William Blake as Natural Philosopher, 1788-1795

Drawn to Blake

In Ross Glass’s 2020 psychological horror film, Saint Maud, the title character, a hospice nurse who has recently converted to an extremely ascetic form of Catholicism after a hedonistic earlier phase, is given a book of William Blake’s prints (Morton Paley’s 1978 Phaidon edition) by the woman in her care, Amanda. Viewers assume Maud’s perspective as she pores over the images, shown in close-up, and slowly becomes entranced, the designs appealing to her longing for transcendence. Blake’s work becomes a polestar for what she imagines to be her transformation, as she cuts out the prints from the book and arranges them in a kind of shrine.

Glass’s choice to reference Blake’s work is not terribly surprising, given that many of Blake’s images depict, in clearly delineated vividness, an uncanny elsewhere, dream visions and apocalyptic scenes foreclosed to mundane existence, in which we see things through what Blake called the “narrow chinks of our cavern” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). In illustrating the Bible, he chose ecstatic, sublime moments such as Jacob’s dream, Enoch walking with God after being translated into heaven, and the vision of the Last Judgment, a magnificent and multifarious design, variations of which he executed on several occasions. 

As Jason Whittaker has argued, however, Maud fails to understand Blake’s point that “the divine image is inside her, she projects it outwards onto the universe and thus obeys a false, Urizenic deity.” This inability to distinguish between infinite reality and the specters created by the perverted energies of repressed fantasies has catastrophic consequences in the film, and it is a scenario that Blake often depicts in his illuminated work. Early in their relationship, Amanda makes the very Blakean pronouncement that “No one sees what they don’t want to.”

I share Maud’s fascination with Blake’s designs. And for all I know, I also share her thralldom to what Whittaker describes as distorted sensory hallucinations caused by my projected fantasies, since, try as I might, I struggle to follow Blake’s advice to “cleanse the doors of perception” in the absence of clear instructions, or, in Whittaker’s terms, to “come to terms with the devil inside” me. But that’s for another post. Or book. What I wish to stress here is the dry-mouthed curiosity, the breathless attention that Blake’s mysterious images elicit in Maud, effectively captured in the montage of context-less close-ups of furious angels, flaming serpents, terrified souls navigating the afterlife. Though the experience didn’t produce the same dramatic results, I felt the same draw of Blake’s images while flipping through Alexander Roob’s 1996 Taschen edition of Alchemy & Mysticism, in which they were included among a wealth of medieval and early modern hermetic and alchemical designs, suggesting an occult tradition informing Blake’s art. This persistent power to captivate and suggest is evident in the many pop-cultural references to Blake, St. Maud among the most recent of them.

Like many who were educated before the internet age, my primary introduction to Blake’s work was textual. The poetry itself was certainly sufficient to attract my interest, with its strange mythopoeic vision and, in contrast to most other Romantic writers, its eschewing of the lyric “I” dwelling on its personal experience. Yet as I became (and continue to become) more familiar with Blake’s vast and diverse output of visual art—thanks to my good fortune to be involved with the William Blake Archive—my understanding of his work has evolved. While I still appreciate the tendency to associate Blake’s work with mystical and/or religious apocalyptic traditions, my own attention has become drawn to what I see as Blake’s proclivities as a natural philosopher. Lingering in this particular channel of fascination, I have come to see that his images and poems don’t just concern themselves with extra-terrestrial Eternity, but have a lot to say about material life on earth, both human and nonhuman. 

My book, Blake as Natural Philosopher, 1788–1795, takes up Blake’s early wish to be considered a philosopher, which is how he refers to himself in an annotation to his 1788 edition of Johann Caspar Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man. His designs from this period, combined with the poetry, are, I argue, an imaginative way of engaging with natural-philosophic topics that include matter theory, neurophysiology, soul-body interaction, and embryology. Verse narratives like The Book of Thel and hybrid texts like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell don’t philosophize in a numerically ordered, rational manner, as do the works of John Locke and Isaac Newton, which Blake satirizes (among others) in these early works. Engaging the reason alone is insufficient for philosophical argument, according to Blake. Rather, his composite art—text and design involved in a shifting, enigmatic interplay—engages the imagination to compel the reader to more fully inhabit philosophical attitudes and their attendant consequences. I elaborate this one way of seeing Blake in the hope that readers will pause over Blake’s rich and multifarious work and be drawn in their own directions.