Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake (1789-94)

THE LAMB
William Blake

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.


Theology is not tidy.  Anyone who says otherwise, whether conservative or liberal is either arrogant or uninformed.  Though many brilliant thinkers have written helpful systematic theologies, God simply can’t be summarized.  As a wise man once said “God cannot be thought, He can only be loved.”  The childlike heart of a true believer embraces God for all that He might be, simply because He is.  This was William Blake.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

Blake’s theology was a concoction of his own making, a mixture of traditional Christian belief with some elements freely cribbed from various less traditional sources and a large dollop of his own unique and idiosyncratic mystical insights. The details and symbolism in his more complex poems are so arcane that few can honestly claim to grasp the entire system and its attendant mythology. How literally he took all his own imaginative musings about divinity and humanity is probably an open question. He did not believe that the Bible should be read literally, and one cannot help but wonder what he would have thought of those who try to read his own religious musings too literally. But he did have a central concern with pointing readers away from traditional religious conceptions and toward a faith emphasizing freedom and the primacy of the heart. Rejecting the idea of original sin, Blake embraced what might be called “original innocence.” He saw in children a natural goodness and purity of heart that was usually lost by the time most people reached adulthood.

In Blake’s system of thought, religion itself is one of the culprits in our loss of original innocence, for religion has too often focused on rules, regulations, and restrictions. It is often more about the attempt to prevent or suppress certain kinds of behaviors through conventional morality rather than celebrating the earthly (and sometimes earthy) joys of human life.

Have your beliefs about God changed over the years?


John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


William Blake

 

William Blake

(1757–1827), poet, artist, and visionary. Apprenticed to an engraver from 1771 to 1778, he became, through frequent work in *Westminster Abbey, imbued with the spirit of Gothic art which remained his guiding ideal throughout his life. In 1789 he finished his Songs of Innocence, a collection of poems of childlike simplicity which included ‘The Divine Image’, where God and His image, man, are hymned as ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love’. The book was engraved by hand and illustrated by coloured drawings, a technique adopted in most of his subsequent works. It was followed by The Book of Thel (1789) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), allegorical poems full of obscure though often beautiful imagery, which Blake used to express his religious convictions. The Songs of Experience (1794) are a kind of complement to the Songs of Innocence, though on a sterner note and penetrated by a deep sense of the darker side of life, e.g. in the famous ‘Tyger’. His later poetical works, written in something like free verse, are increasingly given over to theosophical speculations and unintelligible allegories. At the same time his compositions gained in artistic maturity. About 1795 he produced a series of large colour prints of much imaginative power, including the magnificent ‘The Elohim creating Adam’, and in 1797 his illustrations of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. In 1804 he published his poem Milton, the proem of which consists of the famous lines ‘Jerusalem’, much used (with the music of Hubert Parry) as a national hymn. In the following years he produced engravings for Robert Blair’s Grave of high visionary qualities, but, like most of his drawings, not without flaws in technique. From 1808 to 1818 he was occupied with writing and illustrating his great allegorical poem Jerusalem, in which St *Teresa and Mme *Guyon figure among ‘the gentle souls who guide the great winepress of Love’. His unconventional religious beliefs found fresh expression in an unfinished poem, The Everlasting Gospel, which rejects the traditional picture of a meek and humble Christ. His greatest work, the Illustrations to the Book of Job, completed in the last years of his life (1821–1825, pub. 1826), consists of 21 engravings showing the dealings of God with Job from the peaceful contentment of the opening scene, through the despair of the tormented Job accusing his Creator, to the rapturous bliss of his final restoration. The figures, often of elemental strength and beauty, move in the atmosphere of crude black and white contrasts which invests Blake’s works with their characteristic impression of haunting unreality.

Blake’s art, which spurns reason as well as nature and lives solely in the realm of imagination, was inseparable from his religion, which was itself a religion of art. Opposed to both dogma and asceticism, it flowed from a boundless sympathy with all living things which Blake identified with the forgiveness of sins proclaimed by the Gospel. Though he was little understood by his contemporaries, his visionary genius, both as a poet and an artist, has been increasingly admired since its discovery by A. C. Swinburne and interpretation by W. B. Yeats. His insistence on the supremacy of the spiritual world, though unbalanced by reason and a sound sense of reality, has acted as a powerful antidote to 19th cent. materialism.

 

Art, literature and the unconscious

The idea that the unconscious is the ultimate explanation for human behaviour is echoed in the artistic and literary movements that take inspiration in part from Freud. The use of Western rationality and technology in the service of the industrial slaughter of the First World War, coupled with the dehumanising bureaucracy of modern life portrayed so vividly by Kafka, led early twentieth-century avant-garde movements in Europe to turn away from reason in favour of emotion, the a-rational, the shocking and the violent.

The disruption of rational and aesthetic norms also plays an important part in the self-theorising of the Surrealist movement. Founded by André Breton (1896–1966) in 1924, Surrealism is notorious for a series of high-profile spats between its leading lights, including Breton himself, Louis Aragon (1897–1982), Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), Georges Bataille (1897–1962) and Salvador Dalí (1904–1989). When Dalí agreed to create Surrealist window displays in New York department stores and endorsed themed ashtrays and playing cards, Breton was so incensed that he anagrammatically renamed the treacherous Dalí ‘Avida Dollars’.

Breton, who came to his understanding of Surrealism from his work as a psychiatrist involved with soldiers traumatised by the First World War, defined Surrealism in the following way:

SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

As with William Blake a century previously, reason for Breton is an iron cage that stifles human freedom, the bars of which must be broken. Surrealism is a revolt against all forms of realism, against rationality itself, in an attempt to liberate unconscious creativity.

The Surrealists sought acceptance from Freud, but he was never as well disposed towards them as they were to him. They share Freud’s interest in dreams, but for the Surrealists the unconscious is in more of a dialectic relationship with the rational mind than it is for Freud. Striking a rather Hegelian pose, Breton declares, ‘I believe in the future resolution of those two apparently contradictory states, dream and reality, in a kind of absolute reality, of surreality.’ This overcoming of contradiction as a means to a new, broader understanding can also be seen in the strange juxtapositions that the Surrealists were fond of making, juxtapositions that Breton described as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!’ There is both an acknowledgment and a parodic rejection of the Hegelian dialectic in the way that such a juxtaposition of opposites produces a startling new effect, yet without being part of any overarching rational progress, either of the Spirit in history (as for Hegel) or of the overthrow of capitalism for the classless society (as for Marx).

Surrealist aesthetics sought to bypass the stifling control of the rational mind. The Surrealists practised ‘automatic writing’, the production of text in a state of trance or loss of rational control, as a way of achieving Breton’s ‘pure psychic automatism’. Another means to bypass the censorship of the rational mind was chance. The story is told of how a group of Surrealists would gather at 54 Rue du Château, in the 14th arrondissement of Paris and play parlour games, the most famous of which was named ‘the exquisite corpse’, known to many children as the game of ‘consequences’. Each participant in turn would write one phrase of a sentence, fold over the paper, and pass it to the next contributor, not knowing what the others had written before. Apparently, the first time the game was played the final sentence read ‘Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau’ (‘The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine’), and the name stuck. For Breton, ‘with the Exquisite Corpse we had at our command an infallible way of holding the critical intellect in abeyance, and of fully liberating the mind’s metaphorical activity’.

Sources and Resources

Christopher Watkin, From Plato to Postmodernism: The Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011), 176–179.

The best edns. of his writings are those by G. [L.] Keynes (3 vols., London, 1925, repr., with additional material, 1966) and G. E. Bentley, Jun. (2 vols., Oxford, 1978). Id., Blake Records (ibid., 1969).

M. Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (2 vols., New Haven, Conn., and London, 1981). Life by A. Gilchrist (2 vols., London, 1863), repr. in Everyman’s Library (1942).

Modern studies by M. Wilson (London, 1927; 3rd edn. by G. [L.] Keynes, 1971), T. Wright (2 vols., Olney, Bucks, 1929), K. [J.] Raine (London, 1970), J. King (ibid., 1991), and P. Ackroyd (ibid., 1995).

G. [L.] Keynes, Blake Studies (1949; 2nd edn., Oxford, 1971);

G. W. Digby, Symbol and Image in William Blake (ibid., 1957); G. M. Harper, The Neoplatonism of William Blake (Chapel Hill, NC, and London, 1961);

M. D. Paley and M. Phillips (eds.), William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford, 1973).

P. Berger, William Blake: Mysticisme et poésie (1906; Eng. tr., 1914); J. G. Davies, The Theology of William Blake (1948).

D. Bindman, Blake as an Artist (Oxford, 1977). R. N. Essick, William Blake Printmaker (Princeton, NJ, 1980); id., The Separate Plates of William Blake: A Catalogue (ibid., 1983).

M. Eaves, William Blake’s Theory of Art (ibid., 1982). S. F. Damon, A Blake Dictionary (Providence, RI, 1965).

G. [L.] Keynes, A Bibliography of William Blake (New York, 1921);

G. E. Bentley, Jun., and M. K. Nurmi, A Blake Bibliography (Minneapolis, 1964; rev. as Blake Books, Oxford, 1977; Suppl., ibid. 1995).

Blake Newsletter, 1–10 (Berkeley, Calif., 1967–77); Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, 11 ff. (ibid., 1977 ff.).

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 215.

Blake, William. William Blake: A Selection of Poems and Letters. New York: Penguin, 1958.

Langridge, Irene. William Blake: A Study of His Life and Art Work. London: Chiswick Press, 1904.

Muggeridge, Malcolm. A Third Testament. New York: Little, Brown, 1976.

Sagar, Keith. “William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience.”

http://www.keithsagar.co.uk/Blake/index.html.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

 

Terry Glaspey

 

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!

Terry

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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.