“The Poet and the Flea” focuses on Blake’s struggle with the monstrous creature known as “The Ghost of a Flea”—an allusion, perhaps, to the idea that human souls sometimes resided in fleas as a punishment for past lives.
This extract introduces the French philosopher Voltaire, who acts as Virgil to Blake’s Dante in a conversation that’s captured in the poem “Mock on, Mock on.” Voltaire hopes that his advice will help Blake to face his ghosts.
“Mock on, Mock on” examines the tensions between spirit and reason—as exemplified by Voltaire, Rousseau, Newton and the Greek philosopher Democritus. In Blake’s view, scientists who see the world as a giant machine are throwing theories, like so many “handfuls of sand,” at the mysteries of creation, which simply blow them back again. Were they to look more deeply at a single grain, they would discover a gem that reveals the “gleam divine.”
But Blake wasn’t being simplistic in his critique. He recognized that thought and faith, art and science, are important to personal development and social change, especially when conjoined. That process of integration provides a pathway to deep-rooted transformation.
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