God and the Poetic Genius
Dana DayView comments
All Religions Are OneWilliam Blake, one of the preeminent poets of the Romantic Movement, possessed a sense of radicalism that straddled the boundary between the defined realm of Enlightenment rationality and the vast expanse of Romantic possibility, but was unique to both eras. This radicalism was manifest in Blake’s political ideology and social convictions; it was also evident in his theology, which complicates Christianity by sympathizing with Satan in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and rewrites Christian scripture in “The Book of Urizen.” His notion of the Poetic Genius—that is, the God in every man—sprang from fervent antinomianism, or the belief that Christians are not bound by moral law because salvation springs from grace. It also stemmed from belief in the sovereignty of the infinite, which is neither bound by reason nor restrained by law.
The Voice of one crying in the Wilderness
As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowledge must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of.
That the Poetic Genius is the true Man, and that the body or outward form of Man is derived from the Poetic Genius. Likewise that the forms of all things are derived from their Genius, which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit & Demon.
All men are alike in outward form, So (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius.
No man can think or write or speak from his heart, but he must intent truth. Thus all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius adapted to the weaknesses of every individual.
As none by travelling over known lands can find out the unknown, So from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more; therefore an universal Poetic Genius exists.
The religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations’s different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is every where called the Spirit of Prophecy.
The Jewish and Christian Testaments are An original derivation from the Poetic Genius. This is necssary from the confined nature of bodiliy sensation.
As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various) So all Religions & as all similars have one source:
The true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius
Although Blake’s religious beliefs evolve greatly throughout his lifetime, the foundation of his theology was laid in 1788, the year in which he wrote “All Religions are One” and “There is No Natural Religion.” Blake’s theology is deeply ingrained with Christian teachings rooted in the Gospels of the New Testament. Blake “set[s] himself to the task of separating true religion from its perversions in his own age and in the Bible itself” 1 through these poems, but resolutely suggests that Christianity is the true religion on which all others are based and the religion which most accurately depicts the Poetic Genius.
While Blake does not agree with every facet of the Bible, especially aspects of the Old Testament, his interpretation of religion resonates harmoniously with Christianity’s most fundamental tenets. Far from rejecting Scripture as would be expected from the poet who composed “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” later in his career, Blake embraces its most basic essence. Blake’s radicalism, therefore, lies in the new light that he sheds upon the Word of God. In “All Religions Are One,” Blake depicts the results of his quest for truth, outlining his belief in the universality of the Poetic Genius and other elements of his unique religious convictions. This poem provides fertile ground on which to examine Blake’s radical creed and his incorporation of Christian doctrine.
In order to understand Blake’s beliefs, it is first necessary to understand his society and cultural environment. Blake’s “All Religions Are One” was written near the end of the eighteenth century when the Age of Enlightenment was fading into the Romantic Era in England. The dawn of the Romantic Era brought about a revolution in which radical thinking was exalted and regulated institutions, such as the organized church, were scorned. The scent of this revolution, with its expenses and promises, both tainted and perfumed the English air. Inspiring this prevailing essence of revolution were ideas about the inalienable rights of men, calling into question the morality of slavery and limited suffrage.
Many people began to see Christianity as confined to the stagnant churches of rationally thinking Enlightenment Christians with stringent codes of law and conduct. Accordingly, they exchanged traditional religion for a more liberal spirituality, taking part in one of the many dissenting churches of the day. Blake himself would later join one of these: Emanuel Swedenborg’s Church of the New Jerusalem. The societal revolution at the dawn of the Romantic Era shaped Blake’s mindset through the stifling atmosphere of his surroundings and the promise of a liberated allegorical world which he was later to create.
As a revolutionary in a society built on the Enlightenment’s order and rationality, Blake is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” 2 His introduction to “All Religions Are One” quotes this verse, which is found in all four Gospels and in the book of Isaiah. It refers to John the Baptist, the harbinger of the Messiah’s birth, echoing the prophet Isaiah in his feeling of bewilderment and his promise of prophecy. Blake, too, echoes John, envisioning himself in John’s position as a fellow bearer of truth surrounded by naïve skeptics: in John’s case, Pharisees and unbelievers; for Blake, Enlightenment thinkers. The biblical connotations of the verse provide crucial insight into Blake’s poetry. Could it be possible that in Blake’s use of Christian scripture, he is identifying himself with Christ?
The Christian basis of Blake’s “All Religions Are One” is fortified by Blake’s reference to Scripture in every Principle. Beginning with his “Principle 1st,” Blake identifies “[t]hat the Poetic Genius is the true Man.” 3 Blake’s capitalization of “Man” in this Principle is noteworthy because it distinguishes the “true Man” from “all men” in “Principle 2nd.” Thus, we can conclude that the “true Man,” who is the “Poetic Genius,” stands above all other men. Analogously, Jesus, the sinless man who is God, is exalted above all other men. Thus, the correlation between Blake’s writing and the Bible is evident through the relationship between God and man.
“Principle 2nd” furthers this relationship by stating that “all men are alike in outward form…all are alike in the Poetic Genius.” 4 In this Principle, Blake clearly refers to the biblical belief that “God created man in His own image.” 5 Blake goes on to write in “Principle 3rd” that while man is naturally endowed with a God-like image, he must “intend truth” rather than express himself through his heart. 6 Similarly, the Bible states that the aim of man is to love others as Jesus loves us and that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life.” 7 Thus, both the Bible and Blake preach that man should love not through his own heart, but through the truth, which is embodied by Jesus.
Blake’s fourth Principle argues that these principles are not exclusive but that the Poetic Genius is “universal” and is the ever-flowing fount of knowledge that nourishes man’s curiosity when he cannot synthesize new knowledge by his own accord. 8 By comparison, the Bible also proclaims that “great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.” 9 The Bible’s concept of the “infinite” is particularly striking because of its accordance with the Blakean notion that “[h]e who sees the infinite in all things, sees God.” 10 This congruence advances the notion that the Poetic Genius of Blake’s theology is the God of the Bible. In Blake’s “Principle 5,” the “Poetic Genius” is singular, hence monotheistic, and in “Principle 7” it is referred to as the “one source” for all religions. 11
Just as the Old Testament God is God to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Blake’s “Poetic Genius” is consistent in “[t]he Religions of all Nations” and is simply manifested in different lights in different nations. 12 Blake’s Poetic Genius is also a “Spirit of Prophecy,” 13 just as the biblical “Lord made prophecy” through figures such as Isaiah, John, and Oded. 14 Finally, Blake’s “Principle 6” reveals that “[t]he Jewish and Christian Testaments are an original derivation from the Poetic Genius.” 15 Although Blake sometimes seeks to distinguish between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, this principle refutes the existence of two distinct gods. Concordantly, Hebrews 13:8 reads, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever,” thus concurring with Blake’s notion of one omnipotent God.
Unchanging in doctrine, this omnipotent God is nevertheless subject to change in form. In “There is No Natural Religion,” Blake writes one of his most explicit references to Christianity: “Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as He is.” 16 In this bold statement, Blake encapsulates the very essence of Christianity: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” 17 God became man, although sinless and pure, in order to bear the burden of mankind’s sins unwarrantedly, so we may gain eternal life through the forgiveness of our iniquities.
Blake’s fundamentally Christian views are also manifested in his proclamation of the power of religion being within man. In the seventh Principle of “All Religions Are One,” he claims that “As all men are alike (though infinitely various), so all Religions and as all similars have one source…[t]he true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius.” 18 What seems to be a radical idea of divinity dwelling within every individual is in fact an echo of the Gospels of Luke and John: “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you” 19 and “[the Lord] dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” 20
Jesus represents a new form of moral law for Blake. He believed that all laws of the Old Testament were fulfilled through Christ, and one need only follow the Gospel to achieve salvation. Thus Blake fostered an antinomian notion of redemption, arguing that “Jesus was all virtue and acted from impulse, not from rules.” 21 While God sought to inflict a variety of rules and laws on His subjects in the Old Testament, Blake saw a transformation in the New Testament to “Jesus whom State Religion had crucified…an iconoclast and a prophet, an Energetic genius speaking with the voice of Conscience which is the ‘voice of God,’” and the basis of a religion which is universal to, and available to, every man. 22
Blake extolled the universality of the Poetic Genius and supported its inherent truth in an age of hypocrisy and religious stagnation. Through the analysis of Scriptural basis in Blake’s “All Religions Are One,” it is manifest that Blake viewed Christianity as the representation of the true religion on which all others were based, and the religion which most accurately depicted the essential Poetic Genius; indeed the poem sheds new light upon a fundamental facet of Blake’s faith.
1. Florence Sandler. “‘Defending the Bible’: Blake, Paine, and the Bishop on the Atonement.” In Blake and His Bibles, ed. David Erdman. (West Cornwall: Locust Hill Press, 1990) 43.
2. Romanticism: an anthology, third edition, ed. Duncan Wu (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006) 174.
3. Ibid., 174.
4. Ibid., 174.
5. Gen. 1:27. The Holy Bible, King James Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
6. Romanticism: an anthology, 174.
7. John 14:6, KJV.
8. Romanticism: an anthology, 174.
9. Psa. 147:5, KJV.
10. Romanticism: an anthology, 175.
11. Ibid., 174-5.
12. Ibid., 174.
13. Ibid., 174.
14. 2 Kgs. 9:25, KJV.
15. Romanticism: an anthology, 175.
16. Ibid., 175.
17. John 3:16, KJV.
18. Romanticism: an anthology, 175.
19. Luke 17:21, KJV.
20. John 14:17. KJV.
21. Romanticism: an anthology, 216.
22. Sandler, 63.