Introduction: Blake and His Traditions

  • Matthew J. A. Green

Abstract

When Blake, in the final pages of his annotations to Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man, refers to himself and the Swiss theologian as ‘philosophers’, it might be tempting to dismiss this appellation as a mere rhetorical flourish within a rather obscure piece of antinomian mysticism. Indeed, the promotion of active Virtue’ in opposition to ‘vicious’ restraint and the rejection of ‘Sin’ as a concept seem far closer to radical Protestant enthusiasm than to the style of philosophy that the late eighteenth century inherited from figures such as Locke, Newton and Bacon (ibid.). To be sure, a number of apparently contradictory meanings converge in the ‘philosopher’, who may be learned in one or more branches of knowledge ranging from the rational and natural to the occult and even magical. In what follows, I will argue that Blake’s early works evince a philosophical position that expands the boundaries of what it is conceivable to know, exceeding the restraints and exclusivity built into competing discourses of enlightenment and counter-enlightenment. Nevertheless, Blake articulates his ‘strong objection to Lavater’s principles’, which appears on the final pages in his copy of Aphorisms on Man, by splicing together the twin discourses of enthusiasm and empiricism: the language of ‘accident’ and ‘Causes & Consequences’, employed by Locke and his descendants, is interwoven with talk of ‘bad or good spirits’, of ‘God & heavenly things’, which are presented as topics of first-hand, revelatory experience.

Keywords

Coherence Versed Milton Banner Culmination 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    John Casper Lavater, Aphorisms on Man, trans. J.H. Fuseli (London: J. Johnson, 1788).Google Scholar
  2. I have consulted this edition, though not the copy owned by Blake. All citations of Lavater’s text will be referred to by aphorism number rather than page number. The same holds true for citations of Blake’s annotations of particular aphorisms when his remarks refer to a particular aphorism except in instances where Blake’s comments appear on a blank page and following Erdman, I will refer to these by page number. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Blake’s work are taken from David V. Erdman, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, rev. edn (London: Doubleday, 1988), hereafter ‘E’.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Edward Larrissy, William Blake (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), p. 36.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 8Google Scholar
  5. John Beer, Blake’s Humanism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), p. 16Google Scholar
  6. Michael Ferber, The Social Vision of William Blake (Guildford: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 136–8Google Scholar
  7. Tristanne Connolly, William Blake and the Body (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 2002), pp. 30–1, 42, 62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 4.
    S.H. Clark, ‘Blake’s Milton as Empiricist Epic: “Weaving the Woof of Locke”’, SiR, 36 (1997), pp. 457–82Google Scholar
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  10. Wayne Glausser, Locke and Blake: A Conversation Across the Eighteenth Century (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998).Google Scholar
  11. 5.
    Kathleen Raine, Blake and Tradition, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968)Google Scholar
  12. Desiree Hirst, Hidden Riches: Traditional Symbolism from the Renaissance to Blake (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1964).Google Scholar
  13. 6.
    Jon Mee, Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. E.P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  15. 7.
    Keri Davies, ‘William Blake’s Mother: A New Identification’, Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, 33 (1999), pp. 36–50Google Scholar
  16. Marsha Keith Schuchard and Keri Davies, ‘Recovering the Lost Moravian History of William Blake’s Family’, Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, 38 (2004), pp. 36–43.Google Scholar
  17. 8.
    Steve Clark and David Worrall, eds, Blake in the Nineties (London: Macmillan, 1999); and Historicizing Blake (London: Macmillan, 1994).Google Scholar
  18. 9.
    Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book (Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 289.Google Scholar
  19. Although in the appendix to this text, Viscomi lists 1794 and 1795 as the first printing of No Natural Religion and All Religions respectively, he dates their composition to 1788 (pp. 187–97).Google Scholar
  20. 10.
    S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary, rev. edn (London: University Press of New England, 1988), p. 243.Google Scholar
  21. 11.
    David Worrall, ‘William Blake and Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden’, Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 78 (1975), pp. 397–417.Google Scholar

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© Matthew JA Green 2005

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  • Matthew J. A. Green

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