Blake seeks to provide the Golden String which can lead us through the labyrinth of our experience or his own poetry.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


“'All men yearn after God,' says Homer. The object of Plato is to present to us the fact that there are in the soul certain ideas or principles, innate and connatural, which are not derived from without, but are anterior to all experience, and are developed and brought to view, but not produced by experience. These ideas are the most vital of all truths, and the purpose of instruction and discipline is to make the individual conscious of them and willing to be led and inspired by them." [Quote from Philaletheians website]

Portland Vase
Engraved by Blake for Erasmus Darwin's Botanic Garden
Blake was eclectic is his approach to gathering ideas for his own system of thought. We have often focused on the Biblical references in his writings and pictures. Recently we have concentrated on the influences from ancient Greece in his work. But Blake reached much further than that to draw in insights from Norse poetry, alchemy, Gnostic teachings, Astrology, eastern religions and whatever literature and philosophy became available to him. We have posted 18 times in the last few months on aspects of the Greek influences which are apparent in his work. A thorough treatment of this subject is available in Kathleen Raine's Blake and Tradition. Today we will end our series of posts with a return to the Portland Vase.

The interpretation of the Portland Vase to which Blake was introduced found in it figures representing stages traversed in the Eleusinian Mysteries. The lesser mystery of the mortal journey was portrayed in one image, and the greater mystery of the journey through immortality in the image on the reverse side. On the handles there are two images of Pan who assisted in facilitating the return of Demeter to her life-giving function. One Pan displays his goat horns and the other shows him as he as he appeared with donkey ears. On the underside of the vase we see Atis, the great hierophant, or teacher of mysteries as the guide who leads one through the various episodes. To be initiated into the mysteries was an existential not a rational experience. What is known about the mysteries indicates that the initiate was led through a series of activities which impelled him deeper and deeper into incorporating psychic experiences of death and rebirth. To Blake this meant undergoing the experience of dying to the world of time and space and being born into the world of eternity.

Reading these myths enriches ones understanding of the images on the Portland Vase and of Blake's myth of creation, fall, wandering and return: Demeter (Earth mother), Persephone (Renewal), Pluto (Ruler of the underworld), and Pan (who located the hidden Demeter). 

Four Zoas, Night IX, Page 117, (E 386)
          Night the Ninth
          The Last Judgment

And Los & Enitharmon builded Jerusalem weeping    
Over the Sepulcher & over the Crucified body
Which to their Phantom Eyes appear'd still in the Sepulcher
But Jesus stood beside them in the Spirit Separating
Their Spirit from their body. Terrified at Non Existence 
For such they deemd the death of the body. Los his vegetable hands
Outstretchd his right hand branching out in fibrous Strength
Siezd the Sun. His left hand like dark roots coverd the Moon
And tore them down cracking the heavens across from immense to immense
Then fell the fires of Eternity with loud & shrill 
Sound of Loud Trumpet thundering along from heaven to heaven
A mighty sound articulate Awake ye dead & come
To judgment from the four winds Awake & Come away
Folding like scrolls of the Enormous volume of Heaven & Earth" 

As one looks at the minute details of Blake's engravings of the images on the
    Portland Vase, reads Erasmus Darwin's descriptive comments, and
    considers what is known about the Eleusinian
    Mysteries, one may see that, together, they contain archetypal
    themes which travel throughout Blake's work. We meet the garment,
    the portal between worlds, sleep and awakening, and contraries repeated
    with regularity. The traveller who journeys from one level to another, is with us
    throughout. Perhaps the lesser and greater mysteries of mortality and
    immortality were forever appearing in Blake's imagination. He may
    have written and illuminated Milton and Jerusalem as
    his own guidebooks through the mysteries as he encountered them. 

A close reading of the import of the figures on the Portland vase as they relate to Blake's thought was published by Nelson Hilton in Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly as he reviewed Darwin's Botanic Garden

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