William Blake sought in his art to have humanity manifest its divine nature through mutual forgiveness and selflessness. His delivery of this message was through visionary poems and prints. Blake taught that through the visionary imagination human beings could become divine beings and manifest an ideal, spiritual society (he called this Jerusalem). He was highly critical of materialism, moral virtue, and self-righteousness. Through Blake, the visionary imagination makes possible the attainment of oneness with a supreme being. It is only through the inspired vision that individuals are able to surpass the limitations of their minute particular time, space, knowledge, and become something more than meat. I find the criticisms of Stephen C. Behrendt1 and V.A. De Luca in the book Blake’s Poetry and Designs to be particulary helpful in properly experiencing Blake’s vision.
Stephen C. Behrendt makes the point that William Blake’s use of text with images is so pervasive and dynamic, that his message is ultimately a meta-text that combines illuminations with words. The meaning of his illustrations and text interact to make a combined symbolism. This understanding of Blake’s expression is integral to properly experiencing his art. In addition, the 19th century had different ways of understanding the process of reading than is common in the 21st century. Books in the 19th century were works of art, especially in the case of Blake’s books, and readers were intended to be deeply engaged in the process of reading. Reading out loud and responding to phrases was common.
Blake challenges us to experience his art by spiritually consuming it, and taking it into our beings. It is a sacramental act. Blake’s motivation is to induce a transformative experience. Individual inspiration is first, and then social salvation. As stated before, Blake’s illuminated texts are a unitary whole with images and words playing-off of each other.
Though William Blake’s poems must be experienced visually, I would not categorize his work as visual art. The text and illustrations of individual poems as presented in Blake’s Poems and Designs are meant to be “read” sequentially. Moreover, I would go even one step further than Behrendt’s meta-text analysis, and state that to experience Blake properly, one must be in a state of meditation to imagine the mystical realms he invites us to enter. It is only in reverie that Blake’s underlying purpose of elucidation can be achieved. Just before falling asleep, one goes into a hypnogogic state. In this state, non-determinate thoughts can take on meaning that is not rational. This is similar to the state that is needed to understand Blake. I found myself needing to ponder the poets meaning as I read Blake’s poems and designs. In order to experience the poet’s meaning, one must excogitate each image and word.
As Stephen C. Behrendt notes many of the images and text are contradictory in aesthetic and intellectual content. Blake’s vision is like an optical illusion that evokes an additional image not originally present by staring at a dot in the center of the artwork. We must reconcile this with Blake’s statement that everything he produced was intentional and with a purpose. Sublime means both dangerous and powerful at the same time. Therefore, the artist makes an implied agreement that the observer must construct a superseding interpretation that goes beyond either the illustrations, or the text, to a third realm of symbolic, sublime meaning that the art is only able to approach indirectly because it is a mystical experience. Blake is freeing himself of the limitations of visual and textual media to construct a spiritual language that can be shared among an enlightened community. He also accomplishes this by creating a bible-like names and places that are motivated by the need to have the reader deeply interpret his works as if they were sacral texts.
Blake is requiring the reader to be a participant in his vision. It is also a transcendental communion between the observer, artist, and the innate divinity, where the viewer transcends material existence, limited by sensation, and is transported to a Jungean realm of archtypal vision and imagination. The art is just a vehicle. As Joseph Viscomi notes, William Blake sees himself as a prophet and in his etchings “the drawn line is analogous to the word of God; the inspired line is itself inspirating [sic] and true art is by nature sublime.” Thus, Blake’s art allows the viewer to travel to the human divinity inside all of us through the sublime power of imagination.
In experiencing Blake’s illuminated texts one must build an edifice of understanding. Each stone is a refined unit of understanding of the mutual cooperation between image and text. All additional stones are deeper analysis given the existing structure of meaning. The intellectual and aesthetic meaning of the work as a unity is generated by a continuous loop of re-understanding. It is an act of mystical contemplation.
Blake’s work stimulates a search for meaning by being indeterminate. The reason for the existence of his art is to challenge the observer to “enter” the visionary experience. It is finally a mystical and ritualistic meditation. The work of the observer is to achieve a state of mind in which it is possible to enter Blake’s world. The revolutionary goal of his poetry is to intellectually and aesthetically induce a state of elevated consciousness that allows for a oneness with a supreme being. The juxtaposition of the meta-text of image, word, and subliminal transcendental experience is tangibly represented in his illuminated poetry. Thus, the reader will take out from this experience what they put in to it. It is a meditation on the divine inside everyone.
V.A. De Luca interprets Blake’s poetry as a “wall of words” that symbolizes the monolithic in sublime literature. In my experience Blake’s poetry is among the most challenging to read. De Luca takes this difficulty as his theme and his criticism is important because achieving an understanding of Blake’s meaning is the proper way to experience his poetry. The critic focuses Blake’s work were the meaning becomes obscure and the narrative becomes non-referential, such as in Jerusalem. In poems that have these properties, ideas are not mediated through sensory perception of word or image, but only knowable through a leap of understanding and faith. For a modern reader, this experience is very disconcerting. Again, meditating on the material is absolutely necessary. Jerusalem is such a “wall of words” on which the recursive process of understanding can obtain minimal or no narrative structure on which to build cognition. Why this nondeterminancy? It is an effort of the artist to induce a sublime state of consciousness as a result of viewing.
The critic identifies Blake’s wall of words with the Romantic sublime, in which monolithic forms such as ruins and cliffs are archetypal symbols. For Romantic writers such as Wordsworth, these forms are a blockage to travel, and represent an elevated consciousness above mundane cares that allow sanctuary and recharging of spiritual resources. The sublime process is conceptualized differently based on author. Wordsworth saw it as a diminishing of the senses just as the fearful power of imagination ascends. Blake says that one should construct one’s own system, or be a subject of someone else’s. Blake, being a contrarian, has his own version: “Allegory addressed to the Intellectual powers while it is altogether hidden from the Corporeal Understanding is My Definition of the Most Sublime Poetry.” In Blake’s model, the sublime stimulus directs energy away from limited sensory perception into the liberated intellectual powers. The barrier is needed as a lens to focus visionary force, and this is the reason Blake considers the intellectual powers to be superior to all else. It is the gateway to the human divine.
At the center of the sublime experience is a struggle with a challenging text. William Blake is prolific at producing such a text. The material world produces such sublime objects. I lived and traveled throughout central and South American as a child. At that time I was compelled to run up the steps of Tenochtitlan, and I wandered around the grounds of Machu Pichu, I have felt the power of the sublime and its potential for revealed knowledge. So much so that I was convinced I would be an Archeologist and find my own lost cities. Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of Machu Pichu fired my imagination. These objects do “beg to be read, blank as they are.” J.R.R Tolkien writes about this experience when in The Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf uses incantations to reveal a hidden door with luminescent Elfin writing in the side of a mountain to escape evil forces. Since then I have been fascinated by ruins and abandoned places. The idea of a place where a rich exchange of life existed previously and now is a place of quiet has haunted my mind. Blake’s sublime poems must be put within the Romantic context of the times. The observer must free the intellectual powers from sensory limitations using the poets symbols as a mystical transport.
How does Blake create a wall of words? He does it with visual composition of image and text with complex interactions, concentration of inscription, distribution of replicated terms, and a proliferation of obscure proper nouns, all of which overwhelm the imagination and provoke the stress needed for the sublime experience. I believe it is helpful to understand that this is a purposeful strategy of the poet, namely to create opposition to discursive decoding, in order to provoke an experience of the divine. Thus, the observer must understand that Blake is taking us on a journey in his works such as Jerusalem of which the ultimate destination is a mystical experience.
What are the intellectual powers and what is on the other side of the wall? The intellectual powers are visionary imagination, and on the other side of the wall is innate divinity. The text is a bridge between the two. In the apotheosis of Jerusalem:
“But if we detach these words from their contextual bed, allowing them to articulate the range of their syntactic and semantic possibilities, they assert a revelation about the Divine Vision itself as nothing other than transcendent writing: the Writing IS the Divine Revelation…God is the Word, but the Word as Written; in the Eternity every Word and every Character is human, but without losing the properties of words and characters…heaven is a form of text.”
Blake categorically denies the unapproachable divinity. He loathes this idea as a “Satanic” church motivated to exploit. God is not the “other.” God is the collective humanity. In the sublime state, there is no separation between God and us. Blake’s text directs to us to use our intellectual powers to recognize God inside of ourselves. His words and images are a manifestation of divinity.
In Blake’s “wall of words,” the intellectual powers decode text as a multitude of potential meanings, some referential, and some autonomous, and all directed toward an experience of transcendence. While reading, the observer’s mind is in as it were a state of suspended animation as semantic analysis is delayed. In that realm of experience, the wall of words becomes an awe-inspiring monument, and every word is an opening to a manifestation of the human divine. In the experience of the sublime, we are able to bypass the Covering Cherub and re-enter a mental heaven.
The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead.” William Blake, who saw the divine in all humanity, would certainly not agree with him on this thought. Blake was a mystic and Nietzsche a Realist. Nietzsche criticized Western Christianity as a “slave morality,” materialism as decadence, and promoted the triumph of the human will without imposed bounds as an exercise of imagination. In contrast, Blake expressed in his poetry a criticism of all Christian churches as against the basic and to him “true” teachings of Jesus. Therefore, Nietzsche and Blake are both critical of Christianity, but for very different reasons. In addition, Blake valued the fundamental moral message of Jesus. Whereas, Nietzsche would argue that this morality is debilitating. Blake was also against materialism culturally and intellectually because he argued that it denied the innate divinity of humans and what to him was the supreme reality of creation. The two philosopher’s expressions find common ground while still being extremely different in their expressions. Though ultimately, I argue the core meaning of both is strangely analogous, the transcendental power of the imagination to shape existence. William Blake works to illustrate that human beings manifest the innate divine through visionary imagination. While Nietzsche argues that humans act on what exists, and imagine what can be. Though often misunderstood, Nietzsche’s concept of the “will to power” is the animating force of all beings such as plants and animals. However, as conscious beings, individuals are able to direct their will to power to transcendentally create and take control of their existence. Thus, William Blake’s and Friedrich Nietzsche’s work are diametrically opposed in many arguments and expressions, both result in similar conclusions.