Those of us who know anything at all about the great English romantic poet/engraver/painter William Blake (1757–1827) usually only know that he produced a number of short lyric poems that rank among the greatest in the language, including the famous lines: “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright/ In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
If we know more, it is usually—and only vaguely—that Blake “saw” angels and that, in middle age (and possibly demented), he engraved a huge mass of clanking and largely incomprehensible “epic” poetry. Some even think consumption of the English romantic poet’s drug of preference, laudanum, seriously affected his execution of that poetry.
Certainly, as a child Blake had hallucinations of biblical proportions. When he was four years old, the appearance of God’s face at the window set him screaming. He observed the prophet Ezekiel sitting placidly beneath a tree. He only saw ghosts once, but it was a “scaly, speckled, very awful” creature that came down the staircase after him. All his life, which he spent in London, he lived in the apparent company of divine apparitions that made it seem as if he were already halfway to heaven. This wasn’t a boy who was easily moldable by society: In William Blake: The Politics of Vision (1957), Mark Schorer writes, “because as a child he could not brook discipline, and especially the indignity of whippings, William was not sent to school… At an early age, and at his own desire, he was given instruction in drawing, apprenticed to an engraver, and allowed to educate himself as he wished. His attitude toward churches was identical with his attitude toward schools. Except for a brief attachment to a Swedenborgian community, he seems in his youth, as in his age, to have kept himself free from all the claims of all the current dogma: a sectarian without a sect.”
But if the epic poems of this poet’s mature years sometimes seem to clank and are often over-long, there’s been no shortage of literary scholars, not only Schorer but such as Northrop Frye, to come to the defense of these mostly unread master works. They all agree that Blake’s poetry in general contains a whole new, brilliantly mystical-modern way of looking at the world. The poems reveal a multilevel reality, and in so doing have much of a startling nature to say to the serious New Age scholar seeking to understand the truths of Atlantis and other mysteries.
Blake was preoccupied by the same giant theme that preoccupied his fellow poet from an earlier age, John Milton: how it came to be that man “fell from grace,” was “banished from the Garden of Eden,” and eventually, through the birth and death of Jesus Christ, came to be placed back on the path to reclaiming that garden. In fact, Blake was so obsessed by Milton he even believed he was the reincarnation of the great English Puritan/epic poet who lived from 1608 to 1674 (reincarnation is perhaps not quite the right word; Blake’s thinking on this subject was complex and included the notion that a great artist’s work acquired an immortality or ‘supra-reality’ all its own, which work of Milton passed into Blake at his birth, to be elaborated upon and completed by Blake as he himself pursued his life as an artist).
But if, like Milton, Blake devoted much of his creative energy to the description and explanation of the fall and redemption of humankind, he did it in a strangely different way than did the more conventionally Christian Milton. Blake, after all, lived at the dawn of the nineteenth century, when technology was beginning to supplant religion; and he was decisively influenced by a group of writers who were falling through the cracks left by the schism between religion and science: the esotericists Boehme, Swedenborg, Paracelsus, Agrippa, and the collective figure of Hermes Trismegistus.
The notion of the fall of man and the banishment from the garden seems quaint and old-fashioned today; but for nearly two millennia its power was such as to keep Christian men and women subjugated by a sense of their own sinfulness. To oversimplify this concept: The idea of the fall says that man was once perfect but that, through the sin which the theologians call pride but which seems somehow to be also bound up with the dawning of self-consciousness, mankind ‘fell’ from God’s grace and ever since has been struggling to survive in a world of pain and sorrow. The coming of Christ, who according to the theologians died on the cross to “save us from our sins,” gave man a second chance, a sort of moral ‘clean slate’ upon which to prove himself worthy of re-entering Eden. When the Apocalypse comes and time itself is wiped out, those without sin will regain the Edenic garden of heaven.
These are the stories John Milton told in Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671), the former work being particularly memorable for its description of a fall from grace which included the descent into imperfection of every aspect of planetary life: The angels tilted the earth 23 degrees on its axis to cause the seasons; roses developed thorns; animals grew claws; and so on, until everything was barbed. Man, who was once one with God—as Jesus Christ would be—was now formidably cut off from his Maker.
Particularly in the later poems, such as The Four Zoas and Milton, Blake, influenced by esotericists like Jacob Boehme and driven by his own demanding genius, gave to this prodigious scenario a strange and startling twist. He tells us that not only man fell, but God fell, too. In fact, there was no physical universe at all until God-man fell; it was this very fall itself that gave rise to physical reality as we know it.
Such differences of metaphysical opinion—Milton believing man fell away from God in an already-created universe, Blake holding that man/God fell together, and this was the creation of the universe—may look like quibbling to those not already hooked on such ethereal debates. But by saying that God and man were one from the beginning, Blake compelled some thought-provoking questions, such as: What was God/man like before the fall? What exactly was that state of existence that preceded the creation of the physical universe (and which continued, since one of its attributes was that it was eternal)?
Since Blake believed God and man were one, he envisioned that pre-existing “heaven” in the shape of a man, whom he called ‘Albion’ (a name attributed in ancient times to Britain). Blake also called this perfect God-man, in his pre-fallen state, ‘Atlantis.’ The poet believed that the myth of Atlantis was a “remembering” of man’s first, primordial state in a perfection of godhood that took the form of a single giant man. Explains Northrop Frye in Fearful Symmetry (1947): “In the Golden Age before the Fall, humanity or ‘Albion’ dwelt at peace in its Paradise or Atlantis. The Fall produced a chaotic world and the central symbol of chaos is water. The Platonic story that Atlantis was overwhelmed by a flood gets the meaning of this clearer. The Atlantic Ocean, then, symbolizes the fallen world in Blake; he calls it the ‘Sea of Time and Space.’”
For those who believe that Atlantis, however lost it might now be, was once a hard and fast reality, such statements may seem like the letdown of the ages. But they are far from that—though grasping Blake’s full meaning isn’t easy in today’s world, dominated as it is by technology-enhanced physical reality. For Blake, the unfallen God/man Albion/Atlantis was sizzlingly more real than our puny constructions woven from time and space. In our time we are fighting against racism and sexism; Blake might have said we have a long way to go in fighting against something called “matterism,” or “physicalism”—the mistaken belief that physical reality is somehow harder, more real, more nuts-and-bolts, than what we’ve been calling the “spirit.”
To understand Blake’s meaning more fully, let’s continue to follow the God-man Albion as he plummets downward from perfection and a nonphysical universe, through seven stages, or “Eyes” (with this figure, Blake is in the company of a number of mystics), till at last he strikes rock-bottom, or more accurately becomes his own rock-bottom, reaching what Blake called the “Limit of Contraction”—confinement in the time-space universe that we know today. Critical to understanding this “fall” is Blake’s statement in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.” This means that, as Albion fell, or “contracted,” his organs of perception contracted as well, so that his perception of himself continually changed and devolved, diminishing in acuity and power. Closing up, he lost the ability to “see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour,” to quote Blake’s famous lines; today, we, the shattered debris of Albion, see only some sand and a wildflower, if we’re lucky. As Northrop Frye describes it: “When we say that man has fallen, we mean that his soul has collapsed into the form of the body in which he now exists…[in accordance with] the interdependence of the universe we see and the bodies which compel us to see it in that way.”
But Albion/Atlantis has not disappeared; it is all around us—more accurately, it is us—if we could but perceive it. Such arisen perception has been the goal of seers and mystics through the ages, whether through the use of meditation, or drugs, or austerities, or even, in our modern age, relatively simple psychotherapy. Such attainment isn’t easy; here’s Northrop Frye again on Blake: “Now we cannot by taking thought add a cubit to our statures; it is a change of worlds that is necessary, the lifting of the whole body to a fully imaginative plane by getting rid of the natural man… There is no soul within the body evaporating at death, but a living man armed with all the powers of his present body, infinitely expanded. The relation of soul to body is that of an oak to an acorn, not of a genie to a bottle. And there are no natural laws which the risen body must obey and no compulsory categories which it must perceive. It is impossible to picture this except in terms of what we now see, and providing angels with wings is about as far as we can get. As Blake says, ‘From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth;’ and we have no idea how many imaginative powers we do not possess…. because we perceive on the level of this body we see an independent nature in a looming and sinister perspective.”
Blake will still seem to us to be a fantasist, a lunatic, unless we try hard to understand that the seemingly iron-clad reality in which we live is really just a dream in comparison with the brilliant, bursting, searing, nuts-and-bolts reality in which the unfallen God-man Albion has his being. Let’s try an exercise: Imagine, as you are reading this, that you, now, wherever you are, are merely a thought, or that you are merely dreaming; that you and everything surrounding you has no physical reality at all—that everything that is really real is for the moment completely hidden from you.
Now imagine that this dream you’re dreaming is becoming, creepingly, a nightmare. Then do what we all do when we realize, while we are dreaming, that this dream we are dreaming is not reality, but a nightmare: Struggle to wrench yourself out of the nightmare.
Then imagine that you are lying in your bed, breathing quickly, relieved it was only a nightmare…
For Blake, all of time-space reality is in its essence merely a nightmare with the occasional high point. The poet invites us to wrench ourselves out of that nightmare, to begin the journey up and out into our unfallen selves—a journey which we cannot begin to imagine for, as we pursue it, our very organs of perception will expand, which is the same as saying everything will expand into something much vaster, stranger, richer than we can possibly imagine.