|British Museum Small Book of Designs
From Visions of Daughters of Albion
On Page 97 of Thomas Merton's autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, he made this statement about the role Blake played in his his spiritual development:
"The Providence of God was eventually to use Blake to awaken something of faith and love in my own soul in spite of all the misleading notions, and all the almost infinite possibilities of error that underlie his weird and violent figures. I do not, therefore, want to seem to canonize him. But I have to acknowledge my own debt to him, and the truth which may appear curious to some, although it is really not so: that through Blake I would one day come, in a round-about way, to the only true Church, and to the One Living God, through His Son, Jesus Christ."
Merton was a graduate student at Columbia University deciding on what topic he should write his thesis. He had been introduced to Blake as a young child by his father who was an artist. His mother, who died of cancer after a long illness when Thomas was only six years old, had been a practicing Quaker. The conjunction of art and religion in William Blake may have the motivation leading Merton to select William Blake's philosophy for studying and writing his thesis: "Nature and Art in William Blake, an Essay in Interpretation."
In his autobiography on page 221-2 Merton wrote:
"The subject I had finally chosen was 'Nature and Art in William Blake.' I did not realize how providential a subject it actually was! What it amounted to, was Blake's reaction to every kind of literalism and naturalism and narrow, classical realism in art, because of his own ideal which was essentially mystical and supernatural. In other words, if I treated it at all sensibly, could not help but cure me of all naturalism and materialism in my own philosophy, besides resolving the inconsistencies and self-contradictions that had persisted in my mind for years, without my being able to explain them."
"I had learned from my own father that it was almost blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to reproduce some kind of sensible pleasure or, at best, to stir the emotions to a transitory thrill. I had always understood art as contemplation, and that it involved the highest faculties in man.
When I was once able to discover the key to Blake, in his rebellion against literalism and naturalism in art, I saw that his Prophetic Books and the rest of his verse at large represented a rebellion against naturalism in the moral order as well."
"What he was glorifying was the transfiguration of man's natural love, his natural powers, in the refining fires of mystical experience; and that, in itself, implied an arduous and total purification, by faith and love and desire, from all the petty materialism and commonplace and earthly ideals of his rationalist friends."
At that point in Merton's life he was a crossroads. His reading had led him to Scholasticism, a system of philosophy and theology based on Aristotelian logic for promoting and defending traditional thought. He was drawn to Catholicism to provide the structure both intellectually and morally which he sought for his life. He explored the Catholic religion for the first time in his life and soon adopted it wholeheartedly. The internal discernment of light and truth which Blake advocated and followed was a blind alley for a young man who was eager to place himself under the guidance of traditional Catholicism. Blake's rebellion against natural religion and an art devoted to outer, worldly imagery acted as a catalyst for Merton's spiritual development which turned in another direction.
Jerusalem, Plate 91, (E 251)
"It is easier to forgive an Enemy than to forgive a Friend: The man who permits you to injure him, deserves your vengeance: He also will recieve it; go Spectre! obey my most secret desire: Which thou knowest without my speaking: Go to these Fiends of Righteousness Tell them to obey their Humanities, & not pretend Holiness; When they are murderers: as far as my Hammer & Anvil permit Go, tell them that the Worship of God, is honouring his gifts In other men: & loving the greatest men best, each according To his Genius: which is the Holy Ghost in Man; there is no other God, than that God who is the intellectual fountain of Humanity; He who envies or calumniates: which is murder & cruelty, Murders the Holy-one: Go tell them this & overthrow their cup, Their bread, their altar-table, their incense & their oath: Their marriage & their baptism, their burial & consecration: I have tried to make friends by corporeal gifts but have only Made enemies: I never made friends but by spiritual gifts; By severe contentions of friendship & the burning fire of thought. He who would see the Divinity must see him in his Children One first, in friendship & love; then a Divine Family, & in the midst Jesus will appear; so he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole Must see it in its Minute Particulars;" Milton, Plate 38 , (E 139) "but Laws of Eternity Are not such: know thou: I come to Self Annihilation Such are the Laws of Eternity that each shall mutually Annihilate himself for others good, as I for thee[.] Thy purpose & the purpose of thy Priests & of thy Churches Is to impress on men the fear of death; to teach Trembling & fear, terror, constriction; abject selfishness Mine is to teach Men to despise death & to go on In fearless majesty annihilating Self, laughing to scorn Thy Laws & terrors, shaking down thy Synagogues as webs I come to discover before Heavn & Hell the Self righteousness In all its Hypocritic turpitude, opening to every eye These wonders of Satans holiness shewing to the Earth The Idol Virtues of the Natural Heart, & Satans Seat Explore in all its Selfish Natural Virtue & put off In Self annihilation all that is not of God alone: To put off Self & all I have ever & ever Amen Satan heard! Coming in a cloud, with trumpets & flaming fire Saying I am God the judge of all, the living & the dead Fall therefore down & worship me. submit thy supreme Dictate, to my eternal Will & to my dictate bow" Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Song 44, (E 26) The GARDEN of LOVE "I went to the Garden of Love, And saw what I never had seen: A Chapel was built in the midst, Where I used to play on the green. And the gates of this Chapel were shut, And Thou shalt not. writ over the door; So I turn'd to the Garden of Love, That so many sweet flowers bore. And I saw it was filled with graves, And tomb-stones where flowers should be: And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, And binding with briars, my joys & desires."