Sunday 7 November 2010

To affirm the material

In my book I write about 'poetic knowledge' and the importance of imagination as a vehicle of truth. One of the key figures in the English Romantic movement - worth more than a brief mention - is William Blake, who died in 1827. He was influenced by, among other things, Jacob Boehme’s and Emmanuel Swedenborg’s astonishing visions of inner worlds and the “new Church” of the Spirit; but also by his friend Thomas Taylor’s powerful translations of the works of Plato. Blake worked as an engraver and painter, designing visionary images that are nearly always striking, if not startling. He was also a poet and a prophet, expressing his prophetic inspiration through a vast and obscure mythology. These mythological writings represent the triumph of human freedom and the liberation of human energies by means of a cosmic war that rages from Eden through America and Albion to the end of the world.

In keeping with the spirit of these works, Blake was a radical in social thought, and a heretic in religious belief. He raged against the “dark, satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution that were destroying Nature and the traditions of human craftsmanship, and against “Newton’s sleep”, the Rationalism that he believed was destroying the life of the Imagination. Interestingly, despite Blake's heretical tendences, in the biography that G.K. Chesterton published in 1910 he presents Blake and St Thomas Aquinas as warriors fighting in the same war, and even on the same side. Chesterton contrasts two types of mysticism, that of Christendom and that of Orientalism. The latter is the mysticism of oversimplification, of the dissolution of many into one. But Blake, he argues, “was on the side of historic Christianity on the fundamental question on which it confronts the East; the idea that personality is the glory of the universe and not its shame”.

So Blake’s heathen mysticism was on the side of Christendom against the Orient. And thus Blake and St Thomas are agreed that “the highest dogma of the spiritual is to affirm the material”. Aquinas confirms Blake’s fundamental intuition that things are more real, not less real, than they appear to us. “And there is an upper world of what the Schoolman called Fruition, or Fulfilment, in which all this relative relativity becomes actuality; in which the trees burst into flower or the rockets into flame”.


  1. What an excellent reading of Blake. I had not yet considered his beliefs as consistent with the importance of the material world and of human personality. Does Chesterton write about Blake in his biography of St. Thomas, or did he write a separate biography of Blake?

  2. Yes, he wrote a separate biography in 1910, called 'Blake' (in a series about artists). Unfortunately, unlike most of his works, it is not available online. Some enterprising publisher should reprint it with lots of nice illustrations.

  3. Quite informative information on your post.looking forward for some futher information.
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