The Spiritual World of William Blake

William Blake's art and poetry provides an awe-inspiring network of psychological and spiritual concepts illuminating the Revolutionary Spirit in religion and establishing a framework for the brand of Unitarianism he had devised early on in his life. He called himself a visionary, but his mysterious writings make him deserving of the title "mystic." His four-fold God represented the personalities within mankind by adding Satan to the Trinity and inverting the Sign of the Cross so that his most favored Zoa resided to the north, at the head, with the Father and Son below him, and horrible Reason lurking in the pit. His personal Jesus was born through adultery to show the hypocrisy of state religion and the value of forgiveness. Satan is human error, to be used at the discretion of the philosopher who tries to relate his own truth to others. Heaven and Hell were not destinations of the afterlife but states of being forming a yin-yang of the God "within man's breast." This research paper attempt to look at five elements of Blake's conception of God and spirituality: his early religious influence from the Swedenborgians, what Blake thought of the Bible and its relation to Gnosticism, how he equated Christianity with his Unitarian idea of the Brotherhood of Man, how he viewed Heaven and Hell, and finally, Blake's psychological concept of the four-fold God.

Blake's spiritual background begins with Emanuel Swedenborg, who played a heavy influence on him even after being renounced. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was meant to parody Swedenborg's on work Heaven and Hell. "Swedenborg's greatest error, according to Blake, lay in his not understanding the real nature of 'evil', and therefore accepted conventional morality." Ideas like predestination left a Calvinistic taste in his mouth, leading him to go so far as to say that Swedenborg said nothing new and repeated the same old lies, even if he was inspired. To Blake, being inspired by the Holy Spirit did not guarantee complete truth. The Spirit was like a Muse, but because Greek mythology made them daughters of Memory, he denied that association. True poetic inspiration flowed from God according to the greatness of the prophet-philosopher, but the greater the man, the more dangerous his errors.

Samuel Coleridge wrote some letters about Blake to H.F. Cary in 1818, saying that he was as a man of Genius and guessed correctly that Blake was a Swedenborgian. Coleridge said he did not approve of The little Vagabound and said that he was inclined to think that "the error which is most likely to beset the scholars of Emanuel Swedenborg is that of utterly demerging the tremendous incompatibilities with an evil will that arise out of the essential Holiness of the abysmal Aseity in the Love of the eternal Person- and thus giving temptation to weak minds to sink this Love itself into good nature..." But at the same time, Coleridge assured Cary that he disapproved of the "scurf-coat of FEAR of the modern Saints" much more, and delighted at the idea of such conservatives growing wide-eyed at "the audacity of this poem!" I would expect an apocalyptic to part with Blake on some topics, but clearly these are minor theological issues which pale in comparison to their common enemy: State Religion.

State religion was based on the mostly literal interpretations of the Bible, whereas Blake read into them symbolically. To Blake, when man eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was taking God's post to become the judge of good and evil. In The Impact of the Book of Enoch, John Beer speculates that one of Blake's influences for this viewpoint was a reading of the Book of Enoch. The Book of Enoch tells of a group of angels called Watchers who come down and have relations with mankind, producing giants and teaching man how to make weapons, apply makeup, and use magic. Beer suggests that "The importance of the tradition was that it offered a possible version of the fall in which the problems of the human condition were created not by original sin but by the existence of a commixture of the divine with the human." Beer suggests that this may have inspired Blake to see the answers to the problems of the world lay not in seeking forgiveness but in understanding the human condition and reawakening the creative powers of the divine.

Blake also looked into Gnosticism, using a form of the Demiurge to represent Urizen, who Blake identified as the God of the Old Testament and maker of the Ten Commandments. Blake's brand of Gnosticism built a different bridge between the Testaments, making the Hebrew scripture the anti-thesis rather than the prelude to the coming of Christ. The Demiurge was seen as the god of this world, who believed himself the only God because he had accidentally been created by the Sophia and was left alone in this world. Orthodox Christianity instead used the epistles of Paul to explain Crucifixion as the defining event that broke man's chains to the Law (not including the Ten Commandments). Where Paul tried to convince his readers that they should count themselves lucky for being accepted under the God of the Old Testament, Blake saw Judaism as being inferior to Christianity, at best only an evolutionary step away from the nature religions of the Pagans. Paul, being one of the firmest supporters of chastity in the New Testament, naturally diverged from Blake on issues concerning sex.

This dichotomy that Blake instills between the vengeful Old Testament God and the peaceful New Testament God was manifested into two totem animals: the tiger and the lamb. In William Blake, His Philosophy and Symbols, Foster Damon explains the metaphor behind Blake's popular poem 'The Tyger'. "The problem of 'The Tyger' is, quite simply, how to reconcile the Forgiveness of Sins (the Lamb) with the Punishment of Sins (the Tyger)." The burning that radiates from the Tyger's coat comes from the flames of judgment, which Blake dubs wiser than the Horses of Instruction in his Proverbs of Hell. The dark forest it walks through is the Forest of Experience, whose dead trees (errors) conceals the path and dims the light. The Tyger's intention is to consume Error and destroy what the Horses of Instruction cannot subdue. Blake ends the poem asking 'Did He that make the Lamb make thee?'- a very real question on the compatibility of the Jewish and Christian God.

One of the most endearing concepts of Blake's Unitarianism is the idea of the Brotherhood of Man, a stark contrast to the classic concept of Priestly or Christian brotherhood. The Brotherhood of Man, which Blake believed to be the only solution to all problems, was made possible by Jesus' great revelation concerning the mutual forgiveness of sins, which differentiated Christianity from all other religions. Blake denied that Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins on the basis that it was a contradiction in terms: How can a debt be forgiven if someone else has to pay for it? To Blake, Jesus came to abrogate the inferior system of Judaism by being crucified under that system. He took Paul's "God of this World" and represented him as a fiery wheel- the cherub's revolving sword of flame, which guarded Man's return to paradise. Its name is Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest under which Jesus was crucified in the Gospel of John, and Jesus was killed by walking against its rotation.

Blake saw Heaven and Hell not as real extra-dimensional locations but as representations of the human heart. Angels represented the conservative voice of tradition while devils acted as the rebels, providing the flames of inspiration for change. In this axis, Blake saw himself as a devil. But in other instances, Blake used the concepts of Heaven and Hell for his own polemic against the materialistic philosophies of Locke, Bacon and Newton. To him, they were the infernal Trinity of Justice: Accuser, Judge, and Executioner. But, at the same time, he believed that one must learn to distinguish between the sin and the sinner. To Blake, it was the sins of mankind that were going to be thrown into hell, not the sinner. "All Act is Virtue. To hinder another is not an act; it is the contrary; it is a restraint on action both in ourselves & in the person hinder'd, for he who hinders another omits his own duty at the same time. Murder is hindering another. Theft is Hindering Another. Backbiting, Undermining, Circumventing & whatever is Negative is Vice". To Blake, the happiness of man is the glory of God, a kind of spiritual humanism. "The churches of Satan try to impress the fear of death in men; to teach trembling & fear, terror & constriction: abject selfishness." (Milton 38:37)

The last element of Blake's spirituality is his conception of God. Blake's four-fold God consisted of Imagination (Urthona), Body (Tharmas), Reason (Urizen), and Emotion (Luvah), whose many associations were faithfully graphed by Damon in A Blake Dictionary. (Damon. BD. p. 458-460) Each of these Blake associated with the four creatures that are mentioned in Ezekiel and Revelations, and associated with the four Gospels.

Urthona is the most mysterious of the Zoas, taking to the northern compass and acting as keeper to the gates of heaven. Urthona is as a blacksmith, constantly building new forms, and seems to act as the artistic right side of the brain. His element is the earth. Urthona takes the place of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity and Religion is its fallen state. The eagle, associated with the Gospel of John, is the creature Blake takes from Ezekiel's symbols.

Urizen is the Lion of Matthew's Gospel, the limiter of energy, which seems to come from the left side of the brain. The Eternal One gave him control over the material sun, pulling it through the sky like Apollo. When Urizen desires dominion over the other senses, he falls and becomes Satan. Possibly influenced by Satan's epithet "Lord of the Air," his element is air. In The Four Zoas, Urizen tries to take dominion, and rule in the north in place of Imagination while he tries to convince Emotion to take over the horses of Reason. Luvah refuses to go along with it but eventually takes over Urizen's horses after getting him drunk from the wine of the Almighty.

Tharmas is identified with the Holy Father, standing on the western compass to oppose the Son in the east. Blake identifies him with the ox totem, which is associated with the Gospel of Mark. He is seen as the piteous father, the shepherd who acts as the parental figure within the psyche. His element is water. When Tharmas falls, he goes outward, acting as a shell of Materialism.

Luvah acts as the Holy Son, which Blake associates with the Man icon of Luke's Gospel. Since he is represented through Jesus, his association with the East may be related to Easter. His fallen state is hatred and his element is fire, reminiscent of Jesus baptizing with fire.

The Four Zoas: the Torments of Love & Jealousy in the Death and Judgement of Albion, the Ancient Man was Blake's great attempt to incorporate all his mythical concepts into one great story on the fall of mankind, which comes about because of imbalances within the soul. In Blake's Prophetic Psychology, Brenda Webster explains how Blake's tormented souls disturbs her: "There is something basically unsatisfying, at least to me, about Blake's indulgence in sadistic fantasy with the self-righteous implication that sadism is necessary to ensure eventual peace. The watching creatures engage in an orgy of cruelty. They drink in Mystery's death-agony, as earlier they sprang up ready to struggle for Enion's milk." But such is to be expected in the story of Man's fall. Even though Blake describes the pain of his spiritual beings in a more detailed fashion than most religious poets, Blake's emphasis on forgiveness makes for positive conclusion: Urizen only has to renounce his ambition to dominate the other Zoas and he will return to the world of balance, while Milton's Satan aligns itself with the orthodox belief that Satan and his demons are lost forever, unredeemable because they rebelled without coercion.

William Blake brought two worlds into one in more than one way. His poetry and writings were enough to make him worth study by themselves, but their combination with his art brought about a quality to his works that cannot be expressed in words. His paintings are eerie and awe-inspiring, a feeling that coincides and compliments the senses one gets through the breakthrough in understanding the meaning behind his messages. At the same time, he married his politics with his religion in the exact opposite way the European powers of his age did: by expressing that man should break free of both the material bonds that kept the kings and priests of his own age in power and that he should break free of the mental bonds that kept so many under the impression that any new interpretation concerning the spiritual state of mankind should be treated as a heresy and destroyed before it infects the minds of others. These barriers around Jerusalem have now been broken, and the America Blake wrote on has become a beacon of freedom to many other countries throughout the world, including Blake's own "England's mountains green."


Beer, John. Blake's Changing View of History: The Impact of the Book of Enoch (IotBE). ed. Taken from Historicizing Blake, eds. Steve Clark and David Worrall. Great Britain: The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1994.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Letter to H.F. Cary, February 6th, 1818, The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (CLSTC), ed. E.L. Griggs, vol. IV, 1815-1819, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1959, p. 833-834. Taken from Critics on Blake (CoB), ed. Judith O'Neill, University of Miami Press, Florida, 1970, p. 13-14. Letter to C.A. Tulk, February 12th, 1818, p.836-838.

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake (BD). E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, 1971.

Damon, S. Foster. William Blake; His Philosophy and Symbols (HPaS). Constable and Company, Boston and London, 1924.

Keynes, Geoffrey, ed., The Complete Writings of William Blake (CWWB). London and New York, 1957. Referenced from Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake (BD). E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York, 1971.

Webster, Brenda. Blake's Prophetic Psychology (BPP). The University of Georgia Press. Athens, Georgia, 1983.