E.P. Thompson on William Blake & Intellectual Traditions

In 1965 Harold Bloom was able to write, with his customary confidence, that Blake 'was not an antiquarian, a mystic, an occultist or theosophist, and not much of a scholar of any writings beyond the Bible and other poetry insofar as it resembled the Bible'. I think that his judgement is more or less right, if we use the term 'scholar' in a modern, academic sense. And yet, both before and after that judgement, we have seen the publication of volumes, of some scholarly weight, to show Blake the neo-Platonist, the mason and illuminist, the profound initiate in hermetic learning, the proto‑Marxist, the euhemerist, the Druid . . . And if more cautious scholars avoid such direct identifications, they offer us instead William Blake as a syncretic polymath—a man aware of all these positions and traditions, as well as others, moving freely through some remarkably well‑stocked library, replete with ancient, Eastern, Hebrew and arcane, as well as modern, sources, and combining elements from all of these at will.

A historian has one difficulty with this. Blake's library—which by some accounts must have been costly and immense—has never been identified. I will return to this point, since I think we may be able to surmise one or two curious libraries, as well as his own private collection, to which he had access (see pp. 41‑3). But even as we ask this mundane question (which library?), we are forced to ask ulterior questions. Who was Blake? Where do we place him in the intellectual and social life of London between 1780 and 1820? What particular traditions were at work within his mind? [xii]

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Erdman's major study (Blake: Prophet against Empire, 1954, revised editions, 1965, 1969 and 1977) succeeded also in placing Blake's thought within the political and cultural context of his times. On the directly political themes I have (no doubt to the surprise of some readers) little to add. In my own placing of Blake I have learned very much from Erdman and I am greatly in his debt. All that his reconstruction of Blake lacks, in my view, is the thrust of a particular intellectual tradition: antinomianism. In brief, it is Blake's unique notation of Christian belief, and not his 'Jacobin' political sympathies, which still stands in need of examination. Despite Jon Mee's recent recovery of many possible contemporary influences upon Blake (Dangerous Enthusiasm, 1992) this still remains true.

This is not to say that the matter has gone unnoticed. As long ago as 1958 A.L. Morton published The Everlasting Gospel: A Study in the Sources of William Blake, and these insights were much enlarged in The World of the Ranters (1970) and by Christopher Hill in The World Turned Upside Down (1972). My debt to these scholars will be evident. But while Morton showed many suggestive parallels between 'Ranter' rhetoric and imagery and those of Blake, he could not identify any vectors between the 1650s and Blake's time. . . . [xiii]

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Despite every precaution, we have a continuing difficulty in our approach to Blake, which derives from our tendency to make overly academic assumptions as to his learning and mode of thought. It takes a large effort to rid ourselves of these assumptions, because they lie at an inaccessible level within our own intellectual culture indeed, they belong to the very institutions and disciplines with which we construct that culture.  That is, we tend to find that a man is either 'educated' or 'uneducated', or is educated to certain levels (within a relatively homogeneous hierarchy of attainments); and this education involves submission to certain institutionally defined disciplines, with their own hierarchies of accomplishment and authority.

Blake's mind was formed within a very different intellectual tradition. In the nineteenth century we sometimes call this, a little patronisingly, the tradition of the autodidact. This calls to mind the radical or Chartist journalist, lecturer or poet, attaining by his own efforts to a knowledge of 'the classics'. This is not right for Blake. For a great deal of the most notable intellectual energies of the eighteenth century lay outside of formal academic channelling. This was manifestly so in the natural sciences and in the praxis of the early industrial revolution; and it was equally so in important areas of theology and of political thought.

The formal, classical intellectual culture (which I will call 'the polite culture'), whose summits were attained at Oxford and Cambridge, was offered to only a small elite, and was, in theory, further limited by the need for students and fellows to conform to the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Church of England. Much of the (strongly intellectual) traditions of Dissent lay outside these doors. But alternative centres of intellectual culture can be seen not only at the level of such institutions as the Dissenting Academies. They exist also in stubborn minority traditions of many kinds.

Not only political and economic history can be seen as 'the propaganda of the victors': this is true also of intellectual history. Looking back from the nineteenth century, the victors appeared to be rationalism, political economy, utilitarianism, science, liberalism. And tracing the ancestry of these victors, it was possible to see eighteenth‑century thought as the progression of 'enlightenment', sometimes working its way out through the churches, as rational Dissent passed through unitarianism to deism. It is only recently that historians have attended more closely to very vigorous alternative—and sometimes explicitly counter‑enlightenment—impulses: the Rosicrucians, Philadelphians, Behmenists: or the elaborate theological and scientific theories of the Hutchinsonians, who were polemically anti‑Newtonian, and who had both academic exponents and a more humble visionary following. In London in the 1780s—and, indeed, in Western Europe very generally there was something like an explosion of anti‑rationalism, taking the forms of illuminism, masonic rituals, animal magnetism, millenarian speculation, astrology (and even a small revival in alchemy), and of mystic and Swedenborgian circles.

Alternative intellectual traditions existed also—and especially in London—at the level of family traditions, and obscure intellectual currents surfacing, submerging and then surfacing again in little periodicals, or in chapels which fractured into several petty chapels, which invited new ministers or gathered around new voices, which knit up ideas and unravelled them and knit them up again throughout the eighteenth century. And we have to learn to see the minds of these men and women, formed in these kinds of collisions and voluntary associations, with more humility than patronage. Out of such an 'education', of informal traditions and collisions, came many original minds: Franklin, Paine, Wollstonecraft, Bewick, Cobbett, Thomas Spence, Robert Owen. And it is in this kind of tradition that we must place Blake.

In this tradition experience is laid directly alongside learning, and the two test each other. There is nothing of our present academic specialisation: thought may be borrowed, like imagery, from any source available. There is, in this tradition, a strong, and sometimes an excessive, self‑confidence. And there is an insistent impulse towards individual system‑building: the authority of the Church, demystified in the seventeenth century, had not yet been replaced by the authority of an academic hierarchy or of public 'experts'. In Blake's dissenting London of the 1780s and 1790s this impulse was at its height. Men and women did not only join the groups on offer, the Church of the New Jerusalem, the Universalists, the Muggletonians, the followers of William Huntington and of Richard Brothers (the self‑proclaimed 'nephew' of the Almighty), they argued amidst these groups, they fractured them, took a point from one and a point from another, conceived their own heresies, and all the time struggled to define their own sense of system. [xiii-xv]

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But if we set out to read 'almost everything in whatsoever language' we may end up, not with Blake, but with an academic exercise. And from 'all the great writers in all languages' we are at liberty to make our own selective construction of Blake's 'tradition', a construction which will actually distract us from William Blake. If I must name names, then let me name Miss Kathleen Raine, although her work (Blake and Tradition, 1968) is only one of the most formidable of other works which offer to place Blake in relation to Behmenist, hermetic, neo‑Platonist and Kabbalistic thought. In Raine's notion of 'the tradition' we are pointed towards Porphyry or Proclus or Thomas Taylor (the neo‑Platonist contemporary of Blake), and often suggestions are made which are helpful and sometimes probable. But although Raine stands at an obtuse angle to the reigning academicism, her notion of 'tradition' remains academic to the core. Why is this so?

It is partly because we have become habituated to reading in an academic way. Our books are not 'thumbed by graving hands'. We learn of an influence, we are directed to a book or to a 'reputable' intellectual tradition, we set this book beside that book, we compare and cross‑refer. But Blake had a different way of reading. He would look into a book with a directness which we might find to be naive or unbearable, challenging each one of its arguments against his own experience and his own 'system'. This is at once apparent from his surviving annotations—to Lavater, Swedenborg, Berkeley, Bacon, Bishop Watson or Thornton.

He took each author (even the Old Testament prophets) as his equal, or as something less. And he acknowledged as between them, no received judgements as to their worth, no hierarchy of accepted 'reputability'. For Blake, a neighbour, or a fellow‑reader of a periodical, or his friend and patron, Thomas Butts, were quite as likely to hold opinions of central importance as was any man of recognised learning. Certainly, his reading was extensive—nothing should astonish us; and whatever libraries he used, he entered some odd and unfamiliar corners. [xvi-xvii]

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But, in brief, I suppose that his learning was both more eccentric and more eclectic—even, at times, more shallow—than is sometimes suggested. It was eccentric, in the sense that he did have some access to an almost-underground tradition of mystic and antinomian tracts, some of these derived from the seventeenth century—Eclectic (and sometimes casual or shallow), in the sense that, whereas some scholars have found in him a profound student of comparative religion and myth, I think it possible that Blake's imagination was sufficiently supplied with images of ancient and alien religious rites and beliefs from readily available secondary sources, such as William Hurd's popular compendium, A New Universal History of the Religious Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs of the Whole World (1788)—a work which employed a number of his fellow‑engravers. And even when we enter firmer territory, such as the acknowledged Swedenborgian influence upon Blake, I will attempt to show that certain of Blake's ideas owed less to a reading of Swedenborg's writings than to an obscure little magazine published from a barber's shop in Hoxton, or to his reactions to some execrable hymns written by a zealous Swedenborgian minister, Joseph Proud. Or, when he wrestled with deist thought, I will suggest that he was less influenced by acknowledged thinkers of the Enlightenment than by Volney's Ruins of Empire, which the cognoscenti of the London Corresponding Society—master craftsmen, shopkeepers, engravers, hosiers, printers carried around with them in their pockets. And, finally, when he denounced the Tree of Mystery, he certainly operated within a wide field of intellectual reference; but he was also stung to fury by a certain Robert Hindmarsh, who was introducing ceremonial forms and priestly ordinances into the nascent Church of the New Jerusalem.

Ideas happen in this kind of way. But they happen most of all in this kind of way within the tradition which Blake inhabited and extended. We must confront Miss Raine's notion of 'the tradition' and ask which tradition? The answer should not come to rest in a simple either/or, as in Robert Redfield’s notion of a 'great' (or polite) and a 'little' (or popular) tradition of culture. Blake inhabited both of these at  will. But he took with him, into both of them, a mind and sensibility formed within a different, and a particular, tradition again: a particular current within bourgeois (and, often, artisan) Dissent.  Much of Raine's 'tradition' appears, at first sight, to say some of the things that Blake is saying, but it is saying them in a different way. It is genteel, other‑worldly, elusive, whereas Blake—whether in poetic or in visual image—has a certain literalness of expression, robustness and concretion. Again, Raine's 'tradition', except where it draws upon Boehme, lacks altogether the radical edge or bite of Blake's expression. And (Boehme again excepted) it lacks the conscious posture of hostility to the polite learning of' the Schools, including the polite neo‑Platonist or hermetic speculations of gentry and professional men. [xvii-xviii]

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Blake's hostility to academicism is often expressed with superb vigour, and very often within the field—the visual arts—to which he might be said, in a contemporary sense, to have submitted to an orthodox training: turn, for example, to his annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds. At times this hostilely to academicism and to polite learning assumes the tones of class war:

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! . . . believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman Models if we are but just & true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever; in Jesus our Lord. (E94)

This is not only a war of the Imagination against the artifice and fashion of the polite culture; it is also a war of faith against a class of destroyers, and of the patronised practitioners of the creative arts against the hirelings of camp, court and university who are their patrons. This conscious posture of hostility to the polite culture, this radical stance, is not some quaint but inessential extra, added on to his tradition. It is his tradition, it defines his stance, it directs and colours his judgement. [xviii]

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I am pursuing an enquiry into the structure of Blake's thought and the character of his sensibility.

My object is to identify, once again, Blake's tradition, his particular situation within it, and the repeated evidences, motifs and nodal points of conflict, which indicate his stance and the way his mind meets the world. To do this involves some historical recovery, and attention to sources external to Blake—sources which, very often, he may not have been aware of himself. For it is necessary to define, first of all, an obscure antinomian tradition; and then to define Blake's very unusual, and probably unique, position within it. And we cannot understand, or shuffle around, Blake's ideas until we have defined these in relation to contrary or adjacent ideas. [xix]


SOURCE: Thompson, E.P. Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (New York: The New Press, 1993), Introduction.

Why E.P. Thompson is My Hero (E.P. Thompson's Universe of Knowledge) [rough draft]

William Blake Study Guide


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