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William Blake

1757-1827. English poet. Best known for his Songs of Innocence (1789) and Experience (1794), he published also many other poems elaborating his very private mythology and system of belief, culminating in the final symbolic works Milton (1804-19) and Jerusalem (1804-20). All his works are illustrated by his own engravings. He himself declared the idiosyncrasy of his position:

The Vision of Christ that thou dost see

Is my Vision's Greatest Enemy.

In Jerusalem he wrote: “I must create a system or be enslav'd by another man's.” This extreme Romantic individualism was in part the product of Blake's own rebellious nature, but it was also his reaction against the “single vision,” scientific, materialistic, and rationalistic, of Bacon, Newton, and Locke. Against this Blake wished to assert imagination, the “divine vision,” by which “God is Man and exists in us and we in him” (“Annotations to Berkeley”). At its best this led him into that absorption with God when “Self is lost in the contemplation of faith / And wonder at the Divine Mercy,” but, despite his grasp of paradox, he never attained the fullness of the mystical experience, for he was never able to hold in tension immanence and transcendence, justice and mercy, righteousness and peace.

He saw the narrow moralistic emphasis of much contemporary orthodox religion, and typically he rejected it in extravagant terms. He rightly saw that “If Morality was Christianity, Socrates was the Savior” (“Annotations to Thornton's Lord's Prayer”), and he nobly emphasized the uniqueness of Christianity as lying in its doctrine of the forgiveness of sins; but his rejection of Christ's alleged virtues in “The Everlasting Gospel” is outrageous. Characteristically, he associates forgiveness of sins with an act of love, but rejects any idea of atonement in the death of Christ.

See Poems of Blake (ed. W.H. Stevenson, 1971) and J.G. Davies, The Theology of William Blake (1948).