The Divine Humanity of William Blake, Part 1
By Kara Peek
The Divine-Humanity of William Blake
The failure of the Church to serve the spiritual needs of the people is a major theme in the art and writing of William Blake. A deeply spiritual man, Blake takes great issue with the way the Christian church has, to his way of thinking, misinterpreted the Bible and the role of God in the lives of men. He denounces organized religion, especially the ritualized dogma of Christianity, and draws a clear distinction between religious rituals (which he abhors) and worship of divinity (which he reveres). Indeed, Blake attacks the very concept of divinity upon which the church is built, the notion that divinity is an exterior, superior force to which one must pay homage. For Blake, true divinity exists internally, within the human imagination.
The ubiquity of the theme of divine-humanity throughout Blake’s works (he uses the word “divine” 247 times in his collected writings) indicates how important a concept it is in the understanding of his message. Divine-humanity in Blake serves two purposes. Firstly, it provides a cohesive thread through his seemingly chaotic ideas, creating an avenue of access into his complicated mythology. Secondly, it offers a solution to Blake’s diagnosis of what is wrong with human spirituality. Salvation is redefined, transformed from the passive faith of Christianity into an active process of self-annihilation, in which each person must sacrifice his concept of selfhood to arrive at the divinity which already exists within his own imagination. Although echoes of divine-humanity are found in all of Blake’s works, the poems that deal with it most directly and focus on self-annihilation as a central theme are Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion and Milton a Poem in 2 Books.
Although much of Blake’s writing is ambiguous and at times indecipherable, he is unwaveringly clear that, to his way of thinking, the imagination is the highest human faculty, both the definition of and the path toward divinity. God as a spiritual construct is a real and constant presence in Blake’s poetry, but He is synonymous with human imagination rather than dominant over it.
Blake begins by establishing the coexistence of God and man within one form, Jesus Christ. In The Lamb, he writes, “He is called by thy name, /For he calls himself a Lamb: /…I a child & thou a lamb, /We are called by his name” (9). “Lamb” and “He” both refer to Jesus. By calling himself by the same name (human) as the child, Jesus not only identifies with, but is fundamentally human. However, Jesus by virtue of his divinity does not possess the sole right to define the relationship. “We” (humanity) are also called by his name (divine). In this sense, the relationship between God and man is not that of benefactor and supplicant. The two are equal and both have the right to define themselves by the other. Divinity not only flows from God to man; humanity flows from man to God.
This argument forms the basis for Blake’s conflict with all organized religions, not only Christianity [indeed, he does not see a difference, for “all religions are one” (1)]. He laments the “the ancient Poets [who] animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses”, beginning the process by which “men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast” (38). By wrongly externalizing divinity, putting it into “sensible” objects, or physical objects that can be perceived with the senses, the first pagans lost the divinity within humanity. Although the conception of God eventually evolved away from nature to a more supernatural force, the original error still prevents humanity from coming to a true understanding of and relationship with God.
Despite the innate divinity of man, it is not man generally that Blake finds divine; specifically, it is the imagination, the creative impulse, or to use his term, the “poetic genius.” The inherent value of mankind is the ability to imagine and create; in All Religions are One, the “Principle 1st” is “That the Poetic Genius is the true Man. and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius” (1). Thus, as man is divine and poetic genius is “true Man”, only those men who exercise their capacities of imagination may be called divine. Those who do not exercise this capacity either cannot see or refuse to see the divine within their own imagination, and can never reach their full human capacity. As McGann states, “Since imagination ‘is the Human Existence itself’ (M 32: 32), to be without imagination is to be inhuman, dead” (6). As this is the “Principle 1st” in an ascending logical argument, it is vital to understand this foundational concept before proceeding to Blake’s higher-level philosophies.
Blake not only wants us to redefine what we believe to be divine, he wants to make clear exactly how he believes the dominant religious doctrine has erred in its own definition. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a conversation between a Devil and an Angel illustrates Blake’s complaints. Debating the nature of God, the Devil claims, “The worship of God is. Honouring his gifts in other men each according to his genius. and loving the greatest men best, those who envy or calumniate great men hate god, for there is no other God” (43). In traditional Christianity, anything uttered by a devil should not be trusted; as part of his mission to reverse the erroneous precepts of the Church, Blake reverses the historical roles of good and evil. Devils are positive, creative forces, while Angels are passive, negative figures. The words of the Devil represent the opinions of Blake himself. This is fitting, since Blake sits in opposition to the Church, self-represented by the Angel.
The Angel replies that God is separate and manifest in Jesus: “Is not God One? and is he not visible in Jesus Christ?” (43) The Angel argues that the worship of God is following His law as laid down in the Bible, since “Jesus Christ [gave] his sanction to the law of ten commandments” (43). Such an argument only gives ammunition to Blake’s objection to the authority of scripture; he believes the church has entirely misinterpreted the Ten Commandments. To Blake, the Ten Commandments were not moral laws, but God’s gift of writing to mankind. Writing is itself an inherently imaginative process; it both requires imagination to perform and is an outlet for the expression of individual imagination.
The Commandments, restrictive in their traditional sense, are in fact God’s liberating invitation to humanity to exercise its imaginative capabilities. The Devil claims Jesus’ blessing for his own interpretation by arguing that Jesus himself broke the Commandments; in fact, “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules” (43). The semicolon before the final phrase sets it apart and underscores the importance of the idea of breaking rules (the need to break from official doctrine). The line also falls on a plate break, with the word “impulse” broken into “im” and “pulse.” “Pulse” brings to mind a heartbeat, a sharp expenditure of life-sustaining energy; the energy of humanity is its defining quality, not passive obedience to rules.
In Jerusalem, as the Four Zoas descend into war over Albion, they call on God for salvation. Los reprimands them for looking outwardly and tells them to save themselves through their own divine power: “Why stand we here trembling around / Calling on God for help; and not ourselves in whom God dwells” (184). In fact, it is only through their own efforts that they are able to help resurrect Albion and restore Jerusalem; they could not accomplish this until they recognized their inherent divinity.
So divinity is reclaimed from external superstition and restored to its rightful place within the human imagination. Does that imply that humanity is perfect, omnipotent, and need not strive for transcendence? Certainly not. While Blake asserts that divinity can only be found within the human imagination, he does not mean that humans by their very existence are divine. Divinity is inherent in all people, but man must still overcome his flaws and errors to find it.
As stated in the introduction, divine-humanity is a cohesive thread through Blake’s labyrinthine writing. It is a central idea, but more than this, all of Blake’s poems offer clues as to the true nature of the divine-humanity and how to go about attaining it. His works, especially his large epics Milton and Jerusalem, are aptly named “prophecies” because they are visions of divinity and the path toward it. Blake’s collected writings are his guide to spiritual transcendence, his efforts to reclaim the Divine Vision.
But if Blake completely redefines divinity as a spiritual goal, he does not leave us without an appropriate pathway to it. His very purpose in writing is to show humanity how to make contact with the internal divine, as he explicitly states at the beginning of Jerusalem:
I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God. the Human Imagination
Blake’s “great task” is not just to show man that he possesses “immortal Eyes”, but to open them. The opening, or the process of transcendence, is more important than reaching the ultimate state of divinity. Significantly, the Eyes must be opened inwards, to one’s own divine nature, not outwards toward a separate God.
The unusual punctuation of the passage allows for several interpretations, depending on whether syntactical breaks follow line endings or punctuation marks. If line break is more important, then the Eyes of Man open inward into Eternity and eternity/immortality exists within man himself. Also, the Human Imagination would “ever expand in the Bosom of God”, implying it exists within God, but not necessarily is God. Alternatively, if punctuation is more important, then the eyes of man still open into eternity, but the colon begins a new phrase, signifying that eternity itself is “ever expanding in the bosom of God.” The period would then take the role of a comma, defining the Bosom of God as the Human Imagination.
Since it has already been established that Blake considers God and Imagination synonymous, the second interpretation may be more appropriate. If so, “Eternity /Ever expand[s]”; eternity is still the goal, but if it continually expands, humanity may not be able to keep up. But notably, eternity expands “in the Bosom of God. the Human Imagination”; man still must search for eternity/immortality/divinity within his own imagination. Although matters of punctuation may seem trivial in light of discussions of divinity, the distinction is key to understanding Blake’s purpose in constructing his prophecies. If eternity expands infinitely, humanity might not ever reach the goal. But Blake’s task is not to help humanity reach that goal; his task is to “open the immortal Eyes.” The process of transcendence will teach humanity about its own divinity, not the arrival at an elusive spiritual target.
At this point it must be emphasized that Blake’s conception of divine-humanity is firmly restricted to the imagination. Divinity is a state man can only attain through proper exercise of his imaginative faculties and not by any other means, namely reason. At the time of Blake’s writing, the Enlightenment, with its focus on reason and logic, was the dominant philosophy in Europe. The Romantics, focusing more on imagination and emotion, were beginning to emerge, but imagination was still looked down upon in the highest philosophical circles; as Damon states, “The Imagination in the Age of Reason was considered a degenerative malady of the intellect” (195). Obviously, Blake holds the opposite view, considering imagination to be the highest form of human potential. But he does not stop with dissention. He asserts that not only will reason not lead to transcendence; it will destroy the divine potential of humanity.
Blake begins his argument with a general contempt for philosophers of reason and the damage they can do with their ignorance: “The idiot Reasoner laughs at the Man of Imagination /And from laughter proceeds to murder by undervaluing calumny” (131). It is not necessarily true that all Reasoners are idiots, but they surely are who mock and demean imagination. A “calumny” is false statement deliberately intended to cause harm; the Reasoners may truly intend some harm, but they “undervalue” it, or do not realize how much damage (“murder”) they cause by their mocking. Here, the Reasoners are destructive, but the damage is caused more through their ignorance than through overt maliciousness.
Blake is not always so kind to the Reasoners. To him, they are responsible for as many misconceptions concerning divinity and the nature of man as the Church. In Jerusalem, an ambiguous “mighty Hand,” possibly representing religion in general, takes form. One of his emanations is Rahab, one of whose meanings is Natural Religion, or the deism espoused by many Enlightenment philosophers (Damon 100). To Blake, a religion based on reason is just as destructive as one based on spiritual superstition. Just as the Church takes on the authority to prescribe moral laws for mankind, Rahab (natural religion) “Imput[es] Sin & Righteousness to Individuals” [Erdman 224], or forces arbitrary moral labels onto humanity, judging men with the same language (sin and righteousness) as the church.
The “mighty Hand” who begets Rahab also begets the Twelve Sons of Albion, who “combine into Three Forms, named Bacon & Newton & Locke.” Together, these emanations “Brood Abstract Philosophy. to destroy Imagination, the Divine- / -Humanity” (224). The great philosophers who are traditionally revered as men of understanding and progress are part of the system that Blake sees as misrepresenting divinity. The line break between “Divine-” and “-Humanity” is highly significant: destroying Imagination breaks the bond between divinity and humanity, which Blake represents by literally breaking the two words apart. Blake is showing the deists what will happen if they continue to cling to their misguided philosophy.
In a third instance, Blake takes the opportunity to both depict Abstract Philosophy in conflict with Imagination and remind readers of what Imagination really is. At the beginning of Jerusalem, the dark and chaotic, pre-salvation world is described as “A dark and unknown night, indefinite, unmeasurable, without end. /Abstract Philosophy warring in enmity against Imagination /(Which is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus. blessed for ever)” (148). The very reason for all the chaos is the war between Reason and Imagination. Blake uses parentheses as a subtle, whispered reminder that Imagination is Jesus, who is divine.
There is an echo of Christian liturgy in the line “Body of the Lord Jesus. blessed for ever.” Language usually associated with religious divinity would appeal to readers familiar with the words; it also lends an air of credibility to Blake’s work, if it appears as divinely inspired as the Bible was thought to be. Furthermore, the momentary association with the Church sets up a conflict between reason and religion as well as reason and imagination. But just because reason and imagination have a common enemy does not mean they are equals; to Blake, reason is still a destructive force while imagination is a creative one.
By eliminating religion and reason as pathways to transcendence, Blake removes alternatives to his way of thinking. If we are forced to agree with his basic precept that Imagination is the only means of transcendence, we must continue reading to find his specific method of achieving divinity: self-annihilation. Self-annihilation is the process of recognizing one’s errors and going on a spiritual quest to correct those errors. Theoretically, once the flawed human exterior is stripped away, what is left will be pure divine imagination. Like the more positive image of self-actualization, self-annihilation involves the achievement of one’s full potential; but whereas self-actualization requires the full embracing of one’s uniqueness, self-annihilation demands total abjuration of selfhood.
The problem with selfhood is that man mistakes the uniqueness attributed to him through individuality to be equivalent to divinity. Men are not divine because they are different from other men. Although they may express their divinity in unique ways through original expression of imagination, their fundamental divine-humanity is a collective concept, the same in every man. Men who value uniqueness are
Striving to Create a Heaven in which all shall be pure & holy
In their own Selfhoods, in Natural Selfish Chastity to banish
And dear Mutual Forgiveness; & to become One Great Satan
Inslavd to the most powerful Selfhood: to murder the Divine
In whose sight all are as dust & who chargeth his Angels with
These men are not trying to make themselves worthy for Heaven; they are trying to create a heaven in which their current state is considered holy. Since all men are in different stages of error and annihilation, there is no one heaven that can allow them all to be holy, especially if they are not exercising their holy faculty of imagination. Instead of finding transcendence, they become “inslaved to the most powerful Selfhood.” Such enslavement will “murder the Divine Humanity”; men will become so obsessed with maintaining their outer uniqueness, they will not use their imaginations and kill their divine potential.
The epic prophecy Milton a Poem in 2 Books is the story of an individual’s quest to rid himself of Selfhood through self-annihilation and find ultimate redemption. The quest is inspired by a Bard who sings,
I am Inspired! I know it is Truth! for I Sing
According to the inspiration of the Poetic Genius
Who is the eternal all-protecting Divine Humanity
To whom be Glory & Power & Dominion Evermore Amen (108).
The journey is inspired by the “Poetic Genius” or Imagination, which is synonymous with “Divine Humanity.” Imagination is the starting point, the goal, and the means of travel. The last line demands comparison to the Lord’s Prayer, one of the most important prayers in Christian liturgy, and perhaps more importantly, one that is common across all denominations of Christianity. It ends, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” Addressing “the Divine Humanity” in the same language the church uses to address God not only puts humanity on the same level as God; such a usage makes them the same being.
In this way, Blake cleverly avoids petty charges of blasphemy that could easily be leveled against him by the fundamentalist Christians he criticizes. From an evangelical point of view, it would be easy to discredit him by simply labeling him a heretic. It might even be true, if what Blake was doing was putting a sinful humanity on the same level with an omnipotent deity. To avoid just such an argument, Blake must completely reinvent and redefine our notion of divinity. By making humanity divine, he turns the tables on his detractors, turning they who deny that divinity into blasphemers. By making imagination divine, he accomplishes the same purpose toward the rational philosophers of the Enlightenment; by scoffing at imagination, they who search for empirical truth ironically fail to see the essential truth of humanity.
The use of familiar religious literary form underscores the divine nature of the words, although the Bard is significantly inspired not by the Christian God, but by the Poetic Genius. Blake, however, reverses the order in which glory, power and kingdom are offered, indicating the need for a reversal in the traditional Christian view of divinity. He also substitutes the word “dominion” for “kingdom”, the first having stronger connotations of absolute rule, dominance, and supremacy, signifying again the superiority of “Poetic Genius” to the more limited Christian deity.
Although inspired by the Bard’s song, it is Milton himself who recognizes his need to self-annihilate. He realizes that clinging to the conception of his earthly self has led him into error and even evil: “I in my Selfhood am that Satan: I am that Evil One!” (108). He declares his intention to renounce his Selfhood by stating, “I will go down to self annihilation and eternal death, /Lest the Last Judgment come & find me unannihilate / And I be siez’d & giv’n into the hands of my own Selfhood” (108). A willing and active process of transformation distinguishes Milton’s path from the Christian Judgment. In the Christian religion, sinful humanity has no real choice about how it is judged; a theoretically impartial third-party pardons or condemns souls after the fact, according to how well they spent their lives consistent with religious doctrine. Milton has much control over his fate; he may decide if and when to self-annihilate, and he is in control of the process. His own self-annihilation may even prompt the Last Judgment to occur; however, should the Judgment come and he has not fulfilled his quest, he will be condemned to the fate of Selfhood, the opposite of transcendent divinity, forever.
Starting off a fearful pilgrim, Milton gains enough confidence by the end of his journey to directly confront the Satan of his own Selfhood: “Satan! my Spectre! I know my power thee to annihilate /And be a greater in thy place…& put off /In Self annihilation all that is not of God alone: To put off Self & all I have ever & ever Amen” (139). He has come to understand that the power to reject Selfhood and find transcendence is his alone, not an external deity’s. God is once again redefined as an internal force, since Milton must remove everything within himself that is not divine. Repetition of liturgical speech (“ever & ever Amen”) again demands comparison to, or rather contrast with the Christian faith. Christian doctrine assumes an external God whose forgiveness must be asked before transcendence can occur. Using parallel language ironically underscores the vast ideological differences between the two systems.
Whereas Milton detailed one man’s quest of self-annihilation, Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion tells the story of the entire race of man’s journey of self-annihilation. The goal of transcendence in Jerusalem is at once more concrete, personified in arrival at the city of Jerusalem itself, and more abstract, as the symbolic Jerusalem represents many levels of divine-humanity. On its most basic level, Jerusalem is Blake’s symbol for liberty. He writes, “JERUSALEM IS NAMED LIBERTY / AMONG THE SONS OF ALBION” (171); later he uses nearly the same phrase, “Jerusalem is called Liberty among the Children of Albion” (203); nearly the same phrase: “named” has been changed to “called”. To name something is have superiority and power over it; by naming Jerusalem, the Sons of Albion, or humanity, have a role in creating it. To call something by a name implies that it exists already, independent of the will of man. Jerusalem is both at once; it is created by man as a physical embodiment of human imagination and it already inherently exists within humanity as the internal divinity man is searching for.
Liberty is one of Blake’s highest values; it is also a strikingly human invention. In the political context of the American and French Revolutions, both of which were founded on principles of liberty and both of which Blake supported, the notion of liberty is represented as God-given. The American Declaration of Independence declares that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these [is]…liberty.” Liberty is simultaneously a product of the human imagination and a gift from the pre-existing divine-humanity.
© Kara Peek