The Compasses, a dingy pothouse in High Wycombe, was not the most likely place to encounter John Milton, Isaac Newton or Benjamin Franklin. Yet it was here, in March 1794, that Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to have met a man of ‘the greatest information and most original genius’. His ‘philosophical theories of heaven and hell’ and ideas of ‘daring impiety’ kept the poet awake until three the next morning. As Coleridge said to his brother, ‘Wisdom may be gathered from the maddest flights of imagination, as medicines were stumbled upon in the wild processes of alchemy.’ Reverend George Coleridge, a patient parish priest, would soon be hearing about ‘Pantisocracy’.
Is it possible that Coleridge’s genius was William Blake, author and printer of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell? We shall never know: certainly, Blake was a lifelong Londoner who rarely stepped beyond the bounds of the city. Rackety prophets and philosophers thronged the revolutionary 1790s – almost every tavern had a Bible-sodden seer with visions of the millennium. It was a decade when even mild-mannered Richard Price, a 67-year-old Unitarian, could be caricatured as an ‘Atheistical-Revolutionist’ insanely conspiring to overthrow Church and State.
Like Price, William Blake was a ‘counterculture prophet’. Whereas Coleridge’s vision of a ‘blest future’ was drawn from the Book of Revelation, Blake evolved a complex personal mythology combining Christianity with Swedenborg’s prophecies, Paradise Lost, animal magnetism, druidism and, as E P Thompson showed, a dash of English antinomianism. For Blake, too, the moment of apocalyptic breakthrough was less certainly imminent. To his eyes, humanity appeared as the giant figure Albion, trammelled and frustrated by discords, divisions and the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that constrain imagination. In Blake’s visionary universe, Leo Damrosch explains, ‘everything that happens is the shifting imagery of [Albion’s] ongoing nightmare’. Against a lurid backdrop of division and estrangement stands the daemonic figure of Los, Blake’s embodiment of furious creativity, who labours to build the city of imagination, Golgonooza.
Blake’s real subject was the arduous struggle towards Albion’s awakening, traced in his poetry and visual images through multiple refractions, repetitions and metamorphoses (most accessibly so in the early prophecies America and Europe, and also in the paired insights of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience). As Blake’s visionary universe developed, patriarchal Urizen and his fiery antagonist Orc were joined by a host of other characters, assembled to dramatise human psychic experience. These constituents of Albion he called Zoas, and each of them, in turn, was accompanied by a feminine ‘emanation’ and, from time to time, a ‘spectre’ or ‘shadowy double’. Blake and his counterpart, Los, toil to recover from these discordant components of Albion a fresh unity, and thus break on through to a universe hitherto hidden to human senses.
‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s’, Blake declared. The ‘system’ he devised is bafflingly esoteric, as Damrosch concedes, yet it also addresses the most fundamental dilemmas of the human condition: our place in the universe, mortality, our longing for some ultimate source of meaning. A model of clarity and lucid exposition, Eternity’s Sunrise offers the most balanced and comprehensive account of Blake’s imaginative world currently available, showing how the poet sought to combine words and images that would enable readers to bring about a bodily and spiritual transformation. Anyone seeking an approachable, illustrated introduction to Blake’s achievement should take this book into the city that Blake reconfigured as the mythic Jerusalem of his poetry: London.
Eternity’s Sunrise is not a biography of Blake, although it is organised in chronological sequence. Blake’s early life, apprenticeship and various London residences are mapped, as is the country interlude at Felpham that led to his trial for ‘seditious utterance’. Damrosch also offers a caution, to the effect that Blake was ‘a troubled spirit, subject to deep psychic stresses, with what we would now call paranoid and schizoid tendencies’ – in today’s London, not someone to jostle accidentally on the Tube. Blake’s creative energies sprang from a ‘wounding sense of alienation and dividedness’ stemming, in part, from dislocations in his early childhood and estrangement from his brother John, whom he named ‘the evil one’. Throughout his poetry, family demons were blocking agents to be driven off by ‘arrows of thought’.