William Blake and Religion: A New Critical View. Magnus Ankarsjö
Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland and Company, 2009. pp. 163. $39.95. ISBN: 978 0 7864 4559 2.
The second book by Ankarsjö to be published by McFarland, William Blake and Religion shares some themes with his earlier title, William Blake and Gender (2006) in that one of the aims of this book is to take recent discoveries about the religious background of Blake’s family and explore these in relation to his views on sexuality. Most important for Ankarsjö’s ideas is the work undertaken by Marsha Keith Schuchard in Why Mrs Blake Cried (2006) and various essays by Keri Davies that have uncovered links between Blake’s mother and the Moravian church. The Moravians, a religious group that had its roots in the followers of John Hus in fifteenth century Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), experienced a religious revival in the eighteenth century under the charismatic leadership of Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf during which period they encouraged greater equality between the sexes in comparison to most religious movements of the time, and established a small but devoted church. In addition to the research of Schuchard and Davies (to which may be added Robert Rix’s re-evaluation of Blake’s relations to the various religious sects of his day in William Blake and the Cultures of Radical Christianity, 2007), the most important figures to William Blake and Religion are David Worrall, who cast fresh light into the activities undertaken by Swedenborgians at the end of the eighteenth century, and Helen Bruder because of her re-evaluation of Blake and gender studies in her extremely influential and important book, William Blake and the Daughters of Albion (1997).
Ankarsjö sets out these foundational figures in his introduction, as well as providing a brief detour via one dead end of Blake studies that occasionally rears its head (though not with academics working in the field), the late E.P. Thompson’s assertion that Blake was a Muggletonian in his 1993 book, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Dealing with Thompson briskly, Ankarsjö’s task is to focus instead on the effect that newly discovered materials relating to Moravianism will have on our understanding of Blake. As such, with particular emphasis on both religion and sexuality, William Blake and Religion is probably one of the first of what is likely to be a growing number of texts that will explore the intersection between Blake and the Moravian Church. In addition, in his first and best chapter, Ankarsjö also pays attention to the continuing influence of Swedenborgianism, the teachings and church established by the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg who claimed constant and visionary experiences of the spiritual world, throughout the 1790s (which many – though by no means all – of Blake scholars assume the artist had turned his back on after publication of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), as well as a more prickly relationship with Unitarianism, which influenced a number of his contemporaries that Blake would have encountered via the circle gathered around the publisher Joseph Johnson. Ankarsjö is clear and convincing when outlining these religious contexts, and makes some extremely interesting and relevant observations, for example in his repetition of Keri Davies’s comment at the Blake 250 conference in 2007 that the position of Moravianism as neither dissenting from, nor wholly within, the mainstream Anglican church means that we shall probably have to revise many oft-repeated (and dearly held) assumptions about the dissenting radicalism of Blake’s background.
This chapter is by far and away the best in the book, but some problems emerge when dealing with the next two chapters, “Blake’s Religion” and “Blake’s Sexuality”. Part of the difficulty emerges with the step that sometimes appears to be made once the Moravianism of Blake’s background is recognised: it seems very clear that Blake’s mother was a Moravian, and also that Blake’s parents attended a Moravian church. As such, it is extremely probable that Blake grew up in a household that was infused with Moravian values. However, to follow this to the conclusion that Blake himself was a Moravian, or strongly influenced by Moravian ideas, is much more problematic. Keri Davies is always careful when drawing such conclusions – much more so than Schuchard, in my opinion – but Ankarsjö to me appears to dither and this sometimes creates problems with understanding entirely what the relationship with Moravianism brings. Some sections, for example when dealing with notions of conjugal (or conjugial, in Swedenborg’s phrase) love appear to be very profitable when explaining Blake’s own attitudes towards religion, but the chapter “Blake’s Religion” as a whole ends up somewhat confusing: it is hard, in the end, to pin down what Blake’s religion was. This is due to two reasons, one of which I think is a fault with Ankarsjö approach to his subject, one of which is much more general.
First of all, Ankarsjö tends to cherry-pick texts, looking for ones that may reinforce his approach to Moravianism in particular but also that Blake continued to look towards Swedenborgianism. This, for me, is extremely unsatisfactory because some of Blake’s most profound and extensive documents dealing with religion, such as the late epic Jerusalem or The Everlasting Gospel, offer complexities which could easily deny the more straightforward application of Ankarsjö’s thesis. This leads to the more general point: few other English writers (or, indeed, artists) spent more time than Blake in dealing with the topic of religion and the divine, but any attempt to pin down Blake in terms of a particular sect appears to me doomed to failure because of the idiosyncracies of Blake’s spiritual vision, his fairly consistent refusal to participate in a church (unless, perhaps, it is because as Keri Davies has suggested the Anglican Church was, in the end, broad enough to encompass his vision). I emphasise here the idiosyncracy of Blake’s religious views rather than the Romantic “eccentricity” which Ankarsjö rightly dismisses in his introduction: Blake was a deep and profound thinker on religious topics, not least in that he perceived the fundamental problems of attempting to fix experiences of the divine within human structures, systems against which he always struggled. In the end, my problem with this part of William Blake and Religion results from a degree of confusion as to whether Ankarsjö is proposing what we may call a “strong” theory of Blake and Moravianism, where that religion helps to explain more or less completely the framework of Blake’s belief – the evidence for which I find rather hard to accept; or whether he is working towards a “weak” theory, in which Blake’s Moravian background predisposes him towards a number of tenets and attitudes, for example with regard to ecumenicism and sexual love, which – by contrast – does appear extremely enlightening for me.
Although I found myself somewhat confused as to Ankarsjö’s aims in the chapter on Blake’s religion, a more serious flaw is to be encountered in his chapter on Blake’s sexuality. Before turning to this flaw, it is right to remark on where Ankarsjö’s comments are illuminating, for example in reinforcing the attitudes towards “free love” that were developing both among Blake’s radical associates of the eighteenth century and “conjugal love” that existed in the Moravian Church and Swedenborgianism.William Blake and Religion has much to say that is useful in this regard, although again the tendency to jump between different Blakean texts can be confusing. However, where the flaw exists is that Ankarsjö’s apparent desire to claim Blake as a proto-feminist can be rather unsophisticated and extremely problematic. The repeated assertions by Anne Mellor as to Blake’s intrinsic sexism is a coarse and unhelpful position, one which Helen Bruder in particular has treated to appropriate criticism (and which has also been aided by more work by scholars such as Davies into Blake’s early female collectors). However, Bruder maintains a healthily caustic attitude to Blake’s sexual politics which seems largely to vanish in William Blake and Religion. Ankarsjö’s desire to read white where others read black leads him, in my opinion, into some rather bizarre interpretations.
For example, in a comment that actually appears in the chapter “Blake’s Religion”, Ankarsjö makes the following observation of Blake’s comment in his description of the painting “The Last Judgement” that “There is no such thing in Eternity as a Female Will”:
First, it has to be pointed out that Blake here is strictly following the creation myth from Genesis, which clearly was in line with his increasing interest in the Bible and traditional Christianity at this point in time. In Genesis, as we know, woman was created from a body part of man in order to be his life companion. If we, as Blake, follow the analogy through to the other extreme, as it were, then man and woman are reunited and are as one. Hence, as much as man has no will of his own in eternity, neither has woman. Quite simply, separate and individual wills do not exist. (p.66)
To place Blake’s thought in a biblical tradition is perfectly correct, and it may also be right that Blake did not believe in the existence of separate female or male wills (and Ankarsjö’s remarks on the role of the Spectre in Blake’s writings as a ravenous, separate male will are also appropriate here). However, there remains a problem for me in Blake’s remark that the rush to embrace him as a proto-feminist fails to encompass sufficiently: even if Blake does not believe in a separate male will in eternity, he offers no denunciation of it that is comparable to his denunciation of the female. The rejection of a separate male will remains, unfortunately, implicit throughout too much of his writing, while the renunciation of female will is, equally unfortunately, far too explicit at times. More simply, Blake may not be a sexist, but sometimes his rhetoric comes very close to reinforcing sexist stereotypes; there are blind spots which we should not neglect. As such, like Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, I am less keen to smooth over some of the sexual ambiguities in Blake’s works while accepting, like those critics and Ankarsjö himself that denunciations of “sexist” Blake have been based on rather crude interpretations of the sexual politics of his poetry.
Ankarsjö’s final chapter, on “Blake’s Utopian ‘Colony'” offers an interesting discussion of slavery that owes much to the work of David Worrall. Ankarsjö’s contribution is to offer a critical reading of some of Worrall’s arguments, in particular the almost entirely negative interpretation of the proposed Swedenborgian colony in Sierre Leone in terms of its gender equality, so that Ankarsjö discovers more sympathy to proto-feminist arguments among the Swedenborgians than Worrall does – though in the end he agrees that it was a largely patriarchal exercise. In addition, he offers some significant comments on similar utopian colonies from the time, such as those by Unitarians. Where the chapter is on more shaky ground is in assuming that the conference attended by Blake in 1789, and where a colony in Sierre Leone would have been under discussion, still continues to influence Blake’s work on his final epics, Milton and Jerusalem after 1808; indeed, the chapter ends unsatisfactorily with a rather cursory pointer towards Blake’s attitudes on slavery that would surely have benefited from contextualisation in the evangelical fervour surrounding the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
William Blake and Religion offers some valuable contributions and summaries of contemporary arguments surrounding Blake’s Moravian background. When discussing the interrelation of Moravianism with Swedenborgianism and even Unitarianism, it is clear and eminently useful as a guide. The book is more confused, unfortunately, as to offering an account of Blake’s religion, probably because it strives a little too hard to map out the influence of Moravianism throughout Blake’s work which, in my opinion, tends to distort sometimes what Blake had to say on the subject. In the light of current research it is clear that Blake must have been marked by Moravianism – and yet the implied move to read Blake as a Moravian appears unsatisfactory at times in discussing Blake’s own thoughts on religion and the divine.