Madness and Mysticism in the Poetry of William Blake

British Classics History La Boheme Poetry Psychology Religion Visual Art

All prophecies are fragile. They are subject to contradiction, to falsity. The false prophet, then, one might consider insane. But how does one interpret the language of prophecy? Is it a language of madness, of hidden truth, of images? Such questions are pertinent when discussing the works of visionary poet William Blake. His prophecies or visions informed his poetic style and language and invested them with a vigor, energy, and substance that reach far beyond the mere meaning or signification of language. He claimed to experience visions of the prophet Elijah (among other visions). So was Blake insane? Blake, certainly, suffered from some type of mental illness. His mood swings, his depressions, and his fervent, inspired productivity have been the subject of much debate. However, does mental illness necessarily detract from the value of his visionary poetry? Or does it contribute something to it? These questions cannot be answered adequately unless address the topic of mysticism as well. Blake was a follower of the esoteric religious doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The intersection of madness and mysticism is key to the understanding of Blake, if only because it demonstrates that this madness did not signify a necessary degeneration in the faculties of the mind, but rather a passionate commitment to the imagination, the spiritual, and the profound.

The question of madness and mysticism both were an early issue for Blake. Blake's father was an avid follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg who was a Swedish scientist and religious teacher. Swedenborg abandoned his studies of science in 1747 after claiming that he understood the inner nature of human beings (what he called the divine Word) after experiencing a vision in 1745. These visions reoccurred throughout his life as well as his supposed communications with angels. He published exegetical texts on Scripture in which he claimed he had received his interpretations from God himself. Swedenborg was a non-sectarian, however, and did not hold his teachings to be the property of any one faith. Swedenborg prophesied the emergence of a New Jerusalem on earth, which would signify the Second Coming. In essence, the kingdom of heaven would be on earth. Blake would maintain these beliefs throughout much of his life and would inspire his early verses such as "There Is No Natural Religion" and "All Religions Are One". Blake believed that whatever was divine in God must be divine in man.

At the same time Blake was learning of these doctrines as a boy, he began to experience visions and have communications with the angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, and various other figures from history and religious life. This sort of eccentric behavior would be indicative to his lifestyle and career. Blake was a controversial figure from the moment he ended his apprenticeship in engraving. He not only claimed to be a prophet and mystic, but he was a political radical as well. He had friendships with Thomas Paine, the famous pamphleteer of Common Sense and William Goodwin, a British anarchist who would go on to inspire Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Shelly. Blake's poetry was often politically motivated (such as his prophetic works on France and America) and mythic in proportions (The Book of Urizen and the Song of Los). His engravings were considered eccentric, untraditional, and thoroughly odd. These engravings accompanied most of his works as well as other poets of the day. Blake also provided engravings for classic texts such as Dante's Divine Comedy. Blake was an iconoclast to say the least.

He was not truly appreciated in his time. It was not until 1818 that he developed a few admirers: Romantic movement Blake inspired wrote after Blake's death: "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

Blake's poetry is dense and multi-layered and expresses the wide range of emotions and thoughts that passed through his brain. Some of the most revealing verses are the symmetrical poems in the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. It is here that mysticism and madness intersect most explicitly. The Songs of Innocence are Blake's placid reflections on the liberating power of the imagination: of dreams and ethereal visions. The Songs of Experience clearly lay out the necessity of the human, rather than the mystical, the visceral rather than the reasonable. As Blake writes in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."

The image of the angel and other religious symbols figure powerfully in Blake's poetry not only because of their mystical and religious significance as cultural symbols but also because many of Blake's visions were religious in nature. In the Songs of Innocence Blake's poem "The Divine Image" reflects upon the idealistic tones of his mysticism and what they mean for the future of humanity.

To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
(Blake, "The Divine Image", 111)

In this poem Blake attributes 4 divine characteristics to both God and man: mercy, pity, peace, and love. These divine attributes of God are reflections of what God finds in man (whom He has created), rather than vice versa. In line with Swedenborg's conception, the potential for realizing the divine is in man and does not require supernatural intercession. It only requires that man be in-tuned with the mystical powers he harbors within his own soul; those powers untouched by harsh experience and still connected to that which is Godly. It is no surprise, in light of Blake's own visionary experiences, that he would value this conception of the divine. In this sense, his madness could be explained away by being attributed to his own connection with the mystical power of his own human life. He is simply a free spirit capable of realizing them. Blake's religious philosophy, as expressed in this poem, is one of innocence, forgiveness, and love. But it more than an expression of Christian charity; it is a call for each individual to recognize the potential of their own creativity and imagination.

A very different portrayal of the spiritual is laid out in the Songs of Experience. In "The Angel", Blake communicates to the reader what has been communicated to him not only by the ethereal visitor of the poem but by the cruelty and baseness of life.

I Dreamt a Dream! what can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen:
Guarded by an Angel mild;
Witless woe, was ne'er beguil'd!

And I wept both night and day
And he wip'd my tears away
And I wept both day and night
And hid from him my hearts delight

So he took his wings and fled:
Then the morn blush'd rosy red:
I dried my tears & armd my fears,
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again:
I was arm'd, he came in vain:
For the time of yo
uth was fled
And grey hairs were on my head.
(Blake, 'The Angel', 124-5)

So who or what is the Angel? Could it be an overarching symbol for Blake's visionary experiences? And why so harsh? Why does the Angel flee and why does Blake arm himself anticipating his return? Clearly, the focus of the poem is the change that has undergone the narrator. In the first stanzas the narrator is young and insecure. "And hid from him my hearts delight" immediately precedes the Angel's flight for a specific reason in this sense. The "hearts delight" is withheld from the Angel due to pride; with the accumulation of experience the Angel is no longer needed as a crutch. The narrator ceases crying and has "armd my fears". However, upon the Angels return the narrator has realized that pride has only succeeded in feeding the fear that once seemed so unbearable. The Angels return was not to help and protect our narrator, but to prepare this "maiden Queen" for death.
Originally this poem was intended be an allegory on chastity (Blake, p. 155 & 887n.) and the cycle of birth and death becomes even more interesting in terms of sexuality. Blake, who advocated free love, saw any attempt to repress human sensuality as disingenuous. In this case the Angel is the lover our maiden Queen refuses. She hides her own desires and squashes them, and the Angel's return, at death, is wasted since she is dying. Life should not be the process of repressing the living desires of humankind, but liberating them. Spirituality (the Angel) should liberate the senses so that our physical bodies can experience the infinite. Mysticism, then, separates itself from the repressive instinct of religion. Mysticism is in touch with all of humankind, not simply the spiritual but the physical. Blake's mystical beliefs tie up the beauty of the divine with the beauty of the embodied. Experience when coupled with imagination (or innocence) allows us to experience the totality of existence; both are necessary in order to complete and understand the other. Thus, insanity was never an issue for Blake since, in his mind, it was perfectly reasonable to experience the divine through sensual, embodied perception.

These themes are elaborated upon greatly in sections of Blake's prose poem "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell". Blake, in this masterful work, explodes common conceptions of the role of religion and God in the life of human beings. In some ways, it draws out what is implied in the structure of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake's goal, in these sets of verse, was to express the dual side of man's nature in order to disclose the infinite within them. In this work, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", Blake champions the infinite in man, in the face of the dogmatic discourses of religion and science. In this passage Blake recounts a communication with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel.

"Isaiah answer'd. I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm'd; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.

Then I asked: does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?

He replied. All poets believe it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything." (Blake, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", 186)

Notice that even without seeing God, Isaiah sees the infinite in "every thing", and is still persuaded of God's calling to him. The power of this persuasion, Isaiah admits, may be imaginary, but he did not think of the consequences of being seen a madman. He simply wrote what he knew. The power of conviction and persuasion overcame all obstacles that might have halted his spiritual growth. The experience of the mystical transcends any kind of categorical boundary of madness or sanity, or even truth or falsity. The divine is what we believe to be divine and are persuaded of; and once we have been persuaded, part of mystical experience and spiritual growth is conviction. So why is such mystical devotion taken to be delusion? Blake claims he saw Elijah, someone claims they hear the voice of God and their resolve cannot be shaken: how does one know this is not true? Does the body deceive the imagination; or does it merely seduce the soul due to some defect?

"But first the notion that man has a body distinct from the soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. [Note: Blake is referring to his practice as an engraver. Rather than carving his designs out with a chisel, he would use corrosive chemicals such as acids, dripping them onto the wood or metal "canvas" he used, into the design desired and the proceed to color them in]

If the doors of perception are cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern." (Blake, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", 188)

Indeed, the above passage implies, we are deceived. But we have deceived ourselves. And Blake sees it as his task as a poet and engraver to uncover what we have hidden from ourselves the infinite. Blake's temperament, his mood swings, his visions, were not so much, as Wordsworth states, a symptom of madness but rather, as Blake seems to assert, his sensitivity to the mystical underpinnings of life. So is Blake mad? I'm not sure this is a useful question given the blurred line between madness and the mystical in Blake's life and poetry. Rather, the question should be, what can Blake's supposed madness teach us?

*All Page numbers refer to: Blake, William; THE COMPLETE POEMS Edited by Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Books, 1977.

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