William Blake’s spiritual visions
Iain Sinclair visits William Blake’s grave and discusses the spiritual visions that made up such a significant part of his life and work. Filmed at Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, London.
We're in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, which is near Finsbury, just outside the walls of the City, where Blake was buried in 1827 and the point of this is that it's a Nonconformist Burial Ground – it's for the unofficial religionists – it's for the people who are dissident and difficult and so they're put just outside the City in this little oasis, with fig trees - a place of real calm.
One special aspect of Blake, is the way he sees his visions and the visions changed throughout his life – as a child – is this some sickly child, feverish, seeing visions? I don't think so, something else – he takes long walks out of Soho, where he lives, into the fields and he's in Peckham Rye – he sees a tree of angels – when he sees a tree shimmering, it looks like angels. He sees angels – they're angels to him. He sees figures at the window of his bedroom and as life goes on, these visions become more challenging. The old prophets, or Raphael, the painter, or some great figure he wants to discuss things with, appears in his chamber – it's a kind of séance. Other people find it difficult – for him, not. He's in that heightened sense of perception that other people achieve much later through Peyote or drugs, or some kind of experience that they've pushed their visionary entity – he didn't need to – it was natural, it was engrained in him.
I think it's impossible to detach Blake's radical spiritual beliefs from the radical political beliefs, because they all grew out of the same soil. Blake's spiritual beliefs sit on his own eccentric learning and studies. This idea that he must create his own system to avoid being enslaved by someone else's and he dives into The Old Testament, but he's also reading about Egyptian mythology, he's involved with the alchemists magicians of Europe, he reads Paracelsus and Boehme and he loves them because they're working men, who've suddenly been overcome by a sense of vision and he translated that into the substance of London. So that, always beneath the grey and the overcast skies and the slate-like streets, there would be a vein of gold shining and he would locate it.
William Blake has the notion that if you're on top of Primrose Hill, you can see London reborn as a kind of Jerusalem, that the fields of his – meadows of his childhood, growing up in Soho and walking out into the landscape around him, he finds the attributes of a Holy City and he believes that the pillars are there – in Marylebone, and Lambeth and so on, Islington – but it's a metaphor – it's a metaphor for renewing London, which becomes the poem, ‘Jerusalem’, but also, behind it, are these ‘dark satanic mills’ – the sense of the forces of industry, the forces of the new machines that are hammering and firing, the fires, the darkness – all of that makes a tremendous apocalyptic theatre, of which he's the master craftsman.
What people find a little difficult sometimes, is to understand the schizophrenic split between an ordinary man working away in his little house in Lambeth and the visionary prophet whose seeing great golden cities and how that argues with what's going on in the human world of industries developing machines, churning out flour, the noise, the dirt, the chimney sweeps, the prostitutes. There's a grain of something in him that stands him apart and is sometimes defined as madness – you know, more respectable poets sometimes thought he was brilliant, sometimes thought this is insane, this is derangement, how can someone talk to prophets – you know, that's what we have to understand – is the potentiality was there for the two things – the real world and the great world of the imagination. For someone like Blake living in London, was at risk – he could have been hanged for his parts in the Newgate mob and his attacks on owners who've maltreated children or any of these arguments he got into, so he's on the fringe of being arrested or even of being declared a madman.
One possible explanation is that Blake's revolutionary hopes, when he's wearing the red bonnet, when he's excited by the American colonies throwing off the yoke and the French getting rid of their King – that great moment disappears. It becomes bloody and apocalyptic and dark and the forces of repression and the soldiers are closing it down in London, so maybe in some senses, Blake withdraws from that political world and puts all of those energies into the spiritual world – so he then has to invent, on an epic scale, even more terrifying wrestlings and collisions and damage, chains, forges, manacles – all of those fetishistic items become part of his poems and his great human entities are struggling with them.
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The French Revolution inspired London radicals and reformers to increase their demands for change. Others called for moderation and stability, while the government tried to suppress radical activity. Professor Andrew Lincoln describes the political environment in which William Blake was writing.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience contains two poems about young chimney sweepers: one in 'Innocence' and one in 'Experience'. Dr Linda Freedman considers how this allows for a complex, subtle engagement with the figure of the sweep.