Discussion Article

Blake and Ideology

Edward Larrissy

Blake, we know, was not on the side of the angels. It may therefore be tempting to take it for granted that he was some kind of incipient historical materialist. Taking this for granted is precisely what Paul Fauvet (RL 6) seems to me to do, since the question of the specificity of Blake's production is never raised. As for the kind of possible sources which Fauvet adduces, there is nothing particularly new about them—the same links have been made by Bronowski and Erdman, Nor is there anything new about the theoretical framework within which Fauvet (surreptitiously) works. The valid insights of 'point of view' criticism are easily transmuted: 'point of view' becomes 'ideology'. Thus Gleckner has shown that the point of view of the speaker in 'Holy Thursday' (Innocence version) is not simply congruent with the meaning of the song in the context of the two series of songs. [1] Add Erdman's researches to this kind of insight, and talk about 'ideological apparatuses', and you arrive at what, regrettably, will indeed pass muster as a Marxist account of Blake.

So far, however, so good: there's nothing false in Fauvet's description of 'Holy Thursday' or 'The Chimney Sweeper', unless a theoretically confused description be sufficient to constitute falsity. But insofar as this description stems partly from the tendency for Marxist Blake criticism to turn into a 'study of similarities between Blake and Marx', as David Punter puts it, [2] it may serve to lead us to the more seriously misleading aspects of Fauvet's article. What, for instance, is the 'ruling class ideology' which Blake unmasks; what is the 'reality' in terms of which it is unmasked; and what are Blake's means of access to this 'reality'? (RL 6, pp. 25, 23) The fact is that there was no unified 'ruling class ideology': 'Deism' took radical and conservative forms; conservatives might or might not be in a broad sense 'Deistical'; Blake was always savagely anti‑Deist in principle, but found common political cause with radical Deists like Paine. But then, there never is a unified class ideology. And what sense is there in ignoring, as Fauvet does, the hermeticism of much of Blake's writing? Presumably it would call his perception of 'reality' into question. But he himself placed himself firmly in the tradition of philosophical alchemy: he claimed six great influences on himself, and two of these are Paracelsus and Boehme. [3] His relationship with this tradition was critical and cavalier. Kathleen Raine refuses to see this, and her readings of Blake are thus deeply vitiated; but it is useless to deny that Blake was working, broadly speaking, in the tradition that she describes. Fauvet is asking a difficult question when he demands: 'Do we really need to have heard of, let alone read, Everard's translation of the Hermetics . . . or Thomas Taylor's Dissertation on the Mysteries to understand The Chimney Sweeper . . . ?' (RL 6, p. 39). The answer is hard to ascertain; but in the context of Blake's work as a whole Raine's claim that the sweep's soot 'is the earthly mire and clay that cannot defile the spirit' [4] is certainly not as far‑fetched as Fauvet suggests. As for Blake's prophetic books, only by some very purist notion of the text can one ignore the hermetic and neo‑platonic connections they evoke. And by the way: the contemptuous tone of Fauvet's reference to the Hermetics would hardly survive a reading of Frances Yates' Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, where she shows the extensive influence of Hermeticism, not only on Renaissance thought and art, but also in forming a climate for the acceptance of the hypothesis of heliocentricity.


How may one begin to describe the ideological position of Blake's texts? E P Thompson says, near the beginning of The Making of the English Working Class, that 'Pilgrim's Progress is, with Rights of Man, one of the two foundation texts of the English working‑class movement. [5] It would also be true to say that these two books together can conveniently stand for a major contradiction in Blake's work, which does lie at this confluence of politically radical rationalism and politically radical antinomian Protestantism. Nevertheless, it is not accurate to say, as Thompson does, that Blake felt himself 'torn between a rational Deism and the spiritual values nurtured for a century in the "kingdom within". [6] Rather, he accepted only the political prescriptions of the Jacobins and their allies, while rejecting the terms upon which these prescriptions were based, in favour of more venerable, millenarian Christian ideas. But it should be seen that such a position hardly permits access to 'reality', or to a complete understanding of the forces at work in the period. We may find Blake sympathetic, but his writings are as deformative of 'reality' as any that Macherey might mention.

It is, of course, true that Blake's Liberty is not the bourgeois conception of his poetic contemporaries. And Blake could not, like Wordsworth, turn his back on Godwin and the French Revolution in one easy movement—since he had never, in the first place, been a 'bigot' to the 'new Idolatry' of Godwinianism, or to 'the open eye of Reason' (Prelude (1850), 11. 77, 67). So his disillusionment with the course of the Revolution took a different form from that of the rationalists: lie revised his religious notions and hoped still for the new Jerusalem. But the revision moved him away from the sense that a solution could be found within history: 'God send it so on Earth as it is in Heaven.' And he became more implacable in his life‑long opposition to 'Deism': the fact that Bunyan and Paine don't mix became more obvious.

Blake's allegiance, then, is to Bunyan; or more accurately to that 'underground' tradition of antinomianism which Christopher Hill sees as surviving orally from the seventeenth to the late eighteenth century. The survival of the Muggletonians, and the prophecies of Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott, support this view. Very suggestive, too, is the evidence that an interest in Paracelsus and Boehme was very common among the Protestant sects of the period of the English Revolution. [7]

Such a position ensures that Blake's criticism of the Enlightenment is profound: his work moves insistently towards a sublation of every category of Enlightenment ideology. [8] But it is wrong to see Blake's work as unfolding an immanent structure which exhibits a perfect fit with the silences of the dominant (but not solitary) reigning ideology. Blake's work is not a kind of ideological anti‑world, since the comprehension of history within it is necessarily partial and contradictory.


Such a view of Blake is an accurate and fairly flexible description by class‑situation (Blake's artisan background in a particular time and place). It is therefore helpful but inadequate. Blake's class‑situation is the necessary, but not sufficient, condition that he should write in the forms he chose. His class‑situation dictates the possibility that he writes prophecies that are both alchemical and radical. It does not dictate the form those prophecies will take.

The model can be subtilized, though: Blake's occupation as commercial engraver moves him towards the middle class. Hence his use of the Sublime and the Ossianic: Blake's Milton is not only the Protestant prophet of Christian Liberty, then, but also the idol of the fashionable cult of the Sublime. Blake, then, combines old artisanal and new middle-class political and artistic ideologies: Bunyan meets both Paine, and Romantic sensibility and sublimity. This is the best model of its kind, for Blake. But it only provides the conditions of existence of Blake's work, relatively empty categories, essential to explanation and description, but reductive if not filled out by a more minute formal description which allows for the autonomy of artistic tradition. Bloom's theory of influence (the struggle with strong, precursor poets—in this case Milton and the prophets) suggests a means of doing this which would not be merely Marxism‑plus‑New Criticism.

Again, the condition for the existence of the multivalence of Blake's texts, and their terms, lies in his tradition: a tradition for which the reigning clarity was really obscurity. Blake's 'obscurities' and multiple meanings are attempts to reveal what is hidden and cannot be spoken. But I doubt if the play of Blake's texts can be reduced to a reflection of this tradition and the way it was articulated with, and opposed to, Enlightenment forms of discourse.

Blake's work indicates that ideology criticism, and conceptions such as that of a mode of literary production, must be used with an eye to contradiction; and provide the terms, rather than the detail, of description.

1. Robert F Gleckner, 'Point of View and Context in Blake's Songs', Bulletin of the New York Public Library, LXI, 11 (November 1957), pp. 531‑8.

2. David Punter, 'Blake, Marxism and Dialectic', Literature and History, No.6 (Autumn 1972), p. 219.

3. Blake: Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, corrected rev. edn (London 1972), p. 799.

4. Kathleen Raine, Blake and Tradition, 2 vols. (London, 1969), Vol.1, p. 21.

5. E P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, second rev. edn (Harmondsworth, 1974), p. 34.

6. ibid., p. 57.

7. Cf. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, second edn, (Harmondsworth, 1976), Ch. 14, passim.

8. Cf. Lucien Goldmann, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Henry Maas (London, 1973). Characteristic description of the 'categories' of Enlightenment ideology.

SOURCE: Larrissey, Edward. "Blake and Ideology", Red Letters [Communist Party Literature Journal, London], no. 8, 1978, pp. 63-66.

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