Blake as a Mystic

William Blake in youth and age. George Richmond. Yale Center for British Art.
William Blake in youth and age. George Richmond. Yale Center for British Art.

I’ve been invited to contribute to a panel entitled Mysticism in the Works of Blake at the Bradford Literature festival in just over a week’s time, and as such I’ve recently been thinking about Blake as a mystic.

The link to mysticism is a well-established one: W. B. Yeats in “William Blake and the Imagination” (included in Ideas of Good and Evil in 1903) argued that he was influenced by Christian mystics such as Jacob Boehme and the alchemists (the former undoubtedly true, though the latter may more questionable although in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he does reference the ideas of Paracelsus favourably). Yeats concludes: “If ‘Enitharmon’ had been named Freia, or Gwydeon, or Danu, and made live in Ancient Norway, or Ancient Wales, or Ancient Ireland, we would have forgotten that her maker was a mystic”. It’s also worth pointing out that Yeats finds a great deal of mysticism in other poets, such as Shelley, who might have been a little surprised to find themselves in such un-scientific company.

On a popular level, the answer to the question of whether Blake was a mystic is obvious. The BBC called him “An everyman’s mystic“, the poetry site poemhunter.com categorises him as “British poet, painter, mystic” while Wikipedia adds “engraver” to the list, and one of the most popular Facebook sites is similarly entitled “William Blake: Poet, Artist, Mystic“. There are countless other blog posts, tweets and occasional pieces that invoke Blake as a mystic, so why on earth would anyone disagree? This, after all, is the man who saw a world in a grain of sand.

Scholars such as myself like to complicate things, however. Josephine McQuail, in a paper entitled “Passion and Mysticism in William Blake” (2000), offers a good summary of writers who thought Blake was a mystic, including Jacomina Kortelling (1966), who referred to him as a “painter-poet-mystic”, and Kathleen Raine (1968), who placed him in a long line of neoplatonic mystics, as well as those who baulked at the term, such as Robert Zaehner (1961) who preferred to call him a “seer” rather than a mystic and Pierre Berger (1914) who thought of him as a prophet in a book rather confusingly translated as William Blake, poet and mystic. Others such as Adeline Butterworth published a study entitled William Blake, Mystic in 1974, but I must admit that I was profoundly influenced by Northrop Frye’s following comments in a final “General Note: Blake’s Mysticism” in Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947):

The word mystic has never brought anything but confusion into the study of William Blake, and, in my anxiety to prevent it from cluttering up this book, I have begun by conceding, as a sort of opening gambit, the conventional mystic’s attitude to the artist as the imperfect mystic who cannot wholly detach himself from the sensible world. But it does not follow that I am willing to let the conventional mystic remain in possession of the field. (415, 1969 edition)

This is not Frye’s final word. His conclusion offers a concession of sorts:

If mysticism means primarily a contemplative quietism, mysticism is something abhorrent to Blake, a Selfhood communing in Ulro; if it means primarily a spiritual illumination expressing itself in a practical and (in spite of its psychological subtlety) unspeculative piety, such as we find in the militant monasticism of the Counter-Reformation, the word still does not fit him. But if mysticism means primarily the vision of the prodigious and unthinkable metamorphosis of the human mind just described [in Fearful Symmetry], then Blake is one of those mystics. (416)

It should also be pointed out that, some of the time at least, Frye was perhaps as much responding to figures such as Madame Blavatsky (of whom he wrote a marginal note that for her the “essence of religion [is] not the Poetic Genius but a doctrine” – cited in Robert Denham’s Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, 327) rather than Boehme, Eckhart or the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s hard to think of these figures as abhorrent to Blake, for all that he may not have agreed with them all of the time – but then, he often found much to contend with in Milton’s poetry, and in any case Frye offers some skepticism in his General Note whether Eckhart and Boehme can even be considered as mystics.

What, then, of my own thoughts on Blake as a mystic? One problem I have with the term is around it’s origins in muo, the Greek word meaning “to conceal”, which referred to the secret initiations and rites of certain Hellenistic religions, or mysteries. Blake never uses the term mysticism – which by no means disqualifies him from being a mystic. He does, however, use the word mystery several times, whether to refer to the “accursed Tree of MYSTERY” (The Book of Ahania, E87), to “Mystery the Virgin Harlot Mother of War” (Milton, E117), or “Mystery Babylon the Great: the Abomination of Desolation” (Jerusalem, E231). It’s fair to say that Blake is not a fan of mystery. There is one, positive mention of the word in A Vision of the Last Judgement, where he says that Greek fables “originated in Spiritual Mystery & Real Vision” (E555), but aside from this the very idea of mystery seems to make Blake’s blood boil.

Mystery is not the same as mysticism, and yet… and yet… A significant problem for me is the “occult” nature that can pertain to a great deal of mysticism, one that has many of its roots in Platonic philosophies and Hellenistic mystery relgions. Blake could be attracted to these from time to time, and yet there was always something that held him back. His imagination and Poetic Genius allowed him very much to see this world in a grain of sand, rather than the ineffable, unimaginable (and here I disagree with Frye’s use of the word “unthinkable”) transcendental world of forms lying behind that of concrete, minute particulars.

On a personal level, then, I have considerable problems thinking of Blake as a mystic. That is not to say that the popular conception is intrinsically wrong: Frye’s threefold definition of mysticism (contemplative quietist, practical pietist, or prodigious and unthinkable transformer – the last of which he does apply to Blake) is far from the last word on mysticism and I have barely given enough time here to consider all the definitions of it that could apply. Historically, I also think that the term mysticism has been useful to the reception of Blake – it was a means for Yeats and others to overcome the label of “mad” Blake which prevented any meaningful discussion of his poetry and art. By Frye’s time, however, mysticism could be seen as another label that prevented further engagement – Frye wished to point out that Blake is a profound and incisive, if often difficult, thinker, something which mysticism could be used to avoid dealing with. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake corrects one of what he sees as common errors of the Bible with the observation that: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age”. It would be easy to portray this as mystical, but in fact it is profoundly (in a wonderfully weird, Blakean way) material, or, if you’re not willing to concede that word to Blake, sensuous: the artist, after all, is the mystic who will not wholly detach himself from the sensible world, because that’s where we find our soul.

The panel discussion, Mysticism in the Works of Blake, will take place at the Bradford Literature Festival on 29 May, 2016, 11.00 am – 12.15 pm.

 

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