Skip to main content

Blake and the New Age

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

When William Blake wrote, “Without Contraries is no progression,” he sensed perhaps that fate would deal with him in extreme measures. After enveloping him in the most complete contemporary neglect of any major English poet, she has helped him impress himself deeply on twentieth-century poetry. In 1827, as death closed Blake’s fifty years of active literary production, no one was aware of a poet’s passing. For a full generation thereafter, no one unlocked the tomb of his obscurity. But since his spectacular emergence in the mid-nineteenth century, Blake has become increasingly attractive to many types of readers.

Rossetti, Thomson, and Swinburne were his initial popularizes. Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelite revolt of the angels was considerably based on his peculiar blend of daring and innocence. The purity of image and music in the “Songs of Innocence” made Rossetti Blake’s disciple. The embryonic mysticism of the early lyrics was a magnet to Thomson. Swinburne was the first who deeply appreciated Blake’s prophetic books. He, and later Pater and Wilde, were grateful for Blake’s belief in the holiness of art as a precedent in the art-for-art’s-sake movement.

In the wings of a thronged Pre-Raphaelite stage, in 1865, William Butler Yeats was born—he who was to become high priest of the twentieth-century Blake cult, and who has at times seemed almost a reincarnation of Blake. In his teens he studied Blake at the persuasion of his father, an ardent Pre-Raphaelite. In his twenties he toiled four years with Edwin Ellis to produce the finest and fullest edition of Blake so far; he also published independently a selection of Blake, to which he appended a long biographical and critical introduction, sympathetically discussing Blake’s chief philosophical convictions. He has never disclaimed his saturation in Blake’s ideas. His first book of essays, “Ideas of Good and Evil,” besides being named from Blake’s manuscript book, and containing studies of Blake as poet and as painter, is strewn with quotations from and allusions to him for the support of ethical, mystical, and aesthetic doctrines. So it is with virtually all of Yeats’ volumes of all classifications— drama, verse, autobiography, criticism—even up to “Dramatis Persona?” in 1936. Nor does he leave room in his poetry for doubt that his thought and manner are close to Blake’s, that genealogically he is, as Charles Gardner observes, “the fair offspring of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Several modern poets, we can be sure, have Yeats to thank for their relationship to Blake. He spread, in passing, the pollen of Blake’s philosophy among such writers as A.E., his fellow mystic, James Stephens, his protege, and John Masefield, who has said, “I owe all to Yeats.”

The Blake cult has enlisted many notable scholars, and a vast library of laudatory, even rhapsodic, studies has accumulated. Side remarks made by lecturers and reviewers startle us with superlatives. The normally cautious A. E. Housman, who was not particularly influenced by Blake, told a Cambridge audience: “For me the most poetical of all poets is Blake. I find his lyrical note as beautiful as Shakespeare’s and more beautiful than anyone else’s; and I call him more poetical than Shakespeare.” Of course the fraternity of professional sceptics is fanning the embers of a nineteenth-century tendency to consider all of Blake but a few lyrics wild, indecipherable, self-contrad5ctory. In view of S. Foster Damon’s and others’ brilliant clarifications of Blake, persistence in attacking him on grounds of hopeless obscurity has today become the badge of an obstinate or lazy disposition. One discovers serious self-contradiction in Blake only by comparing the poet at twenty with the poet at sixty; he has the blessed sort of mind that escapes the static. Critics who accuse him of self-contradiction frequently betray their hasty reading by downright mistakes. When the distinguished John Freeman, for example, argues that “Reason, called Good, is alone from the Soul” reverses Blake’s usual hatred of reason, he strangely overlooks that Blake’s statement is introduced by these words: “All Bibles or sacred codes have been causes of the following Errors” Then there is T. S. Eliot’s insinuation that Blake’s genius never matured, for lack of being exposed to the sun of training and tradition. “He should have been well educated; he should have traveled.” The idea of a formally educated, far-traveled Blake is as grotesque as that of a lounge-lizard Villon or a tavern-brawler Milton. But Eliot agrees that Blake’s is poetry of genius—poetry of the terrifying, unpleasant honesty which is peculiar to the writer of exceptional human insight and technical accomplishment.

Besides these two reasons for Blake’s influence on modern poets—the direct stream from the Pre-Raphaelites and Yeats, and the obligation to study him imposed by the fierce-whirling eddy of enthusiasm about him—several less obvious ones should be considered. Surely Blake’s independence is a cause. He is a true verse-smith, shaper of his own ideas, his own myths, his own forms. He eludes classification; he stands alone; he stands out. Not only does he draw more attention to himself than do poets of the main literary traditions, but also his shadow, being more individual, is more readily discernible wherever it may appear among the moderns.

Perhaps the most-to-be-emphasized reason for Blake’s influence is the multiplicity of his genius. If we examine the influence of other poets, like Skelton, Donne, Dryden, Clare, or Hopkins, on the poets of our time, we find it capable of easy, single analysis. No more than one or two aspects of most poets are worth exploiting. But Blake is so variously exploitable that every new generation of modern poets can make use of a different aspect. He is a mine with innumerable veins to be worked; when one vein is over-occupied, another invites a fresh squad of men.

It is dangerous, I am aware, to talk too freely of Blake’s influence upon twentieth-century poets. Only a part of his kinship to them is the result of direct gleanings from his work. The rest is coincidence, demanding a more complicated explanation. I mean that several consequential nineteenth-century thinkers, unacquainted with Blake, evolved ideas which he remarkably anticipated. Goethe, Shelley, Carlyle, Hugo, of the great Romantics, were prefigured unbelievably by Blake, as their commentators are beginning to establish. “Leaves of Grass” was early announced by Swinburne and Thomson as corresponding to Blake to a considerable degree, though Whitman did not begin his enthusiastic reading of Blake until after writing it, influenced somewhat by Swinburne’s comment and somewhat by the embarrassing circumstance that Mrs. Gilchrist, the widow of Blake’s great biographer and editor, came to America to marry Walt and laid siege for many months before sailing for home frustrated. In the case of Nietzsche, no one can profitably quarrel with Yeats’ assertion that his thought flows always in the bed Blake’s thought has worn. In our own century, Freud and Jung have unquestionably been influential on recent poetry. Their psychology has been taken up, point by point, by students of Blake and shown to have such a similarity to his teachings that W. H. Auden was not seriously charged with exaggeration when he recently said: “The whole of Freud’s teaching may be found in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

Modern mystical movements, especially theosophy, appear substantially Blakean. Mrs. Besant’s “Esoteric Christianity” could conceivably have originated in Blake. Madame Blavatsky’s doctrines, to which several men of letters were devoted, have been carefully checked with Blake’s by the French critic, Denis Saurat, who reports a nearly complete correspondence. In the field of aesthetics, Croce’s first principle, the identity of art and intuition, has no clearer antecedent than Blake, and is preached by poets and critics not necessarily sympathetic to Blake and the Romantic temper. (“Ant is magic, not logic,”—Edith Sitwell. “All art originates in an act of intuition, or vision,”—Herbert Read.)

The difficulty, which must by now be obvious to the reader, is: after D. H. Lawrence, let us say, has been searched and found in possession of definite Blakean traits, how can we be sure whether we have a case of direct inheritance from Blake or of mere circumstance? Lawrence refers to Blake often and comprehendingly enough to assure us of his familiarity with Blake’s ideas. But he derives a great deal from Nietzsche, from Whitman, from Freud, all of whom wrote similarly to Blake without realizing it. The threads of influence are hopelessly tangled. We are obliged to speak of the relationship of Blake to Lawrence; influence exists, we know, but we cannot isolate it for measure.


William Butler Yeats called Blake “the chanticleer of the new dawn,” and indeed Blake heralded much of what life was to mean to Yeats. We can consider the affinity between the poets from four points of view: ethical, mystical, aesthetic, and technical.

The very hub of Blake’s philosophy of life—”Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence”—one finds constantly reiterated in Yeats, as when he remarks,

Between extremities Man runs his course,

or, “The nobleness of the Arts is in the mingling of contraries, the extremity of sorrow, the extremity of joy.” Always are good and evil similarly conceived by the two poets. In the judgment of both, energy and desire are the twin-guides of ideal living, the healthy propelling forces. Only untrammeled energy and desire can provide freedom for the body and the spirit. Restraint, then, is a synonym of evil. Damn braces, bless relaxes. And restraint can assume many garbs. It may be disguised as moral bigotry, to rob love of its innocent freedom, to plague Blake’s “Little Girl Lost” and Yeats’ “Crazy Jane.” It may appear as formalized Christianity, to wither Blake’s “Garden of Love” and to frown on Yeats’ “Fiddler of Dooney.” To Blake’s “Put off holiness,” Yeats nods a vigorous Aye and reminds us that “blessedness goes where the wind goes.” But most vicious of all forms of restraint is reason, because of its hostility to the finest fruit of spiritual freedom, the imagination. Yeats indulges in jingles about “logic-choppers,” including Blake’s most despised rationalist, John Locke; and, remembering Blake’s “Mock on, Mock on! Voltaire, Rousseau,” rails against the “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.” He symbolizes the conflict between reason and imagination as variously and as effectively as does Blake. The characters of some of his plays embody these concepts as clearly as Blake’s Urizen and Los.

Yeats was attracted from the very first, I think, by Blake’s mysticism. He was not gifted with the candle of vision which burned naturally in Blake or in A.E.; he was literally a student of mysticism, rather than a true mystic. He has sought incessantly after mystical truths, and only occasionally found them. He has read Boehme and Swedenborg (perhaps to interpret Blake more clearly) and the Oriental mystics; but Blake has been his chief master. If we trace out his mystical theory, we discover that it agrees, in every particular, with Blake’s. The dream is the medium which transfers the mystical phenomena to the poet; the dream is synonymous with truth and wisdom and reality; it is the carrier of the Divine Imagination. Dreams are fed from one great mind or memory, eternal and universal—a storehouse of images which provide revelation to the prophet and inspiration to the poet (the poet and the prophet are sometimes regarded as identical). Blake’s deep-rooted belief, “the authors are in eternity,” receives Yeats’ sanction:

My rhymes more than their rhyming tell Of the dim wisdom old and deep That God gives unto man in sleep.

With such a foundation, Blake and Yeats build their aesthetics. The artist, being divinely inspired, is holy, and is replacing the priest in modern society. Art is superior to other pursuits, is the whole business of man, the tree of life. Ant should not be a realistic copy of nature—Blake’s thrusts at Reynolds and other eighteenth-century realists have Yeats’ hearty applause—but a copy of imagination, as Blake expresses it, or, in Yeats’ words, a vision of reality. Art must have three basic attributes: it must be imaginative, sensuous, and symbolic. Only imagination “creates the recurring and the beautiful,” writes Yeats, whereas its enemy, “reason, the most ugly man, as Blake called it, is a drawer of the straight line, the maker of the arbitrary and the impermanent.” Regarding the sensuous, he says, “Art bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrinks from what Blake calls mathematic form, from every abstract thing, from all that is of the brain only, from all that is not a fountain jetting from the entire hopes, memories, and sensations of the body.” And, true son of Blake, he confesses, “I have no speech but symbol.” Many of Yeats’ specific symbols, particularly in his early verse, suggest Blake’s— the rose, the lunar phases, the four compass points, rock, gold, fire. Jakob Walter devotes fifty pages of compact German prose (Part IV of “William Blakes Nachleben”) to a comparison of the symbols of Blake and Yeats; at that, he scarcely scratches the surface of this bulky subject.

In technique, too, Yeats may be extensively likened to Blake. He is fond of simple but subtly roughed-up stanzas, of septenaries, of blank verse for short lyrics—the predominating metres of Blake’s early poetry. He has Blake’s splendid musical sense, his effectively irregular rhythm, his intrinsic naivete of idiom. Concerning their imagery, I might cite just one of their many parallel traits, a disregard for material distinctions between classes of things in the world. Virgins and lambs and worms and stones and stars are all equally likely to be sighing or singing or weaving a shadowy cloak. A volume could be filled with quotations side by side from the two poets illustrating their tendency to phrase similar images in similar fashion.


The contemporaries whom Yeats instilled with a healthy interest in Blake can seldom be compared with Blake in more than one aspect or two. James Stephens and W. H. Davies (called by Louis Untermeyer “a Blake of one syllable”) closely approximate Blake in their treatment of simpler themes: godliness of joy, childhood innocence, consummate liberty, sympathy for paupers and for animals. Walter de la Mare, though more subdued in spirit, also recalls the early Blake frequently, his “Songs of Childhood” being a sort of sequel to “Songs of Innocence.” “The Collected Poems” of John Masefield include a score of lyrics and at least one narrative which establish his kinship with Blake, on whom he delivered a highly appreciative lecture a few years ago. The long poem, of course, is “The Everlasting Mercy,” with a Blakean title, a Blakean motif (the sense of God’s immediacy and His everlasting joy and mercy), and a variety of Blakean sentiments in the scenes building up to the conversion of the dissolute prizefighter hero. Masefield plays his contempt for the parson, hostile to “all the lonely ones of God,” against an intense Blakean sympathy for beggars, harlots, orphans, outcasts of all sorts—in very Blakean idiom: And he who gives a child a treat Makes joy-bells ring in Heaven’s street, And he who gives a child a home Builds palaces in Kingdom come.

The passages which embody symbols of purity, such as those on the lily and on the monks raising up anthems in the glowing chapel, have many details in common with passages in Blake.

Approximating Blake in another way is A. E., the mystic, whose “Candle of Vision” is to a great extent an ecstatically composed prose digest of Blake’s ideas on the creator of dreams with us, on the Great Memory breathing forth images. A. E.’s later “Song and Its Fountain” analyzes poetic inspiration in Blakean terms. His poems occasionally present certain values like pity, freedom, and desire much as Blake did, and Darrell Figgis, A. E.’s biographer, has even suggested a likeness in their paintings.

Passing now to the poetic generation which matured after Yeats, we discover that Blake’s themes came to hold relatively small attraction. But he was still read avidly for a different reason.

All eternity Shouts in that over-borne man for me.

So Amy Lowell poetically annotated a Blake drawing which hung over a spinet in her Cambridge parlor. By the “man” she implied, over and beyond the giant-figure in the drawing, Blake himself, a giant-figure spiritually. While Keats was her God, she esteemed Blake most of mortal kind. She had good reason to. He was undeniably a forerunner of Imagism; she used him to illustrate her lectures on the subject. He had the freedom, directness, and condensation which comprised the Imagists’ ideal, His preface to “Jerusalem” was indeed the First Manifesto of Free Verse, as S. Foster Damon has said. Furthermore, his four experiments in cadenced prose in the “Poetical Sketches” were an evident harbinger of the polyphonic prose of Paul Fort, Miss Lowell, and John Gould Fletcher.

In the early 1920’s Imagism burned out. Some of its ashes settled on a new school of poets emerging with T. S. Eliot. The core of their verse, conceptually and technically, was the symbol. They esteemed Dante and revered the French symbolists. And Blake, the finest symbolist in English poetry, was studied for his methods and effects, as he had not been since Yeats. F. O. Matthiessen has shown that particularly in his later poems like “Ash Wednesday” Eliot’s symbol is as successful as Blake’s, possessing the same “peculiar concentrated vitality.” Critics of Hart Crane need not be advised, by his use of lines from Blake as mottoes for “The Tunnel” and “Key West,” of his technical indebtedness to Blake; Crane’s whole work provides testimony to that indebtedness. Anchibald MacLeish’s verse play, “Nobo-daddy,” takes from Blake its title, as well as its motif, the conflict between Abel, the man of mystical imagination, and Cain, the man of reason.

Elinor Wylie, of all post-War Americans, owes most to ’ Blake, being heir to both his symbology and his thought, as her “Lion and the Lamb” bears witness:

I saw a Tiger’s golden flank, I saw what food he ate, By a desert spring he drank; The Tiger’s name was Hate.

Then I saw a placid Lamb Lying fast asleep; Like a river from its dam Flashed the Tiger’s leap.

I saw a Lion tawny-red, Terrible and brave; The Tiger’s leap overhead Broke like a wave.

In sand below or sun above He faded like a flame.

The Lamb said, “I am Love”; “Lion, tell your name.”

The Lion’s voice thundering Shook his vaulted breast, “I am Love. By this spring, Brother, let us rest.”

Among the less notable symbolists who have gainfully studied Blake must be mentioned Leonie Adams, S. Foster Damon, Hildegarde Flanner, Willard Maas, William Rose Benet, Louise Bogan, and John Hall Wheelock,

I have not yet considered any post-War British poets in connection with Blake. Interest in him across the Atlantic has not been confined to the Yeats-Masefield generation; it is detectable in Lawrence, and in Day-Lewis, Auden, and Spender. In the three socialist poets, there is more than a comparable symbolism: their fundamental ideology, a compound of Freud and Marx, was anticipated by Blake as by no other English poet before 1800 and by very few since. I have already quoted Auden’s claim for Blake as a Freudian. Blake’s position as a mystical pre-Marx Marxist has likewise been declared—most energetically by John Middle-ton Murry. Blake was firm in a loathing of tyranny, war, and money, in a belief in the equality of men and the perfectibility of society, in a prediction of the world state. So, for instance, one is bound to feel, in reading Day-Lewis’s “The Magnetic Mountain,” the propriety of a Blake proverb as its epigraph—”Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.” Then in his morality play, “Noah,” Day-Lewis rewords the aphorism as he describes the rising flood of the masses: “Roughly it handles the bones of our fathers.” Thus, themes and moods and symbols and phrases in Day-Lewis, Auden, and Spender suggest a relationship to Blake, perhaps not always a conscious one, but one which I think will grow more palpable as we have more time to investigate their work.


D. H. Lawrence was a generation by himself, as Blake had been a century earlier; a later contender for the title bestowed on Blake by Max Plowman, “the most independent artist who ever lived.” Blake wrote—and believed and practised—

I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.

I will not Reason or Compare: my business is to create.

His doctrines were difficult for readers to understand or trust at close range, and became all the more formidable when propounded with such a tone of defiance. It was so with Lawrence. Likewise creating a personal system which was new and easily misconstrued, he shouted his message arrogantly. To doubt the unqualified accuracy of his opinion meant exposure to a full-sailed retort like:

You tell me I am wrong.

Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong? I am not wrong.

Observation of the unshakable self-confidence of Blake and Lawrence is not especially significant in itself, but it facilitates a comparison of their philosophies. It issues, in Blake’s case, from his assumption that he was divinely inspired. Without point-stretching, we may analyze almost identically the strange-shaped roots of Lawrence’s self-confidence. Many readers have caught the note of compulsion in his work. “If ever a writer was driven,” said John Middleton Murry, “it is he.” Driven by what? By an extraordinary inner persuasion, which Lawrence accounts for: “It is the Holy Ghost we must live by,” and later, “the Holy Ghost speaks individually inside each individual.” Through the lips of a character in “The Plumed Serpent,” he repeats: “And there God is; and Paradise; inside the hearts of living men and women.” What is this but a restatement of Blake’s “All deities reside in the human breast”? The letters of Blake abound in phrases of assurance like “These are works to be boasted of.” Lawrence in his letters declares: “I admire my own work a good deal,” and “I know I can write bigger stuff than any man in England.” Such egotism was not confined to private correspondence. They both despised modesty and Christian humility. Blake’s conviction, “God wants not Man to Humble himself,” is matched by Lawrence’s, “Humility is a sin against the Holy Ghost.” Conversely, Blake’s proverb, “The pride of the peacock is the Glory of God,” relives in Lawrence’s lines:

Everything that lives has its own proper pride . . . as a columbine flower has, or even a starling walking and looking around.

This self-confidence, this exaltation of pride, ties up, I think, with one central point in their philosophy—the absolute and sacred individuality of man’s spirit. While it is intact, there is life. Any mixing, or confusion, brings death.

Consider Blake’s epic, “Milton,” representing its hero at the outset as encrusted by selfhood (subservience to reason rather than to imagination). When this shell of selfhood— we should say selfishness—has been broken and falls away, then Milton is united with imagination, with intuition, with God (note Lawrence’s “We must become whole with God”). By constantly sloughing off the confusing selfhood, by “eternal annihilation” of reason, he achieves a true oneness of spirit. This is precisely Lawrence’s point when he warns man against Mind-Knowledge, which is analytic, disintegrative. True oneness is attained by “Blood-Knowledge, that seems utterly to forget, but doesn’t—Blood-Knowledge, instinct, intuition.” The two poets, thus, conceive individuality to be the product of intuition, of the senses. In “Twilight in Italy” Lawrence writes:

The senses are the absolute, the god-like. For I can never have another man’s senses. These are me, my senses absolutely me.

He then proceeds to recommend Blake’s symbolization of the idea: It is the spirit of the tiger. The tiger is the supreme manifestation of the senses made absolute. This is the Tyger, Tyger, burning bright In the forests of the night

of Blake.

Lawrence urges man to obey the senses, especially touch, as does Blake, who calls touch “the fifth window.” Touch should be man’s pole star, directing “Future Relationships,” “Future States,” and “Future Religion” (to name three of Lawrence’s prophetic poems). Following touch, he thinks, insures individuality, and prevents the establishment of world-centrality. In this last he disagrees with Blake, an advocate of the world-brotherhood of man. Individuality within universality, is Blake’s suggestion. It is a paradox before which Blake does not falter. He always gets the better of a paradox, and makes it serve him. But Lawrence is usually got the better of; he is valet to the paradox, looking foolish and flustered.

Certainly Lawrence is clumsy in explaining how the individuality is maintained in sexual contact. A paradox again: Lawrence, as well as his characters, is constantly impelled toward sex, but feels it engulfing the real him—and recoils. His conclusion, which remains pretty limp despite its frequent assertion, is that love is a contact of two blood-systems which almost fuse, but never quite. He halfway resigns himself to the conflict, and at times treats it with grim humor, as in that characteristic line:

Life is for kissing and for horrid strife.

Sometimes he sees, then rejects promptly, the truth of Blake’s theory (substantiated by Blake’s own happy marriage, incidentally) that love, even with its conflicts, helps man to realize the ideal oneness for which he is destined.

At any rate, Blake and Lawrence are in perfect accord that each woe results from our willingness to believe messengers sent through the world by an evil force which says:

Go! tell the Human Race that Woman’s love is Sin.

Normal desire is virtuous and should not be restrained in man or beast, however wild and repellent it may appear. Some of Lawrence’s animal poems—”Rabbit Snared in the Night,” “He-Goat,” or the brilliant tortoise sequence—portray stark, pulsating desire with an intensity unrivaled except in Blake.

Perhaps only one other aspect of the Blake-Lawrence parallel calls for consideration here: their contempt for machine civilization. Lawrence, looking about him, exclaims:

The dark, satanic mills of Blake

how much darker and more satanic they are now!

It is the wheel he denounces as the “first principle of evil,” recalling Blake’s use of the wheel as symbol of mechanical processes, literal and figurative. Concerning dogmatic, mechanized religion, for instance, Blake observed, “Jesus died because he strove against the current of that wheel.” Rationalistic, mechanized philosophy and science, or the “water-wheels of Newton,” he said, were destroying Europe’s schools and universities. Lawrence’s eyes were as keen as Blake’s in detecting the pernicious, abstract machines which undermine education, religion, art, and government, and which collaborate with actual machines to enslave the human being.

William Blake lived through the first years of the Industrial Revolution. He was the earliest English poet deeply concerned with the social and spiritual diseases that followed in its wake. Those diseases are with us today, and are recognized by poets as diverse as Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence, and W. H. Auden. It is little wonder that poets are induced to warn, diagnose, and prescribe, with Blake as their model. His role as social psychologist would keep him on the boards even if his successes in verse technique and in the use of symbolism did not. To Blake’s cry in the preface of “Milton” —”Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age”—there has come in our time a vibrant, zealous response.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading