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Lord of Unreason

Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law

by E.P. Thompson
The New Press, 234 pp., $30.00

The first graffiti I ever encountered was “Billie Blake Lives” sprayed on a large green rubbish bin outside “everweeping Paddington Station. That was thirty years ago now, and you do not see “Billie” so often in London; yet Blake’s peculiar living presence in the British counterculture remains assured. Anyone who has met (and maybe conversed with) his visionary bronze head, as powerful as any cannonball, in the slumbering upper chamber of the National Portrait Gallery, will recognize his disturbing force. It was cast, from a life mask of 1823 by the phrenologist James Deville, “as representative of the Imaginative Faculty.” The huge eyes are closed, but apparently all-seeing; the smooth round skull seems to hum with “eternal Energy”; the whole thing looks as if it will explode at any minute. The Portrait Gallery assistants, in their official blue uniforms, patrol around it with a certain care.

Largely unrecognized in his own lifetime—The Songs of Innocence and Experience sold less than thirty illuminated copies—William Blake is now popularly accepted as the author of the “alternative” national anthem.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Set to music by Hubert Parry, it has been sung by Suffragettes, striking unions, state school assemblies, Prom concert goers, soccer crowds. The words of his great protest poem “London” are meaningfully cut into the pavement of the Jubilee Walkway on the Thames Southbank opposite the Houses of Parliament. His “Proverbs of Hell” can still be found on the crumbling concrete walls of slum housing in Hackney or Brixton. His pictures of “Los” and “Albion” hang as posters in innumerable bedsits (though now as Sixties retro). His visions of “The Tyger” and “The Sick Rose” greet dazed commuters swaying in rush-hour Underground trains. More than any other Romantic poet—if he was indeed a Romantic—Blake has been adopted as the people’s bard, the “Devil’s Party,” the “Contrary State,” the voice of eternal Opposition and Delight.

But how did this come about? To which people, and to what party, did Blake originally belong in those years of obscurity? This is the question that has exercised modern critics; together with a growing sense that for all his present popularity, Blake’s work as a whole is profoundly difficult to place and interpret. From the publication of Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (1947), the uneasy awareness of Blake’s private mythology, of the great mad Biblical machinery of the Prophetic Books, has cast its shadow over the entire enterprise. How far have we understood Blake at all?

Coleridge’s startled reaction to Blake, given in the characteristic postscript to a letter of February 1818, already sets out the problem in a way familiar to modern readers.

PS. I have this morning been reading a strange publication—viz. Poems with very wild and interesting pictures…printed and painted by the Author, W. Blake. He is a man of Genius—and I apprehend, a Swedenborgian—certainly a mystic, emphatically. You perhaps smile at my calling another Poet, a Mystic; but verily I am in the very mire of common-place commonsense compared with Mr. Blake, apo-or rather ana-calyptic Poet, and Painter!

Over the last fifty years, through a veritable forest of Symbolist, Marxist, Freudian, and Structuralist exegesis, it is possible to discern perhaps two distinctive lines of interpretation. The one is mystical, the other is political. The first represented by Kathleen Raine’s Blake and Tradition1 which championed an esoteric reading of Neo-Platonic, Gnostic, and Kabbalistic sources in Blake, bringing to bear such figures as Jacob Boehme, Swedenborg, Proclus, and Thomas Taylor (with all of whom Blake was undoubtedly familiar). It is no longer fashionable, but it would have delighted Coleridge, and it is still a marvel to read. The second is represented by David Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire.2 This is a masterpiece of historical scholarship which places Blake in the immediate London setting of dissenting radicalism and Jacobin insurrectionary thought, inspired by the American and French Revolutions, and directly influenced by such figures as Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Washington, and Joseph Priestley. Its notion of “influence,” and the subtle social layerings of radical culture, have recently been refined by John Mee in Dangerous Enthusiasm.3

Both these lines of thought had their impact on the late E.P. Thompson. But the striking fact about Witness Against the Beast is that he seeks a third way, “a view from outside the world of Blake scholarship.” He concentrates on Blake’s moral beliefs, and in so doing returns to the idea of a continuous British counterculture, from which Blake sprang and to which he has returned. It is a brilliant and provocative case, argued with a mixture of millennial passion and dizzy academic charm, which holds one protesting but enthralled. It is also something of a disguised autobiography by one of the great radical “witnesses” of our own day.

The essence of Thompson’s account (actually developing a fine monograph by the socialist historian A. L. Morton, The Everlasting Gospel),4 is that Blake belonged to an antinomian tradition dating back to the seventeenth century, which still offers a morality of love and spiritual opposition to the crushing materialism of the twentieth century. For all his radicalism, Blake could never belong to official “enlightened” culture, either then or now. The large almost lay-preaching manner in which Thompson pursues this thesis, or tract for the times, should be savored from the start.

Within the prevailing naturalistic psychology of [Blake’s] time there was no way to derive, no place into which to insert, the central antinomian affirmatives of Thou Shalt; Thou Shalt Love, or Thou Shalt Forgive. Blake’s unique image of Christ, simultaneously humanist and antinomian (“Jesus was all virtue and acted from impulse, not from rules”) could be, in the available philosophy, derived only from the inspiration of a “madman.” It is exactly the absence of such an affirmative in the complacent doctrine of “benevolence” to be found in the Godwinian circle which alienated Wordsworth and Coleridge. One might add that these affirmatives cannot easily be derived from materialistic thought today. That is why every realisation of these values (such as Blake’s) is a plank in the floor upon which the future must walk.

Witness Against the Beast is E. P. Thompson’s latest book, which he completed before his untimely death last autumn. Some of us had hoped for something on the scale of his great William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955), to complete his battery of radical heroes; but this relatively short book has all the intensity of a valediction. Thompson was the noblest “alternative” social historian of his day: a soldier, a Marxist, a polemicist, a campaigner for Nuclear Disarmament, a generous and inspired lecturer and teacher. I once saw him holding a public lecture hall, at University College, London, spellbound for nearly two hours, ruffling up his great cloud of gun-metal hair, and spreading his notes six feet on either side of his lectern as he leapt from point to point with brilliant asides and dazzling analogies. (Wordsworth and Coleridge, he said, went to Germany in 1798 to avoid the military draft.)

Any survey of E. P. Thompson’s remarkable career will suggest how central Blake was to his sense of history and of how history can redeem us. “After all, we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution we may discover insights into social evils we have yet to cure.” Blake appears early in The Making of the English Working Class,5 Thompson’s classic re-assessment of the radical tradition, which sought to rescue the heroic anonymous petit peuple “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” In his recreation of the forgotten world of London dissenters, Thompson’s magic eye quickly discerned Blake at street level, using all his characteristic gifts of immediacy and surprise, making archives speak and walk.

There are the Sandemanians, among whom William Godwin’s father was a minister; the Moravians with their communitarian heritage; the Inghamites, the Muggletonians, the Swedenborgian sect which originated in a hairdresser’s off Cold Bath Fields and which published a Magazine of Heaven and Hell. Here are the two old Dissenting ministers whom Hazlitt observed stuffing raspberry leaves in their pipes, in the hope of bringing down Old Corruption by boycotting all taxed articles…. Against the background of London Dissent, with its fringe of deists and earnest mystics, William Blake seems no longer the cranky untutored genius that he must seem to those who know only the genteel culture of the time.

Blake was indeed a personal presence for Thompson. When he lectured at Columbia University in 1968, “at a time of excitement when some sort of campus revolution against the Moral Law was going on,” he startled his audience by acclaiming William Blake as “the founder of the obscure sect to which I myself belong, the Muggletonian Marxists.” He adds that “instantly I found that many fellow-sectaries were in the room.” Ten years later, in The Poverty of Theory (1978), he placed “the Christian antinomian William Blake” firmly alongside Marx in his personal pantheon.

Witness Against the Beast is thus the recognition of a lifetime’s association with the poet. But the moral emphasis is new, and certainly reflects a significant shift (reculer pour mieux sauter) in Thompson’s final idea of the counterculture. “The essential utopian leap for Blake was to brotherhood, the return to universal man.”

The book unfolds (six feet on either side of the lectern) in two parts. First there is an engaging search for a specific historic link to the followers of the seventeenth-century Ranter Ludowick Muggleton, with their doctrines of free grace, “counter-Englightenment,” and furious rejections of the Mosaic Moral Law (the Beast). “I like these Muggletonians,” writes Thompson gently, “but it is clear they were not among history’s winners. Nor did they wish to be. It was their business to preserve and to hand down the divine vision.” Second, there is an expert, witty series of close readings of particular poems—“London,” “The Divine Image,” and “The Human Abstract”—which Thompson subtly differentiates from the Painite radicalism of the 1790s. “One must be prepared for seventeen types of ambiguity in Blake.”

Throughout there is continuous reference to Blake’s last great prophetic book, Jerusalem (1804–1820), with wonderfully coherent analysis of the ideological sections “To the Deists,” “To the Jews,” and “To the Christians.” If this almost totally omits the many dark, violent, and terrible shapes that inhabit this sprawling poem (to which we will return), the antinomian message is made to shine forth in all its angry clarity:

When Satan first the black bow bent
And the Moral Law from the Gospel rent,
He forg’d the Law into a sword,
And spill’d the blood of Mercy’s Lord.

Thompson also makes lively, mocking use of Henry Crabb Robinson’s earnest interviews with Blake in the 1820s. Robinson was, among other things, a journalist for the Times, and thus represents for Thompson a typical example of the “genteel culture” failing to understand Blake’s stalwart counter-Enlightenment views on the perils of education (“It is the great Sin”), the primary illusion of the natural world (“Nature is the Work of the Devil”), or the fatality of women (“Christ took much after his Mother And in so far he was one of the worst of Men”). Thompson seems surprisingly relaxed about all this. But Robinson was also the highly intelligent friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, had traveled and read widely, and was particularly puzzled by Blake’s insistence that the world was actually flat.

Part of the charm of the Muggletonian thesis is that Thompson cheerfully admits he cannot prove it. Possibly Blake’s mother had a brother-in-law, “or other kin,” one George Hermitage, who might have been a Muggletonian hymn writer. Possibly Blake was influenced by the picturesque Muggletonian doctrine that the Fall was caused by Eve copulating with the Serpent. Possibly Blake’s brother who saw Abraham in the street and “talked Swedenborg,” was really a Muggletonian. Yet it is in the reconstruction of the Muggletonian milieu, its secret world of doctrinal disputes and singing in locked rooms above East End taverns, that Thompson brilliantly re-creates the type of sensibility that naturally generated “so large a cluster of Blakean symbols.” Indeed the Muggletonian hymns that he unearths, with their “self-confident, introverted enthusiasm,” do instantly—and movingly—remind of us of Blake:

Whilst lofty Cedars, scorcht with fire
Who dare unto the Sun aspire
Upon the humble Rose, distills
The Spicy dew of Zion’s hills.

These passages show Thompson, the imaginative historian and passionate researcher, at his best. In a gripping appendix he modestly relates how he tracked down “the last of the Muggletonians” to a suburban house in 1978, and found the entire archive of Muggletonian manuscripts packed away in eighty old apple boxes at the back of a furniture depository in Tunbridge Wells, from where he safely transferred it to the British Museum. “I confess that the light was so bad that, when we came to the last box, with trembling fingers I lit a match.” This incident is almost a parable of his unending pursuit of the despised and rejected past, without which history is merely a form of triumphalism.

Yet one must also keep in mind the partiality of Thompson’s moral claims for Blake. The Muggletonians are vital to his view, primarily because they rejected the rational Enlightenment, the science and secular humanism of Newton and Voltaire and (ultimately) Paine. To the objection that they (and Blake) were therefore obscurantists, Thompson makes a characteristic reply, which calls for some reflection.

For what the antinomian or Muggletonian declaimed against as “Reason” we might today prefer to define as “Ideology,” or as the compulsive constraints of the ruling “discourse.” Antinomian doctrine was expressive of a profound distrust of the “reasons” of the genteel and comfortable, and of ecclesiastical and academic institutions, not so much because they produced false knowledges but because they offered specious apologetics (“serpent reasonings”) for a rotten social order based, in the last resort, on violence and self-interest.

Perhaps the lectern here has become a pulpit. Like Thompson’s entire Blakean position, it is a powerful and subtle sermon, directed—in those “ecclesiastical and academic institutions”—against modern culture as a whole, “the rotten social order.” Yet surely it is not so easy to enlist Blake’s wilder mythology, his stubborn irrationalism, his worship of darker energies—“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”—in such a cause.

The problem of the counterculture lies in its increasing divisiveness, its moral fragmentation, its retreat into disenchantment and extremism and special pleading. Blake’s antinomianism sometimes seems to threaten the very idea of a common social order, an agreed rational authority to which all may appeal. There is very little place for the despised Urizen. Psychologically it is the revolt against the Father, the refusal of a common or familial Law. “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” But what happens in a world where only the tigers are left?

A large debate continues over Blake’s intentions, a cultural self-questioning, the terms of which I have merely touched upon. Blake’s genius lies partly in the fact that any serious reading of him, such as Thompson’s, inevitably raises such disturbing issues. But consider one last point. One of the finest contributions to recent Blake scholarship appears in the Blake Trust/ Princeton editions of his Illuminated Books.6 The texts of his late Prophetic Books have thus become available in an authentic form, and with a depth of annotation, never previously known. To read his Milton and his Jerusalem in their original, blazing format is an extraordinary and curiously humbling experience. Blake’s “Giant Forms,” his swirling Cosmologies, his visionary land of Albion, his epic combats, his Spectral confrontations, his bitter lamentations, possess the mind. Both poems end in apocalyptic triumph. Yet the final impression is one of private anguish, of terrible compulsion. The images that remain are of startling beauty, but unassuageable pain. Who could ever forget Plate 25 of Jerusalem, in which the monumental figure of a kneeling Albion is slowly disemboweled by three voluptuous, naked, weeping women. (The editor directs us to Poussin’s Martyrdom of St. Erasmus.)

The cost of William Blake’s “Imaginative Faculty,” and his great rebellion against Reason, should never be understimated.

  1. 1

    Two volumes, Princeton University Press, 1968.

  2. 2

    Princeton University Press; reprinted in 1991 by Dover.

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1992.

  4. 4

    London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1958.

  5. 5

    Pantheon, 1964.

  6. 6

    The Illuminated Books of William Blake, David Bindman, series editor, Princeton University Press, Volume 1: Jerusalem (1991), edited by Morton D. Paley; Volume 2: Songs of Innocence and Experience (1991), edited by Andrew Lincoln; Volume 3: William Blake: The Early Illuminated Books (1993), edited by Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi; and Volume 5: Milton: A Poem (1993), edited by Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi.

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