Far from being an isolated mystic, Blake lived and worked in the teeming metropolis of London at a time of great social and political change that profoundly influenced his writing. After the peace established in 1762, the British Empire seemed secure, but the storm wave begun with the American Revolution in 1775 and the French Revolution in 1789 changed forever the way men looked at their relationship to the state and to the established church. Poet, painter, and engraver, Blake worked to bring about a change both in the social order and in the minds of men.
O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water, / Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile & fall?”
1789, The Book of Thel. Thel is a maiden who laments the passing of youth and of innocence.
His lifelong engraving practice had exposed him to noxious coppery fumes damaging to his immune system. Lethal as well as enlivening, his muse, in exchange for genius, had exacted his breath. Blake was art’s martyr.
And so, committed to the last of the flame consuming his, his joy outweighing the pain, he continued, as he lay on his deathbed, to sketch, driven to convert, for one final spell, his quick thoughts into lively lines. But his brain soon slowed, beginning its descent into the inevitable dimness, and his competent hand faltered. Now, he believed, was the hour. He would have to leave his configurations of heaven undone. He set his instruments aside, his now-dull pencil and his paper riddled with shades.
The “Proverbs of Hell” are clearly designed to shock the reader out of his commonplace notion of what is good and what is evil:
Prisons are built with stones of Law,
Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
It is the oppressive nature of church and state that has created the repulsive prisons and brothels. Sexual energy is not an inherent “evil,” but the repression of that energy is. The preachers of morality fail to understand that God is in all things, including the sexual nature of men and women.
Urizen explores the fallen world, spreading his “Net of Religion” over the cities of men:
And their children wept, & built
Tombs in the desolate places,
And form’d laws of prudence, and call’d them
The eternal laws of God.
In his fallen state man has limited senses and fails to perceive the infinite. Divided from God and caught by the narrow traps of religion, he sees God only as a crude lawgiver who must be obeyed.
Visions of the Last Judgement
For the Year 1810
Additions to Blake’s Catalogue of Pictures &c
The Last Judgment [will be] when all those are Cast away who trouble Religion with Questions concerning Good & Evil or Eating of the Tree of those Knowledges or Reasonings which hinder the Vision of God turning all into a Consuming fire. When Imaginative Art & Science & all Intellectual Gifts, all the Gifts of the Holy Ghost, are lookd upon as of no use & only Contention remains to Man, then the Last Judgment begins, & its Vision is seen by the Imaginative Eye of Every one according to the situation he holds.
[PAGE 68] The Last Judgment is not Fable or Allegory but Vision. Fable or Allegory are a totally distinct & inferior kind of Poetry. Vision, or Imagination, is a Representation of what Eternally Exists, Really & Unchangeably. Fable or Allegory is Formd by the daughters of Memory. Imagination is Surrounded by the daughters of Inspiration, who in the aggregate are calld Jerusalem. [P 69] Fable is Allegory, but what Critics call The Fable is Vision itself. [P 69] The Hebrew Bible & the Gospel of Jesus are not Allegory, but Eternal Vision, or Imagination of All that Exists. Note here that Fable or Allegory is Seldom without some Vision. Pilgrim’s Progress is full of it, the Greek Poets the same; but Allegory & Vision ought to be known as Two Distinct Things, & so calld for the Sake of Eternal Life. Plato has made Socrates say that Poets & Prophets do not know or Understand what they write or Utter; this is a most Pernicious Falshood. If they do not, pray is an inferior Kind to be calld Knowing? Plato confutes himself.
The Last Judgment is one of these Stupendous Visions. I have represented it as I saw it.
To different People it appears differently, as [P 69] every thing else does; for tho on Earth things seem Permanent, they are less permanent than a Shadow, as we all know too well.
The Nature of Visionary Fancy, or Imagination, is very little Known, & the Eternal nature & permanence of its ever Existent Images is considered as less permanent than the things of Vegetative & Generative Nature; yet the Oak dies as well as the Lettuce, but Its Eternal Image & Individuality never dies, but renews by its seed. Just so the Imaginative Image returns by the seed of Contemplative Thought. The Writings of the Prophets illustrate these conceptions of the Visionary Fancy by their various sublime & Divine
Images as seen in the Worlds of Vision. * * *
Let it here be Noted that the Greek Fables originated in Spiritual Mystery [P 72] & Real Visions, Which are lost & clouded in Fable & Allegory, while the Hebrew Bible & the Greek Gospel are Genuine, Preservd by the Saviour’s Mercy. The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavour to Restore what the Ancients calld the Golden Age.
[PAGE 69] This 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 body. This World of Imagination is Infinite & Eternal, whereas the world of Generation, or Vegetation, is Finite & Temporal. There Exist in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature.
All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the Divine [P 70] body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, The Human Imagination, who appeard to Me as Coming to Judgment among his Saints & throwing off the Temporal that the Eternal might be Establishd. Around him were seen the Images of Existences according to a certain order suited to my Imaginative Eye. * * *
[PAGE 87] Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & governd their Passions, or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion, but Realities of Intellect from which All the Passions Emanate Uncurbed in their Eternal Glory. The Fool shall not enter into Heaven, let him be ever so Holy. Holiness is not The price of Enterance into Heaven. Those who are cast out Are All Those who, having no Passions of their own because No Intellect, Have spent their lives in Curbing & Governing other People’s by the Various arts of Poverty & Cruelty of all kinds.
Wo Wo Wo to you Hypocrites! Even Murder the Courts of Justice, more merciful than the Church, are compelld to allow, is not done in Passion but in Cool Blooded Design & Intention.
The Modern Church Crucifies Christ with the Head Downwards.
[PAGE 92] Many persons such as Paine & Voltaire, with some of the Ancient Greeks, say: “We will not converse concerning Good & Evil; we will live in Paradise & Liberty.” You may do so in Spirit, but not in the Mortal Body as you pretend, till after the last Judgment; for in Paradise they have no Corporeal & Mortal Body—that originated with the Fall & was calld Death & cannot be removed but by a Last Judgment; while we are in the world of Mortality we Must Suffer. The Whole Creation Groans to be deliverd; there will always be as many Hypocrites born as Honest Men & they will always have superior Power in Mortal Things. You cannot have Liberty in this World without what you call Moral Virtue, & you cannot have Moral Virtue without the Slavery of that half of the Human Race who hate what you call Moral Virtue.
* * *
Thinking as I do that the Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being, & being a
Worshipper of Christ, I cannot help saying: “The Son, O how unlike the Father!” First
God Almighty comes with a Thump on the Head. Then Jesus Christ comes with a balm to
The Last Judgment is an Overwhelming of Bad Art & Science. Mental Things are alone Real; what is Calld Corporeal Nobody Knows of its dwelling Place; it is in Fallacy & its Existence an Imposture. Where is the Existence Out of Mind or Thought? Where is it but in the Mind of a Fool? Some People flatter themselves that there will be No Last Judgment, & [P 95] that Bad Art will be adopted & mixed with Good Art, That Error or Experiment will make a Part of Truth, & they Boast that it is its Foundation. These People flatter themselves; I will not Flatter them. Error is Created; Truth is Eternal. Error or Creation will be Burned Up, & then & not till then Truth or Eternity will appear.
It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it. I assert for My self that I do not behold the Outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. “What,” it will be Questioned, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight: I look thro it & not with it.