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William Blake Taylor Downs

Both religion and politics shape each other, without religion there

wouldn’t be laws, for nothing would be believed to be morally wrong, and if

there were no politics, no corruption, religions themselves wouldn’t have

been shaped at all. Throughout history, religion has been a major factor in

the decisions of war, of peace; in works of music, of art, and of literature.

Many writers have centered themselves on the importance of having faith, or

the peace or war in the world; however, one concluded both are mutually

important. William Blake’s work was written and published during the

eighteenth century, but wasn’t formally recognized for its significance until

forty or so years after his death. The views Blake expresses in his pieces,

religion aside, are full of metaphors that require the reader to think. To the

outside eye, many of his pieces are devoid of a real point, but after analyzing

them, one turns up Blake’s real views on his country, on war, on how other

humans view humanity. His literary language was what essentially got me

interested into his work; Blake draws inspiration from the revolutions and

changes in England, France, and America, as well as his own profound faith,

to create both engravings and literary works making his work part of the

romanticism movement.

William Blake was born in London on November 28, 1757. Unlike many

writers of his time, he was born to a place sitting precariously above working-

class poverty yet below middle class prosperity. His father James was a

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William Blake Taylor Downs

hosier, his wife Catherine was a year older than him and gave birth to seven

children, only five of which surviving past infancy. As a child he wandered the

streets of London, and preferred the quiet country just past it to the city

itself. From an early age, Blake believed God sent him visions, “…—at four he

saw God ‘put his head to the window’; around age nine, while walking

through the countryside, he saw a ‘tree filled with angels’.” His parents did

not believe their son and discouraged him from lying; however, they did

recognize that Blake was different from other children and did not force him

into conventional schooling – something Blake later expressed great

gratitude for. (Richardson)

He was primarily self taught, though he received instruction in

drawing, painting, and engraving. Blake began drawing lessons at the Henry

Pars’s academy at the age of ten; by fourteen he was apprenticed to the

master engraver James Basire. After completing his apprenticeship at the

age of twenty one, Blake enrolled in the Royal Academy, though he quickly

realized its theory and practice didn’t suit his artistic ideals and left the

academy promptly.

By 1780 Blake was receiving commissions for his engravings, one of

which being from Joseph Johnson who later became a tie to Blake’s later

published writings for children. In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher, an

illiterate woman who Blake taught to read, write, and draftsmanship; she

helped to print her husband’s works. A year after his marriage, the first of his

works was published. Poetical Sketches is considered, “a remarkable series

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of experiments in various styles and modes, including imitations of

traditional ballads…” (Richardson)

It is known that Robert was William’s youngest and favorite brother,

though he became ill whilst William taught him drawing, painting, and

engraving and died in 1787. As he died, Blake says he saw his brother’s spirit

soar through the ceiling, and later still believed his brother came to him – in

one instance Robert apparently taught Blake the secret of stereotype printing

in a dream.

Seven years after his brothers’ death, Songs of Innocence and its

companion text, Songs of Experience, were printed in 1794. Around this

same time, Blake published For Children: The Gates of Paradise, though later

he called it only The Gates of Paradise, and never specified it as a children’s

book. Though his work is now recognized as extraordinary and prophetic,

Blake’s work was not recognized as so in his time and the remainder of his

life he spent fighting poverty. He eventually died on August 17, 1826; his

wife four years his senior.

Before and during his marriage to Catherine, Blake became very

political and in 1780 he participated in the Gordon Riots. The Gordon Riots

were primarily the uprising of predominately protestant religions in London

against the Papists Act of 1778, which was the first act for Catholic relief. By

this Act, an oath was imposed, which attributed to Catholics, as that

excommunicated princes may lawfully be murdered, that no faith should be

kept with heretics, and that the pope has temporal as well as spiritual

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William Blake Taylor Downs

jurisdiction in this realm. The act exempted Catholics from taking the

religious vow when entering the British military; it was primarily passed

because of the British conflicts with France, Spain and America.

The American Revolution, which began in 1775, the declaration being

signed in 1783, was viewed by Blake as an example of youthful rebellion

against the forces of autocratic authority. From the beginning, he supported

American over his own country’s monarchy. This isn’t surprising, recognizing

Blake’s blatant anti-establishment beliefs. In 1793, Blake saved Thomas

Paine when he was risking being arrested by helping him to escape to

France.

In Blake’s opinion, the war between Britain and France in 1793, and the

introduction of laws of civil obedience were additional illustrations of the hold

which the Church and State held over the common people. Blake, while

being both radical and liberal in his political views, realized the youthful

rebellions, which had seemed to usher a change in human consciousness,

would soon give way to anarchy, bloodshed, and the imposition of new

stricter forms of social control in both his home, Britain, and France.

Until the late 20th century, racial, gender, and religious equality hadn’t

been reached. Throughout his life, Blake supported all forms, he believed

woman were on equal footing as men; slavery should be abolished, and that

all religions are alike (reflected in his poem, “All Religions are One”).

Romanticism is a style of art, music, and writing that originated in

England in the eighteenth century based on the premise of instinct and

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imagination. It, however, wasn’t only effected by artistic views but political

awareness as well. Many historians agree upon the period being “anti-

enlightenment,” meaning it challenges the fundamentals of the

Enlightenment period. On characteristic of the movement was forgetting

rationalism and returning to ideals of the medieval period – one main source

being God. The six main poets of the romantic period consist of William

Blake, William Wordsworth, Samual Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon, Percy

Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, who have been said to believe they,

“believe[d] that they were reviving the true spirit of English poetry by

pursuing the ‘romance’ and the sublime that was lost since Milton.” This

theme is later expressed throughout many of Blake’s works, notably, “There

is No Natural Religion,” and “All Religions are One.”

“There is No Natural Religion” was originally published in Songs of

Experience; it has two parts, the first of which explaining that without

teachings, there would be no thought of morality, the second being the

opposition, saying that everyone is born with the notion of right and wrong.

The opening lines of the poem, “The Argument Man has no notion of moral

fitness but from Education. Naturally he is only a natural subject to Sense,”

expresses the first view on the topic – backing up the fact that there is no

natural religion.

The debate on morality is a harsh one, is each man born with it, or is it

molded into him by other men? The excerpt, “Man cannot naturally Perceive.

But through his natural or bodily organs,” contrasts with the first line of part

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William Blake Taylor Downs

[b] of the poem, “Mans perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception.

He perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.” The first

refers that naturally, man can only view things the way his own body would

sense them, while the second explains that one is born with judgments and

perceptions.

Blake expresses the idea that man can only envy what man knows, not

what they potentially imagine, “Man’s desires are limited by his perceptions.

none could desire what he has not perceiv’d.” He then contradicts the view,

saying that man doesn’t need to know what he wants, but that man can

never be satisfied with the ever-present wish for what one doesn’t have. “If

the many became the same as the few, when possess’d, More! More! Is the

cry of a mistaken soul, less than All cannot satisfy Man.” Those two lines

portray Blake’s belief that there is a problem with how man perceives,

something reflected in many of his writings.

Blake concludes with his own beliefs that writers and prophets are

above followers, “If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character, the

Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand

still, unable to other thanrepeat the same dull round over again.” This

theme is expressed his other poems such as “All Religions are One” and “The

Divine Image,” as well.

Though Blake is proving different aspects in each part, he contrasts

each proposition with another. In part [a], he argues that, “’the real man, the

imagination,’ and God are all the same.” "He believes that natural

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experiences must be looked into in a more imaginative manner to see God,

to see religion. In part [b] he argues that to be infinite is the only way to see

God, for it is what God sees himself, but that to attain an infinite state, one

must be “possessed by the poetic character.”

The poem is “romantic” in many aspects, one being the adherent topic

of God in the piece – the main subject of religion; for one aspect of the

romantic movement was the rejection of “the enlightenment” and scientific

thinking. One closely related characteristic also shown in the poem is Blake’s

apparent view that man is born with intuition, that they think with feeling

and pre-formed views on morality.

“All Religions are One” is an example of Blake’s views on both equality

and the necessity of the poetic genius; it was his first attempt at an

illuminated manscript. The beginning principle states, “That the Poetic

Genius is the true Man. and that the body or outward form of Man is derived

from the Poetic Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from

their Genius. which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit & Demon.”

Blake seems to be conveying that the soul of man is the same, and that it is

portrayed through the case enwrapping it, the human body, and the poetic

genius shapes the soul, so the poetic genius also shapes everything to man.

Principle 5. in “All Religions are One” states, “The Religions of all

Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic

Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Philosophy.” Blake states that

philosophy and the poetic genius are one, meaning that when each nation

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looks at its roots of philosophy, they are looking at the work of the poetic

genius; said nation derives their religions from their interpretations of

ancient philosophies, so each man derives his religion from that of the poetic

genius.

After proving that all men are alike, Blake is able to prove through

Principle 7th that, “As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various) Religions & as

all similar have one source,” followed with, “The true Man is the source he

bring the Poetic Genius.” Each and every religion, each and every man,

derives from the previous writings of the poetic genius. Blake portrays the

idea that poetry brings one closer to the understanding of the “true

essence,” and thus brings us to God: poetry is divinely inspired. Meaning that

each religion comes from a once divinely inspired poem or story, and

branches from each nation’s interpretation of the poet genius’s words.

Accordingly, each man is shaped by what they know growing up, and what

they know is what they’re told, and what they’re told is what one has once

written; meaning that each man is a reflection of the poetic genius. Blake is

conceiving that he himself believes that humanity all derives from, originates

from, began with, the poetic genius; he believes that the poetic genius is to

thank for everything man perceives, is inspired by, and imagines.

“America a Prophecy” is just as the title conveys: a political allegory of

the American Revolution, a mixture of Blake’s mythical world and moral

tradition. It’s a metaphor “mythologizing [the American Revolution] in his

writings into the epic cosmic struggle between the forces of the Authoritarian

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Jehovah (the figure of (‘Urizen’) and the forces of youthful rebellion

(symbolized by the mythological figure of Orc).” (Brittan)

The tale begins in a description of Northern mythology, the woman

Blake refers to known as Vala. The red orc is the “imprisoned spirit of organic

life.” The fourteen years which Blake mentions represents the years of 1762-

1776 in America. Blakes aspirations are represented by political symbols of

revolt are introdued by Orc. By the silence of Vala, she represents nature.

Blake gives Orc voice by her rape, yet is felt as eternal death – Blakes

representation of generative life. (Erdman)

The King of England is recognized in the shape of a dragon, “The

eastern cloud rent; on his cliffs stood Albions wrathful Prince / A dragon form

clashing his scales at midnight he arose.” The following lines represent the

king not allowing the American colonies to break off by attempting to make

them fear him above all else, “And flam’d red meteors round the land of

Albion beneath. / His voice, his locks, his awful shoulders, and his glowing

eyes, / Appear to the Americans upon the cloudy night.” The fiery beast in

plate four represents the fight America put up when the king sent armies to

the colonies, their strive for independence, and the fear this put upon the

king, “The King of England looking westward trembles at the vision.”

(Erdman) The stone of night in plate five suggests a representation of Jacob

in Genesis 28:11 and the tablets of law. Both plates seem to represent a

bloody change. Plate six represents America’s Declaration of Independence.

Ironically, Albions Angel turns out to be formed as a serpent, being dragon of

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death, in plate number seven, “Art thou not Orc, who serpend-form’d /

Stands at the gate of Enitharmon to devoir her children…Why doust thou

ome to Angels eyes in this terrific form?” In plate eight, Orc identifies Urizen

with the Jehovah of Exodus, while “redeemed man” is identified with the

walkers in the furnace of Daniel. The angelic reply in plate nine attempts to

arouse the king’s governors against the Orc but Washington and the other

rebels have already turned toward England. Orc is the child of nature

rebelling against her restraints. Plate ten seems to be inspired by the tale of

Atlantis. In Blake’s tale, the “summit of Atlantis rise up again for Blake, as a

consequence of the American Revolution and the mythic revolt of Orc.”

(Erdman) Plates eleven through fourteen are the actions of America and are

spoken of in a promptly political way. The angels become devils and follow

Boston in its revolt against the British. Albion’s Angel sends enormous

plagues against the rebellion Americans, “for he claims to be the scourge of

God.” (Erdman) The plagues, however, are reversed onto the shores of

England in plate fourteen.

Throughout his lifetime, William Blake consistently attended to three

major interests: art, politics, and faith; he didn’t for one moment hold either

above the others and continuously intertwined all three amongst each other.

His art was forever inspired by the happenings in the world as well as his

own belief of his infinity as a poet – his own divine faith helped him to create

the now masterfully seen pieces of literature. From childhood visions, to

teenage apprenticeships, to adult protests, Blake rises above most other

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writers of his time with his true devotion. His work wasn’t recognized for its

true greatness until years after his own death, but today he is considered

one of the six major romantic era poets.

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