William Blake and Gender Studies

Jorge Louis Borges once wrote a little piece of fiction entitled On Exactitude in Science, where the story line pointed to an inverse relationship between scientific exactitude and utility. The fictional example was that of a map-making guild in some long-departed empire where, as the author supposed, the science improved by such rapid strides that a map was eventually produced to the scale of a mile to a mile. Its users, however, found it to be somewhat cumbersome and it was eventually abandoned.

In many modern departments of human knowledge, I want to propose quite the reverse sort of relationship between knowledge and utility. That is to say, the less we know about a particular entity, the greater is our certitude concerning its origins and its nature and, concomitantly, the more useful this lack of data becomes. By way of example, consider all those documentaries on television giving us, at long last, the ‘facts’ concerning such matters as the origin of the universe, the origins of life, how the Pyramids were built, and so on. How incredibly useful have these grand explanations been to the media programmers and producers! This phenomenon is by no means restricted to scientific knowledge. In almost every other department of modern knowledge, the same relationship seems to hold, viz. the fewer facts we have, the more detailed and final are our explanations. Indeed, if anything, the business is much further advanced in the humanities than in the sciences.  I have chosen, for the remainder of this essay, to give just one example from the former category, that of interpreting the life and artistic output of William Blake.

You will find Blake quoted with approval by Californian hippies, by advanced churchmen, by mad anarchists, by sober conservatives, and most especially, by militant feminists. Add to this a veritable army of Freudians and Jungians (especially the latter) with their deep, psychological insights and, inevitably, the gender studies crowd. In fact, modern commentaries on Blake have been almost entirely taken over by the gender studies crowd. Gender studies is where it is at.

And yet, we have very little detailed knowledge of Blake’s life. He was largely ignored or dismissed in his own lifetime. Nearly all our primary data comes from Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, first published in 1863. Blake had already been dead for forty years by this time, and largely forgotten. If he was remembered it was usually as ‘mad Blake’.

Anyone who has read Gilchrist’s Blake will realize that the compilers relied heavily on the reminiscences of others – the recollections of those of Blake’s friends still alive in the 1850s. If we add to Gilchrist’s Blake, any new information contained in Crabb Robinson’s Reminiscences, and in Geoffrey Keynes’ carefully collected Letters of William Blake and The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, we pretty much exhaust the primary records. It is the totality of these meagre gleanings which has provided the raw materials for a veritable Blake industry today. Of course it is not so much the facts concerning Blake and his life that provide grist for the mill but, rather, the content of the poetry and prose produced by the man. Here, the term ‘poetic licence’ takes on an entirely new meaning, and all of those strange visionary utterances that Blake gives us are  subjected to the most bizarre and fantastic interpretations, far outstripping the sometimes weird and incomprehensible productions of the original author. This is only possible, of course, because we know so little of what Blake said and did outside of his artistic productions and his largely business-like letters to friends and benefactors. When he did attempt to give some sort of exegesis regarding his symbolism, one has to say that it was rarely clear enough to give some unequivocal explanation.

Despite all this, it is the case that there is in Blake’s work some special quality which draws us to him. He will always be popular with people of a certain sensitivity. There is incredible beauty in some of the poetry, mixed with that childlike simplicity we more often associate with the great saints of the Church. There is also that prophetic edge to his work which, however strangely it may be presented, impresses itself upon us. We can understand why he railed against Bacon, Hume and Locke because, deep down, we know that their philosophies fail to assuage our spiritual hunger.

Among the first to adopt Blake as a true prophet was that super-aesthete of the Victorian era, Algernon Charles Swinburne. Christian-hater, promoter of sexual licence, and the Mr Naughty of his era, Swinburne found in Blake’s poetry a sort of apologia for his own views. Swinburne’s analysis of Blake, in fact, could well be regarded as the primogenitor of the modern plague of ‘gendered’ or ‘sexual’ analyses of Blake. Of course, not all Blake scholars of the last century or so have been of this mould. When Yeats and Ellis published their Works of William Blake: Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical in 1893, Yeats remonstrated with the earlier biographers and interpreters for having neglected the spiritual symbolism in Blake. But Yeats, too, had a tendency to regard all natural impulses as good, just like Swinburne. There are other Blake commentators who seek to place the artist firmly within an older tradition, but not necessarily the Christian tradition. Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) was such a one. For Raine, who published Blake and Tradition in 1969, Blake was the disciple of an Ur-religion – a timeless religion which, though set in a sort of Christianity, was in fact much wider in its scope and incorporated elements of Neo-Platonism and Greek Mystery Religions.

Many other Blake commentaries date from roughly the same time period as Raine, and operate within the same general framework  of sober scholarship ­– David Erdman’s William Blake: Prophet Against Empire (1954), Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), and S. Foster Damon’s A Blake Dictionary (1965). All of these, it may be said, are scholarly works with a particular interest in Blake’s use of symbols, his sources, and so on. Of course, they differ in their approach to Blake.  Erdman, for instance, concentrates on the social and political aspects of Blake’s work, whilst Damon is much more interested in Blake’s use of symbols, his allusions to Scripture, etc.

Despite all their shortcomings, most of the earlier commentaries on Blake (before his appropriation by the gender studies mob) shared at least one common belief. They did believe that Blake was a mystic, however differently they might have applied that term. But to say that Blake was a mystic raises two very large questions. Firstly, mysticism itself is one of the most abused words in our language, and we ought to clear what we mean when we employ the word. No-one has put it better than Evelyn Underhill in her Mysticism (1911), the standard work in this area:

Mysticism … has been used in different and often mutually exclusive senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse for every type of occultism, for dilute transcendentalism, vapid symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics.

… Broadly speaking, I understand it to be the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood.

Of particular importance in the above quotation is the term “theological formula” because the true mystic always operates within some religious tradition. There is no unmediated transcendental order.

The second difficulty relates to the incommunicability of the mystical experience. If Blake was a mystic, then he cannot properly communicate his visions to others because it is the unvarying mark of the true mystic that he or she is unable, in the final analysis, to convey their experiences in mere words. Of necessity, they are forced back to incomplete analogies and inadequate metaphors.

Now, when you read Underhill’s account of mysticism, it is clear that the principal concern of the mystic is to reveal or reflect the experience of union with the Divine, and that expression is almost always in terms of love. Invariably, the analogy used is the human love between a man and a woman.  As Underhill says:

It was natural and inevitable that the imagery of human love and marriage should have seemed to the mystic the best of all images of his own “fulfillment of life”; his soul’s surrender, first to the call, finally to the embrace of Perfect Love.  It lay ready to hand; it was understood of all men …

A great deal of the imagery in Blake revolves around this notion of a union made in love, and let us immediately add that Blake’s use of this imagery often takes him outside the bounds of that moral order traditionally associated with human sexuality. You have two alternatives to explain these excursions. The first, and traditional explanation is that Blake is simply using the imagery in much the same way as it has been used by the saints and mystics of the Church. We need to recall that Blake is striving, however inadequately, to represent the human body as Platonic Form or ‘Divine Idea’. That is to say, Blake strives to give us, in pictures or words, that intellectual idea by means of which we recognise ‘man-ness’ and ‘woman-ness’. If he tends to emphasise male musculature or the voluptuous curves of the female form, it is purely for this reason. It is the same with all of his imagery. As Chesterton says, Blake is an artist “of the solid line” whose images are super-real – there is no hint of vague impressionism in Blake.

But, of course, few would accept that explanation today. The second alternative is the one taken by most modern scholars of the ‘gender’ school – to regard Blake as a pioneer of the sexual revolution and to relate his poetry directly to those sorts of sexual images which present themselves to what Underhill calls “the prurient imagination”. And so we come to that vast army of modern Blake scholars, all rendering his output in terms of ‘gender analysis’, and luxuriating upon his images of male and female in much the same way as a pervert gazes on a clothesline of women’s underwear. Coventry Patmore once wrote of such people that “they often feed the swine of their lusts with the pearls of their perception; they look on the bared splendours of Purity with eyes of the untransfigured passions …”

Here, I must confess that my background reading has been limited. My shortfall here is not due to any laziness or desire to block out any views of Blake which I find contrary to my own.  Rather, it is one of sheer revulsion. Reading this stuff is a sort of literary coprophagy. This literature, as it seems to me, is entirely destructive and will have a malign influence on all who read it, especially young people.

In 1982, in a much-cited essay entitled “Dangerous Blake”, W.J.T. Mitchell supposed that the ‘old’ way of reading Blake – the way of Yeats, Raine, Frye, Erdman, etc. – might soon change. The assumption of a deep symbolism, of a real spirituality was, perhaps, a bit too sober and too ‘religious’ for the new-look humanities departments. He prophesied that “we are about to rediscover the dangerous Blake, the angry, flawed Blake, the crank … the sexist, the madman … the tyrannical husband …” etc. Perhaps there was a danger that, unless things were cranked up a little, the whole Blake studies scenario would run out of energy. More likely, I think, was the growing unpalatability of a Blake who showed real evidence of traditional religious belief (however unorthodox). A new-look Blake was needed. Well, regrettably, that prophecy of Mitchell’s came true with a vengeance.

The business seems to have kicked off with some of the earlier feminists who actually predated Mitchell’s piece, and may well have influenced him. In 1973, one Irene Tayler published an essay entitled “The Woman Scaly”. It begins by reproducing a little epigram from Blake’s note book:

A Woman scaly & a Man all Hairy

Is such a Match as he who dares

Will find the Woman’s Scales scrape off the Man’s Hairs.

Not really Blake at his best, but as the barber says in The Man from Ironbark, “’Twas just a little harmless joke, a trifle overdone”. Not so for Ms Tayler. The “hairy youth” is “a spirit of rejuvenating energy and revolution” whose dominion heralds the return of Adam into Paradise. The ‘woman scaly”, so we learn, is an obstacle to this end, producing henpecked husbands, oppressed peoples, and a fallen humanity. Her scales place her in company with the devil, and fishiness (scales–get it!) means that her home is the sea. Are you still with me?

As you might have predicted, certain other feminists took issue with Ms Tayler, and a rash of published material appeared. These ‘studies’ then gradually condensed around the newly emerging gender studies industry. Since then, the output has been prodigious. Let me allude to just a few titles: Blake and Homosexuality, Christopher Hobson (2000), William Blake and the Body, Tristanne Connelly (2002), William Blake and Gender, Magnus Anskarsjo (2006), William Blake and the Daughters of Albion, Helen Bruder (2007) [feminist analysis]. Here, I must not forget a particularly choice example, Why Mrs Blake Cried, by Marsha Schuchard (2006). She cried, you see, because of Blake’s desire to take concubines in sanctified sex, along the lines of the Patriarch Abraham (Blake was a bit early for Brigham Young). Just to bring you up to date, I should add a new title to this oeuvre, Sexy Blake, (2013), edited by the same Connelly and Bruder mentioned in my list above.

As I say above, my reading of this stuff has been limited but I did force myself to read one such volume, Magnus Anskarjo’s Blake and Religion, 2009. I had, of course, hoped to find there some treatment of Blake’s rather idiosyncratic treatment of Christianity. Not much of that I’m afraid.  Instead we get the sort of exegesis you might expect from people who are hell bent on finding, in every line of Blake, sexual imagery of the grossest kind. Even Swinburne was not guilty of this sort of thing.  I don’t wish to offend the sensitive natures of my readers with the earthy details, but I do need to show you just how far these people will go in pursuit of their mad obsessions. Many readers who admire Blake’s poetry will remember these lines:

 The sword sung on the barren heath

The sickle in the fruitful field

The sword he sung a song of death

But could not make the sickle yield.

Now, all you ignoramuses who are under the impression that this is Blake’s innocent re-modelling of the “swords into ploughshares” idea (Isaiah 2:3-4) or something similar, need to read Anskarjo. “The sword”, he tells us, “denotes the penis, and the sickle the vagina”. He goes on: “This piece is loaded with sexual frustration and unfulfilled desire; in spite of strong efforts the speaker is not allowed to make love with his fancied object”.


Reading Anskarjo, you immediately see what so excites the diseased imagination of these later Blake interpreters (I refuse to use the word scholar). A couple of decades ago it was discovered that Blake’s mother had earlier connections with the Moravian Church. Now the Moravian Church is a very old Protestant Church which came to England in the 18th C. For a short time in its history, a minority of its disciples held rather strange views on human sexuality, and these have been eagerly pounced on by the Blake gender studies crowd. Before this, they managed to get some mileage out of Swedenborgianism, but the Moravians offered a far more fertile (no pun intended) hunting ground. The possibility that Blake himself might have been influenced by the more extreme views of some of the Moravians opens enormous vistas of eroticism and uninhibited sexual activity. What a boon!

There are two ways of viewing the love between a man and a woman – spiritually and carnally.  The great theologians of the Western tradition managed a synthesis of these two aspects – the spiritual and the physical – which elevated the relationship to the sacramental level. The gender studies crowd are determined to destroy this image and to drag human sexuality down to the level of rutting animals. As you might imagine, nearly all the purveyors of this stuff are university lecturers and their mad theories are being force-fed into young people at that very time when the latter are most vulnerable. Millstones and deep water come to mind.

We have not seen the end of the modern Blake industry. There are many books yet to be written –Randy Blake, Transexual Blake, Blake and the Phallus, Blake and Satanism etc. Indeed, by the time you read this, some of them WILL have been published. Sooner or later, someone will discover that Blake had a dog, or cat, or pet sheep, and then you may expect even worse. When Blake spoke of “dark, satanic mills” perhaps he was delivering a prophecy and a judgement concerning the modern university. If you, like me, enjoy Blake’s poetry, then this stuff is likely to provoke a mood of helpless anger, for nothing much can be done to stem the tide. But then, perhaps it is simply enough to feel a sense of sorrow –

For a Tear is an Intellectual Thing

And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King.