Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake
Princeton University Press, 1947 - 462 pages
This brilliant outline of Blake's thought and commentary on his poetry comes on the crest of the current interest in Blake, and carries us further towards an understanding of his work than any previous study. Here is a dear and complete solution to the riddles of the longer poems, the so-called "Prophecies," and a demonstration of Blake's insight that will amaze the modern reader. The first section of the book shows how Blake arrived at a theory of knowledge that was also, for him, a theory of religion, of human life and of art, and how this rigorously defined system of ideas found expression in the complicated but consistent symbolism of his poetry. The second and third parts, after indicating the relation of Blake to English literature and the intellectual atmosphere of his own time, explain the meaning of Blake's poems and the significance of their characters.
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"There is only one false religion as there is only one true one; and it has two infallible marks. First, it postulates some kind of God who is unknown and mysterious because he is not inside us but somewhere else: where, only God knows. Second, it preaches submission, acceptance and unquestioning obedience. The sting is in the tail. Religion of this kind being invented only to buttress the status quo, it is always 'State Religion, which is the source of all Cruelty.'.... "In the unfallen world objects of perception are alive and intelligent; and a faint echo of the animation of that world survives in the animism of primitive religion. The nymphs, satyrs and fauns of Classical mythology are older and more authentic than the Olympian hierarchy. With the separation of existence and perception, however, the natural object became attached to the latter and its spirit or Genius to the former, so that gradually a belief in invisible deities grew up. The eleventh plate of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the paragraph beginning 'The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses,' traces this process with a clarity that might impress even a modern student of the subject. In the later poems Blake contrasts the 'fairies' of the more original belief with the 'heathen gods' who succeeded them. These gods were invariably selfish and cruel, as a God whose interests do not run counter to those of man cannot be invoked in support of a tyranny. Ovid shows them particularly interested in stifling and suppressing the artists who attempted to rival them (i.e., create better gods), as in the stories of Marsyas and Arachne." pp. 60-61 "... art is neither inferior nor equal to morality and truth, but the synthesis of civilized life in which alone their general laws have any real meaning. Art is neither good nor bad, but a clairvoyant vision of the nature of both.... Art is neither true nor false, but a clairvoyant vision of the nature of both.... ".... "Now just as the poet is brought up to speak and write one particular language, so he is brought up in the traditions of one particular religion. And his function as a poet is to concentrate on the myths of that religion, and to recreate the original imaginative life of those myths by transforming them into unique works of art. The essential truth of a religion can be presented only in its essential form, which is that of imaginative vision.... "The artist qua artist neither doubts nor believes his religion: he sees what it means, and he knows how to illustrate it. His religion performs two great services for him. It provides him with a generally understood body of symbols, and it puts into his hands the visionary masterpieces on which it is founded: the Bible particularly, in the case of Christian poets. Many of these latter have petrified into sacred Scriptures supposed now to impart exclusive formulas of salvation rather than vision. It is the business of a poet, however, to see them as poems, and base his own poetry on them as such." pp. 117-119