Studia Swedenborgiana

Vol. 7 June,  1992 Number 4 

Swedenborg, Blake, Joachim, and the Idea of a New Era

by Stephen  Prickett

As a new heaven is begun, and it is now thirty-three years since its advent, the Eternal Hell revives. And lo! Swedenborg is the Angel sitting at the tomb: his writings are the linen clothes folded up. Now is the dominion of Edom, & the return of Adam into Paradise; see Isaiah chapters xxxiv & xxxv.

It is hardly surprising that Swedenborg's proclamation of the dawn of a "New Age" in 1757 should have had such a profound effect on William Blake. 1757 was the year of Blake's own birth, and in writing The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in 1790, on the threshold of his own poetic and prophetic career, he was acutely conscious of the numerological significance of that twice-repeated number of the Trinity: thirty-three was not merely his own age, it was by tradition the age of Jesus at the time of his crucifixion.

The references to Isaiah, Chapters 34 and 35, in addition to continuing providentially this number sequence, reinforce the meaning of the new era. Chapter 34:16 reads, "Look in the scroll of the Lord and read . . ." and Chapter 35:6 continues with the lines that, though they were well know before, had뾢ver since Handel's Messiah뾟een a part of the culture of the whole English-speaking world: "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert."

The French Revolution, with its appeal to all mankind of "liberty, equality and fraternity" that had symbolically culminated only the year before in the storming of the Bastille, was as yet untainted by the later massacres and the execution of the royal family, and seemed to Blake in 1790 the first visible political fulfillment of the biblical prophecies and the new era of which Swedenborg might be the prophet. Yet Blake's reference to Swedenborg here is, to say the least, ambiguous. To be assigned the role of the Angel sitting at the empty tomb of Jesus, and to have his writings compared with the folded linen cloths is hardly fulsome praise. The accounts given of the angel's exact words in the synoptic Gospels differ somewhat in their exact phraseology if not their general import, but the only wording common to all of them is the blunt statement, "He is not here." If Swedenborg has a role, it is apparently only to point away from and beyond himself.

Blake's changing relationship to Swedenborg has always been a matter of some difficulty and controversy. He seems to have read much of Swedenborg's writings, and he owned and annotated at least three of his books: Heaven and Hell, Divine Love and Wisdom and Divine Providence. Blake was also sufficiently committed to the idea of the Swedenborgian New Church to attend the First General Conference in East Cheap, London, on April 13, 1789, and he was one of the 77 signatories of the resultant declaration:

We whose Names are hereunto subscribed, do each of us approve of the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, believing that the doctrines contained therein are genuine Truths, revealed from Heaven, and that the New Jerusalem Church ought to be established, distinct and separate from the Old Church.

This is important in so far as it was an act of specific sectarian commitment, not just to a belief in the validity of Swedenborg's revelations, but to the need for a new church to conserve and promulgate those revelations and doctrines. This was a point of some debate both then and later. Swedenborg himself had taken no steps to establish a separate religious organization at all, and many of the early Swedenborgians in England, such as Jacob Duché, Thomas Hartley and John Clowes were Anglican clergy who saw no reason at all to found a new religious denomination to express their beliefs.

Robert Hindmarsh, the driving force behind the new sectarianism, was, by contrast, of Methodist stock and therefore presumably more inclined to have his dissent properly organized. So far as we know this signature of Blake's represents the only act of institutional religious commitment in his whole life. Twenty years later, when he was introduced to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it was through the agency of their common friend C. A. Tulk, who was an adamantly non-sectarian Swedenborgian, and Coleridge seems to have been left in no doubt by him on that occasion that Blake was also still to be considered a Swedenborgian.

Yet only one year after signing the declaration Blake is describing Swedenborg as the Angel sitting at the empty tomb, his writings the linen cloths folded up. If this can be construed as ambiguous, his next reference to Swedenborg twenty pages later is much less so. It is also pretty hard on angels.

I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.

Thus Swedenborg boasts that what he writes is new; tho' it is only the Contents or Index of already publish'd books.

A man carried a monkey about for shew, and because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conceiv'd himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg: he shews the folly of churches, and exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious, and himself the single one on earth that ever broke a net.

Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth. Now hear another: he has written all the old falsehoods.

And now hear the reason. He conversed with Angels who are all religious, and conversed not with Devils who all hate religion, for he was incapable thro' his conceited notions.

Thus Swedenborg's writings are a recapitulation of all superficial opinions, and an analysis of the more sublime뾟ut no further.

Have now another plain fact. Any man of mechanical talents may from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg's, and from those of Dante and Shakespear an infinite number.

But when he has done this, let him not say he knows better than his master, for he only holds a candle in sunshine.

Before we conclude that this represents a total change in Blake's views, however, we should note that the line previous to the passage just quoted runs, "Opposition is true Friendship." It may well be that Blake is literally playing devil's advocate in order to make a dialectical exploration of the ideas he has found in Swedenborg.

The case against Swedenborg, we notice, appears to be not that he is a false prophet or even that he is misguided, but that he has made the mistake of imagining that he alone is possessed of the truth. Behind this lies the suggestion that much of what Swedenborg claims to have discovered, or had revealed to him, had in fact been revealed to others before him뾲he names of Paracelsus and Boehme (whom the English called Behmen) are specifically mentioned along with the perhaps more surprising names of Dante and Shakespeare.

Now the truth or falsity of such assertions is clearly a difficult matter뾞nd it is certainly beyond the competence of the present paper뾟ut it is well worth noting that Swedenborg himself claimed that he had been expressly commanded to avoid reading the works of other mystics. Nevertheless, Raymond Deck, in one of the few detailed studies of Blake and Swedenborg, has pointed out that the Swedish Pietist tradition in which Swedenborg was reared by his father뾞 bishop in the Swedish Lutheran Church뾵as steeped in the imagery of traditional European mysticism, and that whether or not he was directly acquainted with, for instance, Paracelsus or Boehme, they were well known to leading Pietists such as Spener and Arndt, who had certainly influenced his father.

But Blake's point may be a more complex than simply that Swedenborg imagined himself more original than he actually was. What Blake had signed at that first general conference in 1789 was not a declaration of belief in the uniqueness or originality of Swedenborg's doctrines, but simply an acknowledgment that he believed they were revealed truths, and that a new church ought to be established. We are so accustomed to finding gathered sectarian movements justifying their existence by some kind of claim to exclusive revelation that it is easy to miss the fact that no such claim ever lay at the foundation of the New Jerusalem Church, or most (if not all) of the subsequent Swedenborgian movements. That original affirmation was solely that the doctrines in question were true, and revealed of God. It is clear both from Swedenborg's own lack of desire to found a church himself, and from the continuing tradition of non-sectarian Swedenborgians that there was at the founding of the conference in East Cheap little or none of the normal pressure to create an exclusive ecclesiastical body through which alone lay the security of salvation.

This fact makes the second part of the declaration all the more puzzling. Why go to the trouble of founding a new church if there is no explicitly claimed divine command to do so? Why bother? There are a number of obvious answers to this: a love of inventing ritual, a desire for power, and a whole host of more or less unworthy but very humanly compelling motives that were amply illustrated in the history of arguments and schisms that characterized the first few years of organized Swedenborgianism뾞nd which more than justified the aloof stance of some of the more high-minded non-sectarians such as Tulk. But it is equally clear that whatever may have motivated men like Hindmarsh, who obviously enjoyed inventing ordination ceremonies, Blake welcomed the advent of the New Church for very different reasons. The new era begun in 1757 was not just a matter to be decided by congregational vote or an excuse for a new ritual; it was a spiritual reality, and with the creation of a formal new church might be one way뾭ossibly the only way뾬f recognizing and coming to terms with a final and irreversible event that had already happened whether people liked it or not.

Blake is certainly right in asserting that the idea of a new era in God's dealings with man were not original with Swedenborg. The two chapters of Isaiah, cited pointedly in the next sentence of the passage with which we began, deal with such a situation, and the transformation of both nature and humanity that would follow from it. Ever since New Testament times, such passages of prophecy had been harnessed to the apocalyptic and millenarian expectations that have always lain not far from the surface of institutionalized Christianity. Many such expectations were strictly millenarian in character; that is, they anticipated the second coming of Christ, a last judgment, and a supernatural end to human history as we know it. Others were more strictly historical, in that they envisioned a working out of God's purposes in and through the natural events of human history without overt miraculous intervention.

Though the second half of the 18th Century was to see an unprecedented upsurge of millenarian movements, especially in England and France, It is important to realize that neither Swedenborg nor Blake were "millenarians" in the former sense of the word. Since Swedenborg's Apocalypse Explained (which was based heavily on a systematization of the experiences of his Spiritual Diary of 1756-58) was abandoned in manuscript in 1759, it is difficult to be certain of Swedenborg's exact views, which seem to have been in a state of evolution over the decade 1756-66. Certainly when he returned to the subject with the Apocalypse Revealed (1766) the emphasis is much more clearly historical. What we can say with confidence is that though Swedenborg came to believe that a "last judgment" had indeed been given to the present church in 1757, this had occurred in a "spiritual sense" which, while it would have necessary and inevitable repercussions on the state of the material world, would not result in a miraculous end to human history. In the Last Judgment, published in 1758, he is explicit that by the phrase "a new heaven and a new earth" is meant "a new church, both in the heavens and on the earth," and in the Doctrine of the New Jerusalem concerning the Lord (1763) he is at pains to reject any possible materialist explanation.

By the "new heaven" and by the "new earth" which John saw, after the former heaven and the former earth passed away, is meant not a new starry and atmospheric heaven such as appears before the eyes of men, nor a new earth such as that on which men dwell; but there is meant a newness of the church in the spiritual world, and a newness of the church in the natural world.

Moreover, such "judgments," resulting in the destruction and transformation of the existing church, had happened twice before: the first time at the Deluge which had brought to an end what Swedenborg happily calls the "most ancient and Noachic churches," and again at the time of the [apocryphal] harrowing of hell, when Christ, between the time of his crucifixion and resurrection, had descended into hell and released from Satan's clutches the good pagans who were there simply because of their misfortune of living before the advent of the new dispensation and covenant.

Thus Swedenborg's idea of a "last judgment" and the dawning of a new era is not so much an apocalyptic ending of human history, as merely the opening of a new chapter of a divinely inspired theory of history. Moreover, as Blake seems to have been well aware, such theories of history, as distinct from millenarian prophecy, were not new either. Perhaps the most influential of such prophecies were those of the 12th Century Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, whose trinitarian theories of history were eventually to permeate not merely the later Middle Ages but also an astonishing number of 19th Century radical political movements, including probably even Marxism.

According to Joachim the progressive self-revelation of God in human history can be divided into three great stages, each associated with one of the three persons of the trinity. The first age, or status, as Joachim called them, is that of the Father and corresponds to the Old Testament dispensation of the Law; the second status is that of the Son, and corresponds to the subsequent new dispensation of Christ in the New Testament; the third, that of the Holy Spirit, which will bring humanity to its fullest fruition in God's providence, is yet to come.

Just as the age of the Son both superseded that of the Father, while at the same time fulfilling it, so the age of the Spirit, when it comes, will, in the words of the Creed, "proceed" from the Father and the Son together, at once abrogating all that has gone before, and at the same time fulfilling it. For Joachim this was never a millenarian expectation. The final age of the Holy Spirit was essentially that of a new spiritual and mental plane of existence, to be presided over by two religious orders, one dedicated to preaching, the other to the contemplative life. There is no suggestion anywhere in Joachim's own teachings that the Bible itself would be superseded.

In 1254, however, a fanatical Franciscan follower of Joachim, named Gerard of Borgio San Donnio, proclaimed in Paris that the Old and New Testaments were alike abrogated and that all authority had passed to the Third Testament, which he called the Eternal Evangel. Or Everlasting Gospel뾲he term taken from Revelation 14:6, "Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live in the earth뾲o every nation, tribe, language and people."

Faced with such clear evidence of heresy the church moved quickly. Gerard, who had succeeded in scandalizing the University of Paris, was investigated by a papal commission in the following year, 1255, and sentenced to perpetual imprisonment. Because his "book" was promptly burned, it is difficult to be sure of its exact contents, but from the contemporary accounts by the commission, and from the manuscript which may well be authentic preserved at Dresden, it seems that the forgery was composed of extracts from Joachim's own writings together with an introduction and commentary by Gerard.

However, to speak of a Joachimite "tradition" persisting in European thought is misleading if one thinks of it in terms of the preservation of an original prophetic "message." As we can see with the incident of Gerard, almost from the start Joachim's ideas are transmuted, adapted, and even made the subject of forgery. What persists is rather patterns of thought about an arcane meaning to history, the notion of a "new revelation"뾭ossibly in the form of an everlasting gospel뾞nd of course the idea of a "third age." Thus at the Reformation, Joachim's theories of history and his belief in an inner secret meaning to scripture took on a new significance in the polemical battles of the period, and his name was invoked both as an example of the corruption of Rome, in that he had attempted to supersede the Bible, and as a prophet of the "new age" of Protestantism.

The question of Joachim's influence on 17th and 18th Century prophetic and millenarian literature is much more difficult to assess. Having sifted the available evidence in detail, Reeves and Gould reach a verdict best summed up in the old Scottish judgment of "not proven." There are many references to an "Everlasting Gospel" in the writings of the period, and even some works with that title; similarly, trinitarian schemata of history are not uncommon in the years leading up to the French Revolution; but in the absence of specific identifiable references to Joachim it seems equally possible that the many and varied uses of the phrase "everlasting gospel" were independently derived from the Bible itself. Nevertheless, the parallels with Swedenborg are striking enough to be mentioned here. In Apocalypse Revealed, for instance, Swedenborg's commentary on Chapter 14:6 includes these lines:

By "the eternal gospel" is signified the announcement of the coming of the Lord and His Kingdom. By "those dwelling upon the land" are signified the men of the church to whom the announcement is made. The reason why [the Lord] is to announce that the New Church is now going to come down from heaven from Him is because the Lord's coming involves two things, a last judgment and after it a New Church.

Here we notice that the announcement of the "eternal" or everlasting gospel is immediately linked with the "new Church" of the third age which is to supersede all previous revelation. In his Doctrine of the Lord there is, moreover, a suggestion뾲hough so far as I can discover it is not developed elsewhere뾬f a trinitarian scheme of history to be linked with the three "judgments" that have taken place. On the other hand,. There is no implication here in this passage that the "eternal gospel" is to be taken as an actual book. What we can say, however, is that though we cannot be sure of the extent of Blake's own reading in arcane, prophetic and millenarian literature in 1790, his general remark that Swedenborg's commentaries, so far from being, as he claimed, startlingly original, in many aspects do fit into an established pattern of mystical writings of the period. It is also important to add that Blake wrote a poem himself, called the "Everlasting Gospel."

Here it is possible to insert one interesting memorandum. Reeves and Gould in their admirable book on the uses of Joachimite mythology in the 18th and 19th Centuries make specific reference to a group calling themselves the illuminés of Avignon who in 1779 had proclaimed the approach of a nouveau règne and believed the world to be on the edge of les derniers temp du troisème âge and cite this as yet another example of the way in which ideas of a "new era" and a "third age" were appearing independently all over France at this immediately pre-Revolutionary period. In fact, two of the founders of the illuminati, Count Grabianca, a Pole, and Benedict Chastanier, were both Swedenborgians, the latter of whom had encountered the seer's works in London as early as 1776, and there can be little doubt that the "new age" of the illuminati was a distinctively Swedenborgian one. The fact that their terminology is also so strikingly Joachimite might reinforce the suggestion that, at any rate among the more eclectic of Swedenborg's followers, the advent of a New Church was being connected also with Joachim's prophecies.

Be that as it may there can be no doubt at all, I think, that what most appealed to Blake in Swedenborg's doctrines was the notion of a new era?and that he valued it not because it was a startlingly original teaching but precisely because it was in keeping with a much older tradition of mystical prophecy reaching back at least to the early Middle Ages. In Swedenborg, the young Blake had discovered a fellow mystic whose teaching seemed to provide the framework to accompany the new political era that seemed to be dawning in France in 1789. Why, then, did he apparently turn with such bitter sarcasm on his mentor only a year later?

One answer seems to lie with the other principal real historical personage to figure in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, John Milton. The connections for Blake in this context, between the revolutionary 17th Century English poet and the 18th Century Swedish scientist, are obvious enough. Both had written in some detail of heaven and hell and the effects of the spiritual world on our human and material one. It is hard for us in the 20th Century to recapture a sense of the enormous critical prestige enjoyed by Milton's Paradise Lost during the 18th Century. For most educated people it was quite simply the greatest poem in the English language뾞 criterion of good taste, a model of the sublime, and the supreme example of poetry serving the revealed truths of the Christian religion. However, Blake was no respecter of persons, and great as was his admiration for Milton, his comments on him in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are nearly as harsh as those on Swedenborg. Nor is he noticeably keener about Milton's angels.

Note: The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it.

The accusation is an oft-quoted one, but little attention has been paid to the reason given for Milton's unconsciously joining the Devil's party: that is that he was a "true poet." To discover the importance of this, we need to look no further than a Swedenborgian "Memorable Fancy" only a couple of pages later. In the course of a dinner with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, the latter prophet launches into an impassioned speech on the subject of poetic critical theory:

The philosophy of the east taught the first principles of human perception: some nations held one principle for the origin, and some another: we of Israel taught that the Poetic genius (as you now call it) was the first principle and all the others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests and Philosophers of other countries, and prophesying that all Gods would at last be proved to originate in ours and to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius . . .

Nor is this a new point for Blake. In 1788, the year before he had been a signatory to the Swedenborgian conference declaration, he had uncompromisingly declared in a piece entitled All Religions Are One:

The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation's different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is everywhere called the Spirit of Prophecy.

To understand this somewhat cryptic and sweeping remark we must turn to a book published in 1787뾬nly three years before뾟y a contemporary of Swedenborg's who, in his own way, was nearly as great an influence on Blake: Robert Lowth's Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. Lowth (1710-1787) was not merely one of the most distinguished theologians of his day, he was also an outstanding Orientalist, in the 18th Century meaning of that word: an expert on the manners, customs and thought of the Near East, including that of the ancient Hebrews. After a highly successful Oxford career (he became Professor of Poetry when he was only 31) he was made bishop of St. David's in 1776, bishop of Oxford later the same year, and finally bishop of London in 1777.

The story of his poetry lectures is that of a delayed time bomb in 18th Century aesthetics. Delivered as the Oxford Poetry Lectures of 1741, they were published as they were delivered, in Latin, in 1753, and it was not until 1787, the year of his death, that a complete translation appeared in English. Their effect was not merely to transform contemporary understanding of Hebrew poetry, but effectively to redefine the current conception of poetry itself.

For Lowth, "poetry" was the natural expression of prophetic utterances. The prophets of ancient Israel were also the poets. The Hebrew word "Nabi," he pointed out, was used in an ambiguous sense to mean equally "a prophet, a poet, or a musician, under the influence of divine inspiration." Solomon, for instance, he says, "twice makes use of the word which in its ordinary sense means prophecy, strictly so called, to denote the language of poetry."

From all these testimonies it is sufficiently evident that the prophetic office had the most strict connection with the poetic art. They had one common name, one common origin, one common author, the Holy Spirit. Those in particular were called to the exercise of the prophetic office who were previously conversant with sacred poetry. It was equally part of their duty to compose verses for the service of the church and declare the oracles of God.

Implicitly rejecting the stilted conventions of early 18th Century poetics, Lowth praises instead the "simple and unadorned" language of the Hebrew verse, that gained its "almost ineffable sublimity" not from elevated diction or elaborately turned phrases, but from the depth and universality of its subject matter and its appeal to the most profound and basic of human emotions.

Some earlier critics, such as John Dennis, while recognizing that "poetry is the natural language of religion," had drawn a sharp distinction between biblical verse, which was accepted to be a proper vehicle of the poetic sublime, and that of prose, arguing the apparently commonsense case that "all those parts of the Old Testament which were writ in Verse, ought to be translated in Verse, by Reasons which may have force enough to convince us, that Verse translated in Prose is but half translated." Lowth now proceeded to show from his study of Hebrew prosody that this seemingly obvious distinction did not in fact hold good when dealing with biblical poetry. Rather than employing the familiar devices of rhyme and meter basic to all European poetry, Hebrew verse operated on what he called "parallelisms," a system of structured repetition either for emphasis or contrast. The results of this were little short of revolutionary, both for biblical studies and for contemporary poetic theory.

On the other hand, large areas of the Bible, especially in the prophetic books, which had hitherto been thought of as prose, were suddenly revealed as verse뾦ncluding, for instance, the two chapters cited by Blake at the beginning of the paper. Conversely, unlike contemporary European verse, which because it relied essentially on the auditory effects of alliteration, assonance, rhyme and meter, was almost impossible to translate satisfactorily. Hebrew poetry was suddenly revealed as almost providentially accessible to translation, and was actually better rendered in prose than verse. Thus writes Lowth:

. . . A poem translated literally from the Hebrew into the prose of any other language, while the same form of the sentences remain, will retain, even as far as relates to versification, much of its native dignity, and a fair appearance of versification.

Similarly, the whole definition of what constituted a poem was itself subtly altered. Lowth, for instance, points out that the Hebrew word "Mashal" commonly used for a poem in the Old Testament, is also the word commonly translated in the New Testament into English as "parable." In other words, he concludes Jesus' parables are by no means an innovation, but merely an extension, the greatest of the biblical "poets," of the basic mode of Hebrew thought as it had been handed down through the prophetic tradition.

Though Lowth may not have foreseen the consequences of his own argument, the effect of this on the idea of poetry was no less far reaching. The hitherto inviolable formal distinction between the structure of prose and verse had been shown to have been breached by the Bible itself뾱till thought of my most people as directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. The term "poetic" could now be applied with scholarly accuracy rather than metaphorical exaggeration, to prose as much as to verse. This was not a point to be missed by literary critics. As Hugh Blair, Professor of Rhetoric at Edinburgh, and one of Lowth's most influential admirers, put it:

It is owing in a great measure to this form of composition that our version, though in prose, retains so much of a poetical cast. For the version being strictly word for word after the original, the form and order of the original sentence are preserved; which by this artificial structure, this regular alternation and correspondence of parts, makes the ear sensible of a departure from the common style and tone of prose.

By the same token, the status of the poet had been radically transformed. In the neo-classical theory of the early 18th Century the poet was essentially a worker in the decorative arts. His task was to express with elegance and wit what was already known by man or revealed in Holy writ. As Alexander Pope had neatly expressed it:

True wit is nature to advantage dress'd:

What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.

In the wake of Lowth's scholarship, the Bible, rather than the Greek and Roman classics, became the most influential literary model for aspiring writers, and the poet was seen no longer as a humble craftsman, however skilled, but as the prophet whose role was to challenge and even transform his own society. Moreover, the prophetic tradition of Israel had always been marked by a concern with righteousness and social justice, frequently in the form of ringing condemnations of the oppression of the poor by the rich, and the abuse of power by those in authority. This, as Lowth points out, gives a fundamentally different role to Hebrew poetry in comparison with its 18th Century European equivalent. Whereas English poetry (like that of the rest of Europe) was the medium of small, mostly university-educated circles, connected either with the court or with other centers of power and patronage, Hebrew poetry had almost always been essentially the art form of the opposition뾲he songs and complaints of a rural and pastoral people, bitterly critical of the corruptions of city and court life.

While Blake makes no direct reference to Lowth in his writings, there is ample and convincing evidence from them in that he plays around with quotations from him almost in the way he does with Swedenborg. Moreover, though we have no evidence that Lowth himself뾵ho was in many ways a deeply conservative scholar뾱aw it in these terms, for Blake and the succeeding generations of Romantics the role of the poet as prophet of political radicalism seemed now to have the sanction of no lesser authority than the Holy Spirit itself. It is hardly surprising that as a poet viewing across the channel the first stirring of the French Revolution Blake felt himself to be standing at the threshold of a new era뾬ne in which the spirit of poetic genius is recognized as the source of all true religion.

This also explains why in addition to such predictable figures as Paracelsus and Behmen, Blake chose to invoke the incomparable greater ones of Dante and Shakespeare in his strictures on Swedenborg in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Together with Milton, these two were for him the greatest poets who had ever lived뾦n some sense prophets or forerunners of the age to come. If, as Blake firmly believed, the new age was to be a "poetic" one, then it was also the age in which such giants would be recognized for the first time in their true stature. It would also be essentially an age of liberty. What Blake meant by the word is illustrated not merely by the "Song of Liberty" that is appended at the end of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but also by the whole structure of the work itself.

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

What Blake is arguing by such a forceful paradox here is not just a comment on the conventional theology of his day뾠onveniently encapsulated in Milton뾲hough it is certainly that. In Book IV of Paradise Lost there is an extraordinary scene where the news of Satan's rebellion is first brought to God's attention. Instead of displaying what most of us might deem to be an adequate amount of divine omnipotence, God rather nervously asks who will undertake to solve this nasty problem. God's problem is not, however, one of loss of nerve, but of theology. His problem, in a nutshell, is that he is Aristotle's idea of perfection. The argument runs like this: all actions tend either toward greater perfection, or greater imperfection; God is already perfect; therefore, God is logically incapable of action. It is rather like being on the South Pole: it is the only spot on earth where all directions point north.

Paradise Lost is an extreme example뾵hich is why Blake used it. But it only exaggerates a trend not merely in 18th Century theology, but also in aesthetics and what we would now call psychology. If "virtue" consists of reason, order and decorum, the creativity of the unconscious, of disorder and of bad taste is all banished to the realm of "vice," and the natural wholeness of the human psyche is disastrously divided. A "marriage" is not a merging, however. It is a perpetual tension, a union of necessary opposites. Though Blake does not use the image of a bar magnet, his contemporary Romantic Coleridge does: you cannot have one pole of a magnet without the other. Each implies its opposite. If you divide them you just get two smaller magnets.

The "new age," therefore, the age of the prophetic poets, is an age of psychic and spiritual wholeness as well as holiness, in which human relationships뾵hether politics or sex뾞re transformed and restored to their proper function.

Empire is no more! And now the Lion and the Wolf shall cease.

For everything that lives is Holy.

For this reason it would, I believe, me a mistake to see Blake's later attitude toward Swedenborg purely as a negative one. For Raymond Deck, Blake's view of the older mystics is colored always by the literalness of Swedenborg's attitude toward his own visions. Deck sums up the argument this way:

Blake may be said to have learned from Swedenborg something which Swedenborg never intended to teach, that is, the error of insistence upon the literal manifestation of one's personal vision in the real world, both the material world and the spiritual world of heaven and hell.

Now it is undoubtedly true that much of Blake's parody in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is directed against what he sees as an over solemnity and literalness in Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell, but Deck's judgment ignores another quality of Swedenborg's writing that Blake could then have found nowhere else, and which he was very far from wishing to parody. Later philosophic commentators on Blake were often puzzled by what appeared to be a strongly Kantian cast to his mind뾞t a time when Kant was hardly known in England and had not been translated. It was not until the connections between Kant and Swedenborg began to be explored that it was realized that such apparently "Kantian" notions as the fact that space and time are qualities of the mind, rather than of the material universe, were in fact originally suggested to Kant by Swedenborg뾣rom whence Blake, of course, also derived them. But Blake's engagement with Swedenborg was in the last resort neither aesthetic nor philosophic. It was essentially a theological one뾦n the deepest meaning of the word that embraces both the former ways of understanding. Swedenborg, by insisting on the spiritual and non-material nature of the new era, was able to help free Blake from the crude literalism of much popular millenarian thought of the period, and enable him to see how the work of a new generation of biblical scholars, such as Lowth, could be "poetic" and engage the human imagination in ways that would have been impossible for an earlier generation. In a sense, the theological history of the last two hundred years has been an attempt to come to terms with that insight뾞nd the new era of human consciousness it brought about.