Would God All Were Prophets

William Blake’s Anti-Chiliastic Mysticism and the Aesthetic Experience of God

1. Hail Horrors

Who is the Devil? It’s rather an odd question to lead with — this isn’t a theological think-piece (for the most part), neither is it a Sermon, and even then one rarely hears Satan spoken of these days even from the pulpit. It’s not a matter that concerns most people, even fervent believers; one doubts when Luther hurled his ink-well (or was it a chamber pot?) at his tormenter, the young monk gave much thought to whom he was attacking. Angels, demons, saints, spirits — these are the interest of an odd few mystics or cranks on the outer limits of polite discourse, and of poets, who in ancient times were often the same people. Poesy in recent history is so thoroughly democratized that it has lost the place it typically — one might even say naturally — occupies in a civilization. We are afforded only rarely a glimpse of a true poet, in the sense of the myth-maker, the mouthpiece of Creator and ensouled Creation, what Plato called the Forms and what more recently has been called Nature and Nature’s God. No mere artist, the Poet gives voice to the Soil from which a civilization grows; he is a mouthpiece for a sort of personality of things that remains unnamed in the West, what the Japanese ambiguously call 神(kami). The Poet is someone who can name the Devil and, naming him, define him; the true Poet is, therefore, necessarily rare.

We do not mean to restrict the title of Poet — though Medieval and Ancient writers certainly did — but to define a sort of Form to which some Poets strive nearer and from which others drift further. It is a far more effective way to understand the great Poets than the antiquarian categorization by era and “movement”, especially as those movements and ideologies multiply as artists become more and more ubiquitous (and less and less genuinely artistic). True Poets pose a conundrum for the timeline-makers; how do we classify those in the midst of a movement who do not represent its spirit, but nevertheless cannot be considered hold-overs from a previous era either? Blake and Coleridge are hardly formal Neoclassicists, but are they really Romantics the way Wordsworth and Byron were? Blake, in particular, shares with the Romantics only his keen self-awareness, a self-awareness he turned to what he called “prophecy”, but in many ways was little more than the channelling of a forgotten aesthetic and method of the same Classics he outwardly spurned. Blakes mysticism confounds and misdirects, and has earned him accolades and condemnations for things he neither believed nor taught — and nothing reveals more thoroughly the root of his Aesthetic than the figure Blake spent most of his earthly pilgrimage grappling with.

2. Dark Satanic Mills

No English thinker or artist dealt more directly with the Devil prior to William Blake than John Milton; little surprise, then, that the former should be so fascinated with the latter. Blake’s view of Milton as the Devil’s unwitting partisan has become the received opinion in literary criticism; how sad that it should have thus found its way into undergraduate reflections on Milton by students of all ages who never seem to make it more than a book and a half into Paradise Lost. To such eyes, Satan is heroic — and this interpretation of Blake’s reading of Milton is so easily rebutted by finishing the poem, and the profundity of Blake’s declaration lost for good on those who think that he, like themselves, dwelt too much on a partial reading. Satan, though, to Blake is far more specific than merely the Archdemon and Patron of Rebellion — indeed, the creative energies which make poesy possible would never be divine if Divinity condemned rebellion qua rebellion. Satan, pride incarnate, is for Blake he who assumes a place and role which is not his own, and, usurping this place, be it from his betters or from his co-equals of another employ, throws the balance of Creation (and, in turn, individual acts of creation) into chaos and binds the most vital elements of the human soul.

Naturally, Blake’s mystical poesy, and his great work as a Poet (evidenced by the way it has been usurped to serve more vulgar ends) is Milton , a two-book Epic which opens with the poem “And did those feet in ancient times”, more popularly known as the hymn Jerusalem. Published as a sequel — or perhaps better, a fulfillment of reflections he had begun in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which he offers his strongest critique of Milton turning Jehovah, the demon of Creation, into the Messiah figure, burying the divine person of Jesus Christ beneath a facade. By the time of Milton, however, Blake’s uninventive gnosticism has blossomed into a far more profound theology that completely reinterprets what Roman Catholics refer to as the Beatific Vision. His view is heretical by any orthodox Christian standard, but his heterodoxy is so unique among his contemporaries that its implications have been missed and Blake conflated with the utopian preachers of the New Age that will be brought about through scientific advance and social reform. Blake was no Chiliast, though his own poem has been adopted as a theological statement of those who “shall not rest of mental fight… til we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”. This is why Blake is so difficult to place within the Romantic movement, for Romanticism is nothing if not Utopian, dedicated as much as its Enlightenment foil to the New Age of mankind. It is all illusion to the Poet, though, who rejects the material changes to culture and seeks a new birth of Wisdom and the Imagination — a sort of Nietzschean Dionysian impulse before The Birth of Tragedy could assign it a name.

3. Stranger in a Strange Land

The figure who opens Milton is not the poet himself, nor Blake the narrator, but Moses. The accusation that the falsity of the Classics has been chosen over the Sublime Wisdom of scripture closes with “And Did those feet in ancient times” and a citation from Numbers xi. Answering Blake’s call to turn to the Bible, perhaps it’s worth examining the context of Blake’s exasperated cry — “Would to God all the Lord’s people were prophets!” It is not safe to assume the poet merely chose the citation to stand alone, an arbitrary reference for poetry’s sake — he knew the context and wished to impart it to his poem. Numbers 11 opens with the Children of Israel complaining to Moses — complaining of afflictions sent upon them for their sins, complaining of the lack of meat and of the manna that was their sole source of sustenance — and Moses, in frustration, turned to God and asked why he had been asked to tolerate such an ungrateful and faithless people who turned from their God and Saviour at every opportunity. Numbers xi, 10 has it: “the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased.” Together, God and His Prophet confer. One must picture Blake imagining himself in the mind of Moses here:

And Moses said unto the Lord, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat. I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.

And the Lord said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone. And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow, and ye shall eat flesh: for ye have wept in the ears of the Lord, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the Lord will give you flesh, and ye shall eat. Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the Lord which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?

The mystic Blake has elsewhere equated Manna with Divine love in The Book of Thel, and in the same poem writes:

…rejoice thou humble grass, thou new-born lilly flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys. and of modest brooks;
For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna:
Till summers heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs
To flourish in eternal vales…

Here we have a clear progression: transfiguration, consumption of manna, and assumption into heaven through the annihilation of physical form. The children of Israel who rejected the spiritual food and their own transfiguration, who hungered after the “meat” of this world — like Blake’s worldly friend Hayley, the Satan character of Milton, who takes upon the role of elder and advisor to Blake, a role which is not his, and advises Blake towards the abandonment of his mystical work towards more pragmatic and lucrative forms of writing. Poetry, though, is a communion for Blake: to be transfigured and eat of the manna of heaven is one and the same experience. In Numbers, when the spirit of the Lord descends upon the 70 Elders, they begin to prophesy in the midst of the tabernacle, and after they depart the tabernacle, two of them go and prophesy among the people. The other Elders, who cease prophesying after leaving the tabernacle, appeal to Moses to silence these two, and it is then that Moses says “Would to God all the Lord’s people were prophets!” It is a lonely cry, one which in Blake’s reading must have been made with a deep sigh, an idle wish of a tired old man who has born the burden of “a stiff-necked people”.

4. Was Jerusalem Builded Here?

Blake is undoubtedly a Gnostic in his view of God as sublime and immaterial, all material creation being the work of and servant of the false Jehovah, the true Satan, a usurper and defiler. In Milton, the title character cannot effect his own emancipation until he has wrestled with his own darkened, material self, defeating the Puritanical hope of material improvement and turning instead to the exhaltation of the imagination. It is this — imagination — which is for Blake the True Jerusalem, and the spiritual organ through which man is transfigured. Thus one finds Blake’s experience of God to be a decidedly aesthetic one, defined by the undefined qualities which make an aesthetic — perfection, perceived or perhaps even felt by the imagination, inspiring it to action. It is the spirit of God descending upon the 70 Elders, causing them to prophesy, as Blake did through his poetry.

Blake’s conflicted relationship with Milton the man and Milton the poet is precisely this: the Imagination of Milton, open to the inspiration to prophesy, and the Puritan Milton, whose slavery to Urizen darkens his visions. Thus in the culimation of the poem, the prophecy is fulfilled that was “in Eden recorded that Milton of the land of Albion should up ascend, forwards frol Ulro, from the Vale of Felpham, and set free Orc from his chain of jealousy”. As Maclagan and Russell write in their introduction to Milton, “the person of Orc is used by Blake to represent ‘the fires of youth’, which were by nature free and untamed” — a sort of Dionysian spirit bound by the Apollonian Satan/Jehovah. (One suddenly realises what great influence Blake exercised upon Tolkien). It is clear that for Blake, the person of Jesus Christ was an agent of the True God, who transfigures Moses and inspires the 70 Elders (and Blake himself) to prophesy.

Thus the story of Christ visiting Albion in His youth is not merely a mythology into which Blake enters his epic, but a spiritual experience of the ancient people of England, for only a true Prophet of the True God could open their imagination to receive Himself. Blake the Poet thereby aspires to restore this reign of the Imagination as a spiritual organ among the English people, caught in the mires of material both in their idealism and in their reality. Thus Blake declares he shall not cease of mental fight, “’til Jerusalem is builded here, in England’s green and pleasant land.” Far from the Utopian, Blake’s mysticism seeks to open his audience to the direct experience of God as Beauty, the sole creation of the Transfigured Imagination.

Who, then, is the Devil? For his oddities, Blake offers us a useful Satan, a ubiquitous Devil deeply planted in modernity and truly to be feared and avoided. He is the pretender — the critic, the sophist, the pragmatist, the political actor, in opposition to the poet, the philosopher, the mystic, and the apolitical creator.

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Author: Walter Devereux

1 thought on “Would God All Were Prophets

  1. Sublimely written and thoroughly engaging exposition on a man and poet commonly misinterpreted and misunderstood. Mr. Devereaux also illuminates the abject neglect of society’s desperate need for (excellent) poets.

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