The Religion of William Blake
By John Middleton Murry
With William Blake, we must take a plunge: the quicker the better. So I take the plunge from his four most famous lines. They have for their title — and their title is important — “Auguries of Innocence.”
To see a World in a grain of sand And a Heaven in a wild flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
The lines are familiar, even fashionable. But how does one see “a World in a grain of sand?”
The problem is simple. Is Blake asking us to see something that is in a grain of sand or something that is not in it? The answer to the problem is equally simple, and emphatic. We are required to see something that actually is in a grain of sand.
Blake would have agreed that it did not always happen. Many days, he could not see it himself. For instance,
When you are under the dominion of a jealous Female Unpermanent for ever because of Love and Jealousy You shall want all the Minute Particulars of Life.
“Minute Particulars.” Blake was very keen about them above all at the time — in his old age — when he was composing “Jerusalem,” from which these words are taken. “Minute Particulars.” Change but a syllable, and you have “minute particles” — almost exactly “grains of sand.”
There is no deception. Blake himself shall speak — from “Jerusalem” again on page 31. Los, who is the Imagination, looks upon the Fallen Man, Albion. Los and Albion are not two persons. They are the regenerative and unregenerated parts of the one Universal Man. Los explores the fallen Man of whom he is himself the imaginative part.
Los took his globe of fire to search the interiors of Albion’s Bosom, in all the Terrors of friendship entering the caves … And saw every Minute Particular of Albion degraded and murdered But saw not by whom; they were hidden within in the minute particulars Of which they had possessed Themselves … But Los Search’d in vain; closed from the minutia, he walked difficult.
Imagination finds the going hard except through the Minute Particulars, and these have been possessed, degraded, and murdered by an unknown power. Now remember that Albion — the Eternal Man in his fallen state — is also England: not really England, but England serves as a symbol to articulate The Fallen Man. So
Los came down from Highgate through Hackney and Holloway towards London Till he came to old Stratford and thence to Stepney and the isle Of Leutha’s dogs, thence through the narrows of the River’s side And saw every minute particular: the jewels of Albion running down The kennels of the streets and lanes as if they were abhorr’d Every Universal Form was become barren mountains of moral Virtue, and every Minute Particular harden’d into grains of sand And all the tendernesses of the soul cast forth as filth and mire.
The immediate point of my quotation is to show in what, for Blake, the fall of the Fallen Man consists: first, in his Universal Forms becoming barren mountains of moral virtue and second in “his Minute Particulars hardening into grains of sand.” This was the fall of the Fallen Man.
The Fall consists in the Minute Particulars being hardened, by some malignant agency, into grains of sand. So we have a clue, at least, to the real meaning of the first Augury of Innocence.
To see a World in a grain of sand.
This is the Redemption: the changing back of the grain of sand into the Minute Particular that it really is. When that happens, we have the first Augury of Innocence. So we begin to see why the word “Augury” is used. It is a harbinger of Innocence to come. And that is very important. Blake is not speaking as he is almost always supposed to be speaking, of the actual innocence of the child in these famous lines; he is speaking of the regained Innocence of the Fallen Man. He is saying: “When you can see a world in a grain of sand — the world that is actually in it; when you can see a heaven in a wild flower — the heaven that is actually there to see — then you know that your Redemption is nigh. You are regaining Innocence.” And as we could have corroborated the heaven in a wild flower by “Behold the lilies of the field” — so we corroborate the meaning of Auguries of Innocence by “Except ye become as little children ye shall in no wise enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Of course, Jesus, like Blake, was talking to grown men. He was speaking of a second Innocence: redemption of the Fallen Man. And of course, like Blake, he was speaking of it as something that happens here and now — not at some far-off time, in some far-off Kingdom — but now, at this moment, here.
And Blake’s final symbolism for this redemption from the Fall, this rebirth into Innocence, is intimately connected with his vision of Minute Particulars. For him, the Fall of Man consists in his losing this vision of the Minute Particulars; the Redemption consists in his regaining the vision. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is the total message of Blake. He enforces it through a thousand forms of recondite imagery, but it all comes back to this simple and mysterious happening.
Now when Blake says that the Fall of Man consists in his losing the vision of the Minute Particulars, does he mean that Man has actually LOST that vision? Does he mean that at some time in his actual life, Man possessed that vision, and now it is gone? The answer is “Yes,” and “No.” And that is the true answer, which distinguishes Blake, like Keats from Wordsworth, for whom the vision splendid fades as we enter further into the life of the world, and can only be recaptured in fitful evanescent moments. But Wordsworth could never rid himself of the thought of Annette, or overcome his own sense of sin. He could not attain, as Blake did, that level of experience from which a man can see his past with naked eyes and accept it and know ALL experience as good; that spiritual condition in which even one’s own Minute Particulars can be known and loved.
For the doctrine of Minute Particulars applies not merely to the world out there, the objective world, but also to the world in here, the subjective world. We have to be able to see a world in OUR grains of sand — the separate experiences of our lives. That is Blake’s meaning in the passage quoted.
Every Universal Form was become barren mountains of moral virtue And every Minute Particular harden’d into grains of sand And all the tendernesses of the soul cast forth as filth and mire.
“All the tendernesses of the soul cast forth as filth and mire.” That is what Blake would have said to Wordsworth striving to cast the memory of Annette, as a foul thing, from his soul.
Blake’s religion of the Minute Particulars is a terribly subversive religion. It takes us clean beyond “good and evil.” It is indeed aimed directly against the religion of “good and evil.” It begins indeed, in Blake’s own words, “with a marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Now when that great discovery fell upon him, and his eyes were opened, he did what Nietzsche did at a like moment, he nakedly proclaimed an absolute reversal of values.
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religions call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
So, the true Poet — which is Blake’s name for the man of creative genius — is necessarily “evil,” what Goethe called the “demonic” man. Thus, to take the instance that was of decisive importance to Blake himself — the instance of Jesus — the last thing it is generally desired to remember about him was what a profoundly revolutionary spirit he was. He was, within the most completely religious society in the world in his lifetime, a complete rebel: a complete criminal. That, we say to ourselves, or others say to us, is because the Jews were an evil and adulterous generation, which is, of course, ridiculous nonsense. In fact, the Jews of his day were a more religious society than we English are.
In what did the rebellion — the creative newness — of Jesus consist? Blake was quite clear in his own mind about this: it is the theme of “The Everlasting Gospel.”
If moral virtue was Christianity Christ’s pretensions were all vanity; And Caiaphas and Pilate men Praiseworthy …
That is how it begins. And if this is true, it follows that the Churches have turned Christianity into the very thing that Jesus fought. And that was Blake’s conviction. He came to be absolutely convinced that he understood the true teaching of Jesus, and the moment he was convinced of that, he absolutely devoted himself, in body and soul, to propagating the true gospel. Unless this be grasped, the whole of “Milton,” the whole of “Jerusalem,” all the lovely visions of the Book of Job, will be meaningless.
It is remarkable that there are no less than six substantial versions of “The Everlasting Gospel.” I do not suppose Blake was satisfied with any of them. Perhaps he was attempting the impossible — to give a complete description of the Jesus who was real to him. The two things he wishes to stress are perfectly clear: The first of them is this: that Jesus was a rebel — that he was imbued not with the Reason that is Good, but with the Energy that is Evil.
Was Jesus born of a Virgin pure With narrow soul and looks demure? If He intended to take on Sin The Mother should an harlot been … Or what was it which He took on That He might bring salvation? A Body subject to be tempted From neither pain nor grief exempted? Or such a body as might not feel The passions that with sinners deal? Yes, but they say He never fell. Ask Caiaphas, for he can tell.
He mock’d the Sabbath, and He mock’d The Sabbath’s God, and He unlock’d The evil spirits from their shrines And turn’d Fishermen to divines; O’erturned the tent of secret sins And its Golden cords and pins … “Obey your parents!” — What says He? “Woman, what have I to do with thee? No earthly parents I, confess: I am doing My Father’s business.” He scorn’d Earth’s parents, scorned Earth’s God, And mock’d the one and the other’s Rod; His seventy Disciples sent Against Religion and Government … He left His Father’s trade to roam A wand’ring vagrant without home; And thus He others’ labour stole That He might live above control. The publicans and harlots He Selected for His company, And from the Adulteress turn’d away God’s righteous law, that lost its prey.
But the supreme offence — this is the second of the two points that is stressed in every version of “The Everlasting Gospel” — is that Jesus utterly abolished the Law.
The Moral Virtues in their pride Did o’er the world triumphant ride In Wars and Sacrifice for sin, And souls to Hell ran trooping in … The Accuser, Holy God of All THIS Pharisaic Worldly Ball Amidst them in his Glory Beams Upon the Rivers and the Streams Then Jesus rose and said to me: “Thy Sins are all forgiven Thee” Loud Pilate Howl’d, loud Caiaphas yell’d When they the Gospel Light beheld. It was when Jesus said to me “Thy sins are all forgiven Thee.”
That sounds innocuous, and almost Orthodox. But Blake happens to be speaking not of something that happened long ago, or something that will happen hereafter. He is speaking of the here and now — of “all THIS Pharisaic Worldly Ball,” where Moral Virtue and the Law reign supreme. And what is more, he is identifying himself with Jesus. Pilate and Caiaphas are HIS judges; Satan, the great Accuser, is the Holy God.
Who then is the Jesus who acquits Blake, accused by the Christian God of moral virtue, who is Satan? If Blake has identified himself with Jesus, then who is the Jesus who declares that his sins are forgiven? The answer is the inevitable one. It is Blake himself. But not Blake in his own ego. For it is not merely presumption, but a downright spiritual impossibility for a man in his own ego to forgive himself. The Eternal Man in Blake himself who forgives his own sins, and Blake’s name for this Eternal Man, in himself and other men, is Jesus.
But far more important to Blake, as it was probably far more important to Jesus himself, was the fact that this Eternal Man was Everyman. He was, so to speak, a condition that every man could attain to — the condition wherein, in Tchehov’s words, “all things are forgiven, and it would be strange not to forgive.” And this condition is an impersonal condition. Jesus himself never said, “I forgive you.” He said, “You are forgiven.” For the profound and simple fact is that “forgiveness” is not of the ego, not of the self, at all. Where the condition of “forgiveness” is, there the ego is not. And this profound and simple fact is the reason why Jesus, who discovered this condition of “forgiveness” in himself, or rather through himself, was compelled to attribute it to God. For Jesus, this condition WAS God.
Now, manifestly, if the condition of “forgiveness,” the condition of the Eternal Man, is one that negates the condition of the “ego,” then it follows that the way to achieve it is by an annihilation of the “ego,” or the self, as Blake calls it. The self is the home of Good and Evil; it is that which makes judgments of Good and Evil. And Blake’s particular name for the self is the Specter — he calls it the Specter because the act of judgment is deadly and because it can be exorcised or made to vanish away, because the act of judgment is only a Negation. It denies this, as evil, and asserts that, as good. Now perhaps we can understand what Blake is trying to say in “Milton” (page 46):
All that can be annihilated must be annihilated That the Children of Jerusalem may be redeemed from slavery. There is a Negation, and there is a Contrary: The Negation must be destroy’d to redeem the Contraries. The Negation is the Spectre, the Reasoning Power in Man: This is a false body, an Incrustation over my Immortal Spirit, a Selfhood which must be put off and annihilated always. To cleanse the Face of my Spirit by self-examination To bathe in the waters of Life, to wash off the Not Human, I come in Self-annihilation and the grandeur of Inspiration.
It is nominally Milton who speaks, but it is Milton’s spirit that has descended from Eternity and entered into Blake. In fact, it is simply the Eternal Man who speaks. Blake has created this Milton: he has, by his own participation in the Eternal Man, “redeemed” Milton.
The Contraries are Good and Evil, and the Negation is that which judges them as Good and Evil. Annihilate the Negation, and the Contraries are “redeemed.” Good and Evil become both positive, in the sense that “Without Contraries there is no Progression” — no Life. Good and Evil, and the Negation (or the Specter) which maintains them in that deadly fixation: — these constitute the threefold, or Sexual, Man. And, as Blake says on the fourth page of Milton, “The Sexual is Threefold, the Human is Fourfold.” And the Human is Fourfold, because it has become the home of the Eternal Man, who is born first by the annihilation of the Specter, and the consequent redemption of the Contraries.
When the Contraries are redeemed, the Specter that has been annihilated is also redeemed, and once redeemed, there is no longer any harm in it, for it is recognized simply as an inevitable and necessary condition of existence in time. Though annihilated, it still exists, and the Eternal Man serenely acknowledges and accepts it.
But, as Goethe said, we conquer our eternity from day to day. The mere fact that we must live in a world of Good and Evil, where incessant judgments of Good and Evil are a condition of life, makes it necessary that the fourfold Human should ever be on his guard against any partial “incrustation of the Immortal Spirit by the False Body of the Selfhood.”
This is what Blake means when he says that this False Body of the Selfhood “must be put off and annihilated ALWAYS.” No REAL relapse into the Threefold Sexual is ever again possible, once the Specter has been annihilated, and restored by the Spirit into a disciplined and harmonious existence: nevertheless, the supremacy of the Spirit has to be asserted continuously in life, paradoxical though that may sound. And this conflict in time between the Threefold Sexual and the Fourfold Human, this usurpation of the place of the Spirit by the Specter, is precisely the happening in which, for Blake, consists the Fall of Man regarded as an eternal event.
In his symbolism, Urthona is Spirit, Urizen the Specter or Reason, and the rebellion of Urizen against Urthona and the usurpation of Urthona’s rightful throne by Urizen is the great drama of the soul to which Blake in his prophetic books constantly returns. Thus, the Fall of Man consists in the disruption of the fourfold Human, and the consequent degeneration into the threefold Sexual. The Negation is established, and the Contraries become sterile opposites. This, in Blake’s view, is the condition of human beings until they are regenerated.
But — this is important — this Fall of Man is not an event in time. As far as I can see, Blake did not at any time really believe that the individual had been fourfold and Human, and had fallen — whether at birth, or at the end of age of childish innocence — into the threefold sexual. In other words, the regeneration of the threefold into the fourfold Man was not a return to any former condition, it was the achievement of a creatively new condition. But this condition was so manifestly the goal of human life, that it seemed to Blake that it must be the essence, the fundamental reality of human life. As essence, it was eternal. Therefore, it could be symbolically represented as the condition from which Man fell.
This brings us, hard and sharp, against the mystery of the relation of Eternity to Time. And I am glad to say, it brings us up against it from the right direction — from the only direction in which the mystery of Time and Eternity appears the pregnant mystery it veritably is and not a barren intellectual paradox. Actual experience is the only solution of that mystery; and to actual experience, it simply ceases to be mysterious.
Any one who knows at first hand the condition of the Fourfold Human is perfectly clear about the relation between Time and Eternity; and no one else can be. Such a man will know without my telling him that Eternity is in the here and now: and he will know that since it is always the discovery of an individual experience, there are as many ways of expressing it as there are people who discover it. Thus, when Blake says, simply and beautifully, “Eternity is in love with the productions of Time,” he is saying precisely what Spinoza said with equal simplicity and beauty when he said that “sub specie aeternitatis omnis existentia est perfectio,” or again precisely what Keats said:
Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.