“William Blake – Prophetic Voice of England”

Dr. Kathleen Raine, the distinguished octogenarian English poet, and Editor, Temenos, was in Delhi recently. In her lecture William Blake – Prophetic Voice of England delivered in IGNCA, Dr. Raine saw Blake as an advocate of a ‘New Age’ which rejected the materialist ideology and affirmed the primacy of ‘imagination’, the innate divine principle. Here are some excerpts.

It is because the one reality is written also in us that we respond to such works, which serve (in Platonic terms) to “remind” us; as we do to the holy scriptures of whatever religion, or indeed to the deep insights of such poets as Shakespeare and Dante and Rumi or to the Mahabharata. And it is surely only in the modern West that poetry and the sacred have become separated and the very idea of “secular” art has its appearance –art without inspiration. Blake, so far as I know, is alone in his century in declaring that the inspiration of poet and prophet are one and the same and the source of that inspiration the Divine Human, innate in all. In fact the separation of the divine and the human is an article of Christian faith from which only a few mystics have deviated, like Eckhart, whose works were banned by the Papacy for declaring the divine principle to be within. Sufi mystics have been executed for saying as much, although in India the words “tat tvam asi” (that art thou) is a fundamental principle of Hindu sacred writings. But Blake is a prophet of the modern world who had nothing to fear but neglect and incomprehension.

It may well seem strange, indeed unacceptable, to the religious thus to identify the prophetic with the poetic gift, to affirm that the great religions of the world are “each nation’s different reception of the genius”, that the human imagination is the source alike of poetry and prophecy. “What is a church and what is a theatre?” he asks, “Are they two and not one?” Surely this to place the works of Shakespeare among the sacred books! The Protestant reformation rested on the dawning realisation that the “Inner light” and not the Church is the ultimate authority, but Blake carried this realisation to its logical extreme, so far as I know unprecedented in the modern West, though what he affirmed would have caused no surprise to those Oriental thinkers for whom the universal and the individuals self are the same. In the mystical philosophy of Plotinus and the Neoplatonists, besides certain Gnostic Christians condemned by the church, a comparable understanding is to be found. In the Indian subcontinent religion and art have been inseparably united until modern Western secular ideas invaded that ancient unity of culture. There is a world of difference between “religious art” in the modern West, which since the Renaissance has often taken the form of mere narrative illustrations of religious stories and personages; and “sacred art”, in the true sense of art inspired by a vision of the numinous in whatever mode. In the whole phenomenon or the sacred icons of the Orthodox Christian tradition; or indeed in the Gothic cathedrals, established on sacred principles of geometry and number, “religious art” is true “sacred art” also. But in the centuries following the Renaissance the arts have moved ever further from any idea that a vision of the sacred is a necessary ground for any work of art; and yet Blake wrote: One thing alone makes a poet: Imagination, the Divine Vision”. Such a definition gives to the arts an essential function as the language in which that “divine vision” is communicated from the inner to the outer world, where the art so inspired in turn remind us of that imaginative knowledge innate in all, our shared inheritance accessible, Plato taught, by “recollection” – anamnesis. Blake continually affirms the sacred function of the arts, in this sense. But in so doing he is by no means making a religion or art, in sense of those artists of the late nineteenth century who proclaimed the value of “art for art’s sake” – quite the contrary, it is by virtue of their function as the language of a vision of sacred things that the arts have value. “Poetry, Painting, & Music, the three Powers in Man of conversing with Paradise, which the Flood did not sweep away”, (K609) – the “Flood” symbolically understood as the sea of time and space which submerges the higher consciousness of humankind, the omniscient “God within” enthroned in every human soul.

Around the Throne Heaven is opened and the Nature of Eternal Things Displayed All Springing from the Divine Humanity. All beams from him, as he himself has said “All dwells in him”. (K612)

The person on the throne Blake means “Jesus, the Imagination”; in other sacred traditions there are other names for the same reality.

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