In the Romantic era, William Blake created an entirely original mythopoeic cosmology, which was the inspiration for both his poetry and his visual artworks. His poetry blended with his sumptuous watercolors and engravings to create an artistic effect that was cinematic before cinema was even conceivable. Blake’s vision of the world was fiercely independent of any dogmatism from the rational or spiritual conditions of the Enlightenment era and his astounding collection of illuminated poetry gives the modern reader a visceral experience of the ‘‘Poetic Genius’’, which Blake believed was the essence of creation itself.
What makes William Blake such an important archetype for the Romantic era itself was his zealous pursuit of freedom, his passion for revolution against tyranny and how he prioritized creativity above all other pursuits in life. Regarding his motivation to live as an embodiment of creative imagination Blake said, ‘‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare. My business is to create!” (These were direct references to the Enlightenment era methods of Sir Isaac Newton and the philosophies of John Locke)
William Blake was not a gentleman artist, but was in fact a tradesman in his craft who worked as an engraver. He was commissioned to bring many textbooks and classic works of literature to life with small, yet meticulous illustrations. Therefore, Blake depicted as many familiar scenes and characters as he depicted radical new ones. For example, Blake was commissioned to illustrate John Milton’s, Paradise Lost, and so we can examine Blake’s version of Adam, Eve, and Satan in the Garden of Eden, which is unlike any other depiction in the whole of Christian art.
In addition, he often painted scenes from Bible stories, such as the Book of Job or the mystical dream of Jacob’s Ladder from the Book of Genesis.
His religious art contains esoteric symbols that allude to Blake’s mystical revelations. A prominent example is found in Blake’s use of spiral imagery. Blake’s depictions of these scenes remain unique.
(To the left) Blake paints Adam and Eve under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, with Adam’s back turned as Eve is enveloped in the serpent’s body, which spirals around her nudity and delicately feeds her the forbidden fruit in an open mouth kiss of original sin. The effect is extremely sexual, yet Eve is not the typical Western nude made object of desire. Rather, this image feels biological.
Again we see a spiral used by Blake to depict the stairway to heaven, that Jacob dreams of in the Book of Genesis. This story has been widely explored in Christian art as well, yet the staircase has always been a straight ladder stretching up to heaven. Blake, in his striking originality, shows us a spiral stair winding up to heaven in a diffusion of starlight and celestial splendor. Blake, as the Poetic Genius was expressing more in his imagery than a simple retelling of Bible stories.
Blake’s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden tells a story far removed from the traditional one. In Blake’s cosmology, God was an androgynous primeval entity named Albion, which became sexual when it split into four disparate parts or “zoas”. These four zoas catalyzed a life form between them, which was a man named Adam, who had a spectre or shadow named Satan and was joined by an emanation of his consciousness named Eve. (William Blake and the Myths of Britain, 1999)
According to Blake, life began as source energy (Albion) which emanated a holy trinity of life: Adam emanates a female aspect, Eve, and then sends his specter, Satan, to seduce her into a permanent division from Albion.
Blake’s version of the Garden of Eden story sounds like a poetic depiction of the process of cell division, now known to molecular biology. The story is about sex, but there is none of the Christian shame in Blake’s version, for all are the progeny of Albion. Blake’s version can be read as a deeply shamanic vision that depicts the elegant process of DNA twisting genes together through the union of chromosomes to create physical form imbued with life force. In this cosmological view, all mankind is woven together with a unifying consciousness that was purposely individuated from Albion in order to experience the subjective Self. Original sin is absent from Blake’s view, for differentiation from the original essence appears to be the cosmic order of things which is to be accepted and experienced, not resisted.
Blake’s visual depiction of spirals (snakes, stairs, flames) must have been inspired by his visionary experiences of transcendent truth, which binds imagination to expression in the physical world. The spiral is at the very core of being, just as DNA is the language that we are translated into the physical world through. William Blake was a revolutionary explorer of inner space and sacred experience came naturally to him. His observations compelled him to share his wisdom within beautiful poetry that embodied the profound insights he had into the cosmos. “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.”
The spiral is a common symbol found in art from the majority of cultures around the world and it is the primary shape found in environmental structures of the universe. Blake, like other mystics, intuited that the spiral was an essential aspect of consciousness and physical form.
By the 20th century, science found through its instruments of study that both galaxies and DNA are expressed in a spiral formation, and particles follow fractal waves of motion rather than straight lines. The spiral rules the micro and macrocosmic, the internal and the external worlds. The 20th century anthropologist, Jeremy Narby studied the phenomena of the spiral in Western and indigenous consciousness claiming, “Both shamans and molecular biologists agree that there is a hidden unity under the surface of life’s diversity; both associate this unity with the double helix shape (or two entwined serpents, a twisted ladder, a spiral staircase, two vines wrapped around each other); both consider that one must deal with this level of reality in order to heal.” (The Cosmic Serpent, 1998)
In addition, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said that spirals represent “cosmic force” and that the upward spiraling of Kundalini serpent imagery symbolized “the urge of realization (which) naturally pushes man on to be himself”. (The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, 1932) Jungian analysis would interpret the intuition of Blake as a communion with the collective unconscious. Interestingly enough, William Blake’s concept of the Poetic Genius is not too dissimilar from Jung’s collective unconscious and so it is fitting that Blake was so in tune with deep cosmic imagery and that he infused the Bible with this consciousness. One of William Blake’s most famous revelations about the cosmos is summarized in this quote from his poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,“…If the Doors of Perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Explore a great archive on Blake: http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/
Read a great biography on Blake: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-blake
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