Blake and Science

An article in this morning's Guardian newspaper on how science has become cool prompted some thoughts regarding the relationship between Blake and science. (Note for visitors reading this page outside the UK: my loyal commitment to reading The Guardian in its dead-tree form condemns me as a liberal of the most hopeless sort, a badge I sometimes wear with pride, so don't expect anything as Blakean as a definitive opinion in this piece.)

Blake's antagonism towards Isaac Newton, Sir Francis Bacon and John Locke is well known. In Jerusalem he describes their "terrors" as hanging "Like iron scourges over Albion" and throughout the later prophecies in particular they appear as a Satanic trinity in opposition to Blake's Christian vision. That is not Blake's only view of them, however: in the final eschaton with which Jerusalem ends, Bacon, Newton and Locke appear alongside Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare amid the chariots of the almighty, and his great, unfinished epic, The Four Zoas, ends with what is, in this context, the strangest and most wonderful of lines: "The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns".

It is not my simple task here to defend Blake: some aspects of Blake's attack on science appear a little perverse and often he was plain wrong. Writing on the cusp of the revolution in the study of geology that was to extend the history of the earth by many millions, then billions, of years, he still seemed to operate in a time-frame that considered this world in a frame of six thousand years (although there are plenty of hints in Blake that this, for him, was but one particular phase of human history). Similarly, before Charles Darwin's famous publication and with no apparent knowledge of Lamarck his knowledge of evolution is unsurprisingly cursory, although he illustrated the works of Charles' grandfather, Erasmus, and thus drew on the earlier Darwin's theories of sexual life and transformation.

Some of Blake's approach to science can be seen in his description of the motion of the planets in plate 15 of Milton:

That every thing has its
Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro Eternity.
Has passd that Vortex, he percieves it roll backward behind
His path, into a globe itself infolding; like a sun:
Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty,
While he keeps onwards in his wondrous journey on the earth
Or like a human form, a friend with whom he livd benevolent.
As the eye of man views both the cast & west encompassing
Its vortex; and the north & south, with all their starry host;
Also the rising sun & setting moon he views surrounding
His corn-fields and his valleys of five hundred acres square.
Thus is the earth one infinite plane, and not as apparent
To the weak traveller confin'd beneath the moony shade.
Thus is the heaven a vortex passd already, and the earth
A vortex not yet pass'd by the traveller thro' Eternity.

Here Blake draws upon Descartes' theory of vortices, which, as Donald Ault pointed out in Visionary Physics (1974), was an explanation of planetary motion published in Les principes de la philosophie in 1644. Newton thoroughly discredited this Cartesian explanation, but the theory maintained some respectability even into the eighteenth century. Two things about these lines from Milton fascinate me: first of all, that Blake had any interest at all in such an abstruse cosmological explanation, but also that, in typical fashion, he transforms it into a visionary perception whereby cosmology is intwined with psychology and other aspects of human understanding.

And this, at root, is part of my further fascination with Blake and science. Blake got plenty of things wrong about physics (and I suspect that he picked up on the theory of the vortex precisely because it wasn't Newton's theory), and in the new dark ages of anti-science and anti-rationalism he should be taken to task for this. But, Percy Shelley aside, I cannot think of another of the great Romantic writers who has such a fascination in the world of science and technology. Richard Dawkins, in Unweaving the Rainbow, bundles Blake alongside the other Romantics, and at times I have to agree with Dawkins' assessment, but at other times I think he misses some of the subtlety of a writer who was amazed by the discoveries of the microscope and telescope and brought them into his vision of the universe, while also acknowledging the limits of mechanistic science:

For every Space larger than a red Globule of Mans blood.
Is visionary: and is created by the Hammer of Los
And every Space smaller than a Globule of Mans blood. opens
Into Eternity of which this vegetable Earth is but a shadow

And it is worth bearing in mind that Blake's quarrel with Newton is less to do with Newton's science than Newton's god - for Newton was no eighteenth-century Richard Dawkins, blasting gullible believers with his atheism. The "General Scholium", published as an appendix to the Principia Mathematica in 1713, describes a universe subject to the "the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being", one who established the system of universal laws: "This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator, or Universal Ruler." Here (as in his other, alchemical and pseudo-historical work), Newton takes a leap of faith beyond the rational limits his logic allows, or perhaps more accurately he allows his reason to lead him into a thoroughly respectable, deistic view of god as primum mobile that Blake despised and has, ultimately, little more ground in rationalism than the humanistic theism of the Romantic poet: this, I think, is the dark religion that Blake hoped science itself could eventually dispel.

Personally I have little patience with arguments that attempt to justify Blake's visionary perceptions against science per se. Newtonian physics may not adequately explain the very large and the very small in our universe, but its limits are vast and honourable - and Blake was, to repeat, simply wrong in many of his estimations. In a time when science is so often under attack because it proposes only "theories" (because scientific method, rightly, can do no more), Blake's insistence on faith can become troubling: I love the lines "If the Sun & Moon should Doubt / Theyd immediately Go out", but I also refuse to believe it (crass, literal materialist that I am), and some of Blake's remarks on empiricism are those that trouble me most. However, it is where science arrogates to itself absolute knowledge of all areas of experience (and so moves beyond refutable theories) that it can become irrational - and here I fully support Blake: Newton's pantocrator is, to me, much more despicable than the Divine Image of mercy, pity, peace and love.

There has been a tendency in recent years to claim Blake as a scientific visionary, a potential precursor to modern discoveries in areas such as quantum physics. Anything that tends towards a simplistic appropriation of Blake's views as pre-empting modern science are anachronistic to say the least. However, in an essay on "Blake and Science Studies" published in 2006 in the Palgrave Advances book, William Blake Studies, Mark Lussier shows how Blake's images and way of thinking has often been used by scientists from Jacob Bronowski onwards. Blake was no quantum physicist manqué but, as Lussier points out with reference to writers such as Roger Jones and A. Zee, what Blake does often provide the imaginative and creative means of explaining the world opened up by modern science, one that is not amenable to our normal senses - which is anything but intuitive - and where a person can "Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour".

3 thoughts on “Blake and Science

  1. I see this post is attracting quite a few views (which is great!) and I would welcome comments and opinions. It has occurred to me, since writing this, that the rather optimistic note I end on could be a little misplaced if one takes Blake’s rather forbidding words from The Laocoon:

    SCIENCE is the Tree of DEATH
    ART is the Tree of LIFE GOD is JESUS

    Doesn’t appear to offer much space for dialogue between C.P. Snow’s two cultures…

  2. Thank you. I’ll have to read it properly (my initial skim read seems to suggest that this is one of those essays that throws a little bit of everything in). Regarding Blake, to the sources I cited who discuss Blake and science (Donald Ault and Mark Lussier), there should also be added Stuart Peterfreund, whose “William Blake in a Newtonian World” addresses science, empiricism and religion.

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