The Influence of the Bible on William Blake

The Influence of the Bible on William Blake
By: David Norton
EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION | William Blake (1757-1827) was a poet, engraver, designer, printer, thinker and prophet. Many of his works, including his best-known collections of poems, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1789-94), have a striking plainness and simplicity. In addition, like so much of his work, they demonstrate his perpetual absorption in the Bible. David Norton, Reader in English at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, considers the influence of the Bible on this poetic genius.
William Blake painted by Thomas Phillips, 1807.

illiam Blake was little known in his own time, and must be taken more as a figure reflecting, however idiosyncratically, the changing sentiments of his time than as one who immediately shaped ideas. Yet, in the longer perspective, he is a shaper of literary attitudes to the Bible: once Alexander Gilchrist’s Life, published in 1863, began to bring his work the fame it had always deserved, his sense and use of the Bible became public property.

That he knew his Bible intimately almost goes without saying. ‘His greatest pleasure was derived from the Bible,–a work ever in his hand, and which he often assiduously consulted in several languages'; he was ‘a most fervent admirer of the Bible, and intimately acquainted with all its beauties’ (J.T. Smith and William Hayley, as given in G.E. Bentley, Jr., ed., Blake Records, 1969, pp. 467, 106). Blake himself writes that he and a friend ‘often read the Bible together’. But this friend was an imaginary angel become a devil, and they read the Bible ‘in its infernal or diabolical sense’ (written about 1790, The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 1966, p. 158). There is a warning here: however representative he is, in general terms, of turn-of-the-century love for the Bible as literature, he is no orthodox figure.

One of his best-known poems, ‘The Tyger’ from Songs of Experience, shows this quarrelling love of the Bible. It seems to be an addition to the descriptions of the creatures of God’s creation in Job 40 and 41, especially the superficially similar questioning description of Leviathan in Job 41: 1-7; moreover, the compressed form of the questioning echoes Job’s earlier ‘why did the knees prevent me? or why the breasts that I should suck?’ (3: 12). The questions in Job 41 reflect man’s impotence against Leviathan, but Blake’s questions concern God. Perhaps, disturbingly, they ask whether any creator is powerful enough to dare frame the frightful symmetry of the imagined beast. Such undercurrents run throughout Blake’s work.

The Poet as Prophet
Biblical allusion pervades the Songs, and, particularly in Songs of Innocence, there is an un-Augustan simplicity that has much in common with Christopher Smart’s Parables. Whereas those were versifications that drew out qualities in the Bible, Blake’s simplicity comes in original poems that are less directly connected with the Bible and so, in their style, make a more muted statement about it. Yet there is nothing muted about Blake’s claim in the first poem of Songs of Experience, ‘Introduction':

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees,

Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might controll
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

Like a prophet, the poet both sees through all time and has heard God’s voice direct, specifically the voice that was heard in Eden after the fall. Blake implies that, like a prophet, the bard will deliver the word of God: his readers are alerted to expect something biblical.

The link between prophecy and poetry pervades Blake. His early statement of principles, ‘All religions are one’ (c. 1788; The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 1966, p. 98), has for epigraph the synoptic Gospels’ version of Isa. 40: 3, ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’. In Mark’s version this invokes exactly the point of ‘Introduction': ‘as it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Mark I: 2-3). Principle five announced under this prophetic banner is that ‘the religions of all nations are derived from each nation’s different reception of the poetic genius, which is everywhere called the spirit of prophecy’. Principle six follows logically: ‘the Jewish and Christian Testaments are an original derivation from the poetic genius’.

‘Jerusalem’ in context
This is, as it were, from the unknown Blake, but it leads to the most famous of all his poems, known as the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. It will be best to consider it first as it commonly appears, removed from its Blakean context:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

It seems to be a magical, barely-understood call to exert one’s faith to the uttermost. The language seems to have a biblical simplicity and that impression is reinforced by the obvious references to the lamb of God and to Jerusalem, and by images such as ‘chariot of fire’ which is directly biblical, and ‘arrows of desire’ which one feels ought to be biblical since the Bible sometimes uses ‘arrows’ metaphorically, as in Ezekiel’s ‘evil arrows of famine’ (5: 16). Even the sword might well be the sword of Scripture. As much as any of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, it takes one into the world of the Bible and suggests literary power in the Bible. These impressions do not disappear when the poem is read in context, yet a different poem emerges.

Blake wrote the poem as part of the preface to his epic, ‘Milton’ (1804), a preface in which he takes his idea of the Bible as poetry further than we have so far seen:

The stolen and perverted writings of Homer and Ovid, of Plato and Cicero, which all men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the sublime of the Bible, but when the new age is at leisure to pronounce, all will be set right and those grand works of the more ancient and consciously and professedly inspired men will hold their proper rank, and the daughters of memory shall become the daughters of inspiration. (The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 1966, p. 480)

The old ideas that the classics stole from the Scriptures, and that the Bible is sublime and inspired (there is no difference here between religious and literary inspiration) lead to a vision of a new world in which the Scriptures are rightly estimated supreme and there will be a new, inspired poetry. ‘Rouse up, O young men of the new age’, cries Blake: ‘we do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own imaginations, those worlds of eternity in which we shall live for ever in Jesus our Lord’ (p. 480).

In part this is a rejection of classical for biblical models, since no difference is made between being true to one’s imagination and being true to the Scriptures: they are the books of the imagination. It is here that the song comes, still prefacing the poem proper, and it is followed by the last line of the preface, a slightly adapted quotation from Num. 11: 29: ‘would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets’. In this context, the poem is an exhortation to create the new world of the imagination, transforming England into a kingdom of God which is also a kingdom of the imagination, all its people true poets as the poets of the Bible had been in the past. In this way it is a central poem for a literary sense of the Bible and for a religious sense of literature. That this sense should have escaped the public is testimony to the inspiring strength the poem has beyond its specific concern; to return to its Blakean meaning is to underline how far his essential ideas about the Bible, religion and poetry have remained hidden.

The Bible as ‘eternal vision’
Blake’s is not the Bible of morality and theology but one of poetry and energy, a Bible that has little to do with common ideas. For him ‘the whole Bible is filled with imagination and visions from end to end and not with moral virtues'; it is ‘not allegory, but eternal vision or imagination of all that exists’ (The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 1966, pp. 774, 604). In the same vein, ‘Jesus and his apostles and disciples were all artists’, and ‘the Old and New Testaments are the great code of art’ (p. 777). This is not, as it might appear, unadulterated aestheticism but part of what we might call a moral conception of man that values the imagination ahead of reason and abhors the mechanical limitedness of conventional morality.

In a relatively early letter that sets out the essence of his views, Blake asks rhetorically, ‘why is the Bible more entertaining and instructive than any other book?’, and answers at once, ‘is it not because [it is] addressed to the imagination, which is spiritual sensation and but mediately to the understanding or reason?’ (The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 1966, p. 794). Perhaps this is no more than the English discovery of the Bible as literature run wild. Yet as with so much of Blake, it remains a challenge, a challenge aimed at one’s response to the Bible in general.