VALA #4: ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time’

November 22, 2023

Issue 4 of VALA, the journal of The Blake Society, is published on 28 November 2023 as a free download from our website. There will be an online launch the following day, Wednesday 29 November at 7.30 PM, to which all are welcome. Here, Editor of VALA and Chairperson of The Blake Society, Sibylle Erle, introduces our new issue, with the theme of ‘War and Peace’.

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! (Milton, pl. 1 [i], E95)

Little did we know, when we announced in November 2022, that issue four of VALA was going to be about ‘War and Peace’, that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine would continue for as long as it has. Nor did we know that there would be another, new war (the Israel-Hamas War) with more attacks, military destruction and humanitarian disasters. I, for one, feel lost. The world is on the brink of WWIII which means that it will be hard to get the voices of those who contributed to this issue, heard above all the noise of war. However, these voices are pertinent to our now because they invite us to discuss the artistic and political intent of Blake’s works. 

It has always impressed me that Blake was so certain about what he thought ought to change. In that conviction, Blake is radical. In Marriage, for example, when he (the narrator, who I think is Blake) sits down to dine with the prophets, Isaiah and Ezekiel, he puts the following words into Isaiah’s mouth: ‘the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God’ (pl. 12, E38). This scene is an extraordinary example of a life-changing conversation, and perhaps Blake wanted to hear his own words talked back at him to help muster courage to speak up. Let’s assume that Blake was a prophet and that he understood what was happening and was able to anticipate inevitable outcomes: his work, then, would show us how we could seize not on one but many solutions to the problems we witness and experience. 

Indeed, the uncertainties of our situation (2023) resemble those in Blake’s own time (1793) — a time of wars and revolutions. Blake lived through the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the French Revolutionary Wars (1793-1815). While working on this issue, news on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza has been depressing and frightening in equal measure. The intense horror of the images of the terrible conflicts have been numbing. What developments would a ceasefire or ‘pause’ of war bring? How can any of these wars be brought to a permanent end? And how do we move on after unbearable loss and agonizing shame? In Blake’s time, the fighting stopped temporarily but the Treaty of Amiens (25 March 1802) brought no reprieve. The Peace of Amiens lasted for about one year (to 18 May 1803). 

Blake lived in a little cottage in Felpham and would have faced his own fears of invasion whenever he stood on the beach and looked across the Channel. Troops were gathering on the south coast to ready themselves for the possibility of a French landing; there was no visible destruction, but it was all too easy to imagine the war from a distance. What was under threat, therefore, was peace of mind. Blake felt this acutely and gave expression to the need to fight back in his call for ‘Mental Fight’ (Milton, pl. 1 [i], l. 14, E95). 

This VALA weaves together personal and public histories to create a precarious balance of Blake’s biography, his works and reflections on the mental and emotional tensions created by society and ourselves. There were wars (1793) and there are wars (2023). Blake, as you will see in this issue, allows our worries and concerns to assume a wider and deeper engagement with violence and injustice as well as with the complexity of our real and imagined lives. We can imagine our future, but we need to be sure that it is our own imagining and not that suggested by others. There is, of course, a sense of a shift in commitment in Blake. He turned from an outspoken and fervent supporter of revolution to a quiet and sometimes depressed believer in change. He was pro-French Revolution but withdrew into his own mythology and let go of Orc, the rebellious character, embodying Blake’s reaction to the British backlash. Orc is also perceived as the energy of darker emotions, such as anger, contempt, disgust, erupting as violent responses and in an uncontrollable manner. Orc’s position and role remind me of a proverb from hell: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ (Marriage, pl. 7, E35). In this case and in my words, wisdom is born out of exhaustion. This raises the question of whether Blake exhausted himself trying to do the right thing. 

A key moment in the conception of this issue was Blake’s residence in Felpham, the historical context and the concrete setting of his cottage garden. This garden was a peaceful haven during times of war and a retreat from the strained working relations with his narrow-minded patron, the writer and biographer William Hayley (1745-1820). One day, this garden was ’invaded’ by a soldier who arrived uninvited and refused to leave. Blake would not have it and the situation escalated. Blake was impulsive when he stood against this soldier. The soldier was drunk, and Blake was furious. As a literary figure, ‘the soldier’, represents structural violence. The physical space of Blake’s garden, by comparison, evokes the bliss of the garden of Eden, while a ‘drunken’ soldier, perhaps, stands for all those who cross personal boundaries with false convictions; i.e. the belief, fuelled by a befuddled state of mind, that they have a right to do so. What can we do? We all know how little it helps to curse a ‘soldier’. Blake didn’t think twice: he swore and he kicked the drunken soldier out. 

We get a sense of Blake’s personal values through his poetry, paintings and the early biographies. Blake was passionate about many things. He was never apolitical nor indifferent to war; intensely aware how ideologies prevalent in religion, politics, and tradition intersect with moral values, his work frequently engages with the violence of war. The expression ‘dark Satanic Mills’ (Milton, pl. 1 [i], l. 8, E95), for example, refers to industry but includes what Blake identifies in ‘London’ as supporting mechanisms of physical and emotional abuse: the attendant violence of ‘blackning’ Churches (l. 10, E27). In ‘London’ Blake also coins a powerful metaphor for the sanctified brutality of war: ‘And the hapless Soldiers sigh | Runs in blood down Palace walls’ (ll. 11-12, E27). 

Blake, I think, was committed to peace-making in an age shaped and changed by revolution and war. If we allow ourselves to become part of Blake’s audience and listen, could it be possible for us to reimagine how Blake can contribute to our democratic attitudes and thinking today? Today, his hymn, ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ (Milton, pl. 1 [i], l. 1, E95), is perceived as a patriotic statement, if not sentimental attempt, at making England great again. Blake’s hymn is a powerful poem that makes us confront ourselves with the choice between war and peace. We must not take this opportunity for granted. Blake created ‘Jerusalem’, that rallying hymn from the Preface to Milton, when living in Felpham: ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight, | Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand’ (pl. 1 [i], ll. 13-14, E95). Once you bring these words through breath and singing to life, is the Blake in your head for or against war? 

Each article in this issue is a door and a way into Blake that we invite you to open. Together they create an everchanging constellation of ideas and responses to Blake brought forth into our present. This is important because what is too often overlooked is that in not understanding Blake, because his works appear difficult or impenetrable (due to his idiosyncratic mythology), his knowledge, understanding and experience spill messily back into one another. While Blake can leave you feeling overwhelmed, I urge you to persist. Perhaps feeling confused about Blake’s disturbing visions is not such a sad thing, if it leads to something new. A tangled state of mind gives us permission to step into Blake’s world and to marvel at his convoluted plots and conflicted characters. We might persuade others to join us, if we think that they can help us to better appreciate Blake’s works. There is a danger here, and perhaps, in his own way, Blake had some experience of it. If we as connoisseurs, enthusiasts and scholars remain segregated, we may facilitate even more fake news or be subsumed by propaganda and lose sight of the benefits offered by Blake and his oeuvre to all humanity. 

This issue of VALA testifies to how we, as members of The Blake Society or as contributors to VALA, take on political issues. Our hope is that this VALA, like her predecessors, will generate vigorous discussion. ‘War and Peace’ is a sort of binary-mode take on what is happening to our world. That combination, once again, leads us back in time to the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ in Marriage: ‘Without Contraries is no progression’ (pl. 3, E34) and ‘Opposition is true Friendship’ (pl. 20, E42). 

How are our moral lessons today different from Blake’s time? Should we recognise that the enemy is inside us, and that our ‘mental fight’ involves negotiating and making peace within ourselves? Blake’s concepts, the notion of coexisting ideas, invite the opportunity to consider the complicit mingling of opposites, locked in the tango of dialogizing ideologies. Nothing needs to win, if all can coexist in a mind that has been freed from its many selfish and unconscious biases. As an artist whose work engages with politics, Blake felt compelled to respond to what he saw happening around him. Can we do the same?

In all of his art, Blake never loses sight of the prospects of choice. What hits me continually is his faith, optimism and determination to not give up. After more than two hundred years, the reception of the entire body of Blake’s work is gaining in momentum. Why is that? Perhaps it is because Blake’s poetry and art function as a paradigm. A similar resilience to binary thinking would enable us to activate our imagination, so that we can be truly creative. Engaging with Blake leaves me feeling challenged to reconsider and face anew my hopes and my despairs. Rather than offer quick fixes or simple answers, the best art and poetry has always resisted and complicated the big questions in life. I hope this issue will send readers in search of quotations and images from Blake mentioned here. There is so much more.

I am grateful to Rumyana Hristova and her support of the editorial work. 

Sibylle Erle
Chairperson and Editor of VALA: The Journal of the Blake Society