The Resources of William Blake

By Manas

[Kathleen Raine's Blake and Antiquity (a Bollingen Series paperback, Princeton University Press, 116 pages plus 91 illustrations of Blake's paintings and etchings, 1977) is a book by a scholar for Blake lovers. They make an ardent crowd, often themselves artists or writers. Dull would he be of soul who did not feel some kinship with this rebellious visionary. He was wroth with his times, yet worked off his indignation by the production of beauty. And there were reaches of high meaning behind the charm of his drawings and the lyrical magic of his verse. He drew on reservoirs his age could not understand. As Kathleen Raine shows, only now are we beginning to learn of the paths he took to the Pierian Spring. ]

Blake was many things. He was Platonist and Neoplatonist, Alchemist and Paracelsian. He knew the Hermetic literature and had read Swedenborg. He was so many things that it is better simply to say that he was their synthesis in an artist. All his life he made runes so rare in form and invitation that one's love affair with William Blake may begin in childhood and last to the end of life, with ever growing appreciation of his work.

Why does one become a Blake lover? The beauty in sound and sight is not enough to explain it. Children may be captured by his verse, but that is only the beginning. His poems have a molten quality. Once, in a meadow long ago, we saw a bottled gentian so filled with life that the delicate walls of its petaled enclosure seemed to tremble with irrepressible emotion. A great bumblebee, it turned out, had got inside and couldn't get out! But Blake found his way out in those songs which will go on echoing century after century.

What is it about Blake which makes us see and feel more in him, every time we read him? Kathleen Raine sets out to help with an answer to this question. In her introduction she speaks of the time when for scholars Blake was the great "original," an artist who owed nothing to tradition. Through her studies she found that Blake was soaked in tradition. He was an omnivorous reader of the classics and was for a time a close friend of Thomas Taylor, the first translator into English of Plato and Plotinus. For Kathleen Raine, Blake was an eighteenth-century herald of a change in thinking that only now is coming to fruition:

Blake's greatest disciple . . . W. B. Yeats, announcing the end of a cycle and the advent of the "rough beast," was but following Blake. "The rise of soul against intellect, now beginning in the world," announced by Yeats, has brought with it a return to the excluded knowledge -- Neo-Platonism, alchemy, astrology, Cabbala -- besides the more recent studies of Indian metaphysics, comparative mythology, psychical research, and the psychology of the unconscious. All these and other related fields of knowledge, once dismissed piecemeal, are now seen to belong to a coherent way of understanding and exploring what we choose to call "reality."

The material of which this book is a condensation was first published in two volumes as Blake and Tradition (expanded text from the A. W Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts given by the author in Washington, D.C. in 1962 at the National Gallery of Art; see review article, "Blake's Fires of the Soul," SUNRISE, January 1970) several years ago. Today the author finds the modern mind far more receptive to the idea of Blake as a Platonic enthusiast:

What I then labored to establish by accumulated detail is now increasingly taken for granted. Nor is it any longer possible to dismiss Thomas Taylor from the scene; it is now known that Blake and Taylor were on intimate terms, at least for a time. Scholarship has come to the aid of common sense, and James King has given us, from the Meredith papers, a lifelike picture of the two sages: the Platonist, characteristically demonstrating to Blake step by step some Euclidian theorem, and our visionary exclaiming, "Ah, never mind that -- what's the use of going to prove it. Why, I see with my eyes that it is so, and do not require any proof to make it clearer."

Miss Raine wonders whether this spirit of Blake's, now renewed in a great many Blake lovers, will render unnecessary all the details she assembles to show how Blake drew on Neoplatonic tradition. Then she says:

I hope nevertheless that some of the "minute particulars" which gave me such delight in the discovery will communicate something of the same delight to a younger generation of Blake lovers. Of course the details given in such a book as this from the wealth of source-material are only the tip of a submerged continent of knowledge -- a country with which Blake was familiar -- and I can only report, from my own explorations, that this Lost Atlantis is a land of treasures and marvels. Blake's "golden string" leads not only through his own labyrinth, but is the clue leading to so much more. Neo-Platonism, with its mythology and symbolism, is indeed the local European idiom (as Coomaraswamy would say) of a universal and unanimous tradition. Those sources from which Blake drew his knowledge -- and in our own century, Jung, Yeats, and increasing numbers of their followers -- are learning of the imagination itself. The excluded knowledge of the last two or three centuries seems likely to become the sacred scriptures of a New Age for which spirit, not matter, is again the primary reality.

Yet for all Miss Raine's delighting persuasions, there seems a sense in which Blake was also a true "original" -- a man whose mind was a record of rich self-discoveries which turned out to be in tune with the Platonic and other philosophic traditions, these becoming for him mostly confirmation. There is always the question: Did he think of that himself or did he read it somewhere? In the case of most works worth reading, the answer must be -- both! To find his own feelings articulated in the images set down by philosophers and mystics of two thousand years before must have been highly exciting to Blake. He was enriched by those images, but his genius was his own.

Blake is thus a startling example of what we sometimes feel to be in lesser ways the case with ourselves. We carry around with us whole libraries of half-formed wanderings and unborn intuitions -- feelings of the hidden symmetries of the world and the rhythms of life, and then we find some ancient poet or thinker writing of these things! What if there is actually the "universal and unanimous tradition" of which Coomaraswamy speaks, which leaves a trail of wonderful clues in literature across the centuries -- arising in spontaneous inspiration as well as from transmission in books? If this can happen in mathematics -- Newton and Leibniz formulating the principles of the calculus independently, at about the same time -- then why not in philosophy too?

The sense of these symmetries comes to us, but then must be filtered the mind of the times. An inspiration akin to Neoplatonic flights surely came to the German transcendentalists, to Lessing and some others, for example, just as, a century or so later, Schopenhauer echoed -- if somewhat thinly -- Upanishadic verities and, as today, many great themes of ancient thought are blooming again in a new idiom. If this be the law of our common mind, finding expression in individual channels, the whole of cultural history will some day have to be written in terms of these cycles of reawakening.

Meanwhile, the reader deserves at least a good sample of Kathleen Raine's exposition. She says in one place:

Blake returned again and again to the problem of evil in the symbolic terms of a "descent" of the soul from a world of spiritual light into a world of material darkness; but behind the story of the soul lies the cosmic problem of the origin and nature of the world. The original "descent" of light, or spirit, into matter, or darkness, has been expressed in many fables: the dismembering of Osiris and the scattering of his body over the earth; the laceration of Dionysus; the deus absconditus, or hidden god, of Alchemy, made prisoner in matter. As the individual soul has its cycle of descent and return, so have these symbolic figures of the divine power in the cosmos itself.
Blake, who considered Paracelsus as great as Shakespeare, knew the Alchemical tradition; and that strange poem "The Crystal Cabinet" seems to summarize the Alchemical doctrine of the imprisoning of light in matter. The very title is Alchemical; the "cabinet" is a term used by Thomas Vaughan (Eugenius Philalethes), brother of the poet Henry Vaughan, for the physical body in which spirit dwells. In his book Aula Lucis (the tent of light) he writes that "matter is the house of light . . . when he (that is light or spirit) first enters it, it is a glorious transparent room, a crystal castle, and he lives like a Familiar in diamonds. He hath the liberty to look out at the windows, his love is all in his sight: I mean that liquid Venus which lures him in; but this continues not long," says Vaughan; for the feminine watery principle makes the light her prisoner, so that at last "he is quite shut up in darkness." The same story is told in Blake's poem:
The Maiden caught me in the Wild
Where I was dancing merrily;
She put me into her Cabinet
And Lock'd me up with a Golden Key.
The maiden is our by now familiar water-nymph or "liquid Venus," and the merry dancer the light or spirit which she captures and encloses in a body.

Blake, Kathleen Raine says, has long been regarded as "an eccentric in a traditional civilization," and T. S. Eliot accused him of "a certain meanness of culture." Replying to this careless slur, she writes:

A culture which embraced Plato and Plotinus, the Bible and the Hermetica, English science and philosophy, the tradition of Alchemy, Gibbon and Herodotus, besides the body of English poetry -- not to mention his equally wide knowledge of painting -- can scarcely be called mean. . . . Blake, like Dante, derived his knowledge of the soul from the ancients. He was a traditionalist in a society that had as a whole lapsed from tradition. To the modern reader he appears most original when he is least so, most cranky when he is communicating traditional doctrine, and most personal when his theme is metaphysical reality, expressed in canonical symbols. Yeats was perfectly aware of this, but evidently follows the old injunction not to divulge the mysteries, lest, as D. H. Lawrence also understood, people "knowing the formulae, without undergoing the experience that corresponds, should grow insolent and impious, thinking they have the all, when they have only an empty monkey-chatter. . . ." All the same, Blake wished to be understood, and knew that he would be fully understood only by those in possession of the traditional language of symbols.

Blake and Antiquity is the work of a scholar who serves the lovers of literature, and other scholars incidentally.

(Reproduced with permission from Manas, September 6, 1978 in Sunrise magazine, January 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press.)