Paul Foot

A Passionate Prophet of Liberation

(June 1996)

From International Socialism, 2 : 71, June 1996, pp. :131–141.
Copyright © 1996 International Socialism.
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A review of Blake by Peter Ackroyd, (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995) and Witness against the beast – William Blake and the moral law by E.P. Thompson (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

In London in the 1790s, like in London today, it was commonplace to see a woman being beaten up in the street, and equally common for embarrassed or irritated bystanders to pass by on the other side. William Blake had a short temper and often lost it. Walking in the St Giles area, and seeing a woman attacked, he launched himself on the scene with such ferocity that the assailant ‘recoiled and collapsed’. When the abuser recovered, he told a bystander that he thought he had been attacked by the ‘devil himself’. At around the same time Blake was standing at his window looking over the yard of his neighbour when he saw a boy ‘hobbling along with a log tied to his foot’. Immediately he stormed across and demanded in the most violent terms that the boy should be freed. The neighbour replied hotly that Blake was trespassing and had no business interfering in other people’s property (which included, of course, other people’s child labour). The furious argument which followed was only resolved when the boy was released.

Some years later, in 1803, Blake was living in a country cottage in Sussex when he came across a soldier lounging in his garden. Blake greeted the soldier with a volley of abuse, and frogmarched him to the local pub where he was billeted. The soldier later testified that as they went, Blake muttered repeatedly, ‘Damn the King. The soldiers are all slaves.’ In the south of England in 1803, when soldiers were billeted in every village for fear of a Napoleonic invasion, such a statement was criminal treachery. The soldier promptly sneaked to his superiors. Blake was tried for sedition, and escaped deportation and even possibly a death sentence largely because the soldier made a mess of his evidence and because no one in court knew anything about Blake’s revolutionary views which had been openly expressed ten years previously. He was found not guilty, and went on writing for another 23 years until his death. He never once swerved from his intense loathing of king, soldiers and slavery.

These are two of the hundreds of anecdotes in Peter Ackroyd’s glorious biography which will warmly commend Blake to any reader even remotely committed to reform. This warmth enthuses the whole book. Ackroyd revels in Blake’s ‘exuberant hopefulness’ which grew out of his passionate rage at the world he saw around him. The Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience which he wrote in the first fine careless rapture of the French Revolution are presented here not just in scholarly textual analysis but in admiration and wonder. Here is Blake’s disgust with slavery in The Little Black Boy:

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.

The English child might indeed be ‘white as an angel’ but, if unlucky enough not to be born rich, he or she was likely to be a victim of the vilest exploitation. Ackroyd sets out the whole of Blake’s Song of Innocence called The Chimney Sweeper, which moves in six short verses from utter misery:

When my mother died I was very young
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep
So your chimneys I sweep and in soot I sleep.

To hope, in a dream which first sees all the sweeps in coffins, until:

And by came an angel who had a bright key
And he opened the coffins and set them all free.
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

And back again to a last verse which seems like an anti-climax:

And so Tom awoke and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm,
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

When I first read that last verse, I took it for what it seemed: a sell out of the indignation which sets the poem off. How does Peter Ackroyd explain it?

It has been suggested that this closing line is in sharp contrast to the rest of the poem but in fact it maintains precisely the same note; the innocence of the speaker, and of Tom himself, is a destructive and ignorant innocence because it actively complies both with the horrors of the climbing trade and of the society that accepts it without thought. It is the ‘unorganised innocence’ that can persuade a deformed or dying sweep that he is happy, after all, while confirming the credulous or the sanctimonious in their belief that ‘duty’ is all that needs to be, or can be done. Blake has dramatised a ‘state’ or an attitude without in the least acceding to it; then in the companion poem within Songs of Experience that shares the same title, he emphasises his disgust:

And because I am happy, and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

The point that the Songs of Experience often harden up the Songs of Innocence is also made by Edward Thompson, who does what Ackroyd has done for the Chimney Sweeper for the Song of Experience called London.

I wander thro’ each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear
in every voice; in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

How the chimney sweeper’s cry
Every blackning Church appalls;
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlots’ curse
Blasts the new-born infants’ tear
And blights with plague the marriage hearse.

Edward Thompson traces the use of the word ‘chartered’ to the controversy between Edmund Burke (against the French Revolution) and Thomas Paine (for it). The ‘chartered’ towns excluded from any vestige of control what Burke called ‘the swinish multitude’. The soldier gave his blood for the palaces and the chimney sweep his life and limbs for the churches. Prostitution was the other side of the coin to marriage. The swinish multitude crops up again in a savage poem about a ‘chapel all of gold’ from which Blake sees a serpent turning away:

Vomiting his poison out
On the bread and on the wine.
So I turned into a sty
And laid me down among the swine.

Blake could see more clearly than most of his contemporaries the rising consciousness of a new class which was being robbed as ruthlessly as any of its predecessors, and he sided unequivocally with the exploited and the poor. This commitment was never dull, never repetitive. It was invigorated and complemented by Blake’s illustrations and engravings. He annotated the books he read with neat and powerful notes which still survive and disclose his ideas and how he expressed them. The smooth talking, smooth painting and very fashionable Sir Joshua Reynolds was dealt with like this:

Reynolds: I felt my ignorance, and stood abashed.

Blake: A Liar. He never was abashed in his life & never felt his ignorance.

Reynolds: I consoled myself by remarking that these ready inventors are extremely apt to acquiesce in imperfection.

Blake: Villainy. A lie.

Reynolds: But the disposition to abstractions is the great glory of the human mind.

Blake: To generalise is to be an idiot. To particularise is the alone distinction of merit. General Knowledges are those knowledges that idiots possess.

Reynolds: The great use in copying, if it be at all useful, should seem to be in learning to colour.

Blake: Contemptible.

Reynolds: But as mere enthusiasm will carry you but a little way

Blake: Damn the fool. Mere enthusiasm is all in all.

Thompson calls this Blake’s ‘robust contempt’ for the high and mighty, which he held in common with the other great iconoclastic poets of his time, notably Byron. Like Byron, Blake’s first reaction to the pretensions of great men was to laugh out loud. Byron’s view of his former foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh was succinctly expressed over the great man’s grave:

Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler scene than this.
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh.
Stop traveller, and piss.

And here was Blake on the subject of the most respected philosopher of his day (and his devotion to the Classics):

A ha to Dr Johnson
Said Scipio Africanus
Lift up my Roman petticoat
And kiss my Roman anus.

Add to all this Blake’s enduring belief in sexual liberation as a necessary condition of human freedom. ‘Enjoyment and not abstinence is the food of intellect’, was his motto. Most sex was shut up in private fantasy:

The moment of desire! The moment of desire! The virgin
That pines for man shall awaken her womb to enormous joys
In the secret shadows of her chambers; the youth shut up from
Lustful joy shall forget to generate, & create an amorous image
In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent pillow.

One answer was ‘lovely copulation, bliss on bliss’, a regular theme for Blake especially in his paintings and engravings. None of this was poetic licence for the release of male libido, as it plainly was for the Swedish theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose church Blake joined. Blake, a bitter enemy of monogamy when applied as a church and state edict, lived all his life in apparently harmonious monogamy. He was at his testiest when official theorists and priests argued for discrimination against and/or seclusion of women. His views on these matters were close to those of his great contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Perhaps it was his constant harping on these sexual questions which explains another feature of Blake’s life common to many other reforming writers of the time. As Ackroyd points out, ‘He remained quite unknown in his lifetime.’ His engraving was patronised by famous writers and artists of the time, notably Henry Fuseli, but usually only for hack work much of which has perished. The poems which have fascinated critics all through the 20th century were hardly published, let alone read in his lifetime. He printed the Songs himself, very expensively, and sold very few copies. The Four Zoas, which Ackroyd describes as ‘one of the most extraordinary documents of the decades spanning the 18th and 19th centuries’ wasn’t published until 1889, 63 years after Blake’s death. Again most of Blake’s contemporaries dismissed him as ‘mad’. As he got older, people referred to him more and more as ‘the mad visionary’. Even W.H. Auden a century and a half later declared that ‘Blake went dotty as he sang’. In fact, of course, he was not mad at all. His close friend and colleague John Linell admitted he was often shocked by Blake but affirmed, ‘I never saw anything the least like madness.’ The reason for his ‘madness’ was familiar: he swam against the stream and refused to compromise what he said and never painted for commercial fortune.

The hostility of polite society which prescribed him mad ended when he died. In old age he was, as ever, penniless and, as one shocked visitor put it, ‘dirty’. There were six people, including his wife, at his funeral and he was buried in a common grave. But death changed the open hostility to Blake into a grudging patronage which still prevails. Schoolchildren are taught to learn by rote the famous poem, Tiger, Tiger. They chant happily:

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

But which of them connects the poem, written late in 1792, to the French Revolution, or to the press references after the September massacres in Paris to ‘tribunals of tigers’ or to the eyes of Jean Paul Marat gleaming ‘like those of a tiger cat?’ And which of those Tory matrons who round off their party conference every year with a spirited rendering of Blake’s poem Jerusalem have the remotest idea what Blake meant when he cried out for ‘arrows of desire’? How many of them have any idea, either, how determined was the commitment in his pledge, ‘I will not cease from mental fight’?

Determined, filled with contempt for the rich and sympathy with the exploited and the poor, eloquent and passionate prophet of liberation of every kind, sane to his friends and family, mad to the outside world, dogged by poverty and calumny all through his 70 years, his poems and his art ignored in his life and patronised after it ­ Blake seems to fit exactly into the pattern of other revolutionary poets of the time, most notably Shelley, who lived in London not far from Blake but never met him, and died aged 29 when Blake was 65. Can we happily place Blake alongside Shelley in the line of British poets and writers who emerged out of the French Enlightenment of the late 18th century and filled the gap between the revolutions of 1789 and 1848?

No, we cannot. Here is the paradox about Blake, which is firmly tackled in different ways by both these books. Blake shared with Shelley all the qualities mentioned above. Yet there was a great gulf fixed between them. Shelley revered the Enlightenment, hailed the great contribution to democracy of Rousseau, the anti-clericalism of D’Holbach, the secular encyclopedias of Diderot. Above all he worshipped at the shrine of ‘reason’s mighty lore’. He was a rationalist, bitterly opposed to religion of every kind. He believed in open political activity to change the world. He wrote political pamphlets, tried to form political associations, subscribed to the campaigns to release the victims of oppression.

Blake was none of these things and did none of them. Though he knew the circle round Thomas Paine, Holcroft, Horne Tooke and Mary Wollstonecraft, he did not associate with them. The story, made into a BBC play, that he advised Paine to flee from London is, Peter Ackroyd assures us, almost certainly apocryphal. This is how Peter Ackroyd explains the difference between Blake and the Painites:

In many respects he was utterly unlike them. If points of religion had been brought up, for example, there would have been manifest differences. His friend in later life, Tatham, adds substance to the suggestion:

‘In one of their conversations, Paine said that religion was a law and a tie to all able minds. Blake on the other hand said what he was always asserting: that the religion of Jesus was the perfect law of Liberty.’

Paine also dismissed Isaiah as ‘one continual incoherent rant’ and Blake celebrated the glory of that prophet. Blake could hardly have been an enthusiast for the works of Joseph Priestley whose materialism and predestinarianism were utterly opposed to everything Blake considered holy. Nor can he have been very impressed by Mary Wollstonecraft’s belief in the ‘law of reason’ and ‘rational religion’.

Blake came from an entirely different tradition, a tradition which execrated the ‘reason’ which inspired Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Priestley and Shelley. As we have seen he attended the newly formed New Church of Jerusalem which propagated the views of the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. This was a Christian sect whose origins, like so many of its kind, derived from the eternal argument between the paid professionals of the Christian church established and maintained by ruling class robbers, and ordinary believers who want to keep their faith secure from the grasp of governments, monarchs, landowners and priests. Almost all these sects, therefore, practised and preached political disengagement as an essential feature of their faith. The Swedenborgians were specially insistent on this. They abominated the ridiculous tenets of the Trinity, with all the obeisance to God and God’s representatives on earth which it entails, and replaced it with a ‘divine presence’ in all human beings. Part of the proof of that divine presence was a devotion to sectarian secrecy which kept the believers apart from the real world. They were seen as cranks, of course, and therefore as suspect revolutionaries. When a drunken Birmingham mob, bribed by the authorities, sacked and burned the house of the rationalist Joseph Priestley, they headed for the Swedenborgian’s church to do the same. The church’s pastor, appropriately named Proud, rushed out to head off the crowd, explaining that he and his church had nothing to do with temporal matters such as the French Revolution or Joseph Priestley, and brandishing gold coins which he pressed into the mob leaders’ hands. This worked perfectly, and the crowd went away.

Ackroyd and Thompson prove that Blake was no uncritical Swedenborgian. He criticised the New Church again and again. But his ideas were sharply hostile to those of the rational enlightenment. Where did they come from? E.P. Thompson strives to find a ‘vector’ which carried Blake’s ideas to him from the 17th century. He fastens on a sect which grew up around John Reeve and Ludowich Muggleton after the defeat of the Levellers in 1649. This Muggletonian sect, as it became known, was ‘antinomian’, that is ‘against the law’. Its followers argued that the only real law was the law of the divine spirit inside each individual. The Muggletonians were subversive because they defied the law, but they blunted their subversiveness by keeping themselves to themselves in strict sectarian isolation.

Half Edward Thompson’s book rather apologetically struggles and strains to establish this ‘missing vector’ between the Muggletonians and Blake. With one rather doubtful exception he can’t find a single credible connection. But he does provide an argument for some form of thread between Blake and the antinomian sectarians who sprung up during the Commonwealth and survived right up to his time (they only died out recently ­ Thompson himself met the last of the Muggletonians ­ in Tunbridge Wells!). The Muggletonians and Blake, Thompson argues, were suspicious of reason. Of course, the ‘reason’ and ‘common sense’ they disliked were the ‘reason’ and ‘common sense’ of upper class intellectuals who told ordinary people what to think. But this spilled over into a suspicion of the ‘reason’ and ‘common sense’ of people like Thomas Paine whose purpose was exactly the opposite: to assault and expose the rhetoric and arguments of the rulers, and to agitate among the ruled for action to change the world. In this sense, as Thompson grudgingly concludes, antinomian sects like the Muggletonians found themselves in opposition to the intellectual forces which led to the French Revolution.

If William Blake was suspicious of its intellectual origins, however, he was most definitely not opposed to the revolution. For a short time he even walked the streets wearing the cap of liberty. The second half of Thompson’s book, which is much more exciting than the first, argues that for this short time there took place in Blake ‘a conjunction between the old antinomian tradition and Jacobinism’. Thompson’s close study of poems like London, The Human Abstract and the Garden of Love reveals a ‘burning indictment of the acquisitive ethic’ which goes far beyond the bounds of Muggletonian mysticism and takes Blake close to the revolutionaries.

This is all fascinating, especially from a historian of the stamp of E.P. Thompson whose The Making of the English Working Class (1973) is a classic for any socialist who wants to understand this period. But in trying to force the two traditions together, the rationalist revolutionary and the spiritualist antinomian, Thompson seems to abandon many of the lessons he himself spelt out in his monumental history. He writes:

If Blake found congenial the Painite denunciation of the repressive institutions of State and Church, it did not follow that humanity’s redemption from this state could be effected by a political reorganisation of these institutions alone. There must be some utopian leap, some human re-birth, from Mystery to renewed imaginative life.

This is not just an account of Paine’s view. It seems to be Thompson’s view too, for he repeats the phrase ‘utopian leap’ in the final paragraph of his book and concludes,

‘To create the New Jerusalem something must be brought in from outside the rationalist system and that something could be found only in the non-rational image of Jesus, in the affirmatives of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love.’

No conclusion of that kind can be found in The Making of the English Working Class, which starts with the founding of the London Corresponding Society, a working class organisation with ‘members unlimited’ which fought precisely and exclusively for parliamentary reform: that is, for the ‘political reorganisation of the institutions of State and Church’. The Society backed up the more feeble Society for Constitutional Information. The Making of the English Working Class goes on to chronicle all the attempts by the new ‘reformers from below’ to challenge and change the unrepresentative and repressive monarchy, parliament, press, church, landowners and employers who ruled Britain. There was no call from any of these reformers for a ‘utopian leap’ perhaps because no practical political leap, by definition, can be utopian. ‘Comrades, we shall now proceed to accomplish a utopian leap’, is not a practical slogan. The whole concept is an abstraction. The chief consequence of relying on an abstraction is political quietism. If you wait and hope for a utopian leap, there is nothing you can do about it. You can only wait and hope.

Blake joined the New Church of the boring and ridiculous Swedenborgians, but he did not join the London Corresponding Society, or even the Society for Constitutional Information. He showed no interest in any of the agitations for parliamentary reform or against the gagging acts and repressive legislation at the end of the 1790s. When the Luddite leaders were hanged in 1813, there was no donation for their families from Blake (as there was from Shelley). When the leaders of the Pentridge uprising (1817) were executed or the Manchester yeomanry mowed down the parliamentary reformers at Peterloo (1819), there was no protest from Blake (as there was on both occasions from Shelley). Thompson compares Blake unfavourably to William Godwin, who is deservedly denounced for spouting his polite philosophy from the sidelines. But at least Godwin risked his neck by publicly supporting his friends on trial for treason in 1794, which is more than Blake managed to do. Indeed on more than one occasion, when the authorities threatened persecution, Blake specifically adapted and softened his language to keep himself clear of the prosecutors. If there was, as Thompson argues, a brief moment where his antinomianism merged with a Jacobin sense of outrage, the moment soon passed, and he hurried back to his splendid isolation.

Peter Ackroyd quotes back at Blake a comment from his hero Milton:

‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d virtue, unexercis’d and unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be fought for, not without dust and heat’.

Blake, Ackroyd continues, ‘eschewed the “heat” of any public voice or role, but, as a result, it is as if he were another Milton raging in a darkened room’. I find all this illuminating because I confess that the bulk of Blake’s longer poems have always mystified and often irritated me. I do not mean only that the poems seem constantly to dissolve into imagery or metaphor. A lot of Shelley’s poetry does that too. But the imagery in Blake is too abstract, too unrelated, too much founded on utopian leaps. E.P. Thompson recognises this vagueness, but comes round to it. In one sense he almost revels in Blake’s isolation and his assaults on what Thompson (I think wrongly) calls ‘ideology’. Perhaps at the end of his life Thompson found in Blake some solace for his own political loneliness. Peter Ackroyd, a Blake enthusiast to the last, is more circumspect:

His poetry is often one of declaration and assertion, just as his art resides upon the pictorial plane; much of his creative activity takes place on the immediate surface and there are occasions when an image, or a verse, seems to have no concerted or established sense ­ with the proviso of course that this indeterminacy, this missing signification, is often part of a work’s power. It is like the oblique character of the man himself who, according to one interlocutor, made assertions without bothering with argument or debate; his work shares that same denotative brilliance, but sometimes at the expense of bewildering those who encounter it.

I enrol myself in the ranks of the bewildered. But I will not end there because both these books have led me back to Blake and dug up treasures previously buried in mysticism and symbolism. The whole point of the poets who flourished in revolutionary times and who did not bow the knee to God or King or Law is that they have something significant to say to future revolutionaries. Blake should be read precisely because he was a maverick, a pain in the neck not just to the rulers but also to those who more formally and more rationally opposed the rulers. Whatever his religious origins and however haughty his disengagement, he believed perhaps more passionately than all his contemporaries in human emancipation, and he lived his life accordingly. In particular, he needs to be read by any socialist who imagines that in a society where labour is emancipated everyone will be the same and want the same.

Is there anyone attempting to work in the tradition of William Blake today? Well, there is Leon Rosselson, a veteran London singer so full of wonderful tunes and emancipating poems that he is ignored by polite society as systematically as Blake was. His latest CD, Intruders, is full of both; and I commend it heartily as I commend both these books, especially Peter Ackroyd’s. The CD ends with a tune I find myself humming almost everywhere. The chorus is pure Blake, incorporating on the one hand the isolated, individualistic Blake who preferred abstract divinity to politics, and on the other the revolutionary Blake who saw perhaps more clearly than anyone else the fantastic, kaleidoscopic potential of human liberation:

For all things are holy, the poet once said,
And all that is different is part of the dance.
And the web of life’s colours needs each single thread
For the dance to continue unbroken.

Last updated on 8 November 2019