William Blake’s Visions

This is an extract from an Appendix I’ve written for my Blake book. I thought I’d post it here as it has been a while since I posted anything.

As distasteful as the subject of ‘seeing spirits’ is to our twenty first century minds, I am afraid we will have to consider such strange claims made by Blake, that he saw, for example:

a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.

This, one of many such statements, was when he was a boy walking in Peckham Rye. Foster Damon asserts:

Blake’s visions were not supernatural: they were intensifications of normal experience. He believed that ‘all men partake of it, but it is lost by not being cultivated.’

It is certainly less problematic to understand Blake’s visions in this way but Blake also unambiguously believed in an afterlife and that the spirit exists independently from the body. (He says he saw his dying brother’s spirit ascend through the bedroom ceiling for example.) Seemingly, the question is not so clear-cut as Damon would have us believe. I think there are a number of strands which need untangling. Firstly, let us agree with Damon as far as his explanation goes. Artists, especially, interpret sense experience visually. Some even have ‘eidetic’ perception; that is, they can vividly visualise things that are not present in their immediate environment. Let us posit that Blake was, most likely, one such artist. This obviously explains how he could visualise the spirits of Milton, Solomon, Nelson and other historical figures.

Perhaps, then, all of Blake’s visions can be explained in such a manner; he had the artist’s proverbial vivid imagination. If we add to that his Neo-Platonic philosophy, then the problem could be solved. We have to remember that for Blake the interior mind of Imagination was pre-eminent. As Kathleen Raine reminds us:

In the material world of objects measurement, quantification, is the sole means of knowledge. In the world of immeasurable life, moods and meanings, states of being, heavens and hells, paradises and dreams cannot be quantified. . . the inner worlds have at all times been populous with gods and angels, demons and fairy people, embodiments and enactors of thoughts and moods of a mental universe.

In fact, we all have visions. Every night when we are asleep we dream and see events and people who are not in the same room as us! Is it much of a further step to consider the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences when people see a bright light, go down a tunnel, witness a review of their life and are welcomed by celestial beings? These NDE’s have been so well documented as to require no elaboration here. I am not even too interested in whether they are authentic visions or the result of altered brain chemistry. I am more interested in how they relate to Blake’s experiences. In 1983 Dr Bruce Greyson devised a scale showing the common features of NDEs.

The Greyson Scale

-Experiencing an altered state of time

-Experiencing accelerated thought processes

-Life review

-Sense of sudden understanding

-Feelings of peace

-Feeling of joy

-Feeling of cosmic oneness

-Seeing/feeling surrounded by light

-Having vivid sensations

-Extrasensory perception

-Experiencing visions

-Experiencing a sense of being out of physical body

-Experiencing a sense of an ‘otherworldly’ environment

-Experiencing a sense of a mystical entity

-Experiencing a sense of deceased/religious figures

-Experiencing a sense of a border or point of no return

The scale is used to assess the NDEs of people who report such experiences, but for our purposes let us see how each item correlates with Blake’s experience. I would suggest that all of the items are within Blake’s experience as recorded in his letters, poems or contemporary accounts. The only possible exceptions are ‘life review’ and the last on the list, but that is because of the particular context of the experience; that of near death. (Although, even on his death bed, Blake started singing about the heaven he could ‘see’ and was about to enter!) Blake would not be interested in whether such experiences are ‘real’ or could be measured by electrodes in the brain. As far as he was concerned his visions were part of his experience and needed no further authentication. (Carl Jung wrote about UFOs but he didn’t imagine that we were literally being visited by aliens!)

Incidentally, a Gallup Survey1 in the USA in 1982 concluded that NDEs had occurred to 8 million people or 4% of the population. That is a lot of people and shows that Blake’s experience, whilst admittedly not NDE, cannot be dismissed as hallucination of mere fantasy. We know so little about consciousness, so at the least, we should keep an open mind about so called visions.

The final aspect of this topic we should consider is that of ‘interior locution’ or the sense that we have received a kind of interior spoken message. Blake wrote to Crabb Robinson:

I write when commanded by the spirits and I see the words fly about the room in all directions.

‘Channelling’ is the modern counterpart of this kind of inspiration. Two of the most popular books of this kind are A Course in Miracles and the Conversations with God series by Neale Donald Walsch. In his Introduction to Conversations With God, book Three, the author states:

This is an extraordinary book. I say that as someone who has had very little to do with writing it. All I did, really, was “show up,” ask a few questions, then take dictation. That is all I have done since 1992, when this conversation with God began. It was in that year that, deeply depressed, I called out in anguish: What does it take to make life work? I wrote these questions out. . . in an angry letter to God. To my shock and surprise God answered. The reply came in the form of words whispered in my mind by a Voiceless Voice.

We probably will quibble about Walsh thinking it really was the ‘voice of God’, however, we can see that fundamentally this kind of inspiration has been going on since the dawn of history. His words, ‘I cried out in anguish’ may remind you of my cry for help, and, why is it that in millions of similar cases a ‘reply’ of sorts usually comes? We are back to the idea of there being something greater than ourselves or our little egos. Some people call this God, whilst others may just allow it to be something beyond their intellectual understanding. This is where a secular version of Buddhism parts company with ‘religious’ Buddhism. As, mentioned before, the nearest Soto Zen (religious Buddhism) comes to there being a numinous, eternal dimension to life and death is in the use of words such as the Unborn, and the Eternal.

Let us leave the final word to Blake:

Now that I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to any one else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoyed, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserved & at liberty from the doubts of other Mortals. . . Doubts are always pernicious [. . .] I take your advice. I see the face of my Heavenly Father; he lays his Hand upon my head & gives a blessing to all my works. . . through Hell will I sing forth his Praises. . .Excuse my, perhaps, too great Enthusiasm.

Letter to Thomas Butts, 25 April 1803


1. Quoted in What Happens When We Die, by Dr. Sam Parnia.


William Blake’s Bounding Line

dante bolake

From The Divine Comedy: Dante

This will fit in somewhere in my book. I thought I’d post it as it can easily stand alone, without reference to the rest of my book.

It is revelatory to spend a good half hour or so simply looking at Blake’s visual art without trying to interpret its meaning. You will quickly see that he much prefers the swirling, flaming line to the straight line! What could be a greater signifier of his revulsion of static, fossilised philosophy and attitudes? His visual exuberance is testimony to his aphorism, Energy is Eternal Delight.

The Job engravings do not appear quite as exuberant compared to some of his coloured images elsewhere; they seem much more controlled. This is partly because he used copperplate engraving; however there is much in the way of exuberant energy once we begin to look and examine the imagery, shapes and the composition of each plate. There are the obvious flaming shapes in engravings 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11, 13, 16, and 18. But even the more serene plates are usually framed by swirling flames, vines, flowers, snakes and even abstract curves.

I have already hinted at the reason for this predilection for flaming shapes, that he is visually representing spiritual and physical energy. Blake believed that the artist should represent the unseen spiritual world; almost an impossible task you may think! He regarded the clearly defined line as superior to the three-dimensional, modelled, shape. Partly this is a result of his choice of medium when he was an apprentice; engraving. He chose a linear style as it is peculiar to engraving but he also was influenced by seeing Greek Vases and Gothic Art early in his career.

Here are Blake’s own words about line from an essay he wrote about the Book of Ruth:

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling…. What is it that builds a house and plants a garden, but the definite and determinate? What is it that distinguishes honesty from knavery, but the hard and wirey line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions. Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again. . .

Above all, though, we must remember that the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, in his lifetime, and he predicted the tyrannical effects of industrialisation upon humankind. Now, of course, an engineer who designs machines uses a ruler! Yes, a straight edge; perhaps this too explains why Blake made so much use of the ‘bounding line.’ It represented ‘vital life’ when, in contrast, all of the machinery he saw -with its interlocking cogs, girders and rivets – represented ‘eternal death.’ (We only need to recall that, in his day, children, some as young as 6yrs, spent over 12 hours on one shift working in factories.)

PS. This is not a Luddite Manifesto! Blake was not against science/technology on principle; he just saw that it would come to dominate the spiritual potential of humankind and narrow our outlook. In a word (or rather in a phrase!), he predicted the philosophy of scientific materialism which is entrenched in the so called developed nations today! (What would he think of man-made global warming?)

Job’s Dark Night


The story of Job is at first read puzzling for Christians and open-minded atheists alike. Why would God punish a man who lived an unblemished life? As is usual with Blake, things are never as simple as on first sight!

Lets dismiss all ideas of an anthropormorphic God to start with. In any case such depictions of God in Blake are always used as symbols (and personifications) of the state of mind of the interior person, in other words they are psychological and spiritual. Blake did not believe in a transcendent God, (which he called, Nobodaddy)!

Before looking at number 5 plate ( there are 21 altogether in Blake’s Job) how about thinking about contingency in present day life. How about the person – you may be that person – who suddenly gets a diagnosis of cancer? What if your husband leaves you for a younger woman? What if your son gets addicted to heroin? What if you spend a lonely Christmas day because of mental illness? I am not being over-dramatic I hope; all these scenarios happen to millions of us! This is what the Buddha calls, Dukkha. It’s life!

So, looked at in these terms Job isn’t getting punished; he is being brought up sharp against the facts of life afer living what he thought was a ‘good’ Christian life. In fact complacency and self-righteousness is his main ‘sin.’

The flying figure in the middle of the picture is Satan or Job’s corporeal self – the self who thinks being a good husband and father is all there is to life. Forget about your childhood exposure to horned devils – in Blake’s system Satan is (among other things) any thought or feeling which sparates you from  ‘Heaven’ – or in more worldly terms – peace of mind. Remember those moments in childhood when all was well with the world – don’t dismiss those moments as childish, they were a taste of reality. As Joseph Wicksteed writes in his commentary on Job, ‘. . in Blake’s system falsity of thought can turn any act however noble to his (satan’s) ends. If we think wrong we are wrong, for Mental things are alone real, and the devil can make a virtue as damning as a vice.’ How like the Buddhist system of the Eightfold path where right thought precedes appropriate action or the Dammapada where in the beginning it says; ‘ What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday. . . our life is the creation of our mind.’

In the picture Job is giving a loaf of bread to a beggar. Very altruistic you may think. But Blake is showing us that outward acts carried out self-righteously are missing the mark. None of Blake’s system is straightforward; especially in the Book of Job he is going way beyond our humanistic, materialistic understanding. All I can do here by isolating this one picture (which in itself is a disservice to Blake!) is to point to his profundity and suggest that his system is relevant to today.

The belief that in performing works of mercy in any shape whatever we are doing something meritorious poisons every act of humanity, making it a subtly selfish  attempt to save our souls in the name of love and religion; it is, after all, the worship of Satan in the belief that it is a tribute to God. Job’s thought makes him divide his meal indeed but not something of greater worth. ” (Joseph Wicksteed.)

Harsh words indeed and probably not what most people want to hear at Christmas time! And what of the gift ‘of greater worth’? Well you will have to study the Book of Job yourself (the peak experience is plate 18) if you want to find out!

Plate 5 is early on in Job’s story. To summarise what happens, he is inflicted with boils, loses his sons and daughters, his house and his reputation. Apart from the boils, does this remind you of anyone? It is a case of pride before the fall; Job loses all his material wealth and therefore has to ask, why? and ‘what is real?’ Rather like Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich he looks back on his life and reviews it. He has to face his ‘dark night’ and salvage something of a different order to his previous material existence.

In plate 11 Job is completely alone; this is surely the bleakest point of his Dark Night of the Soul. It is a magnificent image and as Kathleen Raine says in Golgonooza – City of Imagination, ‘he is alone; as we are each alone in the darkest hour.’ Remember Satan is the self-centred ego and if we allow it dominance over our lives we will eventually end up ‘burned up’ and alone. Apparently Blake used to address his satan (remember; not the biblical devil!) as, ‘my Satan, thou art but a dunce!’ How like the advice we are given nowadays not to believe our inner self-talk.

All of Blake’s work can be applied to our self-inquiry and self-knowledge in this manner.

As I have already said, to see how Job is transformed you will have to investigate (I use the word deliberately) the Book of Job yourself. I have not said much about the incredible quality of the drawings in themselves; they are masterpieces of composition. Who can forget, once seen, the image of Behemoth and Leviathan – illustration 15?

The best way into Blake’s supremely relevant and visionary Book of Job is with the detailed dissection by Joseph Wicksteed in his Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job. Also Kathleen Raine’s book has a chapter which is brilliant.

A Material World

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? 26 x 25cm, Richard Hamilton, 1956, Tubingen.


This very small collage ostensibly showing a muscle-bound man and a pin-up girl with sequinned breasts is usually thought of as representative of Pop Art but it also bears some influence of Dada with its photo-montage. It was exhibited in 1956, in an exhibition in London called, This is Tomorrow.

British artist, Hamilton selected images from magazines which represented different aspects of modernity – tape recorder, vacuum cleaner, television, cinema, pornography and so on. Many art commentators think that the artist was approving of consumerism but surely he was being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, especially with the title? Be that as it may we can certainly consider it in an ironic light; what can it tell us about the values and drawbacks of consumerism? First of all, let’s take as given the many advantages of living in a consumer society compared with living in, say, 1800.

Let’s start with the collage, then, and investigate what is actually there. Firstly, are there any signs of actual human beings anywhere? I hope you’ve answered in the negative! Both simulacrums of humans are commodities – the man from a men’s health magazine and the woman from a girlie magazine. Is that a lamp shade she’s wearing? If so, more evidence of Hamilton’s humour and irony. I’ve also read that the two figures could represent a modern Adam and Eve surrounded by modern temptations!

Oops, sorry, there is a woman using a vacuum cleaner at the top of the stairs. But, wait; isn’t she a role-figure, a stereotype, a housewife, and therefore not a living flesh and blood human. Perhaps she is an android like the housewives in The Stepford Wives? You see how Hamilton’s world is slipping remorselessly into unreality? What else can we see? There is a tin of ham on a coffee table. The single item which isn’t manufactured is a plant behind the pin-up figure. Everything else comes from a factory assembly line whether it is made from wood, leather, nylon or plastic.

So much has been written about the ills of consumerism that it is difficult to know what else to say. Perhaps I should take a hint from Hamilton’s collage and collage a few random, but relevant, ideas together.

  • Recently a children’s publisher excised these words (among others) from a dictionary: acorn, swallow (as in the bird), snowdrop and substituted words such as I-Pad and emoticon

  • There are hundreds of people sleeping rough in big cities world wide every night

  • People walking on their own in the countryside today are often regarded with suspicion

  • Many people are so cut off from the natural environment that they have no idea of basic astrophysical facts such as what causes the length of the day, month or year! (See Richard Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth)

  • At least17% of forests has been destroyed in the Amazon in the last 50 years. Does the meat from cattle grazed on the newly created ranches end up on our supermarket shelves?

  • 15 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted in the UK every year (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs)

  • Between 1970 -2014 breeding birds on farmland in the UK declined by 50% (RSPB)

  • What about those indigenous people who are uprooted from their native settlements and end up in reserves as addicts or alcoholics, all because of the greed of multinationals?

  • Viruses are mutating to resist antibiotics……

Shall I go on? I haven’t even mentioned climate change!

Some of these collage items are obviously symptoms of something going radically wrong but I’d like to consider chiefly how our consciousness may have changed for the worse, mainly due to consumerism.

It is often said that consumerism has lead to a commodification of life. We are so used to paying for goods that we take the ‘transaction model’ unconsciously into areas such as personal relationships. We see everything in terms of how much satisfaction can be obtained, rather like in Mick Jagger’s song, although he actually is giving it a negative spin so his is more akin to the Buddhist view. It is as if consumerism has put the finishing touches to our view of ourselves as separate egocentric beings facing the world to see what we can get to our advantage. No wonder alienation is the defining characteristic of modernity.

It is important to realise that the problem here is not merely with the accumulation of material goods; it is also to do with psychological ‘goods’ – my status, my success, my relationships, my career. Investment in such concerns takes up an extraordinary amount of time and effort and they are perhaps more difficult to let go of than to let go of material goods. I am not suggesting that we all become hermits, only that we can shift our reasons for being alive from ‘what’s in it for me?’ to ‘what is good to do in these particular circumstances?’ And ‘am I ceasing from causing harm in my speech, thought and actions?’ The bottom line, according to Buddhism, is that egocentric craving is the cause of our mental dis-ease. The opposite of craving is ‘aversion’ – a hatred of something; wanting things to be different to how they are. If we can change something for the better, all well and good. But often, things have endless multiple causes so we are better accepting that we cannot influence those situations very much, if at all.

Buddhism’s idea of anatta can be translated as no-self. We believe there is no such thing as a self or soul which is unchanging. This conclusion is corroborated by some neurological and psychological experiments. In Bruce Hood’s very readable The Self Illusion, after he has spent over a hundred pages describing such experiments he writes:

These studies reveal that the vast body of evidence undermines the notion of a core self, but rather supports the self illusion. If we are so susceptible to group pressure, subtle priming cues, stereotyping and culturally cuing, then the notion of a true, unyielding ego self cannot be sustained.

Needless to say, most of us rebel in the face of such conclusions. We like to think we are very much an individual with strong character thank you very much!

Hood goes on to describe an extraordinary case from the tragedy of 9/11. Tania Head had been on the 78th floor of the South Tower when flight 175 slammed into the building. She was badly burned by aviation fuel but managed to crawl to the stairs and climb down. She even encountered a dying man who managed to give her his wedding ring. She was eventually rescued by a fireman who himself lost his life by returning to the burning tower. Tania’s fiancé was in the other tower and she later learned he had died. Like other survivors Tania felt afterwards she needed to do something to deal with her own emotional turmoil and that of others. In spite of being disfigured she set up a survivor’s group and championed the group’s right to visit Ground Zero. She became a figurehead and a symbol of the human spirit . . . the only problem was that she had never been in the Tower. It was all a lie!

What has this to do with consumerism? Poor Tania Head felt so alienated from society that she had to create herself like Walter Mitty. We all have our life-narratives but if the evidence in Hood’s book is anything to go by even they are pure fiction! I would suggest that our consumer society has exacerbated this need to create and promote our fictional stories, perhaps because we feel so much adrift compared to ages where religious faith provided meaning. And I’m convinced that we have lost a connection with the rest of nature by abandoning rural life and moving into cities. That was the warning of the Romantics and there are many strands to it, even now some of the consequences of urbanisation are unrecognised and need to be investigated further.

However there is a ‘positive’ side to the doctrine of anatta or no-self. If our selves are ‘self-invented’ and we can be self-aware, we should be able to allow for our conditioning and prejudices and hence be more peaceable and non-confrontational. Also, this view does not go against having distinct personalities. We are not saying that Jones doesn’t have an earthy sense of humour, that Smith isn’t quick-witted! We can still contribute to the common good through our personalities. But we no longer have to feel threatened by others or indulge in one-upmanship. And perhaps, we may even begin to put Gandhi’s statement into action: there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.