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Madness and Mysticism in the Poetry of William Blake WEB 2003

Madness and Mysticism in the Poetry of William Blake WEB 2003

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Madness and Mysticism in the Poetry of William Blake (http://www.litkicks.com/Blake#.

UZC0yUqnHz8) By Matthew Landis on Monday, July 21, 2003 01:43 pm 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.

pity. 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. And all must love the human form. That prays in his distress. . a human face: And Love. rather than the mystical. "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction. All pray in their distress: And to these virtues of delight Return their thankfulness." Blake's poetry is dense and multi-layered and expresses the wide range of emotions and thoughts that passed through his brain. And Peace the human dress. Love & Pity dwell There God is dwelling too. The Songs of Experience clearly lay out the necessity of the human. Prays to the human form divine Love Mercy Pity Peace. Is God our father dear: And Mercy Pity Peace and Love. As Blake writes in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell". Where Mercy. 111) In this poem Blake attributes 4 divine characteristics to both God and man: mercy. The Songs of Innocence are Blake's placid reflections on the liberating power of the imagination: of dreams and ethereal visions. but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott. the human form divine. For Mercy Pity Peace and Love." 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. the visceral rather than the reasonable. "The Divine Image". peace. (Blake. turk or jew. To Mercy Pity Peace and Love.He was not truly appreciated in his time. Is Man his child and care. Some of the most revealing verses are the symmetrical poems in the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. Then every man of every clime. 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. For Mercy has a human heart Pity. It is here that mysticism and madness intersect most explicitly. In heathen.

The "hearts delight" is withheld from the Angel due to pride. In "The Angel". 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. These divine attributes of God are reflections of what God finds in man (whom He has created). those powers untouched by harsh experience and still connected to that which is Godly. "And hid from him my hearts delight" immediately precedes the Angel's flight for a specific reason in this sense. I Dreamt a Dream! what can it mean? And that I was a maiden Queen: Guarded by an Angel mild. A very different portrayal of the spiritual is laid out in the Songs of Experience. but to prepare this "maiden Queen" for death. It only requires that man be in-tuned with the mystical powers he harbors within his own soul. and love. upon the Angels return the narrator has realized that pride has only succeeded in feeding the fear that once seemed so unbearable. Witless woe. as expressed in this poem. But it more than an expression of Christian charity. rather than vice versa. 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.and love. It is no surprise. (Blake. it is a call for each individual to recognize the potential of their own creativity and imagination. the focus of the poem is the change that has undergone the narrator. . 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. Soon my Angel came again: I was arm'd. In line with Swedenborg's conception. with the accumulation of experience the Angel is no longer needed as a crutch. is one of innocence. 'The Angel'. the potential for realizing the divine is in man and does not require supernatural intercession. He is simply a free spirit capable of realizing them. in light of Blake's own visionary experiences. However. With ten thousand shields and spears. forgiveness. that he would value this conception of the divine. Blake's religious philosophy. In the first stanzas the narrator is young and insecure. The narrator ceases crying and has "armd my fears". he came in vain: For the time of yo uth was fled And grey hairs were on my head. The Angels return was not to help and protect our narrator. 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.

was to express the dual side of man's nature in order to disclose the infinite within them. that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God. it draws out what is implied in the structure of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. is wasted since she is dying. & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains. nor heard any. Blake's mystical beliefs tie up the beauty of the divine with the beauty of the embodied. separates itself from the repressive instinct of religion. explodes common conceptions of the role of religion and God in the life of human beings. saw any attempt to repress human sensuality as disingenuous. insanity was never an issue for Blake since. Blake. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell". it was perfectly reasonable to experience the divine through sensual. Mysticism. The power of this persuasion. These themes are elaborated upon greatly in sections of Blake's prose poem "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell". Life should not be the process of repressing the living desires of humankind. In this work. may be imaginary. but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything. 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. Blake's goal. Isaiah admits.Originally this poem was intended be an allegory on chastity (Blake. not simply the spiritual but the physical. and displaying the infinite which was hid. Spirituality (the Angel) should liberate the senses so that our physical bodies can experience the infinite. 155 & 887n. and is still persuaded of God's calling to him. He simply wrote what he knew. in a finite organical perception. and the Angel's return. 186) Notice that even without seeing God. or even truth or falsity. I cared not for consequences but wrote. Then I asked: does a firm perswasion that a thing is so. She hides her own desires and squashes them. I saw no God. by corrosives. by printing in the infernal method. Mysticism is in touch with all of humankind. part of mystical experience and spiritual growth is conviction. In some ways. who advocated free love. Thus. The power of conviction and persuasion overcame all obstacles that might have halted his spiritual growth. in this masterful work. Experience when coupled with imagination (or innocence) allows us to experience the totality of existence. "Isaiah answer'd. in these sets of verse. 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.) and the cycle of birth and death becomes even more interesting in terms of sexuality. and once we have been persuaded. but he did not think of the consequences of being seen a madman. All poets believe it does. at death. Blake. The divine is what we believe to be divine and are persuaded of. In this passage Blake recounts a communication with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. this I shall do. Blake champions the infinite in man. in his mind. In this case the Angel is the lover our maiden Queen refuses." (Blake. then. & remain confirm'd. make it so? He replied. melting apparent surfaces away. both are necessary in order to complete and understand the other. and as I was then perswaded. Isaiah sees the infinite in "every thing". embodied perception. [Note: Blake is . The experience of the mystical transcends any kind of categorical boundary of madness or sanity. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell". but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing. which in Hell are salutary and medicinal. but liberating them. p. in the face of the dogmatic discourses of religion and science. So why is such mystical devotion taken to be delusion? Blake claims he saw Elijah.

his visions. the question should be. 188) Indeed. 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. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell".referring to his practice as an engraver. were not so much. Rather. 1977. Blake's temperament. the above passage implies. we are deceived. 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. a symptom of madness but rather. his mood swings. London: Penguin Books. what can Blake's supposed madness teach us? *All Page numbers refer to: Blake." (Blake. William. And Blake sees it as his task as a poet and engraver to uncover what we have hidden from ourselves the infinite. his sensitivity to the mystical underpinnings of life. he would use corrosive chemicals such as acids. But we have deceived ourselves. For man has closed himself up. till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern. as Blake seems to assert. dripping them onto the wood or metal "canvas" he used. infinite. . Rather than carving his designs out with a chisel. as Wordsworth states. THE COMPLETE POEMS Edited by Alicia Ostriker.

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