Blake as Marxist

William Blake.
by Jack Lindsay.
Braziller. 334 pp. $15.00.

Derided in his own time as a religious crank teetering on madness; rejected by critics and connoisseurs of art as a bungler, incapable of drawing the human figure correctly; virtually ignored as a poet, so that he was forced to engrave and publish his own works, the poet-painter William Blake has since become one of the most influential figures of the Romantic era. What’s more, he has managed to escape the usual categories imposed by the custodians of culture, and seems to speak to us directly, with an almost contemporary voice. The way we regard him, therefore, reflects our own concerns and our own values.

The author of this biography views Blake as a kind of proto-Marxist who “drove beyond the Hegelian idealist element into the sort of realizations that we find in the young Marx,” but “had no conception as to how the final revolution he desired was to come about except by some spontaneous uprising of all peoples” and “no notion of the positive forces at work in the industrial system.” Born too soon to have been enlightened by the Marxist dispensation, Blake is relegated by the author to an ideological limbo somewhat like the one in which Dante placed such virtuous pagans as Virgil and Ovid, who lived before the advent of Christianity.

Admirers of Blake will find it hard to recognize his characteristic features in this portrait. In order to shrive Blake of any taint of mysticism and the occult, Mr. Lindsay explains away his visionary art and poetry as an attempt “to secularize millenary religion.” Blake used “the religious idiom,” as Mr. Lindsay calls it, because “there was no other idiom in his day that could affirm human unity with the fullness and depth that he required.” Peeling away this musty old “idiom” from Blake’s prophetic books, and probing beneath their mythological and symbolical apparatus, he discovers in Milton, for instance, what he calls a “great truth,” namely, “that wishful thinking was not enough and one must understand the phase of history in which one lived.” It takes some doing to reduce so superbly imaginative a poem as Milton to so pious a platitude.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, elicits less certainty, perhaps because it is too vast and polyhedral a work to be summed up quite so one-sidedly. Mr. Lindsay finds that since it “frowns on all forms of social and political struggle, there is thus a general unity in the work, but at the cost of a certain grim flatness and lack of dramatic structure.” Why the absence of “social and political struggle” should entail a “general unity,” he does not explain, nor why this in turn is negated by a “lack of dramatic structure”; but a couple of pages later the dialectical fusion of opposites results in confusion twice confounded when he informs us that the prophetic books, Jerusalem included, are “not only an unparalleled poetic universe of forms, images, symbols, but also a penetration into the processes of history which holds an ever-deepening meaning for all of us.” One cannot but wonder how Blake, who was himself something of an alchemist, might have reacted to this attempt to transmute his lifelong mysticism into fool’s-gold Marxism.

Mr. Lindsay, however, continues undaunted. “As no poet before or since,” he declares, Blake “was a total revolutionary,” yet it is this very totality that he fails to recognize. Blake was an early and enthusiastic supporter of such political causes as the American and French revolutions, the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women from marital and sexual bondage. But as his vision deepened and expanded, he came to believe that social and political oppression had their counterpart in a cosmic tyranny which he identified with the malevolent demiurge of gnostic theosophy; and, at the same time, that this tyranny was focused to a burning point within the psyche of each individual as religious shame and guilt. Politics for Blake was not enough. The redemption of-Everyman (or Albion, as Blake called him, corresponding to the adam kadmon of the Kabbalah) must therefore encompass all three.

When Blake asks rhetorically in Jerusalem, “Are not religion & politics the same thing?” he does not, as Mr. Lindsay supposes, mean to reduce the former to the latter, in the manner of Marxist analysis, but to proclaim that the prophetic tradition was as alive in his time (and in himself) as it had been in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. For this he was stigmatized by his contemporaries as something of a religious lunatic. Marx, too, no doubt, would have joined them in pointing a revolving forefinger at the head of the cockney prophet who believed the material world to be not only “evil” but a “delusion,” and asserted that “every Natural Effect has a Spiritual Cause.” Yet Blake did so say and so believe. Only his biographer refuses to take him at his word, but, desiring to have it both ways, rejects Blake’s spiritualist metaphysics while accepting his libertarian politics.

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Throughout this biography, Mr. Lindsay turns a narrow censorious eye on Blake’s character, similar to the ideological squint with which he examines his ideas, charging him with “timidity” and “quietism” and “a rooted fear of political action.” But what “action” that could have been, other than the symbolic action of a poet and artist who never ceased his “Mental Fight” against injustice, Mr. Lindsay does not tell us. The portrait of Blake that emerges is of a pecksniffian, quarrelsome, spiteful, envious, thoroughly unpleasant personality, ungrateful to friends and benefactors (Mr. Lindsay makes much of his violent falling out with his patron William Hayley) and resentful to the point of paranoia against anyone who might have offended him. Blake was “torn,” he concludes, “between a ferocious animosity to those he considered his enemies, and his efforts to school himself into a creed of universal forgiveness.”

The artist Samuel Palmer, who came to know Blake intimately during his last years, recalled him with reverence long afterward as “a man without a mask,” one of the rare few who lived according to the Socratic precept that the inner and outer man be the same. As Mr. Lindsay sees him, however, the mask worn by Blake was the semblance of not wearing one.

For an author who claims in his foreword that Blake has been for him a “vitally formative influence,” this is surely a harsh and unsympathetic arraignment. In fact, that “creed of universal forgiveness” which Mr. Lindsay mentions slightingly in passing was the dominant theme of Blake’s last and perhaps greatest work as an artist, the illustrations of the Divine Comedy. He there envisioned Dante’s imaginary Inferno as derived from the psychological abyss in the mind of Everyman, or any man, and also foreshadowed its realization in the totalitarian hells of our own century. “What is now proved,” Blake wrote, “was once only imagined.” Even the most devout Marxist must acknowledge the truth of that.

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