Part 3: Swedenborg & The Marriage

For new readers of The Marriage, the various allusions within the text to Emanuel Swedenborg are usually somewhat opaque and disconcerting. Although Swedenborg’s writings were popular and widely known in the late eighteenth century, they became unfashionable and esoteric during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It would not be unfair to comment that most people who have heard of Swedenborg today have done so because of what Blake writes in The Marriage in particular.

Emmanuel Swedenborg

Swedenborg was a remarkable figure in eighteenth century Europe, a man of the Enlightenment and science who also gave rise to a form of mysticism that appealed to many of his contemporaries. Born Emanuel Swedberg at Stockholm, Sweden, in 1688, his father, Jesper Swedberg, was an eminent churchman and later Bishop of Skara. Jesper’s pietist beliefs, particularly on the importance of communication with God rather than through faith alone, as well as the presence of angels and spirits in everyday life, were to have an important effect on his son. After completing university at Uppsala in 1709, Swedenborg travelled through Western Europe before coming to London where he stayed for four years before returning to Sweden in 1715 to work on scientific and engineering projects.

Swedenborg worked as an assessor for the Swedish Board of Mines and published scientific discoveries in his periodical, Daedalus Hyperboreus (The Northern Daedalus). For these, and other services, he was ennobled in 1718 (whereupon the family name was changed from Swedberg to Swedenborg), and in 1724 he was offered the chair of mathematics at Uppsala, a post that he declined.

During the 1730s, Swedenborg turned to religious and philosophical subjects, publishing a series of works that attempted to demonstrate how matter related to spirit and the finite to the infinite, such as De Infinito (On the Infinite). Requesting permission to travel abroad in 1743 to gather source materials for a book on the animal kingdom, he began to experience strange dreams on his journeys and recorded them in a journal, some of those dreams forming the basis of his later visionary works. By 1744, he was convinced that he had to abandon his scientific studies and devote himself to understanding God, publishing The Worship and Love of God in London in 1745. Two years later, he resigned his post at the Board of Mines and devoted himself to biblical studies for ten years, publishing the final volume of his great work, Arcana Cœlestia (Heavenly Secrets) in 1756.

Until his death in 1772, Swedenborg travelled between Stockholm, London and Holland, writing a number of theological works that expounded his new theological system. In The Last Judgment in Retrospect, he claimed that the Last Judgement had begun in 1757 (the year of Blake’s birth) and that it had been a spiritual judgement, God having seen that the churches had lost their true purpose. His last book, Vera Christiana Religio (The True Christian Religion), was completed in 1770, the year after which he suffered a stroke during a visit to London and was buried at the Swedish church in Shadwell. One of his earliest biographers, the Swedenborgian James John Garth Wilkinson (editor of the 1839 edition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience), observed of this and other works that “Swedenborg’s philosophy attains its summit in the marriage of scholasticism and common sense, with the sciences, of his age; in the consummation of which marriage his especial genius was exerted and exhausted.” (Wilkinson 67)

The Swedenborgian Church

Swedenborg’s declaration that the traditional church had lost its way inspired some to use his voluminous writings as the foundation for a new church, helped in part by the philosopher’s extensive travels and capacity for befriending many and varied individuals.

In an entry in his Spiritual Diary for August 27, 1748, Swedenborg had declared that he would have “five sorts of readers”: the first type would be those who would reject his writings entirely, the second who would take interest in them as curiosities, the third who would accept them intellectually but not be influenced by his ideas, the fourth who would change some of their behaviour in accordance with his teachings, and the fifth who would “receive them with joy, and reduce them to practice” (cited in Trobridge 90). Certainly some, such as the Bishop of Gothenberg, rejected Swedenborgianism (as it was to become) outright, but others such as the early followers C. F. Nordensköld and Thomas Hartley considered Swedenborg’s system the right and proper spiritual path to follow.

During his lifetime, however, he made few converts, in part because of his unwillingness to proselytise, and where he did attract followers this was not without difficulties: among his most prominent Swedish disciples, Gabriel Beyer and Johan Rosén, professors at Gothenberg University, were persecuted after accepting his doctrines in the 1760s. Throughout the 1770s and 1780s, however, his influence gradually spread throughout Europe, although it was in England that he found most acceptance and made most disciples (Trobridge 94). John Clowes, Rector of St Johns, Manchester, translated Swedenborg’s works into English and by the 1780s a small group of enthusiasts, including William Cookworthy and William Spence, ensured that his works received a wider audience.

Because of their isolation, Swedenborg’s followers formed societies to share their knowledge and principles. Nordensköld established the ExegeticPhilanthropic Society in Sweden after Swedenborg’s death (although this was broken up in 1789), and in London Robert Hindmarsh invited sympathetic readers to form a “Theosophical Society” in the mid 1780s. This society included a number of Blake’s friends and fellow engravers among its number, such as John Flaxman and William Sharp, and by the end of the decade some members of this group went on to form the “New Church”, or “New Jerusalem Church”. Although small in terms of membership, Swedenborgianism continued to spread throughout the English speaking world in the nineteenth century, aided by Clowes’s establishment of the Swedenborg Society in 1810 to propagate his ideas and works, and in America by the work of the missionary John Chapman, more popularly known as Johnny Appleseed.

Blake and Swedenborg

Blake began reading Swedenborg’s works in the 1780s, including Heaven and Hell (1784) and Divine Love and Divine Wisdom (1788). As such, he would have probably received a general invitation sent out in December 1788 to sympathetic readers inviting them to a conference, the purpose of which was to establish a new church based on Swedenborg’s teachings. At the meeting in a public house on 13 April, 1789, the Blakes were asked to sign the following paper:

We whose Names are hereunto subscribed, do each of us approve of the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, believing that the Doctrines contained therein are genuine Truths, revealed from Heaven, and that the New Jerusalem Church ought to be established, distinct and separate from the Old Church. (Cited in Bentley 50)

A manifesto of 32 resolutions, including the rejection of the notion of the Trinity and a separation from the ‘Old Church’, was accepted unanimously, and Bentley suggests that although Blake must have agreed to these resolutions at the time his attitude quickly became ambiguous, then openly hostile. He never attended the New Church itself, and within a year he was satirising Swedenborgianism.

Yet The Marriage itself, while Blake’s most sustained commentary on Swedenborg’s teaching, is not his final word on the subject. In Milton a Poem, he describes Swedenborg as “strongest of men, the Samson shorn by the Churches!” (23.50, E117), while in the 1809 solo exhibition he cited the Swedish mystic favourably as inspiration for one of his paintings, ‘The spiritual Preceptor, an experiment Picture’. As such, although Blake quickly came to recognise in Swedenborgianism a return to the doctrinal bondage of the Old Church under a new name, he seems to have held at least some of Swedenborg’s ideas in higher regard for much of his life.

Furthermore, as David Worrall has pointed out, the initial conference attended by Blake brought him into contact with radical figures who were to work with the Swedenborgian Carl Bernhard Wadström on his project to establish a new colony in Sierra Leone. For Worrall, the colonial aspects of this project, particularly with regard to certain applications of conjugal relationships, were an important influence on The Book of Thel, and Thel’s “rejection of her co-option into such a community” is “implicitly, a rejection of the entire colonization project” (17). Yet even though Blake was critical of Wadström’s ‘conjugal empire’ of concubinage, where women were expected to engage in sexual consummation but were denied a franchise, his participation in the New Jerusalem Church conference meant that he met with activists engaged against the slave trade.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell offers Blake’s most extensive commentary on Swedenborgianism, written shortly after he had joined the New Jerusalem Church. As we have already seen, Viscomi (1997) argues that plates 21-4 of The Marriage were originally composed as a separate pamphlet aimed at the New Church before it developed into a much more ambitious project:

I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning:
Thus Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; tho’ it is only the Contents or Index of already publish’d books
A man carried a monkey about for a shew, & because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conceiv’d himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches& exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious. & himself the single One on earth that ever broke a net.
Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth:
Now hear another: he has written all the old falshoods.
And now hear the reason. He conversed with Angels who are all religious, & conversed not with Devils who all hate religion, for he was incapable thro’ his conceited notions.
Thus Swedenborgs writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime, but no further.
Have now another plain fact: Any man of mechanical talents may from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg’s. and from those of Dante or Shakespear, an infinite number.
But when he has done this, let him not say that he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine. (Plates 21-2, E42-3)

Although this extended passage is scathing in its condemnation of Swedenborg, particularly in denying any originality to a vision that fails to break the old boundaries of the “religious”, Viscomi in another essay (1999) shows that Blake was still working through many Swedenborgian principles – such as attitudes to anti-clericalism and the role of revelation – more sympathetically than may first appear.

According to Robert Rix, the general appeal of Swedenborg at the end of the eighteenth century was his apparent ability to explain occult material “scientifically”, which was quickly formed by some of his followers into a social gospel combining radical Christianity and politics (Rix 47). While Blake soon took issue with Swedenborg’s analytical approach, as well as finding that elements of the Christianity and politics of him and his followers were not radical enough, it is important to note, as Rix observes, that he adapted as well as attacked Swedenborgianism.