By his thirtieth year William Blake had already displayed rare talent as a poet, painter and engraver. Around that time his deceased brother Robert appeared to him in a dream and showed him a new method of engraving, now known as "relief etching."
Blake would draw on copper plates using acid-resistant wax, then dip the plates in aqua fortis (nitric acid), leaving a raised surface of text and designs. His wife Katherine would print on the Blakes' small press, and William would often illuminate the prints with water-color.
Thus Blake became the only poet in England who was his own engraver, printer and publisher. This liberation from the hated system of art-commerce also unchained his talent, and a great artist became a spectacular artist; a creative genius who achieved eminence as both poet and painter. He became convinced that God had given him a prophetic message and a mission to accomplish on earth.
Blake was a true believer, not in historic Christianity, but in the creative Imagination "which is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus blessed forever."
He saw the Christian Gospel as the true Light of the World, and took a low view of classical culture, with its glorification of War, Religion and the State – three demons we must slay if we wish to see the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
THE Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid, of Plato & Cicero, which all Men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible. Shakespeare & Milton were both curb’d by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the Sword.
The whole Bible is filled with Imagination & Vision from End to End & not with Moral Virtues; that is the baseness of Plato & the Greeks & all Warriors. The Moral Virtues are continual Accusers of Sin & promote Eternal Wars & Dominance over others.
The Gospel is Forgiveness of Sins & has No Moral Precepts.
The outward Ceremony is Antichrist.
One of Blake's favorite pastimes was reading books he hated and scribbling furious refutations in the margins. On the title page of Bishop Watson's Defense of the Bible, he wrote, To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life. The Beast & the Whore rule without controls.
To Blake, the State Church - which he called Antichrist, the Whore of Babylon, the Synagogue of Satan, and the Serpent Temple of the Druids - was the devil's masterpiece, the Abomination of Desolation: that which is diametrically opposed to Christ calls itself Christianity; radical evil marches under the banner of Love; the Word of Life becomes a religion of negation.
And this is the manner of the Sons of Albion in their strength;
They take the Two Contraries which are calld Qualities, with which
Every Substance is clothed, they name them Good & Evil,
From them they make an Abstract, which is a Negation
Not only of the Substance from which it is derived,
A murderer of its own Body: but also a murderer
Of every Divine Member: it is the Reasoning Power,
An Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing.
This is the Spectre of Man: the Holy Reasoning Power,
And in its Holiness is closed the Abomination of Desolation.
In 1790 he published an amazing little manifesto titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which he set forth his radical vision of the Gospel of Jesus:
It is the most humorous of Blake’s books, a satire in which High Churchmen are symbolized by angels (since that is the way they perceive themselves) and true visionary Christians like Blake are devils - since that is the way High Churchmen perceive them!
Blake, needless to say, was a Dissenter. As a young man, he discovered the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), a Swedish mystic who prophesied that the New Age would begin in 1757, the year Blake was born! Blake was at first electrified by Swedenborg’s heterodoxies, but later rejected him as a Dogmatist masquerading as Prophet. Thus when Blake embarked on his new life of prophetic mission, he left Swedenborg and his books sitting at the empty tomb.
Swedenborg’s writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further.
Have 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.
When I first read Blake’s "Prophecies", I assumed that the author was a disciple and poetic interpreter of Boehme, since his Illuminated Books are replete with “Behmenist” ideas. Even the title, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is an expression of Boehme's Three Principles. But he seldom mentions Boehme, and then only in a semi-complimentary fashion.
Like Swedenborg, Boehme had a profound and lasting effect on Blake in his formative years. It was inevitable that Blake the Mystic would find a kinship with the Teutonic Theosopher, but though he loved Boehme’s ideas, Blake the Artist considered his dense theosophical prose a mode of communication inferior to that of the visionary poet. Besides, he was too idiosyncratic to be anyone's disciple: “I must create a System, or be enslav’d by another man’s. I will not reason & compare; my business is to create.”
Nonetheless, Blake regarded JB a "divinely inspired man," and the 13 Diagrams of Dionysius Freher, "Illustrating the High and Deep Principles of Jacob Behmen", which you can view here, were among his favorite works of art. He even went so far as to say, "Michael Angelo could not have surpassed them."
In a letter to the sculptor John Flaxman, Blake (who all his life saw visions and conversed with angels, faeries and departed souls) mentions a prophetic visitation:
Paracelsus and Behmen appeared to me, terrors appear’d in the Heavens above
And in Hell beneath & a mighty & awful change threatened the Earth
The American War began
What influenced Blake most…was Behmen’s analysis of the psyche and the interaction of its parts. There are, he saw, three worlds. First of all is the Dark Fire-world, which he called Hell and which has since been named the Subconscious. It contains all the basic impulses – all the deadly sins. Although evil, these are the sources of life itself. Above is the Light World (Heaven). As the evil instincts rise, a certain divine spark transmutes them from Evil to Good. The Deadly Sins become Virtues: selfishness becomes generosity, lust becomes love, and so on.
These two worlds, Hell and Heaven, are essential to each other; they exist simultaneously in God. Thus there is the opposition of contraries in God himself, without which there could be no life.
The third World is the outer world of Nature. This is a mere “outbirth” of the others, a projection of Man. Behmen has much to say about this “astral” world with its starry wheels, which place Man under the rule of physical laws; but these laws of cause and effect are actually an expression of the spiritual realities underlying them. The human body is part of Nature; the soul within gives it form.
Nature is Law; God is Liberty.
The problem of salvation is that of keeping a harmonious balance of parts, so that the Dark World is kept down where the Light World can irradiate and temper it. The Fall occurred as a lack of balance, specifically the ambition of Lucifer to dominate the Heart of God (Jesus); then the fire of the Dark World broke loose, and all the disasters followed.
Behmen’s discovery of the Three Worlds solved for Blake the question how a God of Love could create a place of everlasting punishment for his children. God is good; all things that proceed from him are good in essence, nor can that essence ever be corrupted. Therefore “Hell,” which is of God, must be good; and the Life Force proceeding from it (the libido, Blake’s “Energy”) cannot be “evil,” and far from everlasting pain, it is “Eternal Delight.” Everything that lives is holy…
Behmen placed the Imagination as man’s central power; it is the creative force. All things are generated out of the Imagination. He constantly attacks “Reason,” which is wholly unable to compete with the directness of actual perception, or Vision.
He believed that the Bible was “inspired” – that is to say, symbolic; it is an expression of the eternal truths of the human soul. He spoke often of the “Veil of Moses,” meaning that one should not take him literally. He expressed great scorn of merely “historical Christianity” and the “stone churches” in which a blind and exterior “faith” is imposed. He constantly contrasted the true and invisible church with the outward churches of Cain and Babel.
And since churchmen worship Satan as God and condemn the real Gospel of Jesus as "doctrines of devils," Blake ironically puts words of truth in the mouth of the Devil:
Blake follows with another sardonic description of the religion of "angels:"
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 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.
One law for the lion and ox is Oppression.
The Bible of Hell refers to the canon of Illuminated Books.
Blake concludes The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with A SONG OF LIBERTY:
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