William Blake & The Divinity of Imagination
Or how to cling desperately to your childlike sense of wonder...
‘Don’t lose your childlike sense of wonder’, it was almost like a mantra I used to tell myself. And then one day I realised I hadn’t said it in years.
After an initial wave of dread, worried that my capacity to marvel at the world was slipping through my fingers, and horror that my ability to appreciate the world may have diminished unnoticed, I realised that maybe it was slipping, maybe it was inevitable, and maybe it was a good thing.
I wandered through childhood in a perpetual state of awe, overwhelmed by just about everything. I lay awake at night thinking about infinity, unable to sleep, contemplating the unlikeliness of my existence, of the existence of anything at all.
No one wants to live in that strange paralysis, wonderstruck by the sheer enormity of it all. It is perhaps healthier to slip into the world and take it for granted sometimes, maybe even most of the time. How can we possibly comprehend, never mind express, the gratitude we should feel for the gift of being alive?
As we get older the world naturally loses some of its magic. Dealt a few inevitable blows, we may stop feeling like the gift of being alive is all that great. The seemingly endless novelty slowly becomes familiar, and the familiar fades into the background of our lives completely. Growing responsibilities, the pressures of the world and the struggle to find our place in it all lead to an inevitable decline in our childlike sense of wonder.
Still, it seems imperative not to lose your childlike sense of wonder completely, to cling on to a healthy dose of detachment and make time to acknowledge the absurdity of it all.
Play seems to be the vital function, stemming from a healthy and active relationship with the imagination. This is how we grow as children and children love to do nothing more. My three-year-old niece will babble happily to a room of entirely fictional people. As we get older and take ourselves more seriously this imaginative faculty fades.
This is not a problem that William Blake had, born in London in 1757 he was ‘a child of uncommon imagination…with evidence of a strong visual ability’. ‘What is remarkable, however, is the extent to which an ordinary childhood capacity was maintained by him until the end of his life.’*
William Blake was the last great religious poet in England, the most important precursor to the Romantic movement, a genius and a visionary, though wildly underappreciated in his time.
I’ve always been excited by the idea of this wilfully defiant mystical figure. A man who didn’t fit in with the culture, the religious traditions, or the society of the time and yet stayed true to his creative vision despite it all, a man who produced sublime works of beauty that resonated deeply with culture across time, but more than anything it is the allure of his deep connection to the creative spirit.
He was exceptionally open and receptive to this creative energy and his parents noticed his talent at an early age. Despite being beaten by his father for seeing angels in a tree (which his father understandably took to be lies), they encouraged his precocious gifts, schooling him at home before sending him to the Royal Academy to continue his study of art and painting.
He may have escaped the usual restrictive forces applied to young people, and was at least happy with this artistically, stating in an epigram:
‘Thank God, I never was sent to School
To be Flogg’d into following the Stile of a Fool.’
But it was certainly more than creative freedom that gave Blake his immense imaginative powers, though we can be grateful they were not drained (or beaten) out of him.
Blake’s visionary capability and his profound imaginative capacity seem to be linked, and the height of imaginative powers is perhaps a visionary capacity if visions do indeed stem solely from the imagination and not some otherworldly, divine dimension.
Blake claimed that he could ‘converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserved & at liberty from the doubts of other Mortals’.
He was wont to say that he had "seen God Almighty putting his face to the window" at the age of four, and "a treeful of angels at Peckham Rye" at the age of seven.†
It is hard to know exactly what Blake thought of his visions. However, he spoke about them plainly with authority and conviction as though they were as real as the world around him, no different, merely an extension of the visible world.
‘He possessed the gift of "vision”…that according to his own account it was natural to him from his earliest days.’†
During the time that Blake was alive, it was not uncommon for people to recount visionary experiences. ‘The imperatives of industry and technology had not yet closed the ‘spiritual eye’ of the eighteenth century.’*
Blake’s spiritual eye was certainly open, and open wider than most. His art is full of examples that show his exceptionally strong visionary capability, and this ‘powerful visual sense, when aligned with vigorous creative abilities, can in certain people provoke or create exceptionally clear images, which have a hallucinatory reality.’*
‘The phrase commonly employed by psychologists for such phenomena is ‘eidetic imagery’, and textbooks supply numerous instances of hallucinatory images that ‘are always seen in the literal sense’; they are not memories, or afterimages, or daydreams, but real sensory perceptions.’*
If we take visions to be ‘real sensory perceptions’, this means that they are real to the person experiencing them and I have little doubt that the angels were very real to Blake.
One of the central ideas found in Blake’s work is that the imagination is divine.
We all experience a degree of unusual imagery weighted with strange significance, whether merely in dreams or more pronounced visions, and these visions can bleed into our waking lives, never more so than when we are children and our imaginative faculties are perhaps at their peak, though usually fading with time.
‘We may therefore accept Blake’s visionary faculty, without supposing that it was anything else than a normal faculty, shared by him with thousand of others known and unknown, who do not exercise it so constantly.’†
If we discard the discussion around whether the angels Blake witnessed were real and take the visionary experience to be a normal if not heightened imaginative function it does not necessarily make it any less divine. Creativity and imagination are synonyms for god, and Blake himself seemed to hold the imagination in this regard.
‘For Blake, everything came from the imagination. As he wrote in Jerusalem, ‘…in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven/ And Earth, & all you behold, tho’ it appears Without it is Within/ In your imagination’. It is from the infinite realm of imagination that our finite, limited world emerges. Being the source of everything, it was also the source of the divine.’≠
Blake is a fascinating example of a visionary artist who lived his whole life deeply engaged with the imagination in a way that he himself considered to be divine. Imagination ‘was participatory. It was a living, vital process that you were part of. You were not separate from what you imagined, and imagination was not separate from the world, because the world and imagination could not be understood without each other.’≠
As we get older we may grow accustomed to the world around us, but the way to maintain our childlike sense of wonder lies in the imagination.
Further reading and quotations pulled from:
*Blake by Peter Ackroyd
≠William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever by John Higgs
†William Blake Author(s): John Gould Fletcher Source: The North American Review , Oct., 1923, Vol. 218, No. 815 (Oct., 1923), pp. 518- 528 Published by: University of Northern Iowa Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25113129