This weekend marks the 258th birthday of English artist and poet William Blake. We celebrate Blake’s radical vision today, but his mystical, idiosyncratic views on religion, philosophy, and sex made him a target of criticism during his time.
“It has to be remembered that Blake was almost completely forgotten at the time of his death in a tiny two-room apartment in Fountain Court, a narrow alley off the Strand in London, in 1827,” writes Richard Holmes for the New York Review of Books. “He had sold less than thirty copies of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). Of the great illuminated Prophetic Books, The French Revolution (1791) had never been published for fear of prosecution, only four copies of Milton (1804/1810) were printed in his lifetime, and only five of his tortured, apocalyptic masterwork Jerusalem (1810/1820), of which just two fully colored originals now remain.”
Here are several controversial aspects about Blake’s sexual views and spiritual life that you might not know, and that scholars have reconsidered since his time.
Blake experienced mystical visions throughout his lifetime
The Bible had an early, profound influence on Blake, and it would remain a lifetime source of inspiration, coloring his life and works with intense spirituality. At an early age, Blake began experiencing visions, and his friend and journalist Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window when Blake was 4 years old. He also allegedly saw the prophet Ezekiel under a tree and had a vision of “a tree filled with angels.” Blake’s visions would have a lasting effect on the art and writings that he produced.
Blake also claimed he encountered Satan on the staircase of his South Molton Street home in London.
Blake liked to read in the nude . . . maybe
Since Blake was often perceived as a madman for his eccentric views, there are a few stories about the exploits of Blake and Catherine Boucher, his wife, that may or may not be true:
From author Michael Davis:
Blake’s independence of thought may have led him to behave eccentrically, but not in the whimsical way that some stories about him suggest. [Alexander] Gilchrist [Blake’s Victorian biographer] writes that Thomas Butts, Blake’s patron, called one day and found the Blakes sitting naked in the summer-house at the end of their garden. ‘”Come in!” cried Blake; “it’s only Adam and Eve, you know!” Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost in character. If there is truth in Gilchrist’s dubious story, then the pair may have been testing, with their nude bodies, postures for use in Blake’s designs.
Blake’s spiritual experiences found him crossing paths with Moravians, Swedenborgianism, the Kabbalah, and Tantric practices
Blake’s mother belonged to a radical Christian sect known as the Moravian Church. An off-shoot of Methodism, the Moravians were led by the charismatic Count Nicoulas von Zinzendorf, who preached of mystical marriage, blood-and-wounds mysticism and antinomian sexual practices. Zinzendorf wrote many sexually charged hymns for the congregation to sing for the purpose of entering liturgical ecstasis. Many of his sermons dealt with sucking of Christ’s side-hole puncture wound, which serves as a symbol of a vaginal or womb-like portal birthing purified souls. . . . Zinzendorf also held a deep affinity for the Kabbalah. . . . Zinzendorf’s fascination with the Kabbalah was shared by his contemporary Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a scientist, theologian, and mystic hailing from Sweden. While there is no official record of him ever joining the Moravians, Schuchard is convinced that he attended Zinzendorf’s sermons while visiting London. Swedenborg was known for falling into spontaneous trances, and his writings detail his intense visions of heaven and hell. Like Zinzendorf, Swedenborg’s fascination with the Kabbalah was in the “mystical marriage” element—or what he referred to as “conjugial love.” Where Zinzendorf espoused an erotic philosophy that could be taken for what today is known as polyamory, Swedenborg’s “conjugial love” was a monogamous enterprise. However, Swedenborg was fascinated upon hearing from missionaries and traders reports of Tantric yoga and the sacred sexuality of the East. He was particularly fascinated with the concept of the sacred lingam and yoni as they corresponded to the Holy of Holies, as well as stories of yogis withholding ejaculation at the moment of orgasm (Schuchard alleges that he even received instruction in how to perform this operation). As a scientist, Swedenborg had an extensive knowledge of the human body and held the cremaster as instrumental in achieving states of sexual trance.
Blake wanted to bring a mistress into his marriage
The Blakes were married until his death, but there was a time when he wanted to bring a mistress into the marriage, causing strain on the relationship. His 1793 poem e, which Ultraculture calls an “instruction manual for his wife,” attacked chastity and marriage, and defended a woman’s right to seek self-fulfillment.
Blake wrote other poems about free love
“Why should I be bound to thee, O my lovely Myrtle-tree?”
Why should I be bound to thee, O my lovely Myrtle-tree? Love, free Love, cannot be bound To any tree that grows on ground.
Break this heavy chain, That does freeze my bones around Selfish! vain! Eternal bane! That free Love with bondage bound.
Blake wrote several poems about the church’s oppressive attitude toward sexuality
In “The Garden of Love,” Blake describes a grim scene in a chapel in the Garden of Love:
And I saw it was filled with graves, And tombstones where flowers should be; And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, And binding with briars my joys & desires.
Blake’s book Vala, or The Four Zoas was too graphic for W. B. Yeats
Yeats described Blake as one of the “great artificers of God who uttered great truths to a little clan.” He deeply admired him, but chose to omit the phallic/sexual images from Blake’s unfinished book Vala, or The Four Zoas, which emphasizes the relationship between sex and spirit, when Yeats published it in 1893.
Blake wrote a book claiming “poetic genius” was far greater than theological belief
From writer Paul Mitchell:
In 1788 he produced his first illuminated book, All Religions are One. According to Blake, all religions were products of the Imagination or Poetic Genius and therefore contain the same essential truths. This idea was one strand of deism, that was a half way house between full-blown revelatory religion and secularism. In part, it was a response to the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that increasingly displaced religion. Blake wrestled with this development and what he saw as its implication—in a world that can be explained rationally, what role is there for the imagination and, ultimately, for the artist? It was a complaint voiced by other Romantic artists, who criticised the scientists and philosophers who seemed to make humans passive creatures without creative reason and imagination. However, it cannot be regarded simply as a reactionary movement against rational thought. It was part and parcel of the Enlightenment—the complex cultural phenomenon that addressed many of the questions in science, society and the arts that a previous generation could not begin to examine.