What Blake Said
In "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" Blake expressed some biting truths about the place of the church in the lives of ordinary people:
Songs of Experience, Song 37, (E 22)
"A little black thing among the snow,
Crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father & mother? Say?"
They are both gone up to the church to
pray. Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil'd among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."
(The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Experience)
Surely the church has become more human since Blake's day, when it could
condone the employment of five year olds as chimney sweepers and in fact their
legal sale by their parents for such a purpose. Even more bald in its
ecclesiastical implications is "The Little Vagabond", which sounds very much like
a Ranter's song:
Songs of Experience, Song 45, (E 46)
"Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am used well,
Such usage in heaven will never do well.
But if at the Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.
Then the Parson might preach, & drink, & sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.
And God, like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,
But kiss him, & give him both drink and apparel."
(The Little Vagabond)
In 'Europe' , written about the same time, Blake recounts the degradation of
the church with the cult of chivalry and the Queen of Heaven:
Europe, Plate 5, (E 62)
"Now comes the night of Enitharmon's joy!
Who shall I call? Who shall I send,
That Woman, lovely Woman, may have dominion?
Arise, O Rintrah, thee I call! & Palambron, thee!
Go! tell the Human race that Woman's love is Sin;
That an Eternal life awaits the worms of sixty winters
In an allegorical abode where existence hath never come.
Forbid all Joy, & from her childhood shall the little female
Spread nets in every secret path.
(Europe 5:1ff, Erdman 62)
Enitharmon's grammar in the second line indicates her essential falsity,
assuming the place of the true God (See Isaiah 6 ). But after 1800 Blake
rehabilitates Enitharmon, and Rahab becomes his symbol of the false church;
she continually afflicts Jerusalem and finally crucifies Jesus (See 4Z and J).
Blake used the word 'church' in some rather unconventional ways. In Milton,
Plate 37 and later in 'Jerusalem' Plate 76 he divided human history into 27
Churches, made up of three groups. The first corresponds to the nine
antediluvian patriarchs (Adam to Lamech) taken from Genesis 5. The second
group includes the patriarchs from Noah to Terah, the father of Abraham. For
the third series Blake chose seven famous religious leaders from Abraham to
Luther; each of these represents for Blake a certain type or phase of religious
The first two groups were druidic (devoted to cultic murder), but Abraham
began to curtail human sacrifice when he chose a ram instead of Issac (See
Genesis 22 ). Moses brought the Law; Solomon represents Wisdom. Paul
represents the early Christian Church. Constantine marks its embrace by the
highest satanic power. Charlemagne founded the Holy Roman Empire, and
Luther brings us to the modern age. All of these except Paul resorted to war;
therefore Blake referred to these Churches as "Religion hid in war".
Blake felt that he had described a natural progression going nowhere for
"where Luther ends, Adam begins again in Eternal Circle", but this "Eternal
Circle" is interrupted by Jesus, who, "breaking thro' the Central zones of Death &
Hell,/ Opens Eternity in Time & Space, triumphant in Mercy". There in its most
concentrated form is Blake's 6000 year history of the church.
Bear in mind that 27 is a super sinister number; Frye described it as "the
cube of thee, the supreme aggravation of three". A happier constellation of 28 (a
composite of the complete numbers four and seven) occurs in 'Jerusalem' where
England's cathedral cities are called the Friends of Albion. With this image Blake
recognized that in spite of all its sins the church had exercised a beneficent
influence upon the course of history. Blake habitually picked one of these cities
to represent an important historical personage.
For example Ely, the cathedral city of Cambridgeshire, stands for Milton, the
greatest man produced by Cambridge. Verulam, an ancient name for
Canterbury, represents Francis Bacon, one of Blake's chief devils. Professor
Erdman informed us that Bath represents Rev. Richard Warner, a courageous
minister who preached against war in 1804, when to do such a thing bordered
on sedition. Blake's admiration for Warner led to the prominence which he gave
Bath in the second chapter of 'Jerusalem'.
Aside from these prophetic and poetic excursions the Blakean doctrine of
the church found in the myth is roughly as follows: The Church is Beulah. The
majority of the population exist beneath it, spiritually asleep, living what Blake
called Eternal Death without even a murmur of discontent. Their eyes are closed
to the spirit. They are seeds that do not generate. The hungry generally take
refuge in a church and surrender their spiritual destiny into the keeping of a
priest or a priestly community.
A few still suffer hunger and eventually may come out into the sunlight.
That chosen few are, like Blake, compelled to live in a state of tension with the
church that belongs to the world. The best of them continually court martyrdom
and may be honored posthumously if at all. But of such is the kingdom of
heaven, where like Blake they cast off the enslavement of other men's systems
and create their own.
(Nels Ferre, who may or may not have known Blake, wrote a short parable
that describes the Blakean doctrine of the church as well or better than Frye did.
It appears in the beginning of a small book entitled The Sun and the Umbrella.
The image of the church as an umbrella keeping us from the full force of the Sun
is compelling and quite Blakean.)