John Higgs’s William Blake vs the World is a real disappointment. Higgs writes vividly and is a fine storyteller, but like most people who write about Blake, he’s simply not willing to take Blake seriously. He wants to like Blake, and so he has to make him safe. The curators of the 2019 Blake Exhibition at the Tate Britain sought to diminish Blake to a merely political figure; Higgs wants to make him merely a proponent of “imagination.”
You can see the problems emerging in the first pages. Look, for instance, at these two sentences:
Blake himself recognised that the entities he saw weren’t ‘really there’ in the everyday sense. He knew that the people he was with did not see the things he saw.
Everything about this is confused. Of course Blake knew that others didn’t see what he saw — he talked about this all the time. Once he wrote to a friend, “What it will be Questioned When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” But Blake didn’t think that the “round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea” is really there and the “Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty” aren’t really there. Indeed he thought something close to the opposite.
Higgs over and over again contrasts Blake’s visions to the “objectively true.” Blake wouldn’t have used the word “objectively” — and in general no one should, because it’s an incoherent concept — but if he had, he would have said that his vision of the Heavenly Host is more objectively true, more real, than his friend’s perception of a round disk of fire. As he wrote in the Descriptive Catalogue for an exhibition of his works,
A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour, or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce.1I think this idea may underlie CSL’s conceit, in The Great Divorce, that the denizens of Hell are vaporous and translucent, while the Blessed are infinitely more substantial.
Higgs doesn’t recognize this at all; by the end of the book (p. 342) he has reduced Blake’s magnificent visions to an example of thinking with the right hemisphere of the brain. But Blake wasn’t a proponent of a properly balanced holistic psychology; he was a visionary and a prophet. All his life he saw a rich, complex, glorious but also terrifying spirit world that he believed to be infinitely more real than what the rest of us perceive with our five senses. And he believed this with an absolute and unshakable conviction. Any genuine encounter with Blake has to begin by grasping that point; but that’s precisely what almost no one who writes about him is willing to do.
Blake’s savagely funny annotations to Robert Thornton’s The Lord’s Prayer, Newly Translated (1827). He does his own translation, of Thornton’s interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer into plain English:
Our Father Augustus Caesar who art in these thy Substantial Astronomical Telescopic Heavens, Holiness to thy Name or Title & reverence to thy Shadow. Thy Kingship come upon Earth first & thence in Heaven. Give us day by day our Real Taxed Substantial Money bought Bread & deliver from the Holy Ghost (so we call Nature) whatever cannot be Taxed, for all is debts & Taxes between Caesar & us & one another. Lead us not to read the Bible but let our Bible be Virgil & Shakspeare & deliver us from Poverty in Jesus that Evil one. For thine is the Kingship (or Allegoric Godship) & the Power or War & the Glory or Law Ages after Ages in thy Descendents, for God is only an Allegory of Kings & nothing Else. Amen.
(Some guesswork involved in the text and punctuation there; every Blake editor struggles with this.)