is honouring his gifts
In other men and loving the greatest men best, each according To his genius which is the Holy Ghost in Man; there is no other God than that God who is the intellectual fountain of Humanity.
This is the unity between the early Blake and the late, the Radical and the heretic, and it joins the lyric poems, whose meanings seem so much simpler than they are, to the tortuous and smoky rhetoric of the later prophetic books.
Most religions, including Christianity, present more than one possible vision of the Divinity. One view, the most often given in the “Songs of Experience”, is that of a Jehovah-like figure, a Nobodaddy who controls the universe from a vast distance according to laws which, like the movements of stars, are fixed and only partly comprehensible. To man, this God’s ways seem tyrannical and unpredictable and, though he is the Father, He is a stern and forbidding one. His children are ignorant; He regards their ways as evil, and they need the threat of punishment constantly held over them if they are to be controlled at all. The “Songs of Innocence” present a very different view of God. He is within the world, caring for it as described in the poem On Another’s Sorrow:
He doth give his joy to all
He becomes an infant small
He becomes a man of woe
He doth feel the sorrow too.
The speakers in the Songs of Innocence do not look upon our earthly state as sinful—how can it be sinful, when God has become like us to share in our humanity? The innocent conceive God as a lamb or as a child because, being without a sense of guilt, they are also without fear of punishment.