The Bible was central for the thought and art of William Blake (1757–1827). This article begins by indicating Blake’s relationship to contemporary trends in biblical study and, by reference to his illuminated books and his paintings of biblical scenes, seeks to show the ways in which he represented his distinctive theology in both text and image.
Context and Interpretation.
“William Blake draws the breath and backbone of his work from the Bible, shaken loose from all constrictive creeds” (Johnson, 2012, p. 139). Indeed, Blake’s contemporary John Thomas Smith reminisced that Blake “did not for the last forty years attend any place of Divine worship … his Bible was everything with him” (Bentley, 2002, p. 607).
There is a growing appreciation of the importance of religion for the Romantic Movement (Ryan, 1997). The humanistic theology of the early modern period included that of Jacob Boehme (whose importance was acknowledged by Blake himself; E [see Blake, 1988], p. 707), whose emphasis on the divine spark in humanity led writers, both men and women, to regard the Bible as a witness to the writers’ experience of God rather than themselves being the word of God (Rowland, 2010, pp. 157–180; Apetrei, 2010). Some of Blake’s most explicit statements about the Bible are found in marginal notes he made to the response of Bishop Watson to Tom Paine (“Marginal Notes on Watson’s Apology,” E, pp. 611–619). Blake has no time for those parts of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible where there is any indication that God approves of destruction of nations: “a defence of the Wickedness of the Israelites in murdering so many thousands under pretence of a command from God is altogether Abominable & Blasphemous” (E, p. 614).
There have been attempts to locate Blake within the context of emerging critical biblical scholarship in the eighteenth century, but Blake’s work is not easy to categorize, and possible influences from contemporaries are not always obvious. There are affinities with the writings like those of Robert Lowth and Alexander Geddes (Prickett and Strathman, 2006; Tannenbaum, 1982; Goldie, 2010). Blake’s acquaintance with the initial explorations of the nature of the Pentateuch may have come as the result of knowledge of the work of Alexander Geddes, whose suggestion about the fragmentary nature of the myths of Genesis may well have informed Blake’s multiple versions and character of The First Book of Urizen. That work of Blake may be the first English poetic reflection of German higher criticism. The production of variant versions of his manuscripts, especially in the Urizen books, subverted the notion of an authoritative text.
Even though he set great store by the effectiveness of his illuminated texts, Blake was very conscious of his own writing as potentially itself an authoritative text and made strenuous attempts to problematize his own text: he issued differing versions, varying both in the order and the color of the illuminations. Blake has affinities with the apocalyptic spirit of Brother and Southcott and John “Zion” Ward (Rowland, 2010, p. 126). Indeed, Benjamin Heath Malkin noted that the book of Revelation and Milton “may well be supposed to engross much of Blake’s study” (Bentley, 2002, p. 567; Paley, 1999).
Blake’s Illuminated Books.
Blake interpreted the Bible particularly in the remarkable series of images, tempera, and watercolors he painted for Thomas Butts between 1799 and 1806. Biblical theophanies feature in the series, as do paintings of the Apocalypse and the death and resurrection of Jesus, as well as a range of subjects across both Old and New Testaments.
While biblical themes are explicit in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Everlasting Gospel, Illustrations of the Book of Job, the incomplete Illustrations of the Genesis, and The Ghost of Abel, elsewhere in the Blake corpus the relationship with the Bible is more oblique. Biblical allusions are to be found throughout the illuminated books. For example, in The First Book of Urizen we find a retelling of the creation narrative of Genesis in which the demiurge/lawgiving deity is depicted as an isolated figure whose role has become paradigmatic for reactionary monarchic politics on earth. In the struggle with this autocratic oppressive principle, Los represents an energetic prophetic principle, who assumes an important role in many of Blake’s later works.
The struggle between prophetic and priestly religion has become a feature of modern biblical scholarship. Blake’s texts and images represent a manifesto for the priority of “the Poetic Genius” in politics and religion. It takes a distinctive form in Blake’s work, in that one is not eclipsed at the expense of the other, for both are essential. Blake’s protest was against the disdain for the Spirit and the preference for the hegemony of order. What he sought was a dialectic between both, so brilliantly exemplified in the “minute particulars” of his artistic creations.
The struggle between the orderliness of priestly religion and the energy and change of the prophetic is for Blake a dialectical process. His work aims to redress the balance in favor of “the poetic genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy” (All Religions Are One, principle 5; E, p. 1). His understanding of “Contraries” pervades his writing. It is arguably the reason for his sympathy for his advocacy of the Gospel of Jesus as the forgiveness of sins. The “Other” is not to be negated or denied (cf. Jerusalem 10:9–16; E, p. 153) but engaged with, for “Without contraries is no progression” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 3; E, p. 34).
Blake’s Illustrations of the Bible: The Example of the Illustrations of the Book of Job.
There is an underlying consistency in Blake’s approach to the Bible from the earliest works, such as All Religions Are One, to the Illustrations of the Book of Job. Blake’s criticism of the transcendent divinity who insists on obedience to the religion of commandments contrasts with a nonconformist Jesus whose behavior makes heaven quake as he relaxes the law of commandments. In the Illustrations of the Book of Job, text and image combine to communicate Blake’s distinctive approach to the Bible. Blake demands the involvement of the reader/spectator in creating meaning from poems in which there is no definitive meaning waiting to be discovered. The often-indeterminate relationship between text and image similarly demands that the reader engage with the text; one’s own imagination thus contributes to making sense of the relationship, sometimes the gap, between the two.
Job becomes a paradigm for similar existential change in readers as they engage with Blake’s exegesis of the book of Job. The book of Job is important for Blake because there, of all biblical books, far from being a divine principle opposed to God, Satan functions as God’s agent in Job’s torment. Blake sets out what he thinks the subject matter of “Job” is really about and presents it in his engravings and paintings in a form that enables an encounter between the reader and the biblical book, with priority given to the centrally placed image. Blake’s reading focuses around two key texts: Job 42:5 (KJV: “I have heard of thee with the hearing of the eye but now my eye seeth thee”) and Job 42:10 (“So the LORD turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends”).
Blake interprets the vision of God in the whirlwind as a vision of Jesus Christ who has become Jehovah (cf. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 6; E, p. 35). This is evident from the passages from the Gospel of John, which function as a commentary on this image in Plate 17. Blake focuses on the few texts about visions and dreams in the book of Job, which then become an interpretative framework for his reading of the book as a whole. Job comes to read the Bible and the relationship it has with the rest of his life and with creation as the visionary and imaginative breaks into the habits of Job’s religion. Thus, the Job story becomes for Blake a story about a changed perspective and changed action in the light of experience. Blake’s reading of Job’s story is a story of personal upheaval in which the past is taken up and read differently in the light of the apocalyptic vision.
In the early plates of “Job” we see contrasts between the world above and the world below, juxtaposed with each other. The reader is given a glimpse into the activities of the heavenly court alongside the earthly realm. The coming of heaven to earth is the major theme of the New Testament Apocalypse. In the new heaven and a new earth, heaven is no longer the dwelling place of the holy God, for God dwells on earth, no longer separated from humanity (Rev 21:3). In the “Job” series the moment when Job utters the words “I have heard thee with the hearing of the ear but now my eye seeth thee” is the same as when in the book of Revelation the heavenly voice proclaims: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men” (Rev 21:3; cf. John 1:14). God is on earth, with and in humanity.
The prominently placed reference to 2 Corinthians 3:6, part of which is quoted on the first plate (“The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life”), along with 1 Corinthians 2:14, encapsulates a theme that is important for Blake and others in the interpretative tradition of which is he a part. This reference on the opening plate points forward to the time when Job’s “doors of perception are cleansed” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell, p. 14; E, p. 39) and he will recognize divinity with, and in, him. Slavish obedience to the biblical text and its literal sense is at odds with subordination of the words of the Bible to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus and in the interpreting subjects who are one with him in the Divine Body. Drawing on a long history going back to the New Testament itself, Blake here indicates that he sides with those who would leave behind obsession with the letter of the text. What is required is that the biblical text “is Spiritually Discerned.” Blake told his friend Henry Crabb Robinson that “all he knew was in the Bible but then he understands by the Bible the spiritual sense” (Bentley, 2002, p. 434).
In Plates 17 and 18 the key verses are written on both books and scrolls, but these are outside the frame of the centrally placed image. This is the moment when the contents of the books are actually seen by the reader (hitherto we have seen them on the lap of God or Job and his wife, e.g., in Plates 1 and 2). The change in Job’s perspective means that the divine vision takes priority over an understanding of God based on reading holy books, doing good works, and engaging in religious rituals. The development in Job’s theology, from belief in the divinely transcendent monarch to a religion of divine immanence, corresponds with Blake’s major theological and political preoccupations in which he challenges theological monarchy as a paradigm for earthly politics (e.g., Europe, p. 12 ) What emerges in Blake’s work at the end of his life in the Illustrations of the Book of Job, in The Ghost of Abel, and in his unfinished Genesis manuscript is a biblical theology in which the Gospel of Jesus of the forgiveness of sins modifies the more forbidding theology of Jehovah Elohim in the Old Testament (Crosby and Essick, 2012, pp. 35, 46).
The Bible: “Sentiments & Examples.”
Blake is difficult to pigeonhole, with affinities with older interpreters in the seventeenth century and long before in the medieval period than with his contemporaries. Blake’s words about what he considers his art to be about come in a rather bad-tempered letter to a potential patron in 1799, where he wrote: “The wisest of the Ancients considered what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act.” The Bible has peculiar powers to “rouze the faculties to act” because it is “addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason” (E, p. 703). Blake’s was a mix of searching criticism of the Bible and a way of reading that was hardly ever objective but always self-involving, much as he read Milton. What interested him was not history but “sentiments and examples”:
"I cannot conceive the Divinity of the books in the Bible to consist either in who they were written by or at what time or in the historical evidence which may be all false in the eyes of one man & true in the eyes of another but in the Sentiments & Examples which whether true or Parabolic are Equally useful as Examples given to us of the perverseness of some & its consequent evil & the honesty of others & its consequent good. This sense of the Bible is equally true to all & equally plain to all. None can doubt the impression which he recieves [sic] from a book of Examples." (E, p. 618)
So, the questions posed by modern biblical scholars (authorship, date, purpose, and historicity) were not of primary interest to Blake. Not that he was any less critical than any modern reader, but his criticism went hand in hand with the fact that “his Bible was everything with him.” It provided the inspiration for his work but in a form in which what offended Blake’s sensibilities was omitted or refined, e.g., the fire of judgment was less a means of punishment and more a catharsis (Jerusalem 31:5; E, p. 177).
[See also ROMANTIC LITERATURE.]
- Apetrei, S. Women, Feminism and Religion in Early Enlightenment England. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Bentley, G. E., Jr., ed. Blake Records: Documents (1714–1841) Concerning the Life of William Blake (1757–1827) and His Family. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
- Bindman, D. William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.
- Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by David V. Erdman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. E, used in text citations to refer to this work, is available online at the Blake Digital Text Project at the University of Georgia (www.english.uga.edu/~nhilton/wblake/home1.html).
- Butlin, M. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.
- Crosby, M., and R. Essick. Genesis: William Blake’s Last Illuminated Work. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 2012.
- Goldie, M. “Alexander Geddes at the Limits of the Catholic Enlightenment.” The Historical Journal 53 (2010): 61–86.
- Johnson, M. L. “Blake, William, and the Bible.” In The Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature, edited by F. Burwick, N. M. Goslee, and D. L. Hoeveler, pp. 139–146. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
- Paley, M. The Apocalypse and the Romantic Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Prickett, S., and C. Strathman. “Blake and the Bible.” In Palgrave Advances in William Blake Studies, edited by Nicholas Williams, pp. 109–131. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
- Rowland, C. Blake and the Bible. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010.
- Ryan, R. M. The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature, 1789–1824. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Sklar, S. Blake’s “Jerusalem” as Visionary Theatre: Entering the Divine Body. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Tannenbaum, L. Biblical Tradition in Blake’s Early Prophecies: The Great Code of Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Note: Access to images of Blake’s illuminated books, the watercolor versions and Illustrations of the Book of Job, and some of his pictures of the Bible are available online at the William Blake Archive (www.blakearchive.org/blake).