Blake was born on 28 November 1757, in Broad Street, Soho, in the heart of the squalid, compact London of the mid-eighteenth century. It was a filthy, disease-ridden city with the most violent contrasts of riches and poverty, yet still small enough for escape on foot to be possible even for a small child. Blake’s early, and, indeed, much of his later poetry is the poetry of a city child who knew and loved the surrounding country. Thus he writes:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe. (75)*
The fields from Islington to Marybone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood ...
The Jew’s-harp-house and the Green man,
The Ponds where Boys to bathe delight,
The fields of Cows by Willan’s farm,
Shine in Jerusalem’s pleasant sight. (463-4)
His whole life, with only one important exception, was passed in London, and he was never at ease away from it. Even the air of Hampstead, as he explains in one of his letters, ‘always did, so I fear it always will’ produce an acute bodily illness. (919)
Two facts about his background have an importance that cannot possibly be overstressed. First, he was born into the world of London dissenting radicalism. His father, James Blake, was a hosier, a small shopkeeper who most probably made many of the goods he sold. There is little evidence for the tradition that he was a follower of Swedenborg: he may have been, but the first formal organisation of a Swedenborgian congregation in London did not take place till 1788—four years after James Blake’s death. What is known is that William Blake and his wife were both foundation members of this congregation, though they did not long remain in it. James Blake was, however, certainly a dissenter, though of what persuasion is unknown. We really know very little of him except that he was wise enough to see that there was something in his son beyond his understanding, and that, instead of hating and repressing what he saw, he helped him to follow his own course. Blake was spared a formal education, and, instead of being forced into the family business, was apprenticed, at his own request, to an engraver.
This brings us to the second fundamental fact, that he alone of all the great English poets was, and remained all his life, a manual worker, one of the highly skilled craftsmen who formed a substantial part of the population of London in his time. Later in life he painted pictures, and engraved his own designs, as well as his poems, few of which were ever published in any other form during his lifetime, yet all the while he remained a working engraver, ready to accept and execute commissions from whatever source. At no time did all these activities bring him more than a bare living. It was from the craftsman’s special standpoint that Blake regarded the rapid development of industrial capitalism in England:
And all the Arts of Life they chang’d into the Arts of Death in Albion.
The hour-glass contemn’d because its simple workmanship
Was like the workmanship of the plowman, and the water wheel
That raises water into cisterns, broken and burn’d with fire
Because its workmanship was like the workmanship of the shepherd,
And in their stead, intricate wheels invented, wheel without wheel,
To perplex youth in their outgoings and to bind to labours in Albion
Of day and night the myriads of eternity: that they may grind
And polish brass and iron hour after hour, laborious task,
Kept ignorant of its use: that they may spend the days of wisdom
In sorrowful drudgery to obtain a scanty pittance of bread,
In ignorance to view a small portion and think that All,
And call it Demonstration, blind to all the simple rules of life. (517)
A machine does not in itself grow more evil by growing more complex, but the producer can still own a simple, uncostly machine. He cannot own a complex, expensive one. And Blake saw the growth of capitalism turning the whole man into a divided man, a hand. This theme of the division of man and his struggle to reintegrate himself lies at the heart of all his symbolism. He came to it with the simple, angry vision of a man who is poor and works with his hands, and his bitterest hatred was reserved for those who created and defended what he knew to be an unnecessary and man-made poverty.
A certain Bishop Watson wrote a book attacking Tom Paine, in the margin of which Blake wrote furious comments. One of the Bishop’s other works, of which a list is given, was The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both Rich and Poor. Blake wrote against this:
God made Man happy and Rich, but the Subtil made the Ignorant Poor. This must be a most wicked and blasphemous book. (751)
Such a comment helps us to find in Blake’s poetry an actuality which that of his great contemporaries lacked. In the so’called Prophetic Books, as we shall see, symbol is piled upon symbol, mythical figures contend, unite and divide till the mind refuses to follow their mutations, but at their wildest these Books keep a foot upon the earth whose realities Blake knew only too well.
The Industrial Revolution was one of these realities: a second was the French Revolution which began when Blake was just over 30 and had not yet written more than a handful of lyrics. The Revolution clearly released some hitherto enchained power in him and under its influence most of his greatest work was produced, not only the Songs of Experience and many similar poems that remained in manuscript till long after his death, but the longer poems in which that influence is most directly visible. The Book of Thel was written in 1789, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and A Song of Liberty in 1790, The French Revolution in 1791, Visions of the Daughters of Albion and America in 1793, Europe and The First Book of Urizen in 1794.
Of these, The French Revolution as we have it is only a fragment of a longer work, and exists only in a single proof copy. Apparently the publisher took fright at its outspokenness and abandoned the idea of its publication. The remainder, which was almost certainly written, has vanished. None of the other works came even as close as this to ordinary publication, but were engraved by Blake himself and issued with lovely hand-coloured marginal illustrations, somewhat recalling the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. This group of writings has in common a simple delight in the overthrow of tyranny and a confidence in the opening of a new age for France and the world. In them Blake voices, in his peculiar symbolic language, the hopes and beliefs which he shared with the radical circle of which he and Paine were active members. What is unique is Blake’s dialectical thinking, for which no parallel exists anywhere in Europe at this date.
The fate of The French Revolution was a foretaste of the repression that was gathering over England. From 1783 there was a series of arrests, trials, transportations and penal Acts which broke up the London Corresponding Society, forced Paine into exile and made the open expression of radical opinions almost impossible. On the title page of Bishop Watson’s attack on Paine Blake wrote:
To defend the Bible in this year of 1798 would cost a man his life. The Beast and the Whore rule without control. (750)
In his symbolic language the Beast was the repressive state and the Whore the established church. We shall discover later what he meant by defending the Bible. In this atmosphere of violence and censorship Blake, like many others, went underground, his writing becomes progressively more cryptic, his myths continually more involved. 1800 to 1803 were the only years which he spent out of London.
But it was not only the censorship which oppressed him. The French Revolution followed its course, with the big bourgeoisie more and more firmly in control behind a military dictatorship. After Thermidor the Republic degenerated into the Directory, the Directory into the Empire. Europe was plunged into a war of which no one could foresee the end. It was no longer easy to see the clear issue between freedom and tyranny, the bright hopes of 1789 were evidently not being fulfilled. Blake began to turn away from politics in the narrower sense, realising that the struggle was of a different and more complicated character than he had once suppose. So, in 1809, he wrote:
I am really sorry to see my Countrymen trouble themselves about Politics. . . . Princes appear to me to be fools. Houses of Commons and Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools; they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life. (629)
If this were all, Blake would only be one more romantic revolutionary, who, like Wordsworth, Southey and many others, recoiled before the harshness of revolution. But this was not all. Because Blake was a working man he never lost his class passion or his faith in a revolutionary solution. He continued to see life from below, and up to the end his writings are full of explosive comments about kings, Tories, priests and the oppression of the poor by the rich. And because he was a true poet he had a profound imaginative grasp of what was going on in his own country. England as well as France was changing in these years.
Under the stimulus of war, capitalism was developing at an unprecedented pace. The last peasantry were being expropriated by the enclosures, the long death of the hand weavers was about to begin, everywhere sprang up the Satanic Mills. Oppression was changing its face and Blake was one of the first to recognise a new enemy. Behind the familiar king and priest he saw the newer power of money and he recognised a new form of Satan’s gospel in the writings of parson Malthus, the bastard science of whose ‘Principle of Population’ seemed to doom the vast majority of the human race to a perpetual and ever-increasing misery. When Blake seems sweeping in his condemnation of science it is the science which has made itself the justification of poverty and oppression which he has in mind.
It is the sense of these new developments which makes Blake’s later poetry unique. In one sense the imagery grows mistier and more involved, in another it grows smokier and more evil, reflecting the hideous growth of industrialism. The generalised, Ossianic images of the earlier books are supplemented by images of forge, loom and furnace. Vala, wife of Albion, laments among the Brick kilns
O Lord, wilt thou not look upon our sore afflictions
Among these flames incessant labouring? Our hard masters laugh
At all our sorrow. We are made to turn the wheel for water,
To carry the heavy basket on our scorched shoulders, to sift
The sand and ashes, and to mix the clay with tears and repentance . . .
Furrow’d with whips, and our flesh bruised with the heavy basket. (273)
As Dr Bronowski says:
Although Blake’s knowledge of industry was uncertain, his vision of it was not. It is an astonishing vision. The reader must turn the pages of the last prophetic books himself, at random: and find everywhere the same sooty imagery, the air belched by industry. Men of letters, whom the machine keeps clean, have groped through this sulphurous rhetoric for the names tidily listed in the books of mystics. The names are there, and they are worth the finding. But Swedenborg the mystic had been an inspector of mines; Paine the deist planned iron bridges; Blake the poet lived in the Industrial Revolution bitterly, in the decay of his engraver’s craft. The oratory of Vala or the Four Zoas, of Milton, and of Jerusalem is loud with machines, with war, with law; the cry of man preying on man; and with the rebellious mutter of working men. 
The years in which Blake was writing and engraving Milton and Jerusalem were also years of the greatest hardship and poverty. Though he is now universally recognised as one of the supreme English engravers, Blake’s style was then regarded as old fashioned and eccentric; commissions grew fewer and the old friends and patrons who had been prepared to pay small sums for his original work died or drifted away. On more than one occasion he was swindled by shady dealers.
‘I am hid,’ (770) he wrote about 1808, and
The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents and Genius, But whether he is Passive and Polite and a Virtuous Ass and Obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Arts and Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If Not, he must be Starved. (779)
Blake might indeed have been starved, but for his good fortune in meeting in 1818 the young artist John Linnell, through whose help he was able to live while drawing and engraving his great series of illustrations to the Book of Job and to Dante. It was about this time that he wrote his last important poem The Everlasting Gospel. It is, for him, a new kind of poetry, in which his elaborate symbolism is abandoned for the barest and most direct statement with complete success. In it Jesus appears as the last of his series of Promethean heroes at war with the Satanic forces of repression. The date of this poem is noteworthy. It is often suggested that Blake in his later life modified his ideas, coming closer to those of orthodox Christianity, yet the fact is that in this work of his old age they are expressed with the greatest clarity and sharpness. It is clear also, from the condition in which the text has reached us, that the ideas in The Everlasting Gospel were a constant preoccupation, something to which he constantly returned and never ceased to reshape.
Through Linnell, Blake met a number of young artists, who came to look upon him as their master, calling the two rooms off the Strand in which he lived ‘The House of the Interpreter’.  None of the men who came under his influence at this time escaped being profoundly influenced, and this is especially true of Samuel Palmer who today is beginning to be recognised as one of the greatest of English painters. In a letter to Gilchrist, Blake’s first biographer, Palmer gave a description which is certainly enthusiastic but which agrees in the main with all other contemporary accounts:
He was energy itself, and shed around him a kindling influence; an atmosphere of life, full of the ideal. To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter; and the high, gloomy buildings between which, from his study window, a glimpse was caught of the Thames and the Surrey shore, assumed a kind of grandeur from the man dwelling near them. Those may laugh at this who never knew such a one as Blake; but of him it is the simple truth.
He was a man without a mask; his aim single, his path straightforwards, and his wants few; so he was free, noble and happy . . .
His eye was the finest I ever saw: brilliant but not roving, clear and intent, yet susceptible; it flashed with genius, or melted in tenderness. It could also be terrible. Cunning and falsehood quailed under it, but it was never busy with them. It pierced them, and turned away. 
It was these young men who passed on to Gilchrist, to Rossetti and to Swinburne their knowledge of Blake. Gilchrists Life, which appeared in 1863, led to the publication of editions of some of his works, and presently to a whole literature of commentaries and interpretations of very unequal value. The period of total neglect was followed by the period in which Blake became a literary and artistic fashion. Is it too much to hope that we are now entering the age of understanding?
As a young man Blake had stood firmly with Paine and Priestley, with the Deists and free-thinking radicals in defence of the French Revolution. He never abandoned his faith in the Revolution or ceased to treat his old allies with respect: yet their deepest thoughts were not his thoughts. He had many hard things to say about the Deists and the thinkers of the Enlightenment to whom they were closely related, yet in defending Paine against Bishop Watson he could write:
Christ died as an Unbeliever and if the Bishops had their will so would Paine . . . but he who speaks a word against the Son of man shall be forgiven. Let the Bishop prove that he has not spoken against the Holy Ghost, who in Paine strives with Christendom as in Christ he strove with the Jews. (755)
Years later, according to Crabb Robinson, Blake
warmly declared that all he knew was in the Bible, but then he understands by the Bible the spiritual sense. For as to the natural sense, that Voltaire was commissioned by God to expose. 
He acknowledged the positive merit in Voltaire and Paine of attacking orthodox Christianity, which, to him, was ‘Satan’s Synagogue’. He condemned them, as he condemned Bacon, Newton and Locke, not so much because they were rationalists as because they were mechanical materialists. This mechanical materialism was the doctrine of capitalism in its age of growth and was accepted almost universally by both progressives and reactionaries. It had indeed, like capitalism itself, a progressive and a repressive face. William Godwin, for example, the philosopher of the most advanced radicals, still saw and thought in terms of the sovereign individual, governed by pure reason, without ties and without environment, a social counterpart to the eighteenth century atomistic science. Blake hated and attacked this atomism which isolated men within society, dividing him from his fellows. He understood that a man’s thinking must depend on his class position:
Does he who contemns poverty and he who turns with abhorrence
From usury feel the same passion, or are they moved alike?
How can the giver of gifts experience the delights of the merchant?
How the industrious citizen the pains of the husbandman?
How different far the fat fed hireling with hollow drum,
Who buys whole cornfields into wastes, and sings upon the heath!
How different their eyes and ear! how different the world to them! (197-8)
The creator in Blake’s mythology, Urizen, creates by division and measurement, and is frequently identified with Newton and Locke, who share with him the symbolism of wheels and of the mathematically ordered stars. The starry wheels of Newton become the mill wheels of Satan:
O Satan, my youngest born, art thou not Prince of the Starry Hosts
And of the Wheels of Heaven, to turn the Mills day and night?
Art thou not Newton’s Pantocrator, weaving the Woof of Locke?
To mortals thy Mills seem everything. (378)
Yet it would be wrong to class Blake with the irrationalists. He did not condemn reason but the isolation and blind worship of reason.
The Treasures of Heaven are not the Negation of Passion, but Realities of Intellect, from which all the Passions Emanate uncurbed in their Eternal Glory,
he wrote (649-50), and, ‘Go, put off Holiness And put on Intellect.’ (558-9)
By Intellect he understood the whole of man’s faculties, including both reason and imagination, properly co’ordinated. Reason uncontrolled, man's ‘spectre’, Blake saw as an enslaving force, delivering over society into the hands of the rich, the elaboration of laissez faire into a social religion. It was because they provided the philosophy for capitalist exploitation that Locke, Newton, Voltaire, all the thinkers of the Enlightenment, were condemned. Yet because Blake was himself a naturally dialectical thinker, he saw that this very mechanical materialism, while it was being used to enslave humanity, had yet within itself a potentially liberating force:
Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, Mock on: ‘tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright. (107)
Blake’s dialectic method is implicit in all his work, in his mythology, his conception of man and society, in his view of history as a constant process of struggle and the reconciliation of opposites. But it is most clearly stated in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the book in which he repaid his debt to Swedenborg:
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 . . .
Energy is Eternal Delight. (182)
Blake saw that we live in a world of division, and that division cannot be healed by pretending that it does not exist. He believed in brotherhood, but not that all men here and now are brothers: brotherhood could only be won by casting out error, by conflict and resolution. ‘God keep you and me’, he wrote in the last year of his life, ‘from the divinity of yes and no too—the yea, nay, creeping Jesus—from supposing up and down to be the same thing, as all experimentalists must suppose.’ (927) If the forgiveness of sins is one pole of his thought, the casting out of error is the other. ‘Severity of judgement is a great virtue’ is his comment on one of Lavater’s Aphorisms. (707)
This dialectic, Blake’s twofold and threefold vision, as opposed to ‘Single vision and Newton’s sleep’ (862) gives a new social quality to his central myth of the fall from innocence and the age-long struggle towards a new synthesis of innocence and experience. Innocence is Blake’s term for the whole man in whom reason and imagination are integrated, as well as for primitive classless society. This state he calls Beulah, a state existing in time but before history, a state of social, sexual and intellectual simplicity in which neither law nor morality had a place, a kind of spiritualised Land of Cokaygne. Beulah is, if you will, an idealisation of the peasant past to which there is no return, though fallen and divided man has always been troubled in his visions by the daughters of Beulah. It is Zion remembered by the waters of Babylon. With the division of society into classes man was divided also against himself: history and psychology is the record of these divisions and conflicts. Blake understood that the way forward is through experience. Man embraces knowledge, conflict, suffering and evil, and with them all he builds a new state, Jerusalem, in which innocence is included on a higher level.
Jerusalem is the entirely utopian symbol of all the later Prophetic Books. In them we find the Giant Albion who, in Blake’s threefold vision, is at once England, the world and mankind. Albion has been betrayed by his children, who have rejected Jerusalem and chosen Babylon. He
is cast forth to the Potter, his Children to the Builders
To build Babylon because they have forsaken Jerusalem.
The walls of Babylon are the Souls of Men, her Gates the Groans
Of Nations, her Towers are the Miseries of once happy Families,
Her Streets are paved with destruction, her Houses built with Death.
Her Palaces with Hell and the Grave, her Synagogues with Torments
Of ever-hardening Despair, squar’d and polish’d with cruel skill. (461)
Albion and his children have the power to choose Jerusalem, but they have preferred Babylon, the wilderness of squalor and exploitation which Blake saw the rulers of England creating around him. Yet the choice was continuous, and the world of the Prophetic Books is not only a world of building but a world of unending wars.
If Jerusalem is utopian, it is a utopia of a new kind. It is not an island to be discovered or a kingdom to be given laws, but a city to be built. And it is one of a vast series, rising and being destroyed throughout time. Each building becomes the starting point for a new fall and division and the founding of a new city. Because Blake cannot think otherwise than dialectically history can never come to a conclusion.
So for the first time we arrive at the beloved republic not by abstract speculation but by the transformation through struggle of what actually exists. This is shown clearly in the interactions of the figures of Blake’s fantastic mythology. The conflict within and around man is symbolised by the conflicts between Urizen-Jehovah, the creator and oppressor, the god of things as they are, and a series of Promethean figures—Los, Orc and Fuzon. These figures, with their sons, daughters, wives, friends, enemies, spectres and emanations form a bewildering world which no one has yet fully comprehended, and any attempt to describe it briefly must necessarily be a gross over-simplification. Part of the difficulty arises because, while they stood for definite things to Blake, we have often only the vaguest clue as to what he meant by them. But still more it arises because they are genuinely mythological characters and not allegorical dummies each with a single label neatly attached.
Often they are or appear self-contradictory just because they are real, so that their behaviour and relationships, even their very natures, change with circumstances. Thus Urizen, who is the cold creator, creating without love and binding his creation with the chain of the law and moral codes, is the father of Los, symbol of prophecy, the eternal smith bringing order out of chaos. He creates in anger and love, and therefore ‘kept the Divine Vision in time of trouble’. (563) But Los is in turn the father of Orc, the spirit of revolutionary terror and passion, the destroyer of oppression and error. Los shares the nature of both his father and son, and perhaps mediates between them, but because he is a living symbol dialectically and not mechanically conceived, he is never a mere compromise, a half-way house, between them. On the contrary, at one moment he will behave like Urizen, at another like Orc, at a third in a way that would be impossible to either. Similarly, Urizen is not only a figure of evil, the cruel father of men: he is also the ‘Ancient of Days Striking the First Circle of the Earth’ who appears in one of Blake’s most magnificent designs, the skilled craftsman fabricating the universe. Like Voltaire and Newton he has a positive as well as a negative role, and in the end he is even capable of self-transformation:
So Urizen spoke: he shook his snows from off his shoulders and arose
As on a Pyramid of mist, his white robes scattering
The fleecy white: renew’d, he shook his aged mantle off
Into the fires. Then, glorious bright, Exulting in his joy,
He sounding rose into the heavens in naked majesty,
In radiant Youth. (352)
Blake sees the battle as fought simultaneously on a number of planes, as a conflict of cosmic forces but no less as a conflict in society and in the minds of men. Nor is it a mechanical clash of right and wrong. It is a dialectical interpenetration of opposites, a conflict of iron (Urizen represents the ‘iron law of wages’, Malthus’ ‘principle of population’, the new iron machinery of factory production) and fire. Orc is consumer as well as liberator, destroying both the good and evil to create the better, while Los, who in the earlier Books is Time and Prophecy, comes more and more to stand for metallurgy, the new creative technique of the age, in which fire and iron are creatively brought together. Los is complex because he is a true revolutionary symbol:
The blow of his Hammer is Justice, the swing of his Hammer Mercy,
The force of Los’s Hammer is eternal forgiveness. (553)
His female counterpart, Enitharmon, begins as Imagination, but she also becomes transformed into an industrial symbol; to her belongs the loom, and she, like Los, is at times corrupted and becomes a repressive force.
Out of the tormented fragments of divided Albion Loss and Enitharmon build Golgonooza, a bright city of art and science rising out of a waste land:
Here, on the banks of the Thames, Los builded Golgonooza,
Outside of the Gates of the Human Heart beneath Beulah
In the midst of the rocks of the Altars of Albion. In fears
He builded it, in rage and in fury. It is the Spiritual Fourfold
London, continually building and continually decaying desolate. (500)
Golgonooza is not Jerusalem, but it is not therefore to be despised. It is the positive side of bourgeois civilisation and culture, a battle won for order out of chaos, in the teeth of the Beast and the Whore. Yet in the end it too has to be overthrown to make way for Jerusalem. The historical symbolism of this seems clear today: one can only speculate how far Blake was consciously aware of it. Not entirely perhaps, but: surely to a certain extent, and just because his myths are true myths they are capable of an extended validity and application.
Jerusalem is the outcome of the struggles of the Prometheans, of Divine Humanity, but precisely of their struggle to transform Urizen, who represents the material world as well as its creator: iron is none the less iron because it becomes molten, but it can then be shaped to the service of men. It is when he comes to describe this Jerusalem that Blake is least successful. After hundreds of pages it remains an abstraction veiled in a bright fog of words:
O lovely mild Jerusalem! O Shiloh of Mount Ephraim!
I see thy Gates of precious stones, thy Walls of gold and silver.
Thou art the soft reflected Image of the Sleeping Man
Who, stretch’d on Albion’s rocks, reposes amidst his Twenty-eight
Cities, where Beulah lovely terminates in the hills and valleys of Albion,
Cities not yet embedded in Time and Space; plant ye
The Seeds, O Sisters, in the bosom of Time and Space’s womb,
To spring up for Jerusalem, lovely shadow of Sleeping Albion. (550)
Blake was faced with a problem he could never solve. The new world of smoke and wheels and misery in which nevertheless new hopes and potentialities were beginning to arise, and which it is his peculiar glory to have been the first to grasp imaginatively as a whole, yet left him bewildered and helpless. In this, as in other respects, his special position as a skilled craftsman in an age passing into mass production, was both a strength and a weakness. He saw that there must be a solution, but too few terms of the equation were given for him to be able to find it, so all the Prophetic Books are full of confused battles that never come to a climax and of the building of fabulous cities only that they may be destroyed. In one sense this is because, as a dialectician, he knew that history never ends, and in another because, as a utopian he could not see clearly the next step.
The remoteness and abstraction which we feel in Blake’s conception of Jerusalem is also in part due to the shapelessness which is the great defect of all his longer poems. Blake, who could compress more meaning into a couple of lines than any other poet, tended to lose his sense of direction in the vast epics in which he tried to expound, with far too many details and endless repetitions, his whole conception of the scheme of things. When he is content to write simply ‘Jerusalem is called Liberty, among the Children of Albion,’ (500) we can see at once that its building is directly related in his mind to the contemporary situation. He emphasises this repeatedly by stressing the identity between Jerusalem and London. Jerusalem is to be built not in some remote place but in Lambeth, Paddington and Islington. And that the work is to be done not in some distant future but proceeds already is made clear when he descends to explain his purposes in plain prose: the end of the golden string is already in man’s hand.
I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the Liberty of both mind and body to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination . . . Answer this to yourselves, and expel from among you those who pretend to despise the labours of Art and Science, which alone are the labours of the Gospel. Is not this plain and manifest to the thought? Can you think at all and not pronounce heartily That to labour in Knowledge is to build up Jerusalem, and to despise Knowledge is to despise Jerusalem and her Builders? . . . Let every Christian, as much as in him lies, engage himself openly and publicly before all the World in some Mental pursuit for the Building up of Jerusalem. (535-6)
Because he spoke so constantly of vision, prophecy and inspiration his thought has been often misunderstood. He never pretended that his visions were objectively real: they were real only because he saw them. He rejected entirely any suggestion that they came, or could come, from outside the world which he knew, and his quarrel with orthodox religion was not only that it denied the imagination but that it claimed an other-worldly sanction for its pretensions, bribing men with ‘allegorical’ promises of reward or punishment in some future life. This false vision is ‘The lost Traveller’s Dream under the Hill.’ (579)
Vision to Blake meant no more than an honest man looking at the world. True, ‘A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,’ (183) and Blake saw many things that seem strange to most of us.
I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun and a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes, (835)
he wrote to a certain Revd Dr Trusler who had ventured to question the authenticity of his vision, and later he elaborated the same thought:
‘What,’ it will be Question’d, ‘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.’ I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro’ it and not with it. (652)
Such passages easily can be and often have been misunderstood, but when we understand what he meant by God and when we remember how he despised the worship of money, it is not difficult to see that Blake is really expressing his sense that the sun is the true source of life and wealth upon whose powers man depends. His expression of this idea may be thought eccentric, but it is neither irrational nor insane, and what he is saying is no more than a plain truth which his contemporaries only too often neglected.
The symbolism of the Prophetic Books often seems both grotesque and obscure because Blake was not able to relate his reality to that of everyday life. But sometimes it is deliberately obscure because he was secretive and did not wish his meaning to be too readily understood. We have seen how the repression under which he lived forced him to conceal his thoughts and to retreat farther and farther into them. But this is only part of the truth. The repression was real, the danger of speaking out was considerable, but the tendency to retreat was there from the start. It may have been, as Dr Bronowski suggests, a personal peculiarity, but still more, I believe, it was a characteristic of the obscure and often persecuted sects in the midst of which Blake grew up. These sects tended to regard themselves as the possessors and guardians of a secret doctrine, not to be lightly revealed to the uninitiated.
The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine:
Thine is the friend of All Mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the Blind:
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy Heaven doors are my Hell Gates . . .
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white. (133)
What was this doctrine, which could only be disclosed in parables? And how did Blake come to share it?
While his peculiar mythology is his own, there is a body of ideas within it for which sources may be found, and a great variety of suggestions have been made as to these sources. Among them are the teachings of Swedenborg, of Jacob Boehme, of the Jewish Kaballa and the early Gnostic heretics. It is quite possible that any or all of these may have influenced Blake at first, or third hand: certainly he acknowledges a debt to Swedenborg and Boehme. The point is, I think, that Swedenborg, Boehme and many others share a common tradition, in which Blake also had a share. Before we begin to search the ends of the earth we would do well to look on his own doorstep, and see if it is not possible to find what we are looking for in the teachings of the Antinomian sects who flourished in England, and above all in London, during the revolutionary decades of the seventeenth century.
Though the name Antinomian was sometimes applied in the seventeenth century to a particular sect, it can also be used more broadly for a variety of sects and groups, not united in beliefs or by organisation but holding a set of related doctrines and often not easily to be distinguished from one another. Thus Thomas Edwards, an extremely hostile witness, writes of the interconnections of these sects in 1646:
The Sect of Seekers growes very much, and all sorts of Sectaries turn Seekers [and soon] all the other Sects of Independents, Brownists, Antinomians, Anabaptists will be swallowed up by the Seekers alias libertines . . . and the issue of these Sects and Schisms will be, that all will end in a loosenesse and licentiousness of living. 
After 1646 the confusion probably became greater rather than less, with the rise of new sects like the Ranters, Quakers and Muggletonians, all of whom were to a certain degree antinomian.
It is not possible to prove that Blake borrowed directly from any of these, to show, for example, that he had read any of the works of Muggleton, or of Abiezer Coppe the Ranter. What can be shown is that he and they shared a common body of ideas and expressed those ideas in a common language. We can show, too, that many of the sects of the seventeenth century, Quakers, Muggletonians and Traskites, for example, did survive in London till Blake’s time. And it is certain that they persisted most strongly, as they had sprung up originally, among the artisans and petty tradesmen of the thickly peopled working-class quarters. These were exactly the social circles and the geographical areas in which Blake was born and in which his whole life was passed. When, therefore, we find, not in one or two isolated cases but throughout his work, the closest similarities between his thought and the thought recorded among the sects a hundred years earlier, there seems to me the strongest presumption that he was the heir to a tradition and that to understand this tradition will help us to understand Blake himself.
So far this has not been attempted, except in the special case of Milton. This has been explored thoroughly by Professor Denis Saurat, and I do not propose to go over any of the ground he has covered.  In any case the relationship of Blake and Milton was one of antagonism as well as admiration . The much more popular tradition of Antinomianism was that in which Blake shared fully and which provided him with a general framework of ideas.
And first of all, it was a tradition of revolution. The Seekers, Ranters. and the rest flourished when England had overthrown the feudal order in a civil war and when it seemed to thousands that a new age was about to begin. Their ideas, fantastic as they sometimes appear to us, were a reflection of their hopes: in essence they were political ideas in a religious form. A new age was indeed beginning, but it was not the age they had expected. Even during the Republic they were often persecuted, and after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 they were driven underground, preserving their faith in little, obscure conventicles, treasuring subversive pamphlets in old cupboards, holding the ideas of the revolution, as it were, in suspension, until towards the end of the eighteenth century, the world seemed ready for them again. Like Los, they ‘kept the Divine Vision in time of trouble’.
In fact, the language of revolution was changing, and the old ideas were barely intelligible to the men who listened to Paine and Thelwall, and mere crazy nonsense to the more sophisticated followers of Bentham. Nevertheless they did provide a means of communication for a great poet: Blake’s tragedy was that he was speaking a language which was already becoming obsolete. He was the greatest English Antinomian, but also the last.
Before going on to consider in detail his debt to the seventeenth century it will be as well to summarise the group of doctrines that make Antinomianism in the broad sense. They are closely related, but can conveniently be taken under four main heads.
First, there is the group of ideas dealing with the nature of God and with his relation to man. All the Antinomians believed that God existed in man, most that he existed in all created things, and many that he had no other existence. Blake held this last opinion.
Second, there is the conception that the moral and ceremonial law is no longer binding on God’s people, that it was the result of a curse which has now been lifted and that the orthodoxy which attempts to impose it is anti-christian.
Third, and closely related to this, is the whole complex of ideas associated with the Phrase, the Everlasting Gospel, a phrase which Blake took as the title of his last great poem.
And fourth, arising from all these, there is the symbolism of the destruction of Babylon and the building of Jerusalem, a symbolism with which Blake’s work is packed and whose relevance to an age of revolution hardly needs emphasis.
All these doctrines are so interconnected that it is hardly possible to follow each thread separately. It will be convenient to start with the idea of the Everlasting Gospel, around which the rest seems to adhere and which lies so much at the centre of Blake’s thought. The origin of this doctrine goes back to the twelfth century Italian mystic Joachim of Flora. He taught that the history of the world fell into three ages, those of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The first was the age of fear and servitude, and ended with the death of Christ, the second was the age of faith and filial obedience, and the third, which was to be expected shortly, was the age of love and spiritual liberty for the children of God. The scripture of the first age was the Old Testament, of the second the New Testament. In the coming age of the spirit the full truth of the Everlasting Gospel will be revealed, not in a new sacred book but in a new revelation of the spiritual sense of the Bible with which God will illuminate the hearts of men. In this age God will be within man and therefore all existing forms of worship, ceremonies, churches, legal and moral codes will become superfluous. Instead of appearing as a force from without, God will now be within, and the unity of God and man will be fully accomplished.
This is precisely the doctrine to which Blake refers when he writes:
God Appears and God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day. (121)
and we can find it equally clearly in the beliefs which Samuel Fisher ascribes to the Ranters:
Till Christ Come [means to the Ranters] His coming into men by his Spirit, or in such full measures and manifestations of his Spirit into men’s hearts, that they may be able to live up with him in spirit, so as no more to need such lower helps from outward administrations . . . to preach, break bread, to build one another in faith, search the Scriptures, etc., ’twas a way of God for men’s edification till Christ the morning star shined, to which men did well to take heed, as unto a light that shined in a dark place, but now the day has dawned and the day star arises in men’s hearts, yea, the day breaks and the shadows flee away; and Christ comes as a swift Roe and young hart upon the mountains of Bether. [ 7]
From twelfth century Italy to Blake’s England seems a long journey, yet it is one that we can follow almost step by step. Joachite ideas are to be found in France among the followers of Amalric of Bena at the end of the twelfth century and among the German Brethren of the Free Spirit at the thirteenth.  In the sixteenth century the Familists and the closely related ‘Spirituels’ appear in Germany and Holland. Robert Barclay says of these ‘Spirituels’ that they
held that they were called to inaugurate the last dispensation. The dispensation of Moses and Christ was to be succeeded by that of the Holy Spirit, or of Elias, and this time had come. The Apostles, and after them the Church, had only known the Lord ‘in a figure’. The times were now come in which the knowledge of a new spiritual and living Christ—mystically hidden from the time of Christ and the Apostles—is now immediately revealed to the Christian. 
Of the Familists’ teacher, Henry Nicholas, Ephraim Pagitt writes:
This deceiver describeth eight throughbreakings of light (as he termeth them) to have been in 8 several times, from Adam to the time that now is, which (as hee saith) have each exceeded other. The seventh he allowed Jesus Christ to be the publisher of, and his light to be the greatest of all that ever were before him; and he maketh his own to be the last and greatest, and the perfection of all, in and by which Christ is perfected, meaning holinesse; he maketh every one of his Familie of Love to be Christ; yea, and God, and himself God, and Christ in a more excellent manner, saying that he is godded with God and co-deified with him, and that God is hominified with him. These horrible blasphemies with divers others, doth this H.N. and his Familie teach to be the Everlasting Gospel. 
Thomas Munzer, the leader of the great peasant insurrection in Germany in 1525, was another who came under the influence of the writings of Joachim. ‘This doctrine of the Everlasting Gospel worked on Munzer like the interior fires in a volcanic land’, writes Richard Heath.  Through Munzer it affected the whole Anabaptist movement in Germany.
Another channel of Joachite ideas was Jacob Boehme, whose works began to appear in English translations in the 1640s. Several were published by Giles Calvert, who was first a Ranter and afterwards a Quaker. Blake refers to Boehme several times and was probably acquainted with some of his writing at first hand.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century the Familists were well established in England, where they presently merged with the seekers and other antinomian sects. By the time of the Revolution Joachite ideas, in various forms, were widespread. Thomas Edwards, whose Gangraena is an encyclopedia of the ‘Errours, Heresies, Blasphemies and pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of this time’, mentions those who declare:
That by Christ’s death, all the sins of all the men in the world, Turks, Pagan, as well as Christians committed against the moral Law and first Covenant, are actually pardoned and forgiven, and this is the everlasting Gospel. 
There is a salvation that shall be revealed in the last times, which was not known to the Apostles themselves. 
It is of particular interest that the first of these passages links the phrase ‘the Everlasting Gospel’ with the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins, exactly as Blake links it over a century later.
In a very cursory study of the pamphlet literature of the time I have found six places where the phrase ‘the Everlasting Gospel’ is used.  No doubt a more thorough search would reveal others. In any case, the doctrine for which it stood was far more widespread, and is to be found, in a more or less complete form, in the writings of such men as John Saltmarsh, William Erbery, Thomas Collier, Tobias Crisp and John Eaton among many others. With the appearance of the Ranters about 1649 English Antinomianism assumed its most uncompromising form.
The Ranters as a sect were bitterly attacked and persecuted from the start, were soon crushed, and have never since been given the attention which they deserve. No doubt the behaviour of many of them was extravagant, and they often expressed their views in ways which shocked their contemporaries, but at their highest, in the work of such men as Coppe, Joseph Salmon and the near-Ranter Richard Coppin, there is a fervour and a wild poetry that is both moving and effective.
Perhaps the clearest account of Ranter doctrine is to be found in The Smoke of the Bottomless Pit by John Holland (1651). Though this is, as the title indicates, a hostile account, there is little in it that cannot be fairly deduced from acknowledged Ranter writings: Holland appears to be sincere when he says in his Preface that he does not intend
to make their persons odious in any way, much lesse to stir up any to persecute them barely for their judgements; for when I consider what the Scripture saith, I find it is not God’s method to deal with Spiritual enemies with carnal weapons. 
This is an attitude of restraint extremely rare in the anti-Ranter literature of the time, much of which is of the lowest kind.
The main body of the pamphlet summarises Ranter teachings on a number of points, and it is instructive to compare some of these with Blake’s views about the same subjects.
First Concerning God
They maintain that God is essential in every creature, and that there is as much of God in one creature, as in another, though he doth not manifest himself so much in one as in another: I saw this expression in a Book of theirs, that the essence of God was as much in the ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel. 
This may be compared with Blake’s statements in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that ‘God only Acts and Is in existing beings or Men,’ (188) and
The worship of God is: Honouring his gifts in other men, each according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best: those who envy and calumniate great men hate God; for there is no other God. (191)
The belief which Blake shared with the Ranters that God only exists in existing beings or men can be followed logically to the conclusion that only God really exists, but equally logically to the opposite conclusion that what we call God is no more than a form of the movement of matter. Both he and they did in practice manage to combine both conclusions, and it is difficult to see that when Blake spoke of God, or, as he liked to do, of Divine Humanity, he meant anything more than the quality in man which distinguishes him from the animals—his intellect, his imagination and his capacity for pity.
Since God existed in man, and was entirely good, the Ranters argued that all human acts were performed by God and so could not be sinful. Hence, the moral law could have no validity for them.
Concerning the Commandments of God they say that all the Commandments of God, both in the Old and New Testaments, are fruits of the Curse, and that all men being free from the curse, are also free from the Commandments. . . . Concerning sinne, That there is no such thing as that which men call sin, that sin and holinesse are all one to God, and that God delights as much in the one as in the other. 
So Blake’s Jesus in The Everlasting Gospel (it must be remembered that he is not the historical Jesus of Joachim’s second age, but the spiritual Jesus of the third) overthrows the Moral Law:
He laid his hand on Moses’ Law:
The Ancient Heavens, in Silent Awe
Writ with Curses from Pole to Pole,
All away began to roll:
‘Good and Evil are no more!
Sinai’s trumpets, cease to roar!
Cease, finger of God, to write!
The Heavens are not clean in thy Sight.
Thou art Good, and thou Alone;
Nor may the sinner cast one stone.
To be Good only, is to be
A God or else a Pharisee . . . . (139-40)
The effect of these doctrines, even in the crude form in which they were held by the Ranters, still more as Blake developed them, is to emphasise the dignity of man: ‘God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.’ (148) So the Ranters say:
Concerning man, that man cannot either know God, or beleeve in God, or pray to God, but it is God in man that knoweth himself, believes in himself, and prayeth to himself. 
This passage Blake seems almost literally to paraphrase in The Everlasting Gospel:
If thou humblest thyself, thou humblest me;
Thou also dwell’st in Eternity,
Thou art a Man, God is no more,
Thy own humanity learn to adore . . . (138)
And in Jerusalem he wrote:
Then Los grew furious, raging: ‘Why stand we here trembling around
Calling on God for help, and not ourselves, in whom God dwells,
Stretching a hand to save the falling Man?’ (487)
Antinomianism can be a negative and inhibiting creed, but in favourable circumstances it may engender a pride that is a truly revolutionary virtue. As God in Man becomes a heroic symbol, so heaven and hell, and all rewards, threats and sanctions outside human life become symbols of unreality: ‘They teach that there is neither heaven nor hell but what is in man.’  In this spirit Blake declares that the Treasures of Heaven are nothing other than ‘Mental Studies and Performances’ (535) and of hell:
I do not believe there is such a thing literally, but hell is the being shut up in the possession of corporeal desires which shortly weary the man, for ALL LIFE IS HOLY. (717)
It was this freedom from other-worldly fears which made it possible for him to write with such freedom and high spirits of Hell and Devil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and when he praises Milton for being ‘a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’, (192) he differed only in degree of sophistication from the Ranter who is alleged to have said ‘he hoped to see the poor Devil cleared of a great many slanders that had been cast upon him’. 
Nearest of all to Blake is that strange genius, Abiezer Coppe, now remembered, if at all, for the acid little biography allotted to him by Anthony Wood.  Unlike Blake, Coppe followed the logic of his Antinomianism, into grotesque excess, and this, as Blake knew, is one of the dangers of Antinomianism. The Everlasting Gospel is no guide for fools: ‘The Wicked will turn it to Wickedness, the Righteous to Righteousness.’ (463) he wrote, much in the spirit of Tobias Crisp’s solution of the same problem:
The grass and pasture is so sweet that he [God] hath put a beleever into, that though there be no bounds in such a soule, yet it will never goe out of this fat pasture to feed on a barren common. 
Nevertheless, as he also knew, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,’ (183) and Coppe in his two main writings A Fiery Flying Roll (1650) and his Preface to Coppin’s Divine Teachings (1649) arrived by this road at a wisdom not entirely unlike Blake’s own.
A Fiery Flying Roll, with its symbolic and sometimes fanciful treatment of heaven and hell, of inspiration and of the ways of God with man, with its bizarre expressions of a genuine fervour, and its almost sulphurous atmosphere of spiritual war, constantly reminds us both of the Prophetic Books and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Coppe insists that the new world of the Everlasting Gospel come only in agony and conflict:
But behold, behold, he is now risen with a witnesse, to save Zion with vengeance, or to confound and plague all things into himself; who by his mighty Angell is proclaiming (with a loud voyce) That Sin and Transgression is finished and ended; and everlasting righteousnesse brought in; and the everlasting Gospell preaching; Which everlasting Gospell is brought in with most terrible earth-quakes, and heaven-quakes, and with signes and wonders following. 
Just so Blake insists that the building of Jerusalem which is called Liberty begins with the Harrowing of Hell:
The God of this World raged in vain:
He bound Old Satan in his Chain,
And bursting forth, his furious ire
Became a Chariot of fire.
Throughout the land he took his course,
And traced diseases to their source:
He curs’d the Scribe and Pharisee,
Trampling down Hipocrisy:
Where’er his Chariot took its way,
There Gates of death let in the day,
Broke down every Chain and Bar;
And Satan in his Spiritual War
Drag’d at his Chariot wheels: loud howl’d
The God of this World: louder roll’d
The Chariot Wheels, and louder still
His voice was heard from Zion’s hill. (134)
In this conflict the natural man is consumed and destroyed in order to be born again:
Whate’er is Born of Mortal Birth
Must be consumed with the Earth
To rise from Generation free:
Then what have I to do with thee? (79)
Coppe describes this from his own experience with an extraordinary vividness:
First, all my strength, my forces were utterly routed, my house I dwelt in fired; my father and mother forsook me, the wife of my bosome loathed me, mine old name was rotted, perished; and I was utterly plagued, consumed, damned, rammed and sunk into nothing, with the bowels of the still Eternity (my mothers wombe) out of which I came naked, and whereto I returned again naked. And lying a while there, rapt up in silence, at length (the body or outward forme being awake all this while) I heard with my outward care (to my apprehension) a most terrible thunderclap, and after that a second. And after the second thunderclap, which was exceeding terrible, I saw a great body of light, like the light of the sun, and red as fire, in the forme of a drum (as it were) whereupon with exceeding trembling and amazement of the flesh, and with joy unspeakable in the Spirit, I clapt my hands, and crye out, Amen, Halelujah, Halelujah Amen. And so lay trembling, sweating and smoking (for the space of half an houre) at length with a loud voyce (I inwardly) cryed out, Lord, what wilt thou do with me; my most excellent majesty and eternall glory (in me) answered and sayd, Fear not, I will take thee up into my everlasting Kingdom. But thou shalt (first) drink a bitter cup, a bitter cup, a bitter cup; whereupon (being filled with exceeding amazement) I was throwne into the belly of Hell (and take what you can of it in these expressions, though the matter is beyond expression) I was among all the Devils in hell, even in their most hideous crew.
And under all this terrour and amazement, there was a little spark of transcendent, unspeakable glory, which survived, and sustained itself, triumphing, exulting and exalting itself above all the Fiends. 
What was consumed, in each case, was not sin but holiness, the ‘dark self-righteous pride’ of Blake’s phrase. It was not upon the tongue of the ‘rich learned Pharisee’ that Jesus wrote ‘with Iron pen’, ‘Ye must be born again.’ (136)
Which Pharisee, in man is the mother of harlots, and being the worst whore, cries whore first: and the grand blasphemer, cries out Blasphemy, blasphemy, which she is brimfull of. . . .
But the hour is coming, yea now is, That all his carnal, outward, formal Religion (yea of Scripturely cognizance, so far as its fleshly and formal) and all his fleshly holiness, zeal and devotion shall be, and is, set upon the same account, as outward drunkenness, theft, murther and adultery . . .
Yea the time is coming, That zealous, holy, devout righteous, religious men shall (one way) dye, for their Holines and Religion, as well as Thieves and Murtherers—for their Theft and Murther. 
Blake, Coppe and all Antinomians condemned formal Christianity because it based itself on this pharisaic holiness and set up arbitrary standards by which it accused and condemned. Blake had two common terms for the orthodox church, both of which were also current among seventeenth century Antinomians.
First he called it Rahab, just as Coppe called it ‘the well favoured Harlot’  and Roger Crab ‘that House of the Whore’s merchandise’. 
That is why, according to Edwards,
An Antinomian Preacher in London on a Fast Day said it was better for Christians to be drinking in a Ale-house, or to be in a whorehouse, than to be keeping fasts legally. 
And why Blake wrote in one poem:
Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy and friendly and warm. (74)
and in another turns from the serpent-polluted church
. . . into a sty
And laid me down among the swine. (87)
Blake’s other term was Satan’s Synagogue, for his Satan is ‘the Accuser who is the God of this World’ who is ‘worshipd by the Names Divine of Jesus and Jehovah’—in fact the God who is worshipped by orthodox Christians. (579) (He is on no account to be confused with the friendly Devils of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.) In just this sense Richard Coppin, on trial at Worcester for sundry blasphemies, was charged:
First that I should say, That they were evil Angels (meaning the Minister who preached the Gospel of Christ) that told people of damnation, and that such ought to be heard or believed. 
Orthodox Christianity was not merely a corruption of Christianity as Blake understood it, but its absolute inversion, and it was in no rhetorical sense that he wrote: ‘The Modern Church Crucifies Christ with the head Downward.’ (650) From another point of view Satan-Jehovah was a form of Urizen, the ice-cold creator, and in this connection there is a curious parallel between Blake and the Muggletonians, another Joachite sect who certainly survived in London in some strength at Blake’s time.  According to them there were three Ages or ‘Records’, those of Moses, of Jesus and of Reeves and Muggleton, and these were the Records respectively of Water, Blood and Spirit:
This Record of Moses upon Earth is that Record of Water, answering and bearing Testimony to that one God the Father and Creator of all things both in Heaven and Earth. 
Now water was also the element of Urizen, and in the second of his Songs of Experience Blake wrote:
Prison’d on wat’ry shore,
Starry jealousy does keep my den:
Cold and hoar, Weeping o’er,
I hear the father of the ancient men. (69)
The resemblance may be accidental, but it is extremely probable that Blake had met Muggletonians, especially as their doctrines are in some ways very similar to those of his early master Swedenborg. It is, indeed, Swedenborg and the Muggletonians who complete the living chain connecting the age of Joachim of Flora with that of Blake. 
In many of his Proverbs of Hell Blake voices his detestation of this restrictive holiness:
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
Prisons are built with Bricks of Law, Brothels with Stones of Religion.
As the Caterpillar choses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the Priest lays his curses on the fairest joys.
Damn braces. Bless relaxes. (183-4)
Coppe, once more, provides the best parallels:
[I] had rather heare a mighty Angell (in man) swearing a full-mouthed Oath . . . cursing and making others fall a-swearing, than heare a zealous Presbyterian, Independent or spirituall Notionist pray, preach, or exercise.
Well, One hint more; there’s swearing ignorantly, i’th darke, vainely, and there’s swearing i’th light, gloriously. 
Kisses are numbered among transgressors—base things—well! by base hellish swearing, and cursing . . . and by base impudent kisses. . . my plaguy holiness hath been confounded, and thrown into the lake of brimstone. 
The last phrase reminds us that Blake, who had written of ‘The Spectre of Man, the Holy Reasoning Power,’ (442) wrote also:
Each man is in his Spectre’s power
Untill the arrival of that hour
When his humanity awake
And cast his own Spectre into the Lake. (108)
Indeed, the resemblances between Blake and Coppe are so numerous and so striking that it is tempting if unprofitable to wonder if Blake had not seen somewhere a copy of A Fiery Flying Roll. No proof is ever likely to be forthcoming, and the Roll, which was burnt by Order of Parliament in 1650, cannot have been common. Yet the very fact of its burning would induce those who valued it to preserve it the more carefully, and I do not think that it is at all impossible that Blake, considering the circles among which he moved in London, may have stumbled on a copy in the house of some friend who belonged to an old dissenting family. The probability that he knew men who had preserved the doctrines of Coppe and the Ranters must surely be much greater.
In this context it may be worth looking afresh at the old story of Blake and his wife being found by Thomas Butts sitting naked in their garden at Lambeth.  Coppe, it was said, was accustomed:
to preach stark naked many blasphemies and unheard of villanies in the daytime, and in the night be drunk and lye with a wench that had also been his hearer stark naked. 
This he denied, declaring that the pamphlets in which such charges were made were:
scandalous and bespattered with Lyes and Forgeries, in setting me in front of such actions which I never did, which my soul abhors; such things which mine eyes never beheld, and words which my tongue never spake, and mine ears never heard. 
There is no need to doubt the sincerity of this denial, or that many similar accusations made against the Ranters were equally false. Nevertheless, when all allowances have been made for malice and exaggeration, I think there is sufficient reason to believe that they did at times practice what may be described as a kind of ritual nudism. 
This would certainly be in keeping with Ranter doctrine. Clothes were a token of the loss of innocence, of the knowledge of good and evil which came from the fall, and of the curse which accompanied this knowledge. A return to nakedness was symbolic of the lifting of the curse and the abrogation of the moral law. Some argued that the curse had never existed, or the law ever been valid, since the sin of Adam was visited on him alone and not on the whole of mankind.  For them, as for Blake, original sin was an invention of the Churches, the gospel of Satan.
At any rate, Adam in innocence, in Beulah, as Blake might have said, was naked and unashamed; it was upon the fallen Adam that God placed clothes: for the regenerate Adam of the new time they were no longer necessary except for purposes of use and comfort. It is therefore interesting at least that when Thomas Butts found Blake in the garden (and Blake’s garden, with the vine which he refused to prune, was itself symbolic) he was greeted with the words: ‘Come in! it’s only Adam and Eve you know!’ 
Gilchrist may have been right in supposing that they were ‘reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character’, but this reference to Adam is too characteristic of the thought of Blake and of the earlier Antinomians to be so easily accounted for. The third Adam was part of the Ranter Mythology. So John Robins, ‘the God of the Shakers’, was asked in prison:
Why do your followers term you the third Adam? To that I answer particularly (said he) in the behalf of myself. So I am, for these reasons. The first Adam was made a living soul, the second, a quickening spirit, and in this law stands all the councel of God the Father. The first, the servant of Death appointed; the second, the Son of life therewith foreordained. And I am the third Adam that must gain what the first lost. 
Whether the story is true or not, it is entirely consistent with the whole of Blake’s work both as poet and artist. The naked human form was his supreme symbol of the divine in man and of the liberation of the spirit, and even when his figures are draped, as much of the form as is possible is revealed. In this he was not uninfluenced by the fashions of the age. It may be worth recalling that the years he spent at Lambeth (1793-1800) correspond roughly with the years in which the influence of the French Revolution on clothes, especially women’s clothes, was at its height. It was then the fashion to wear light, close fitting and sometimes almost transparent dresses: there has never perhaps been a period in which women wore so little. The French sense of liberation swept across the Channel in spite of the war and the politically repressive government. The effect on Blake’s art may be seen in such a picture as The Wise and Foolish Virgins, painted about 1810. Blake’s Virgins wear dresses that, with minor alterations, would have been by no means conspicuous in fashionable society a few years earlier. Similarly, his illustrations to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life (1791), almost his only drawings of contemporary subjects, show how closely his style was suited to, and perhaps influenced by, the costume of the period.
Finally, in considering this story of Blake in the garden, we should not forget the element of humour and fantasy in his make-up, or the very unconventional ways in which it found expression. He loved to startle and provoke and to say and do things, which might still convey his most serious beliefs, in a half-jesting manner. He probably enjoyed the confusion of the worthy Mr Butts. And here, too, we can find a link with the Ranters, who also were in the habit of flouting convention and expressing their doctrines in the coarsest kind of jesting. Blake, in such a poem as When Klopstock England defied (103), is related closely enough to the Ranter who, it was said,
sitting in his cups (with the rest of his companions) evacuating wind backwards, used this blasphemous expression, let everything that hath breath, praise the Lord . 
We have seen already something of what Blake made of the symbols of Jerusalem and Babylon, symbols that perhaps present themselves inevitably in a revolutionary age to men whose principal reading is the Bible. Here, too, he was following a well established tradition.
The Seeker William Erbery links the coming of Jerusalem with the third age of the Everlasting Gospel:
I hear a sound of the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of Heaven among you; and one of you saying that one Form should knock out another till Christ come, etc. I am come in the Spirit of Love, with meekness and fear, to give an account of the hope that is in me, to my owne Country first, where I hold forth nothing but the new Jerusalem, in which God shall gather all the Saints first, even those who look for his coming; in which he will so appear in power and glory, dwelling in the midst of them, that many Nations will joyne to the Lord in that day; and these Northern Nations, I believe to be the first fruits of the world; for the Nations of them that are saved, shall walk in the light of the new Jerusalem, and men shall dwell in it, and there shall be no more destructions, but Jerusalem shall be safely inhabited . . . this new Jerusalem being the third dispensation differing from the Law and Gospel-Churches, yet comprehending both, as the glory of the Gospel was above that of the Law, and darkened the light therefore, even as the rising Sun cloth the Moon when it shines at the full. 
What is especially interesting is to see how, under the stimulus of revolution, Jerusalem and Babylon develop from religious symbols—which they had always been—into social and political symbols. This is already well marked in a sermon attributed to the Baptist Hanserd Knollys:
Babylon’s falling is Sion’s raising. Babylon’s destruction is Jerusalem’s salvation . . . It is the work of the day to cry down Babylon, that it may fall more and more; and it is the work of the day to give God no rest till he sets up Jerusalem as the praise of the whole world. Blessed is he that dasheth the brats of Babylon against the stones. Blessed is he that hath any hand in pulling down Babylon . . .
God uses the common people and the multitude to proclaim that the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. As when Christ came at first the poor received the Gospel—not many wise, not many noble, not many rich, but the poor—so in the reformation of religion, after Antichrist began to be discovered, it was the common people that first came to look after Christ. 
Later, Richard Blome complains of the Anabaptists, using the term loosely to characterise all the advanced sects, that:
Babylon they would overthrow; and within Babylon, they included all Magistracy and civil Government, and all wealth and greatness; A great quarrel they had with the Babylonian Gold. 
Just so Edwards had complained earlier that the Sectaries were saying:
That Christ would destroy not only unlawfull Government, but lawful Government, not only the abuse of it, but the use of it; he was destroying both Monarchy and Aristocracy. 
And an anonymous (and premature) obituary poem to the Baptist preacher Vavasour Powell began:
Here Propagation lies, that did aspire,
Like Phaeton to set the world on fire,
Cry’d down Order, and the Ministerial Call,
And thought to give this Government a fall:
She would have caused the Gentry flock in Swarms,
To beg relief like Cripples without Armes . . . 
We are now very close to Blake’s portrait of Jesus the Revolutionary, as he appeared to Caiaphas:
He mock’d the Sabbath, and he mock’d
The Sabbath’s God, and he unlocked
The Evil Spirits from their Shrines,
And turn’d Fishermen to Divines. . . .
He scorn’d Earth’s Parents, scorned Earth’s God,
And mock’d the one and the other’s rod;
His Seventy Disciples sent
Against Religion and Government:
They by the Sword of Justice fell
And him their Cruel Murderer tell. (142)
The political implications of Antinomianism are surely clear enough. God exists in man—in all men, and, as Richard Coppin insisted, fully in all men:
God is all in one, and so in everyone; the same all which is in me, is in thee; the same God which dwels in one dwels in another; and in the same fulness as he is in one, he is in everyone. 
If this is so, the poorest and most ignorant men are as likely to read his intentions as the rich and learned. As Blake put it:
Christ and his Apostles were illiterate men; Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod were learned. (825)
For this reason the Antinomian sects of the seventeenth century led the battle for the right of all to preach, against the determination of the Presbyterians and others to preserve the monopoly of the pulpit to the formally ordained and university trained ministers. At a time when revolutionary ideas were constantly finding religious forms, the demand for the freedom of the pulpit was a political demand.
Nor did it stop here, Since God was in all men, or, as others argued, since Christ died for all and not merely for the elect, it seemed to follow that all were entitled to vote and to have a full share in the political life of the nation. It is not by accident that Walwyn and Overton were among the first and most determined defenders of the rights of the Mechanic Preachers, or that the Antinomian sects were the main nursery of the Levellers. The men of the New Model Army who sang:
The Lord begins to honour us,
The Saints are marching on;
The Sword is sharp, the arrows swift
To destroy Babylon,
were the same men who wore in their hats and treasured in their hearts The Agreement of the People.
Interest in Jerusalem was not confined to its symbolism. Just as later the utopian socialists tried to set up socialist Utopias, so the Jerusalem enthusiasts tried to hasten the day of the Lord by earthly assistance. In 1650 the Ranter Thomas Tany (Tawney?) announced that he had been commissioned to gather the Jews together in Jerusalem:
And Jerusalem shall be built in Glory, in her own land, even on her own Foundation, as the lord hath shown mee, though it seeme never so impossible in the Judgement of Men. 
Some years later Tany was drowned in a small boat which he had built himself and in which he was attempting to sail to Jerusalem. 
Blake himself seems to have believed that England was the original home of the Jews, and two of his friends, William Owen Pughe and William Sharp, were connected with the sect of the British Israelites and with Joanna Southcott, whose writings were also full of Jerusalem symbolism. Through them, he almost certainly met Richard Brothers, who proposed to rebuild Jerusalem in accordance with a plan divinely revealed to him. Sharp tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist Blake into the Southcottian sect.  Blake, like many men of wide reading who have had no formal education, tended to be eclectic, but there was a core of good sense in him which rejected this type of extravagance. The positive use which he made of this floating body of ideas may be seen from the Preface To the Jews which opens Chapter 11 of Jerusalem.
A practical application of the doctrine of the Everlasting Gospel, of a very different kind, is to be found in the writings of the Ranter Joseph Salmon. After a general statement of the doctrine, explaining how each manifestation was swallowed up in a later and higher one, he proceeds to apply this to the political situation as it was in 1649. God, having destroyed the Monarchy, first manifested himself in the Parliament. Then:
We see in a short time, he layes aside that glorious show and Idol (the Parliament) and cloathes himself with the Army. 
His will now is that the Army lay aside their swords, and cast themselves upon them. God will give victory out of suffering and humility:
he is coming to make you free to suffer a blessed Freedom, a glorious Liberty, a sufficient recompense for the loss of all outward glories . . . when you are become the children of the new birth, you shall be able to play upon the hole of the Aspe, and to dwell with the Cockatrice in his den, oppression and tyranny shall be destroyed before you. 
For Salmon, also, Jerusalem is called Liberty.
One more similarity of outlook between Blake and the Ranters deserves attention. Both lived in a revolutionary age, but most of their writings comes from a time when the revolution was in retreat. There is a hint of this even in the passage just quoted from Salmon, which dates from February 1649, when the Levellers were already beginning to feel that they had been outmanoeuvred by Cromwell. But the main period of Ranter activity was from the later part of that year and in 1650, after the crushing of the Levellers in the Burford campaign. Similarly most of Blake’s creative life was spent after the crushing of the English Jacobins and after the transformation of the situation in France which followed the death of Robespierre. So in both cases we have a genuine revolutionary ardour tempered by the realisation that victory was to be deferred and might be long in coming. We have already seen how Blake reacted to this situation by retreating into the obscurities of his mythology. Jerusalem, indeed, whatever else it may have meant to him, remained in his mind a democratic republic based on the principle of human brotherhood, as may be seen from a number of references to republicanism and the French Revolution scattered through his later writings. But he was less and less able to connect the building of Jerusalem with the practical realities of life in a corrupt and Tory-ridden England.
In just the same way Coppe, who defended the Levellers and clearly sympathised with their political aims, can see no human means by which those aims can be reached. Nevertheless, in the Preface to A Fiery Flying Roll he speaks of the coming of the new Jerusalem as imminent, but goes on to explain that it will come by the direct intervention of God, that Levelling will not be accomplished by sword or by spade (a reference to the followers of Lilburne and Winstanley respectively), but:
I the eternall God, the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller am comming (yea even at the doores) to Levell in good earnest, to Levell to some purpose, to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, and to lay the Mountaines low.
For Lo I come (saith the Lord) with a vengeance, to levell also all your Honour, Riches etc. to staine the pride of all your Glory, and to bring into contempt all the Honourables (both persons and things) upon the earth. For this Honour, Nobility, Gentility, Propriety, Superfluity etc. hath been ... the cause of all the blood that ever hath been shed, from the blood of the righteous Abell, to the blood of the last Levellers that were shot to death. And now (as I live saith the Lord) I am come to make inquisition for blood. 
Coppe’s despair is reflected in the fact that A Fiery Flying Roll appeals to, and speaks in the name of, the lowest strata in society the slum population of London, not excluding its criminal fringe of beggars, whores and pickpockets. This is true of no other document of its time. He offers the remarkable conception of God the Highwayman (the highest figure in the criminal world) demanding restitution from the rich like some urban Robin Hood:
Thou hast many bagges of money, and behold I (the Lord) come as a thief in the night, with my sword drawn in my hand, and like a thief as I am—I say deliver your purse, deliver sirrah! deliver or I’ll cut thy throat. 
Coppe knew that this depressed class could never be a revolutionary force, but he turned to them because he felt instinctively that the middle and lower middle classes, rotted with holiness, could never carry the revolution further. The ease with which Cromwell had routed the Levellers in the Burford campaign was itself a proof of this. In such a situation, victory could only come by a miracle, in which men might perhaps participate but which they were powerless to initiate. For this reason the Ranters, however admirable their intentions, were entirely ineffective politically and their energy was wasted on crazy extravagances which exposed them to police action and alienated many possible supporters. 
Blake was a wiser and a saner man than Coppe, but he too was faced with somewhat the same dilemma. While his deepest hatred was reserved for the ruling class, there is sufficient evidence that he was repelled by the smugness and commercialism of the artisans and tradesmen from among whom the radicals of his day were drawn. Living only in London, he had no means of knowing that a new working class was in process of formation in the industrial north. In any case, it was not till after his death that this new class began to be politically effective. Blake no more than Coppe could see any new class ready to undertake the building of Jerusalem. Therefore he remained a utopian, and could do no more than make the typical utopian appeal to men of sense and good will:
Let every Christian, as much as in him lies, engage himself openly and publicly before all the World in some mental pursuit for the Building up of Jerusalem. (536)
It is much that in such a situation he never gave up hope, never became embittered, never felt that poverty and neglect was too high a price to pay for the maintenance of his integrity. This is his glory as a man. As a poet, his importance from our point of view is that he came just in time to give the ancient tradition of English Antinomianism its most splendid expression. A generation later that tradition had virtually disappeared and its disappearance has been one of the main reasons for the obscurity which we find in his poetry.
As I said at the outset, Blake is a difficult poet, and no good is done by pretending that he is not. But I think that part of the difficulty has been created by ourselves, through forgetting the tradition in which he wrote. By rediscovering this tradition, and seeing him in relation to it, we do not remove the difficulties, but we do begin to equip ourselves to grapple with them.
* The figures in brackets are page references to Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by Geoffrey Keynes.
1. Jacob Bronowski, A Man Without a Mask, London 1944, pp. 85-6. Ray Watkinson in his article ‘Blake, the Artist and the Man’ (World News, Vol. IV No. 47, 23 November 1947) denies that engraving was a declining craft. This is probably correct but does not affect the general value of Dr Bronowski’s work. My debt to his book will be obvious to everyone.
2. Alexander Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake, London 1942 (Everyman’s Library), p. 300.
3. Ibid., pp. 301-2.
4. Arthur Symonds, William Blake, London 1907, p. 267.
5. Gangraena, II, 1646, p. 14.
6. Denis Saurat, Blake and Milton, London 1920.
7. Samuel Fisher, Baby Baptism meer babyism, 1653, quoted in Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, London 1909, pp. 470-1.
8. William Hepworth Dixon, Spiritual Wives, London 1868, vol. 1, pp. 148-9.
9. Robert Barclay, The Inner Life of the Religious Societies of the Commonwealth, London 1876, p. 415.
10. Ephraim Pagitt, Heresiography, 1645, p. 77.
11. Richard Heath, The English Peasant, London 1893, p. 371.
12. Gangraena, I, p. 22.
13. Ibid., I, p. 28.
14. Gangraena, I, pp. 22 and 34; Pagitt, Heresiography, p. 77; Gerrard Winstanley, Truth Lifting up its Head above Scandals (Sabine (ed.), Collected Works of Winstanley, p. 122; Coppe, A Fiery Flying Roll, 1650, Preface; Richard Huberthorne etc., The Testimony of the Everlasting Gospel Witnessed through Suffering, 1654.
15. John Holland, The Smoke of the Bottomless Pit, 1651, p. 1.
16. Ibid., p. 2.
17. Ibid., p. 4.
19. Ibid., p. 6.
21. Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxoniensis, 1692, vol. II, p. 367.
22. Tobias Crisp, Christ Alone Exalted, 1643, Sermon II, p. 39. This work was reprinted in 1691, when it attracted considerable attention in Dissenting circles.
23. Fiery Flying Roll, Preface, p. 1.
24. Ibid., pp. 2-3.
25. Coppe, Preface to Richard Coppin, Divine Teachings, 1649.
26. Fiery Flying Roll, Part II, Ch. 8.
27. Roger Crab, Dagon’s Downfall, 1657, p. 4.
28. Gangraena, II, p. 146.
29. Richard Coppin, Truth’s Testimony, 1653, p. 31.
30. The Muggletonians were sufficiently flourishing in 1820 to bring out an expensively produced edition of the Collected Works of Reeves and Muggleton in three volumes.
31. Ludowick Muggleton, The Acts of the Witnesses of the Spirit, 1699, Part III, Ch. 11. A posthumous work.
32. Swedenborg announced that the third age of the spirit was to begin in 1757. It is to this that Blake refers, half humorously, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘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 by the tomb.’ Blake, undoubtedly, was entertained by the thought that this was the year of his own birth. On Blake and Swedenborg, see J.G. Davies, The Theology of William Blake, London 1948.
33. Fiery Flying Roll, Part I, p. 2.
34. Ibid., Part II, p, 2.
35. Gilchrist op. cit., p. 97. The truth of this story, which both puzzled and shocked Blake’s nineteenth-century admirers, has been denied. But the evidence in its favour seems to me much better than that against it. Butts was one of Blake’s oldest and steadiest friends, the last man to invent or circulate such a tale if it were untrue. Linnell and Palmer, who denied it, were certainly close friends, but did not meet Blake till about twenty years later, and their denials seem to have had little more basis than that it did not square with their estimate of his character.
36. Wood, op. cit., vol. III, p. 367.
37. A Remonstrance ... of Abiezer Cope, 1651, p. 6.
38. See The Ranters Declaration, 1650, The Routing of the Ranters, 1650, Laurence Clarkson, The Lost Sheep Found, 1660, p. 28. Compare Engels: ‘It is a curious fact that with every great revolutionary movement the question of “Free love” comes into the foreground. With one set of people as a revolutionary progress, as a shaking off of old traditional fetters, no longer necessary; with others as a welcome doctrine, comfortably covering all sorts of free and easy practices between man and woman.’ (The Book of Revelation in Marx and Engels on Religion, 1957, p. 205.) Blake, clearly, comes into the first category; both were to be found among the Ranters.
39. Gangraena, II, p. 24.
40. Gilchrist, op. cit., p. 97.
41. G.H., The Declaration of John Robbins, 1651, p. 5.
42. The Ranters Religion, 1650, p. 8.
43. William Erbery, A Call to the Churches, 1653, pp. 35-7.
44. A Glimpse of Sions Glory, 1641, quoted in A.S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty, London 1938, pp. 233-4.
45. Richard Blome, The Fanatick History, 1660, p. 19.
46. Gangraena, I, p. 9.
47. Quoted in William York Tindall, John Bunyan Mechanick Preacher, London 1934, p. 10. The ‘epitaph’ was written in 1654, but Powell died in Lambeth prison in 1670.
48. Coppin, Divine Teachings, p. 8.
49. I Proclaim the Return of the Jews, 1650, broadsheet.
50. Alexander Gordon, The Origin of the Muggletonians, London 1865, p. 24.
51. Ruthven Todd, Tracks in the Snow, London 1946, pp. 54-5.
52. A Rout, A Rout: Or Some Part of the Armies Quarters Beaten Up, 1649, p. 3.
53. Ibid., p. 11.
54. Fiery Flying Roll, Part I, p. 4.
55. Ibid., Part II, p. 2.
56. The discredit into which the Ranters fell was perhaps one reason for the success of the Quakers, who enrolled a number of former Ranters, and, at the beginning, resembled them much more closely than they are now ready to admit.
SOURCE: Morton, A. L. (Arthur Leslie). The Everlasting Gospel: A Study in the Sources of William Blake, in History and the Imagination: Selected Writings of A. L. Morton, edited by Margot Heinemann and Willie Thompson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), pp. 106-146.
Note: I have corrected typographical errors. This is likely the complete text of what was originally published as a monograph:
Morton, A. L. The Everlasting Gospel: A Study in the Sources of William Blake. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1958. 63 pp.
Blow, Blow ... (poem) by A. L. Morton
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and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A. L. Morton
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