Reprinted from Journal of The College of Liberal Arts
National Chung Hsing University
Vol 27, pp 193~211, June, 1997
Blake’s Dialectical Vision
William Blake (1757-1827) is generally considered the first important figure among “the visionary company” that advanced the English Romantic Movement. His importance in thisrespect is largely due to the fact that as a true Romantic he upheld the value of imaginery and expressed his own particular vision of the universe compellingly in his works. Today, therefore, much scholarship has been devoted to the study of Blake’s visionary works in connection with his notion of vision. However, have we fully realized the nature of his particular vision? Owing partly to thedifficulty of his mythical system, perhaps, the majority of his readers seem to be still groping for light in the dark corner of his vision.
A vision is a particular experience in which a personage, thing, or event appears vividly or credibly to the mind, although not actually present, under the influence of a divine or other agency. Almost all Romantic writers, including Rousseau,Wordsworth, Shelly, Keats, Hugo, etc., have had visions of one sort or another. Actually, many writers, like William Langland (the hypothetical author of Piers Plowman), have claimed that certain works of theirs are based entirely on visions.
It is said that at the age of four Blake once envisioned the face of God pressed against the window, and by the time he was eight the occurrence of visions hadbecome habitual to him. Blake’s visionary faculties, as critics may agree, naturally found expression in his art theories and practices.
Blake makes his fullest, though somewhat cryptic, remarks on vision in his essay titled “A Vision of the Last Judgment.” Therein he says, “The Last Judgment is not Fable or Allegory but Vision.” Then he goes on to explain:
Fable or Allegoryare a totally distinct & inferior kind of Poetry. Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists, Really & Unchangeably. Fable or Allegory is Formed by the daughters of Inspiration who in the aggregate are called Jerusalem. Fable is Allegory but what Critics call The Fable is Vision itself. The Hebrew Bible & the Gospel of Jesus are not Allegory but Eternal Vision orImagination of All that Exists. Note here that Fable or Allegory is Seldom without some Vision. Pilgrim’s Progress is full of it, the Greek Poets the same; but Allegory & Vision ought to be known as Two Distinct Things & so called for the Sake of Eternal Life. (Erdman 554)1
Here we see three points.
The three points are all pertinent to Romanticism.
For all Romantics extol vision orimagination in slighting fable or allegory. All Romantic truths are supposedly permanent or eternal truths. And Romantic poets often regard themselves as seers or prophets. But the second point is particular pertinent to our present discussion.
Emphasizing the permanency of vision, Blake says in the same essay:
The Nature of Visionary Fancy or Imagination is very little Known & theEternal nature & permanence of its ever Existent Images is considered as less permanent than the things of Vegetative & Generative Nature; yet the Oak dies as well as the Lettuce, but Its Eternal Image & Individuality never dies, but renews by its seed. Just so the Imaginative Image returns by the seed of Contemplative Thought. The Writings of the Prophets illustrate these conceptions of theVisionary Fancy by their various sublime & Divine Images as seen in the Worlds of Vision. (Erdman 555)
This argument shows that for Blake a vision is a constant image kept in the imaginative mind for good. So his conclusion is:
This world of Imagination is the World of Eternity; it is the Divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the Vegetated body. This World of...