Tag Archives: William Blake

“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake: Opening the Doors of Perception

MarriageHeavenHell

This is probably my favorite work by William Blake. It is fairly long (about 15 pages), so it is too long to include in this post, but I am sure you can find digital versions online should you need. The piece is a combination of prose and poetry, so the style and tone changes throughout the text. Essentially, you have a debate between angels and devils about heaven and hell, good and evil, reason and emotion, and so forth. The key concept is that you cannot have one without the other, that contradictions are necessary for existence. As such, Blake is challenging all the established ideas of his time. Coming out of the Age of Reason, he argues the importance of creativity and emotion (embodied by the Romantic movement). Additionally, he challenges the doctrines of the church, which are represented by the passive, and asserts the importance of energy, or the passionate desires and instincts that Christian ideology seeks to suppress.

One of the key things to keep in mind when reading this text is that Hell is not inherently evil, but it is a symbol for energy, passion, emotion, and creativity. The fourth section of the text is subtitled “Proverbs of Hell” and include several pages of short proverbs intended to teach the importance of tapping into creative energy. I will include a few of my favorites to give an idea of the concepts embodied in the proverbs.

  • The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

  • He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

  • A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

  • He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.

  • No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

  • What is now proved was once only imagin’d.

  • One thought fills immensity.

  • You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

  • Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.

One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the exploration of the subconscious through the use of altered perception. Blake asserts that in our normal state of consciousness, we are unable to perceive the divine. It is only through altered consciousness that we can catch a glimpse of the divine realm.

The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”

In his famous quote regarding the doors of perception, Blake acknowledges that the use of hallucinogenic substances, such as those used by indigenous shamanic cultures, can shift one’s consciousness to the point that an individual can perceive the divine. This quote and idea would later go on to inspire Aldous Huxley and later the rock group The Doors.

I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, “The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?”

. . .

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

Blake then goes on to describe a mushroom-induced experience of what it’s like to shift perception and plunge into the subconscious realm of visions and inspiration.

So I remain’d with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak. He was suspended in a fungus, which hung with the head downward into the deep.

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swum, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; & the air was full of them, and seem’d composed of them—these are Devils, and are called Powers of the Air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? He said: “Between the black & white spiders.”

Toward the end of the text, one of the devils makes an argument about Jesus, essentially asserting that Christ was rebellious and acted from impulse and passion, and did not restrain his desires as is taught by church doctrine. The result of the devil’s argument is that the angel who was listening embraced the flame (symbol of enlightenment and passion) and became one of the devils.

The Devil answer’d: “Bray a fool in a mortar with wheat, yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him. If Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love Him in the greatest degree. Now hear how He has given His sanction to the law of ten commandments. Did He not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God; murder those who were murder’d because of Him; turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery; steal the labour of others to support Him; bear false witness when He omitted making a defence before Pilate; covet when He pray’d for His disciples, and when He bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

The text concludes with a powerful line, asserting the divinity inherent within all things.

For every thing that lives is Holy.

I hear this line echoed in Allen Ginsberg’s great poem “Howl.” And I firmly believe this. Every living thing has a spark of the divine within it, but sometimes our perception is shrouded and we cannot see it. And this is the message of Blake’s text; We must clear away the debris that clouds our vision and seek to perceive the infinite and divine essence that is all around us.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspired day.

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“And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” by William Blake

Image © Jeff Japp

Image © Jeff Japp

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

I have not written in a while because I have been traveling in Israel. I had an opportunity to visit the Holy Land so in spite of the images of danger and unrest that are prevalent in the media, I could not pass on the chance to explore the area that is central to the three major western religions. I spent about ten days there and it was an amazing experience. The image above is a picture I took from atop the Mount of Olives looking down on the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem. So, it should not surprise you that the first thing I read upon returning home was Blake’s poem which is part of the Preface to his larger work, Milton.

In this poem, I believe Blake is using Christ as a symbol for divine poetic genius. During the first two stanzas, Blake ponders whether the divine inspiration visited England, particularly London, a place he sees as dark, dismal, and a place where people are enslaved in the drudgery of factory life that was part of the Industrial Revolution.

The last two stanzas are what I find the most interesting about this poem. He invokes symbols from biblical text to represent creative inspiration, summoning the divine presence to guide him in his artistic endeavor. When he states “I will not cease from Mental Fight, / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:” he making a vow to struggle internally and never lay down his pen (the pen is after all mightier than the sword) until he has succeeds in bringing the divine presence to England and transforms the country into a land of beauty and spirituality.

The trip to Israel was a moving experience for me, especially since I am so interested in spirituality, art, and history. In my sojourn there, I was immersed in all of these things. It will take some time to fully process the experience, but reading and writing always help me to internalize major events in my life.

Cheers and blessings.

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“To the Muses” by William Blake

NineMuses

Whether on Ida’s shady brow,
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceas’d;

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air,
Where the melodious winds have birth;

Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea
Wand’ring in many a coral grove,
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry!

How have you left the ancient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forc’d, the notes are few!

In this poem, Blake contemplates the state of the poetic arts in England during his time. He expresses the belief that the art was lacking, that the poetic genius manifest in the past was lost during his time.

In the opening line, he mentions “Ida’s shady brow.” This is an allusion to Homer. Mount Ida was near Troy and supposedly from there the gods watched the Trojan War. Blake appears to be setting up a contrast between the inspiration that fostered Homer’s work and the perceived lack of poetic inspiration that plagued England in the late 18th century.

Blake evokes the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire (fire being symbolized by the sun). He mentions the elements before he mentions the nine muses. It gives the poem the feel of a mystical rite or incantation, where Blake is drawing energy from the elements in order to summon the muses.

I cannot help but wonder if Blake is also criticizing himself here. Since this poem was composed early in his life, he may have been struggling to find his own personal muse and feeling frustrated that he was not getting the inspiration of a Homer or a Shakespeare. If this was indeed the case, then I would say his incantation worked. The muses certainly inspired him throughout his life.

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“The Voice of the Ancient Bard” by William Blake

AncientBard

Youth of delight come hither.
And see the opening morn,
Image of truth new born.
Doubt is fled & clouds of reason
Dark disputes & artful teazing.
Folly is an endless maze,
Tangled roots perplex her ways.
How many have fallen there!
They stumble all night over bones of the dead
And feel they know not what but care;
And wish to lead others when they should be led

This poem is the last in The Songs of Innocence and Experience and for me connects the two collections, creating concentric circles. On one hand, it seems to circle back to the beginning of the Songs of Experience, where the Introduction opens with “Hear the voice of the Bard!” But it also appears to circle back to the Songs of Innocence, promising a return to the joys of youth, a rebirth where one is once again freed from the doubt, despair, and torment that dominates the state of experience in the cycle of spiritual development.

The image of the maze and the tangled roots symbolize the twisted pathways which the soul must follow as it traverses the various stages of development. As Blake points out: “How many have fallen there!” It is a difficult journey that the soul must take, and many do not make it to the point where they are returned to the Edenic state of innocence and connection with the divine source.

The last thing I would like to expound upon is the image of the “clouds of reason” as one of the pitfalls on the journey. While we are prone to consider reason to be one of the gifts of human consciousness, it is also something that sometimes obscures our ability to live life creatively and spiritually. We are familiar with the myth that consuming the fruit form the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the cause of humanity’s fall from grace. We should always be vigilant to not allow reason to cloud our ability to see and experience life’s beauty, or allow reason to cloud our understanding of the divine source from which we all have come.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts and I hope your day is filled with blessings and inspiration!

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“The School-Boy” by William Blake

SchoolBoy

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, –
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!

O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, –

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

As spring gets ready to move into summer, this poem came to life for me as I read it, and I connected with it on a deep level. My garden is alive and flourishing; there is a bird’s nest with baby birds woven into the vines of my front stoop; the kids in the neighborhood are outside playing. This all brings back the joy and excitement that was summer in my youth.

In this poem, Blake addresses the tendency of educational systems during his time to crush a child’s spirit of joy, wonder, and creativity, preparing that child for a life of conformity and the mundane. The image that comes to mind is from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” I would like to think that this is just a dark page from our past, but that is not the case. When I read about cuts to funding of the arts in schools, the banning of books from school libraries, the tendency to impose constant structure on children as opposed to allowing them to explore through play, I am sadly reminded that society is still attempting to impose conformity on the young.

The other night, I watched “Dead Man” with my daughter (if you are a fan of William Blake and have not seen this film, I recommend watching it). She said she liked the film but felt she didn’t get a lot of the references because she was not familiar with Blake’s poems. I’ll have to share this one with her. I suspect she will relate to it.

Thanks for reading, and here are a couple short videos that you might enjoy.


 

Pink Floyd: Another Brick in the Wall

Scene from the film “Dead Man”

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“To Tirzah” by William Blake

ToTirzah

Whate’er is Born of Mortal Birth
Must be consumed with the Earth
To rise from Generation free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

The Sexes sprung from Shame & Pride,
Blow’d in the morn, in evening died;
But Mercy chang’d Death into Sleep;
The Sexes rose to work & weep.

Thou, Mother of my Mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my Heart,
And with false self-deceiving tears
Didst bind my Nostrils, Eyes, & Ears:

Didst close my Tongue in senseless clay,
And me to Mortal Life betray.
The Death of Jesus set me free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

In order to fully grasp this poem, there are a couple religious references which should be explained. First, the name Tirzah “is derived from The Song of Solomon vi.4, and signifies physical beauty, that is, sex.” (Geoffrey Keynes) Also, the words on the robe of the aged figure offering the water of life in the engraving are “the second half of St. Paul’s sentence, I Corinthians xv.44: ‘It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body’.” (Keynes)

In the image associated with this poem, there are two women holding the body of the young man, who is the speaker in the poem. My impression is that the two women symbolize two aspects of the divine feminine: the mother and the maiden. I sense conflict in the speaker, who may be experiencing maternal love as well as sexual attraction. The mother’s name, Tirzah, is associated with sexual beauty. I’m sure Freudians would agree with this interpretation. But there is also a sense of anger directed towards the mother. The speaker feels he is a spiritual being and through childbirth is now trapped within a physical body, hence bound to the earth and to corporeal existence. At least until he dies. As such, he relates to Christ. When Christ died, his soul was restored to the divine. Hence, when the speaker dies, he also will be “raised a spiritual body” and become one with god.

This is certainly a psychologically challenging poem. Does one have to sever parental connections in order to live a spiritual life? How did Christ feel about his mother? Does the Oedipus myth tie into all this? Personally, this poem just stirs questions for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to post comments below. Thanks, and keep reading challenging texts.

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“A Little Girl Lost” by William Blake

ALittleGirlLost

Children of the future Age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time
Love! sweet Love! was thought a crime.

In the Age of Gold,
Free from winters cold:
Youth and maiden bright,
To the holy light,
Naked in the sunny beams delight.

Once a youthful pair
Fill’d with softest care:
Met in garden bright,
Where the holy light,
Had just removed the curtains of the night.

Then, in rising day,
On the grass they play:
Parents were afar:
Strangers came not near:
And the maiden soon forgot her fear.

Tired with kisses sweet
They agree to meet,
When the silent sleep
Waves o’er heavens deep;
And the weary tired wanderers weep.

To her father white
Came the maiden bright:
But his loving look,
Like the holy book,
All her tender limbs with terror shook.

Ona! pale and weak!
To thy father speak:
O the trembling fear!
O the dismal care!
That shakes the blossoms of my hoary hair

I found this poem interesting and somewhat different from most of the poems in the Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake starts the poem with an introductory stanza where he addresses the poem to the readers of “the future Age.” None of the other poems are addressed in this manner, even though, in “The Little Girl Lost” (a poem similar in title), Blake begins by stating that he has a vision of the future. So there is that parallel between the two poems.

In this poem, Blake presents sexual love as something natural and beautiful between two young people. When the maiden returns home, flush with the glow of love, her father is immediately angered. His thoughts and emotions are controlled by the “holy book,” implying that religious dogma is what dictates his actions more so than compassion and understanding for what his daughter is experiencing.

I referred to the endnotes in my copy of the book to find out more about the maiden’s name—Ona. Geoffrey Keynes, the commentator on my version of the text, asserts that the name is “perhaps the feminine form of One” and may be a “poetic conception of the feminine principle.” I kind of like this interpretation. I view the divine as a dyad, containing masculine and feminine aspects. I would like to think that Blake also recognized the divine feminine as part of the One.

As I read this today, I couldn’t help thinking about the controversy regarding marriage equality and gay rights. I suspect that the “Children of the future Age” will also look back at this time in history and wonder how laws could be considered that deny a person’s right to love another.

Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my thoughts. Cheers!

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