Blake stated his poetic and philosophical principles early in his career and never wavered from them, although there were some changes of emphasis as his work developed. He formed his imaginative world in opposition to the prevailing materialist philosophy, which he saw embodied in three English thinkers: Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Sir Isaac Newton. Bacon was one of the founders of modern experimental science, but Blake detested this method of acquiring knowledge because it relied solely on objective criteria and encouraged the principle of doubt. In “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake points out that this is not the way that the rest of the universe functions:
He who Doubts from what he seesWill ne’er Believe do what you PleaseIf the Sun and Moon should doubtTheyd immediately Go out.
In Locke, the philosopher who exerted an extremely powerful influence on eighteenth century thought, Blake found another opponent. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke argued against the belief that there are in the human mind “innate ideas,” universal truths stamped on the mind at birth. For Locke, the mind was a tabula rasa, a blank tablet. Knowledge was gained only through sense experience and the mind’s reflection on the data provided by the senses. Locke’s views were anathema to Blake, for whom the first principle of knowing was not through the senses but through the mind. The mind is not a tabula rasa; it is fullness itself, the Divine Imagination, the eternal container of the permanent realities of existence. As Blake put it when he annotated the Discourses (1769-1791) of Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, who attempted to apply Lockean principles to art: “Reynolds Thinks that Man Learns all that he knows. I say on the Contrary that Man Brings All that he has or can have Into the World with him. Man is Born Like a Garden ready Planted and Sown. This World is too poor to produce one Seed.”
For Blake, it is the mind that shapes the way that one perceives the object. He called this seeing through, not with, the eye. Different minds see in different ways:
The Sun’s Light when he unfolds itDepends on the Organ that beholds it.
This is a key idea in Blake, and he repeats it again and again. For Blake, the more imagination that is applied to the act of perception, the more true the perception will be. The world of sense, by itself, is illusory. Only the imagination, the formative power of the mind, can penetrate beyond surface appearances to the divine nature of existence, which permeates this “Vegetable Glass of Nature” and is also the true nature of the human self.
That was Blake’s answer to the third member of his unholy trinity, Newton, the great seventeenth century scientist who not only discovered gravity but also synthesized many other contemporary theories into a grand system that appeared to explain all the laws that governed the physical universe. The problem with Newton’s philosophy of nature, from Blake’s point of view, was that it made the universe into a vast and impersonal machine that had no vital connection with human consciousness. By creating a split between subject and object, it had left humans alone and isolated in a universe over which they had no control. Against this dehumanizing tendency of natural philosophy, Blake opposed a universe in which joy, delight, and bliss are the essential constituents of both the human and nonhuman world. In his poem “Europe,” for example, in answer to the poet’s question, “what is the material world, and is it dead?” a fairy sings, “I’ll chew you all alive/ The world, when every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.” In such a universe humanity is not subject to an impersonal, mechanical order, presided over by a God who sits in judgment on it beyond the skies. On the contrary, when humanity...
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