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.