Humanism in Literature: William Blake

By Lawson, William | The Humanist, September-October 1993 | Go to article overview

Humanism in Literature: William Blake


Lawson, William, The Humanist


I once found a volume, The Theology of William Blake, in an obscure corner of a library. At the time, I was reading Mark Schorer's William Blake: The Politics of Vision, which treats the poet as a secular artist who used biblical and esoteric literature for his engravings and poems. I appreciated Schorer's position, which dispelled for me the notion that Blake was a mystic. And so it was jarring for me to suppose that he might have had a theology, and I returned The Theology of William Blake unopened to the shelf. Since then, I have come to see that theologians may be atheistic. Theology in itself presupposes no necessary beliefs and can be simply issue, oriented. Today, I would be more accepting of the title if I saw it on the shelf, more inclined to investigate.

The view of Blake which I received from Schorer, while secular, was not humanistic in the sense of the ancient Greeks, nor of the Renaissance with its stress on classical languages, nor certainly either of the Enlightenment with its appeal to rationality or the modern pragmatic or positivist ethos. Rather, it was a humanism based upon human, kind's faculties of imagination and vision. A vitally new understanding of humanism is hardly likely to result in regarding William Blake as a special exemplar, for he has his debits as well as his credits. Even so, what this poet-engraver stands for is something worldly. Mark Schorer, himself secular, brilliantly illuminated the secular in Blake, who emerges as someone less worldly from the pages of another study from the mid-1940s--Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry.

In spite of his reputation for mysticism, Blake early wrote clearly naturalistic poems like "The Ecchoing Green," "To Autumn," and "Laughing Song." Down-to-earth concerns enter into the two "Chimney Sweep" poems as well as "London" But apart from such gleanings from these and other short poems for which he has long been famous, it is to Blake's own brand of thinking that we must turn for something compellingly relevant. This is not uniformly so, since Blake was not conceptually systematic or even always consistent. A key idea is that there is no transcendent God but, rather, an all-encompassing Universal or Primal Man--once whole when in Eden but then broken into four parts, the Zoas. Thus, the biblical account of the fall of humanity, coinciding with the exile of Adam and Eve from Eden, does not for Blake involve original sin. Humanity's alienation is not to be overcome by a supernatural redeemer granting salvation but, rather, by human imagination, which can return us to our original wholeness. With such redemption by the imagination of poetic genius, there would be an improvement in bodily sense and sensual enjoyment.

In this scheme, as noted, sin is missing, and along with it such asceticisms as have their source in the biblical story of Eden. Here, its Blakean equivalent has a secular-enough name: selfhood, a state of attempted self-sufficiency, in isolation, following fragmentation from Universal Man. For Blake, such selfhood was to be demolished by "self-annihilation" for the sake of "identity"--a gathering into original wholeness. From a humanist standpoint, Blake is here on the "debit" side, since this view is in opposition to the modern concern with human selfhood and self-development. Also, his use of otherworldly terms like divine, spirit, soul, angel, apocalypse, resurrection, and redemption appears to humanists to tally up for him further debits. …

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