William Blake: a visionary for our time

About the author
Christopher Rowland is professor of the exegesis of holy scripture in the faculty of theology, University of Oxford. His research interests include the interpretation of the New Testament, the apocalyptic tradition in ancient Judaism and Christianity, the theology of liberation, and the the biblical hermeneutics of William Blake.

William Blake, who was born in London on 28 November 1757, was an engraver who lived in obscurity for most of his life, occasionally getting important commissions but more often than not able to secure only a frugal existence for himself and his wife, Catherine. Yet today, his artistic and poetic works have achieved a central place in British (and especially English) culture. The opening words of one of his longer poems, Milton, have become widely known as Jerusalem and gradually adopted as an unofficial English national anthem. As with so much else in his writings, these verses are full of biblical themes - "chariot of fire" and "building Jerusalem" - which, however, Blake uses in his own way. The words stress the importance of people taking responsibility for change and building a better society "in England's green and pleasant land".

Christopher Rowland is professor of the exegesis of holy scripture in the faculty of theology, University of Oxford.

His research interests include the interpretation of the New Testament, the apocalyptic tradition in ancient Judaism and Christianity, the theology of liberation, and the biblical hermeneutics of William Blake.

William Blake was a visionary (but not a dreamer), aware of the realities and complexities of experience, particularly the poverty and oppression of the urban world where he spent most of his life. He had an amazing insight into contemporary economics, politics and culture, and was able to discern the effects of the authoritarianism of church and state as well as what he considered the arid philosophy of a rationalist view of the world which left little scope for the imagination. His critique was carried out by means of the language of the Bible, his own specially created mythology and the extraordinary juxtaposition of text and image in his illuminated books, by means of which he intended (as he put it) to "rouze the Faculties to act".

He abhorred the way in which Christians looked up to a God enthroned in heaven, a view which offered a model for a hierarchical human politics, which subordinated the majority to a (supposedly) superior elite. He also criticised the dominant philosophy of his day which believed that a narrow view of sense experience could help us to understand everything that there was to be known, including God. Blake's own visionary experiences showed him that rationalism ignored important dimensions of human life which would enable people to hope, to look for change, and to rely on more than that which their senses told them.

The social imaginary

William Blake died in 1827, before the reform of parliament that began with the first great act of 1832, and he was never involved in politics or the direct protest or campaigning of his day. Yet what he wrote, and the ways in which he produced it, are testimony to an impressive intellectual achievement whose effects match anything produced by more openly political writers. His work has enabled ordinary people to recognise the mental and as well as the economic chains which bind them. He sought to affirm the importance of every member of society in the struggle for community and human betterment.

"Would to God that all the Lord's people were prophets", he wrote, thereby including everyone in the task of speaking out about what they saw. Prophecy for Blake, however, was not a prediction of the end of the world, but telling the truth as best a person can about what he or she sees, fortified by insight and an "honest persuasion" that with personal struggle, things could be improved. A human being observes, is indignant and speaks out: it's a basic political maxim which is necessary for any age. Blake wanted to stir people from their intellectual slumbers, and the daily grind of their toil, to see that they were captivated in the grip of a culture which kept them thinking in ways which served the interests of the powerful.

The beautiful little poems which make up Songs of Innocence and Experience contain some of Blake's most profound political insights in the deceptively simple verses. Three poems, one entitled London, the other two a contrasting pair entitled Holy Thursday, exemplify the way in which Blake engaged his politics. He didn't do this by grand pronouncements but by attention to what he termed "minute particulars".

In London he imagines himself like the biblical prophet Ezekiel, walking round the streets of Jerusalem and seeing people disfigured with "marks of weakness and marks of woe", as a result of poverty, injustice, hypocritical social convention and the stranglehold of emerging capitalism. He observed what he called the "mind forg'd manacles" of cultural conformity which stopped people reaching their potential.

In the two Holy Thursday poems Blake offers contrasting perspectives on the social situation in England. On the one hand, the poet describes a festive event in St Paul's cathedral, in which children who are recipients of charity come to thank God. On the other, there is a hard-hitting critique of what it's actually like for most children, in "this green and pleasant land", with "Babes reduc'd to misery. Fed with cold and usurous hand". The Holy Thursday poems offer readers the opportunity to meditate upon late 18th-century England through the lens of a particular social event. Here is an example of the focus on the "minute particular", when one event opens up a different perspective on the reality of a wider context.

The divine vision

Blake's vision was holistic. He criticised the way in which people (especially those of a religious bent) separated sacred and profane, instead of seeing each person as the place where these massive emotional and political forces were in tension. He insisted in his most outspoken work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that "everything that lives is holy". So, he challenged that view that there was anything special about the Bible, or a religious building, as compared with other literature, or other places, which could equally manifest the divine. His lifework was dedicated to exposing the extent to which infatuation with habits of thought, which sunder and demonise, prevent human flourishing.

Blake was indignant about those elements in the Bible which inspired, and had been used to condone, injustice. He didn't attempt to make the Bible internally consistent, or benevolent. He challenged its depiction of God as a remote monarch and lawgiver, and the use made of such imagery to justify authoritarianism. He saw the Bible being used as a means of keeping people in their places. So, subservience to what had been believed and done in the past ended up giving power to those who were responsible for knowing and transmitting these ideas, thereby eclipsing creativity and imagination.

Blake's vision was very different from those who appealed to the past, or to a sacred text. He was concerned with what human beings, created in the divine image, may be saying now, or struggling to articulate, as they moved forward in their lives. The Bible was not to be a kind of holy rule-book, therefore, according to which priests and rulers could police people, but a collection of "sentiments and examples" which engaged the imagination.

There was to be no contracting out of responsibility for biblical interpretation to priests and scholars. All people, inside and outside the churches, according to Blake, have the responsibility to attend to the energetic activity of the divine spirit in creation, in history, and in human experience. He wouldn't have wanted his words to become a sacred text, any more than the words of the Bible, but an ongoing stimulus to politics and religion in the struggle to realise that (as he puts it in Jerusalem) "every kindness to another is a little Death In the Divine Image nor can Man exist but by Brotherhood"