Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 15. His Theory of Imagination

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IX. Blake

§ 15. His Theory of Imagination

But the main points of his later creed are comprehended in his theory of imagination, the most complete and intelligible statement of which is contained in the prose note in the Rossetti MS. on the design for A Vision of the Last Judgment. The following quotation shows how Blake returned to and elaborated his earlier doctrines of the Divine Image and the Poetic Genius.

  • The world of imagination is the world of eternity. It is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated [i.e. mortal] body. This world of imagination is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation is finite and temporal. There exist in that eternal world the eternal realities of everything which we see reflected in this vegetable glass of nature. All things are comprehended in the divine body of the Saviour, the true vine of eternity, the Human Imagination, who appeared to me coming to judgment … and throwing off the temporal that the eternal might be established.
  • For Blake saw all things under the human form: “all are men in eternity.” And, to Crabb Robinson, he said “we are all coexistent with God; members of the Divine body, and partakers of the Divine nature”; or, again, concerning the divinity of Christ, “He is the only God.… And so am I and so are you.” From this follows the insistence on vision, the immediate perception of the “infinite and eternal’ in everything; literally, “To see a World in a grain of Sand.” In such a theory of knowledge, reason and sense-perception cannot have place; they, with the phenomenon of a corporeal universe, are part of the error of natural religion, the fallacies of moral valuation and of penal codes completing it. Even Wordsworth’s attitude to nature is condemned as atheism. Thus “all life consists of these two, throwing off error … and receiving truth.” In the former case, the conflict is against the unregenerate influences within and without; man must “cleanse the face of his spirit” by self-examination, casting off the accretions of merely mundane experience, till the identity of the individual with the universal is established in what Blake calls the Last Judgment. The positive aspect of visionary activity in mortality is a constant seeking after the revealed truths of imagination, which are comprehended in Jesus.
  • “I know of no other Christianity” he writes “than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination … The Apostles knew of no other Gospel. What were all their spiritual gifts? What is the Divine Spirit? Is the Holy Ghost any other than an Intellectual Fountain?… What are the Treasures of Heaven which we are to lay up for ourselves? Are they any other than Mental [i.e. Imaginative] Studies and Performances? What are the Gifts of the Gospel? are they not all Mental Gifts?”
  • What Blake states thus impressively in his prose, is stated under a bewildering variety of apparently unconnected symbolic episodes, in Jerusalem. Man, or Albion, is the battle-ground wherein the forces of imagination contend against the forces of natural religion: Jesus against Satan: Los against his spectre: Vala or Babylon against Jerusalem, till error is consumed and Albion reascends into the bosom of the Saviour. Yet, in spite of formlessness and incoherence in statement, the underlying body of doctrine is remarkably consistent. In the later Lambeth books, Blake seems to have written under a jaded inspiration. Here, however, the very intensity of his conviction and the fecundity of his imagination, militated against lucidity and order. Moreover, he deliberately adopted the symbolic medium as translating his visions with less of the distracting associations of ordinary experience than must have beset normal speech. And, if his visions were unintelligible, the fault lay in the reader, who had neglected to cultivate his imaginative faculty; in Blake’s sweeping condemnation, they were “fools” and “weak men,” not worth his care. Aesthetically, Jerusalem suffers much from this perversity, though the poet in Blake at times masters the stubborn mass of his symbolism, turning it for a brief space to forms of beauty or power. And there always remains the high nobility of the gospel which he proclaimed, and according to which he lived.

    The theme and dramatic form of The Ghost of Abel (1822) were suggsted by Byron’s Cain, wherein, as Blake believed, the scriptural account of the punishment of Cain is misinterpreted in conformity with the heresy of the churches, which declare Jehovah to have been the author of the curse. Blake, however, attributes it to Satan, “God of this World,” the “Elohim of the Heathen”; for the gospel of Jehovah is “Peace, Brotherhood and Love.” Then, in the Laocoon aphorisms, he turns, for the last time, to his doctrine of imagination, and gives it final form by identifying Christianity and art. Jesus and his apostles were artists, and who would be Christians must practise some form of art, for, as Crabb Robinson reports him, inspiration is art, and the visionary faculty, equally with every other, is innate in all, though most neglect to cultivate it.