London: Watkins, 2015. 378 pp., hardcover, $23.30.
Many of us will be familiar with William Blake’s words:
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.
We might wonder: “What was the source of Blake’s inner vision?” The answer is to be found in this illuminating biography of the man born in London in 1757, who at fourteen would serve a seven year apprenticeship as an engraver, but who would turn out to be so much more than that.
Blake grew up in an era rife with revolution. The cry for liberty was heard not only in America’s thirteen states but in the streets of London as well. Young Blake found the clamor for freedom inspiring, but he experienced it on a deeper level than most, for he saw the worldly cry as one stemming from an inner call for spiritual revolution: a revolution of the heavens within man, a time of revelation. He would be its prophet.
Blake was not the era’s only prophet. Emanuel Swedenborg, dying in London around the time Blake began his apprenticeship, had written Heaven and Hell, influencing Blake in seeing “heaven” — the infinite spiritual, inner worlds — as being very close, interacting with man in the world, its “mansions” corresponding to all that we see and feel. On the other hand, philosophers like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in Germany followed England’s John Locke in declaring Reason the messiah of man’s fortunes in the world, a perception against which Blake reacted vehemently. Blake caricatured Reason as Urizen: a false, blind, cold deity, ignorant of a higher principle.
Blake understood what his French contemporary Antoine Fabre d’Olivet (1767–1825) recognized as the limitations of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Fabre d’Olivet asserted that Kant had confused “rationality” with “reason.” Man’s ability to think is not the source of insight. The true “reason” is what the Greeks called nous, of which Plotinus said: “the higher reason [nous] is king.” As Churton states, “Spiritual truths transcend rationality: contrary to Kant’s philosophy, they can be known.”
Another French contemporary, the Illuminist Louis-Claude de St.-Martin (1743–1803), expressed the same message in more philosophical terms. In one of many original strokes, Churton boldly links Blake’s insights, illustrated in poetry, etchings, and paintings, to those of the Illuminists of France and Germany:
Like Blake, Illuminists responded to the Enlightenment’s elevation of Reason by recognizing that while reason constituted the inner eye of the mind, its function needed to be clarified, or illuminated, by the light beyond time and space, beyond the external senses.
Churton demonstrates how Blake used what was just becoming known of the second- and third-century Gnostics in formulating his own poetic spiritual system. Churton’s exposition of Blake’s interaction with the theosophies of Paracelsus and Jacob Boehme is outstanding.
It is not surprising that Churton is one of Britain’s leading scholars of Western esotericism, for he provides the key to understanding Blake’s esoteric genius, his art, and, most challenging of all, his prophetic visions. Consistently original, his approach regularly brings forth nuggets of insight; many illuminating asides seem almost like throwaways. Regarding Blake’s last completed commission, his engravings from the Book of Job, Churton notes: “It takes a certain kind of genius to rewrite the Bible without changing a word of it.”
Blake’s vision of the transcendental and limitless make the limited mind ask whether he was a visionary, a prophet, or simply mad. Churton makes it clear that Blake, though eccentric and provocative when he felt inclined, was not mad. Is it possible to suffer from a surfeit of sanity? Only, perhaps, among the less than sane.
Blake challenges us still, his influence extending from the Pre-Raphaelites to Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and W.B. Yeats, and on to Jim Morrison and poets, artists, and musicians such as John Zorn today.
Churton’s thorough comprehension of Blake’s experiences and his crystalline capacity to express that comprehension add up to an authoritative, definitive text. Return readings will bring greater pearls to the surface. Furthermore, the writing is not condescending or Olympian in tone, but warm, witty, and friendly. Where there is need of exposition, it is clear, indicating a disciplined and painstaking mind.
What more can you ask from a book? Here is mysticism, inspiration, creativity, art, poetry, truth, and philosophy, generously shared and beautifully presented and illustrated. It is to be treasured by all who have asked: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?
Renate zum Tobel
Renate zum Tobel has written three books of poetry and several children’s books. She is also the author of Physician of the Soul: Exploring the Mystical Meaning of the Life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer.