Archives For Metaphysics

An Audience of Angels

December 8, 2020 — 10 Comments

Most writers are content to have humans read their works. Not so, William Blake (1757-1827). He indicated on various occasions that his audience included angels.

Blake was a very odd man. Talented, true. Inspired, likely. (Though by whom, debatable.) Christian, I think not. C.S. Lewis had a mixed opinion of him, affirming some of his poetry, and challenging one of his most prominent theological errors.*

True, Blake drew most of his imagery from Christian themes, but that is to be expected by someone writing and painting around the turn of the nineteenth century in Britain. His views of Christian faith were anything but consistent with orthodoxy.

Indeed, Blake appears to have fashioned his own religion, with an unrestrained syncretistic impulse, and an unhealthy measure of sinuous semantics.

The source of many of Blake’s unorthodox musings appears to have been spiritual sources. He reported seeing visions, beginning in his childhood. Apparently, he would sketch the likenesses of spirits that presented themselves to him. At an 1819 séance he saw and communicated with the ghost of a flea (portrayed above).

The British Library offers a brief and informative video about Blake’s spiritual visions which is available here.

He sees angels—they’re angels to him. He sees figures at the window of his bedroom and as life goes on, these visions become more challenging. The old prophets, or Raphael, the painter, or some great figure he wants to discuss things with, appears in his chamber—it’s a kind of séance.

Eventually Blake’s conflated visions of heavenly beings and departed humans, developed into his own peculiar blend of spiritualism. In 1800, he wrote to comfort a friend whose son had died.

I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.⁑

Despite William Blake’s flaws, C.S. Lewis was capable of appreciating his poetry.

I am just back from my Easter walking tour with Barfield and co., this year in Derbyshire. Have you been there? It is appreciably more like my ideal country than any I have yet been [to].

It is limestone mountains: which means, from the practical point of view, that it has the jagg’d sky lines and deep valleys of ordinary mountainous country, but with this important difference, that owing to the paleness of the rock and the extreme clarity of the rivers, it is light instead of sombre–sublime yet smiling–like the delectable mountains. It gives you something [like] the same sensation as Blake’s songs.

Lewis is referring here to Blake’s collection, Songs of Innocence. From that collection, I particularly enjoy “The Lamb,” which you can read in the footnote section below.⁂

When I previously wrote about C.S. Lewis’ visits to the home of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), I shared Lewis’ impression of the occultic flavor of the residence. In a 1921 letter to a close friend, Lewis writes the following:

His house is in Broad Street: you go up a long staircase lined with pictures by Blake–chiefly the ‘Book of Job’ and the ‘Paradise Lost’ ones, which thus, en masse, have a somewhat diabolical appearance.

We cannot know exactly which images adorned Yeats’ stairwell, but this sample comes from Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job.

Returning to Spiritual Matters

Not only did Blake’s angelic audience laud his work, their praise was so great he could pen this bizarre description of the celestial realms. (How much is irreligious satire, and what part is genuinely inspired by actual visions and belief, remains debatable.)

I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis’ most direct response to the confusion promoted by William Blake’s beliefs is found in his classic, The Great Divorce. This illuminating exploration of the gulf between heaven and hell was written, in part, as a response to Blake’s volume, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But, the comparison between the two requires an examination more than worthy of its independent discussion.

Suffice it here to include an example of Blake’s advocacy for hell. Blake describes a confrontation between “a Devil in a flame of fire, who arose before an Angel that sat on a cloud.” After their brief argument about God, the Angel “stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire, and he was consumed . . .” That was not his end, however, for Blake adds a “Note.”

This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense . . . (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

As noted, the matter of whether Blake’s championing of Satan was sincere or simply an arcane literary device is debatable.⁑⁑ However, his correspondence reveals his belief in the supernatural was certainly genuine.

In the end, there’s no question that C.S. Lewis’ assessment of William Blake was accurate. Unsurprisingly, it is one I share. The poet Blake possessed talent, and some of his poetry is quite good. However, as a theologian, this confused mystic is utterly unreliable.

Of course, Christians may be wrong regarding Blake’s spiritual enlightenment. What if, after all, Blake’s vision of his distinguished reputation with the angelic hosts was not a mere delusion? In the unimaginable possibility that this odd man truly is “famed in Heaven,” you must count me among those due to be the most surprised.  


* Even as he challenged one of Blake’s major works, C.S. Lewis wrote, “if I have written [disagreeing with Blake] this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius . . .”

⁑ Some might contend that Blake is referring here to “imagining” the presence of his brother in some sentimental fashion. That is clearly not the case. The fact that he states his brother is, at that moment, advising him on what to write, is intended to be understood as fact. It should be noted he is not referring to the spiritualist practice of “automatic writing,” which is done in a state of trance or spirit possession. Blake’s description of the process is more that of conversational interaction and “advice.”

⁂ “The Lamb,” by William Blake
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bade thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
   Little lamb, who made thee?
   Dost thou know who made thee?
   Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
   Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child,
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
  Little lamb, God bless thee!
   Little lamb, God bless thee!

⁑⁑ Like most literary expressions, Blake’s was likely an amalgam of his beliefs and his fancies. A fascinating article on this subject is Peter A. Schock’s, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Blake’s Myth of Satan and Its Cultural Matrix,” published in 1993. Shock says, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell presents a programmatic expression of [Blake’s] interconnected political, moral and metaphysical thought . . .”

quarlesI had to add the parenthetical comment to the title of this column or it would have been dismissed on its surface by readers like me. Although I dabble at poetry myself, I never voluntarily choose that genre for reading. And metaphysics? As a practical pastoral theologian, I have little interest in abstract philosophies.

I have just discovered metaphysical poetry, and it is quite intriguing.

How well read are you? Do you read broadly, deeply, or both? Unfortunately, most of us restrict our reading to a rather narrow scope. This is due to two factors.

First of all is our lack of time. Few enjoy the leisure hours to indulge in the sheer pleasure of reading simply for joy.

A second dilemma arises from the deluge of new books being published every day.

It is tempting to retreat in the spirit of C.S. Lewis to the classics, and not waste our time on a volume until it has proven its worth by remaining in print. Alas, digital technology devastates that metric, since even the most worthless tripe can remain in virtual print indefinitely.

As a semi-retired pastor, I enjoy more time than I did when I was serving full time, but I still limit my reading primarily to theology, history, current events, and anything related to C.S. Lewis. I seldom have time to explore the treasure of literature that is freely available to us.

I recently spent some time doing just that.

I read some writing advice from the pen of Francis Quarles (1592-1644) who is best known for his book Emblems. It is representative of a genre (called “emblem books”) that flourished in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here are two enjoyable observations:

If thou desire to make the best advantage of the muses, either by reading, to benefit thy selfe, or by writing, others, keep a peacefull soul in a temperate body: a full belly makes a dull brain; and a turbulent spirit, a distracted judgement: the muses starve in a cook’s shop, and a lawyer’s study. (LXXIX).

If thou intend thy writings for the publique view, lard them not too much with the choice lines of another author, lest thou lose thy own gravy: what thou hast read and digested being delivered in thy owne stile becomes thine: it is more decent to weare a plaine suit of one entire cloth, than a gaudy garment checquered with divers richer fragments. (XCVII).

Lewis was, of course, intimately acquainted with Quarles’ work. Like everyone else, however, he was more influenced by the literary contribution of John Donne (1572-1631). Like Quarles, Donne is considered one of the English “metaphysical poets.”

These writers offered used “conceits,” which were similar to analogies, but compared things that were clearly different from one another. It requires significant skill to convince a reader of the similarities of things that are deeply unlike one another.

In his essay “Dante’s Similes,” Lewis discusses the subject in detail.

It will be easily seen in what sense Dante’s similes are ‘metaphysical.’ The connexion between the two members is real, ontological, intelligible, and the material need not be in itself beautiful or may be even grotesque—as when Time is represented as a tree growing downwards with its roots in a vase which is the Primum Mobile (Paradiso, XXVII, 118). And this certainly connects them, in one way, with what literary critics call ‘Metaphysical’ conceits, meaning the conceits used by Donne and his followers.

But there are only two points of contact—first, the difficult and (at first sight) unpoetical nature of the material, and, secondly, the intellectual rather than emotional connexion between this material and the thing compared with it. The spirit in which they are used is not the same in Donne and in Dante. In Donne, the connexion, though intellectual as in Dante, is as momentary, as incapable of life beyond the immediate context, as the connexions in Homer or Virgil.

It may be true that Donne cannot court a mistress without bringing in scholastic philosophy, law, chemistry, and cosmography. But he has no interest in these things except as toys and does not care in the least what place they have, if any, in the real universe—if, indeed, there is a real universe outside the present emotion. The longer you look at Donne’s comparison of the lovers to the compasses, the less alike they will seem, and the more certain you will become that the innumerable differences between them are a more interesting and fruitful field for thought than the single analogy.

But in the greatest Dantesque similes, the longer you look the greater the likeness becomes and the more fruitful in thoughts that are interesting as long as you live. This, of course, is no disparagement to Donne: a witty love song, whether salacious or saturnine, is not meant to be chewed over like the great Comedy which made its author lean. If I seem to be breaking a butterfly upon a wheel, it is only because I want to avoid a misunderstanding which would hinder our reading both of the great and of the little poet.

Sample Their Works (for free)

If you are able to carve out a few hours of your time to delight in the rich banquet provided by the three writers mentioned above, visit these links to download their books in the digital version of your choice.

Francis Quarles’ Emblems

(This edition is elegantly illustrated!)

The Poems of John Donne

(Volume I)

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

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The elaborate image at the top of this column is one of the illustrations found in the copy of Emblems linked to above.