Hidden Riches: Traditional Symbolism from the Renaissance to Blake
by Désirée Hirst
Barnes and Noble, 348 pp., $8.50
The study of Blake’s sources is now a heavy industry, established in 1924 by S. Foster Damon and expanded by Northrop Frye, David V. Erdman, and others who have the academic capital to invest. In 1961 George Mills Harper explicated Blake’s platonism; in 1962 Kathleen Raine devoted her Mellon Lectures to Blake’s “enormous” knowledge of Plotinus, Porphyry, the Hermetica, alchemy, mystery religions, and classic myths; now Miss Hirst implies that reading Blake without knowing what he drew from Renaissance symbolism is like reading Joyce without knowing The Odyssey. Maybe. In any case we are fast getting on toward proving that Blake is a more traditional poet than Milton—which rather reverses things, and which may not stick.
With something of his accustomed ambiguity, T.S. Eliot wrote in 1920 that Blake betrays “a certain meanness of culture,” a philosophy like “an ingenious piece of home-made furniture.” Yet Eliot also remarked that Blake presents what is so essential that it needs no explanation: he “was naked, and saw man naked, and from the center of his own crystal.” I suspect Eliot has the right of it, as he often does, when he notes that Blake simply did not have the gift of knowing “how to borrow as Dante borrowed.” Because he did not know how to borrow, his poetry seems occult—to us; and recent efforts to give some context to the prophetic books, especially, have made interpretations of Blake’s iconology seem like deeply hermetic excursions.
Miss Hirst delves learnedly and easily into the “hidden riches” of Renaissance symbolism on which Blake drew, a kind of “Christian Cabalism” derived from Neoplatonism, the Corpus Hermeticum, the Zoharic and Lurianic Kabalah, and questions of tohu and bohu. Blake’s world, she says, “came into being in Ficino’s Florence, in the Italy of the High Renaissance,” and she has had the advantage of using researches by François Secret of the Sorbonne and Gersholm Scholem of the Hebrew University in retracing the course of this tradition which George Peele called
…the ancient reverend steps Of Trismegistus and Pythagoras, Through uncouth ways and unaccessible.
The tradition is partly alchemical, including Paracelsus’s principles of Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury, apparently the basis for Boehme’s dialectic, which was in turn rephrased by Hegel—and Blake. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake gives us the key to his own system: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” That is why Blake saw divinity in man, who includes in himself the contraries that are, existentially, necessary to total humanity: “All deities reside in the human breast.” Or, as is always quoted, “Thou art a Man, God is no more.” This notion of the “human form divine” rephrases Swedenborg, who also affirmed that “God is very Man. In all the Heavens there is no other Idea of God, than that of a Man.” The idea is treacherous, for it is either …