Lecture 18: William Blake

Many William Blake fans dismiss this book. They conclude ahead of time that Chesterton and Blake are pretty much oil and water and cannot be mixed. If they do read the book, they do so with a focused determination that Chesterton doesn’t understand Blake.But they’re wrong. This book reveals – once again – Chesterton’s strengths as a critic. And with Blake he does double duty as both an art and literary critic. He explains what is good about Blake – and what isn’t. And why what is good is good and why what isn’t, isn’t. The bonuses in this book include one of the best explanations of the 18th century that you will ever find. And shortest. Also a deft skewering of freemasonry and secret societies.

The artist and poet William Blake continues to hold great appeal because of his strong simple rhymes, his wildly imaginative paintings and prints, and the lush mystical qualities in his art. Chesterton appreciates the poetry and the art and mysticism. But as he says, “Blake could do so many things. Why is it that he could do none of them quite right?” For Chesterton the answer lies in some basic flaws in Blake’s philosophy. “Blake’s mistake was not so much that he aimed at sin as that he aimed at an impossible and inhuman sinlessness.” He tried to do away with modesty, which is unnatural. He also tried to do away with the very human fear of death, which according to Chesterton is even more indecent. “There is more real mysticism in nailing down a coffin lid than in pretending, in mere rhetoric, to throw open the doors of death.”It is Chesterton’s discussion of madness and mysticism that is most penetrating. The mystic goes about with a magnifying glass and exaggerates truths that really exist. He cannot exaggerate a truth that isn’t true. “To call a man mad because he has seen ghosts is in a literal sense religious persecution. It is denying him his full dignity as a citizen because he cannot be fitted into your theory of the cosmos.” Chesterton says that the critics of Blake say that his visions were false because he was mad. “I say he was mad because his visions were true.” However, the closer Blake came to God, the more solid, the more real, the more personal God became to Blake. And the more lucid became his art.

No pure mystic ever loved mere mystery. The mystic does not bring doubts or riddles: the doubts and riddles exist already. We all feel the riddle of the earth without anyone to point it out. The mystery of life is the plainest part of it. The clouds and curtains of darkness, the confounding vapours, these are the daily weather of this world. Whatever else we have grown accustomed to, we have grown accustomed to the unaccountable. Every stone or flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key; with every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story which we are certain to misunderstand. The mystic is not the man who makes mysteries but the man who destroys them. The mystic is one who offers an explanation which may be true or false, but which is always comprehensible – by which I mean, not that it is always comprehended, but that it always can be comprehended, because there is always something to comprehend. The man whose meaning remains mysterious fails, I think, as a mystic.

Chesterton says that Blake’s mind “was like a ruined Roman arch; it has been broken by barbarians; but what there is of it is Roman.” What is rescued and salvageable in Blake is his understanding of the goodness of God’s creation, the forgiveness of sins, the hope for resurrection. This places Blake squarely in the Western camp and against the despair offered by the Eastern mystics who simply see a comfortless melting of everything into the same chaos from which it once emerged. This is one of Chesterton’s most important points, expounded on by many Western thinkers who followed him in the 20th century, including C.S. Lewis. In philosophy and religion, there are ultimately only two choices: East and West. Chesterton says, “If every human being lived a thousand years, every human being would end up either in utter pessimistic scepticism or in the Catholic creed.” Blake didn’t quite live long enough to become a Catholic. Chesterton did, eighteen years after writing this book.

This book is currently out of print.

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