The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye claimed in 1951 that among the most ‘foolish’ ideas that had emerged about the visionary poet and artist William Blake, ‘The notion that he was an automatic writer is perhaps the most absurd.’ This imposition resulted, he argued, from literary students reading Blake’s words stripped from their original home, shorn of their artistic grounding. The dynamic between word and image, Frye believed, told a greater story, one closer to the intention of their creator. The association with occult technique apparently represented an ill-informed denigration of Blake’s creative integrity for the critic.
In some respects, Frye is right about automatic writing. The term itself was not in use during Blake’s time, emerging in the mid-nineteenth century in response to the practices of Modern Spiritualists. I also imagine that if Blake had been accused of being an automatic writer, he would have rejected it outright, the implication that he was simply an automaton unpalatable to him. Divine discourse, after all, was centred on spiritual empowerment, and Blake’s work was in part the fruit of his spirituality. By brushing it aside, Frye missed a powerful trick in understanding Blake’s work, however, one that places his creativity in a deeply ritual light.
Blake was an important practitioner in a trajectory of people who undertook mark-making in a ritual context; a liminography in which a chasm is temporarily created by rupturing the functions of writer and author. By relinquishing authorship, writers and artists used a ritual mechanism through which to manifest and articulate an individualised spiritual authority. In other words, this ritual paradox of authorship and authority facilitated an ability to democratise access to a power usually tied up in the hierarchies of Church and State. The creative work of practitioners was a personal sacrament to the divine communication.
Blake may not have been down with the discourse of automatism, but as will be shown he intimately understood the spiritual practice of writing and drawing, and would have recognised it in spiritualists and occultists, whatever terminology was employed. Indeed, liminography stretched from the late eighteenth century right through to the automatic writers of the fin de siècle, and beyond, and Blake’s role in this emergent tradition was vital. Placing him in this tradition is the intention here.
The scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had several encounters with Jesus Christ, including one when JC gave some unsolicited dietary advice to him in a pub in Clerkenwell. Thereafter he dedicated his life to elucidating the spiritual meaning of the Bible and paving the way for the New Jerusalem Church of Revelations, peppered of course with regular visits to the spiritual spheres to chinwag with their inhabitants. While he preferred to write up with a straight and rational head, he observed several forms of spiritual writing when journeying through the spheres, and experimented with relinquishing authorship.
Occasionally writings simply manifested, ‘There have sometimes been sent to me papers covered in writing; some of which are exactly like papers written by hand, and others like papers that had been printed in the world.’ Modern Spiritualists call this ‘psychography’. He also noted in his Spiritual Diary that spirits of the dead ‘could communicate their thoughts by words through another man, and even by letters […] and if they were permitted, they could write in their own peculiar style’. Ever the empiricist, he gave it a whirl:
I was ignorant of the series of things until after they were written; but this only in very rare instances, and only for the sake of informing us that revelations are made in this manner. Those paper [thus written] were therefore destroyed, because God Messiah was unwilling that it should be so done.
What emerged from his writings was a spiritual worldview that included the dispensation of a divine discourse inaugurating a new spiritual age, but which was centred around the question of permission and authority. His experiences became a blueprint for liminographers.
In the years after the mystic’s death, Swedenborgianism began to take shape in the religious landscape of Britain. On the one hand, there was those like Robert Hindmarsh (1759-1835) who took the mystic’s pronouncement of a New Church literally, and established a sect. For them, Swedenborg’s spiritual authority lay in his writings and the litany of the sect. On the other, however, were the mystically-inclined readers of his works. They believed the New Church would emerge from individuals and gradually transform existing institutions. Divine discourse, exemplified by Swedenborg’s experiences, was evidence of this progression. As such, they saw themselves as the medium of spiritual authority, not any sect or church.
Among the latter group was John Clowes (1734-1831), the Anglican rector of St John’s Church, Manchester, who was first introduced to Swedenborg’s work in 1773. According to his biographer, several days after reading True Christian Religion (1771) he was ‘powerfully drawn into a state of inward recollection’ and, ‘whilst he lay musing on this strange, and to him most delightful harmony in the interiors of his mind, instantly there was made manifest, in the same recesses of his spirit, what he can call by no other name than a divine glory’. He thereafter took up Swedenborgianism, but remained an Anglican.
Clowes argued vehemently against the establishment of the sect. After all, his own experience apparently proved the progressive nature of the mystic’s New Church, with himself an example of how the old Church would be transformed. He existed in a liminal space between the sect and Church, inferring both but being neither. In 1799, he wrote a letter to Robert Hindmarsh:
there was observed during almost the whole time of writing a sensible dictate from Spirits at my first waking in the morning, attended with inexpressible delight, and exciting by their presence such a holy awe […] This I have frequently expressed in the writing of sermons, many of which have thus been dictated throughout by spirits.
One of the first recorded examples of Swedenborgian liminography, Clowes’s ritual was attuned to the progressive New Church, so far as through the writing of sermons he was inaugurating an inner transformation within the Anglican church itself. As such, it subverted the institutional medium of spiritual authority, in favour of the power of direct Authorship.
Blake’s relationship with Swedenborgianism has been a continuing debate. A couple of points, however, are clear. Firstly, he owned and annotated several of Swedenborg’s works. Secondly, he and his wife Catherine attended the inaugural conference of the New Church sect. He later told his friend Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867) that he regarded Swedenborg as a ‘divine teacher’, but as his first biographer noted, ‘he hardly became a proselyte or “Swedenborgian” proper.’ At the very least though, he apparently did agree with Clowes. A clue to his feelings about the sect can be gleaned from an annotation in Divine Love of Angels, ‘the Whole of the New Church is in the Active Life & not in Ceremonies at all,’ and elsewhere he disapprovingly underlined a person who ‘adheres to a sect.’
One aspect that Blake and Swedenborg did share was divine discourse. Robinson recorded a conversation in which the poet stated that he wrote, ‘when commanded by the spirits, and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published and the spirits can read. My MS. is of no further use.’ In a letter sent in 1803 to Thomas Butts about Milton:
I have written this poem from immediate Dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without Premeditation & even against my Will; the Time it has taken in writing was thus render’d Non Existent, & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life, all produc’d without Labour or Study.
It’s a remarkably similar description of the practice when compared to Clowes and Swedenborg. For Blake, it simultaneously lent a spiritual authority to his work, and in doing so subverted the traditional avenues of established churches, with their litanies and ceremonies. Relinquishing authorship underscored his own personal spiritual heterodoxy.
Swedenborg, Clowes and Blake all utilized the idea of ritual writing as a way of deterritorializing spiritual authority. As Kathleen Lundeen has noted, ‘Spiritualism, for Blake, is more than a metaphor for verbal mediumship, however; it is a prerequisite for writing with a freer tongue.’ Indeed, it was no metaphor, it was ritual. As liminography, writing and drawing was a process of authorizing spirituality, and with its emphasis on individual praxis and creative output, it subverted the orthodoxy of social and institutional religious hierarchy.
Interestingly, it was precisely in non-sect Swedenborgian circles that Blake was cherished after his death, particularly by the politician Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849). Unsurprisingly, therefore, when Modern Spiritualism began to emerge in Britain during the 1850s, it is precisely in these circles that it had the largest impact. Early writing mediums Garth and William Wilkinson, for instance, had reissued Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 1839, and were friends with Tulk. Over time, a variety of terms proliferated to describe the practice, including ‘automatic writing’, ‘passive writing’, and ‘writing by impression’. Yet the ritual of relinquishing authorship and establishing personal spiritual authority remained its defining feature, and continued to subvert the religious landscape well into the twentieth century—through occultism, spiritualism, mind sciences and of course art.