Blake and Antiquity

Blake and Antiquity by Kathleen Raine

I’m no Blake scholar. And I know precious little about neo-Platonism and alchemy, relatively speaking, when you consider how steeped in these traditions many of the writers and thinkers who have influenced me are. So I don’t feel qualified to properly review this excellent little book by Kathleen Raine, which I randomly picked up in a second-hand shop in Bristol last year. However, it deserves a mention.

The book comprises part of a series of lectures Raine gave in the early sixties, and its premise is that, contrary to the popular image of Blake as a lone eccentric in a traditional society, forging his own idiosyncratic mythology in his poems and art, he was in fact a studious follower of traditional ancient knowledge. These cosmic, mythical and proto-psychological currents of tradition, filtered through Gnosticism, the Cabala, Orphism and the Hermetic tradition, had, by Blake’s time, become almost wholly occulted by the nascent rationality of science.

That Blake held alchemist Paracelsus to be an equal to Shakespeare had apparently escaped the general notice of the modern literary community until Raine and a handful of others pointed out Blake’s true inheritance. Such, it seems, is the level of repression that this stream of knowledge became subjected to. Blake’s popular image as an eccentric self-made man says much about the amnesia implicit in the arrogance of Western rationalism. As Raine observes:

Mr. Eliot has accused him [Blake] of “a certain meanness of culture” and a lack of that “Mediterranean gift of form which knows how to borrow, as Dante borrowed his theory of the soul; he must needs create a philosophy as well as a poetry.” A culture which embraced Plato and Plotinus, the Bible and the Hermetica, English science and philosophy, the tradition of Alchemy, Gibbon and Herodotus, besides the body of English poetry—not to mention his equally wide knowledge of painting—can scarcely be called mean. […] Blake, like Dante, derived his knowledge of the soul from the ancients. He was a traditionalist in a society that had wholly lapsed from tradition. To the modern reader he appears most original when he is least so, most cranky when he is communicating traditional doctrine, and most personal when his theme is metaphysical reality, expressed in canonical symbols.

I found this book to be a huge boost to my patchy knowledge of both Blake and the traditions he drew on. Raine skillfully weaves the two together, or rather exposes their interwovenness. Blake’s evocative but seemingly oblique themes and images are illuminated without being “explained”, their inner coherence brought to light by judicious examples from the ancient sources he evidently drew on. And these frequently slippery doctrines—relating the the descent of the soul into matter, the cycle of world ages, and other esoteric staples—are likewise made more vivid and comprehensible by their exposition in Blake’s stunning works.

What makes things more interesting is that Blake was, of course, not wholly traditional. As Raine remarks, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Blake protested against an error found in ‘All Bibles and sacred codes’—and he must have included Platonism”. While cleaving strongly to the symbolic codes of the traditions that inspired him, Blake wrestled with the implications, too. In revealing the evolution of Blake’s thinking on the soul’s involvement in the material world, Raine creates a gripping and challenging as well as educational narrative.