Another dead writer speaking to us from beyond the grave...
Last week I looked at the thoughts of American writer John Steinbeck on the subject of individualism and human creativity. Last week also saw the 250th anniversary of another visionary who still speaks to us relevantly and eloquently from beyond the grave.
William Blake, poet, artist, was probably the most extraordinary visionary Britain has produced since Shakespeare. Though not in the same league as a writer Blake, writing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, foresaw many of the problems that would face society two hundred years later.
Most people know this writer for the hymn Jerusalem and so think of him as a religious poet. It is true there are many references to God and Jesus in the poems and essays but an unholy row has been simmering in he Anglican church for many years as to whether Jerusalem is actually a Christian hymn or poem. The answer to that (its pagan) does not matter, what is interesting and is a theme running through Blake’s work is that his religious views represent heresy to standard Christian beliefs. Blake sees God as a symbol of the oppressive authoritarianism of state and church and Jesus as the unifying spirit of humanity. An authoritarian God and a liberal, humanist Jesus.
All our lives we are required to choose between God; conformity, unquestioning obedience, commitment to work and money and unthinking acceptance of the status quo, and Jesus; freedom of thought and speech, questioning of injustice and a love of art and expression all of which Blake believed would lead to the overthrow of tyranny and the creation of a Utopian world: Jerusalem:
I will not cease from mental strife
nor will my sword rest in my hand
‘til we have built Jerusalem
in England’s green and pleasant land.
So no promises that it will be easy then, but plenty of references to The Da Vinci code, well, to the enduring myth that Jesus actually visited Britain a few years after his alleged crucifixion. A full book would be needed to explore the possible truths of that so we will skip it for now.
Most people have probably been told the lines in the poem Jerusalem that go:
And was Jerusalem builded here
among these dark, satanic mills?
are actually using the "dark, satanic mills" as a metaphor for the protestant churches that were preaching a very hardline version of Christianity. This is true but not entirely true , Blake is using a double meaning. Remember he was writing at a time when the Industrial Revolution was at its height in Britain and also there was a second wave of the protestant reformation going on. The mills and factories of the manufacturers were certainly dark, satanic places, the workers endured long hours in vile, dehumanising conditions, working for a pittance; they could be laid off or sacked without notice, punishments were regularly handed out for misdemeanours as trivial as talking to the person at the next machine, wages could be reduced on a whim and, under the law of the day, nobody could leave to obtain better employment without the permission of their master. Yes master, not employer. The relationship was of master and servant, and despite all the pious words of abolitionists who campaigned to stop the slave trade, the condition of workers in the industrial cities of Britain were no better than a kind of slavery. The workers could submit to the will of their bosses or they were free to starve.
The protestant chapels were just as dark and Satanic in a different way. It was in such places and through their warped teachings the idea of the "undeserving poor" took root, the notion that poverty was a judgement imposed by God and those who did not endure it with stoicism and grace were deserving of further punishment at the hands of pious human tormentors who considered themselves to have been granted wealth because God recognised they were better people.
What did it take to be part of the "undeserving poor"? Well, complaining about injustices, poor wages, squalid living conditions and the exorbitant prices charged in the "truck" shops. Oh yes, truck shops, nearly forgot those. So concerned were the pious and godly rich people for the souls of their workers, they did not pay wages in legal coin but in tokens only redeemable in shops owned by the employer. This was ostensibly to prevent the "undeserving poor" from spending their earnings on sinful frivolities such as drinking, singing and dancing in the alehouse. Obviously such practices did not sit well alongside Blake’s notion that all human beings must be free to make their own choices.
It was not only religion and the cause of the workers that aroused the poet’s passion. He was quite prepared to embrace radical political causes and supported both the American and French revolutions, writing in support of Washington and Lafayette and denouncing the Kings of England and France.
By profession Blake was an engraver and illustrator and his fine draughtsmanship brought him to the attention of radical publisher Joseph Johnson who championed the work of writers such as Thomas Paine, sometimes known as "the firebrand of the American Revolution" and Mary Wollstonecraft, proto-feminist and mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Through Johnson, Blake also met people such as scientific pioneer and religious rebel Joseph Priestly, Radical theologian Gilbert Wakefield who popularised the Unitarian faith in Britain and poet William Cowper, a stylistic influence.
As Blake developed as a writer, ideas formed from contact with these influential thinkers were given shape by his own individual vision. The form of Christianity expressed in his poems, though heretic in the view of the Biblical fundamentalism of the day, was in reality derived from the much older tradition of Celtic Christianity and owing a lot to the fashionable revival of interest in paganism, mysticism and naturalism. In the Everlasting Gospel, his last and unfortunately unfinished poem he goes right out on a limb and proposes that the true God could only possibly be a female, while in The Song of Los his implication is that the endless cycle of nature, of death and renewal, is the reality while the idea of "resurrection into a better life" common the Abrahamic religions is a fanciful notion that appeals to the weak minded. To the mainstrean Christian all virtue comes from God, to Blake all virtue is human and all evil from over-zealous and hypocritical love of the patriarchal and materialistic God of the Abrahamic religions.
In summary then, Blake was as much a political as a religious poet, and as such he now speaks to us from beyond the grave, showing us how we must fight to retain our rights and freedoms including the freedom to believe or not believe in some sort of God.
He also shows us in the words to Jerusalem that we must slow the insane rush for technology, not turning back the clock to a medieval lifestyle as Blake’s critics claimed he was suggesting and as my critics, the immature and irrational boy – scientists (who think they are really really original) will try to claim I am suggesting. There is no need to turn back the clock, only to make sure we control technology rather than letting it, and those who profit from it, control us.
Blake’s Heaven then was not a dream world where everybody sprouted wings and a distinct lack of wedding tackle and went around playing little harps, it was a world in which all could live with dignity and have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. That is a dream that thechnology should have put within our reach. Unfortunately, because we have been misled by those who worship money and power it seems to be slipping further away from us all the time.