Witness Against the Beast:
William Blake and the Moral Law
by E.P. Thompson, Cambridge UP
British historian E.P. Thompson is best known for his 1963 masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class, a groundbreaking study of English artistans during the industrial revolution and the most significant early work of what would come to be known as "history from the bottom up." In that work Thompson focuses on the losers of the industrial revolution and depends more on documentary evidence than on the statistical methodology employed by other historians. The new approach allowed him to bring to life generations previously silenced by the very hopelessness of their resistance to the New World Order taking shape in spite of them.
Thompson always stressed the value of literary works as a source for historians, as also, naturally for a Marxist, he insisted on the importance of history in the study of literature. His book on William Blake is a gem in this tradition of historical criticism. Thompson's documentary approach sheds a multifaceted light on this poet so resistant to interpretation.
Witness Against the Beast, the product of decades of grappling with the origins of the poet's thought, was published posthumously (Thompson died in 1993). In it the historian mainly seeks to unearth Blake's "tradition": to address the question of where Blake's complex, often arcane symbolic system could have found its genesis. Many traditions had been proposed over the years, including neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, and Behmenism, but none had really accounted for Blake's difference. How explain the persistence across Blake's career of concerns and themes that were lacking in the supposed sources? For one, could a neo-Platonist have scoffed at Greek rationalism as Blake did, in lines such as:
The Gods of Greece & Egypt were Mathematical Diagrams--See Plato's Works.
Rather than approach the poet in an academic way, by trying to fit him into one of the major intellectual traditions, Thompson chose to narrow his sights somewhat by researching Blake's milieu: by looking into the intellectual and religious culture of the self-educated London artisan. In this way, Thompson was able to identify many of Blake's characteristic symbols as part of a common currency of underground English theological discourse. The methodological point was clear: Why search parallels in late antique philosophy when much of Blake's language echoed that of fellow Londoners?
Thompson places Blake in the line of religious dissent that exploded during the English Civil War of the previous century. His arguments for the identification are compelling. Blake's work, according to Thompson, is in the tradition of Christian antinomianism, an antinomian in its Greek etymology being literally one who stands "against the law." Among the dissenting sects that rose at the time of the Civil War, many reinterpreted and extended the belief that Christ's coming and sacrifice had annulled Mosaic Law. Those who had been saved by Christ's blood, it was insisted, could no longer be called to account by any moral or religious law; in fact any who stress law in religion are not true Christians but enemies of Christ. Considered heretical in its extreme forms, such antinomianism is of course grounded in no less than St. Paul himself:
The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. (Galatians 3:24-5)
In the generations before Blake, the English antinomian sects pushed this Pauline idea to a degree the religious authorities could not tolerate. Thompson convincingly argues that Blake was of their ranks:
What must . . . be insisted upon is the ubiquity and centrality of antinomian tenets to Blake's thinking, to his writing and to his painting. Throughout his work there will be found this radical disassociation and opposition between the Moral Law and that gospel of Christ which is known--as often in the antinomian tradition--as "the Everlasting Gospel." . . . The signatures of this antinomian sensibility will be found, not at two or three points only in Blake's work, but along the whole length of his work, at least from 1790 until his death. (18-9)
Thompson shows in detail how Blake adopted language and images from the antinomian tradition, while not however strictly following any sect's teachings. Rather the poet reinterpreted fellow radicals' ideas to his own brilliant ends, putting a Blakean twist on their theology and ending with a body of work and doctrine that arguably made him "the greatest of the antinomians." Thompson writes:
[I do not] suppose that very much has been settled if we hang up his work on a hook marked "antinomian" and think that then we have put it in place. Antinomianism, indeed, is not a place at all, but a way of breaking out from received wisdom and moralism, and entering upon new possibilities. The particular attack of Blake's through and feeling is unique . . . . Even so, I am not saying nothing [by placing Blake in the antinomian tradition]. I am arguing that these ideas are intrinsic and central to the structure of Blake's thought, and that they remain so. . . And I am arguing also that even those critics who have noted the antinomian influence have rarely noted its structural centrality; and that, in general, extensive critical attention has been paid to quite secondary, or even trivial, influences upon Blake, while this major and continuing influence has remained little examined. (19-20)
Of the different sects Thompson considers likely to have influenced Blake, he settles on the Muggletonians as the most important. The sect got its start from chapter 11 of Revelations, where an angel tells St. John:
I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
In 1652 a London tailor named John Reeve experienced visions and received "a commission from God" to be "His appointed Prophet." The sect takes its name from Reeve's cousin, Ludowick Muggleton, who had similar visions. Members believed Reeve and Muggleton were the "two witnesses" mentioned in Revelations.
Unlike the Quakers and other contemporary sects, Muggletonians did not evangelize, so the number of believers always remained small. Their typical religious service took the form of a meeting in a pub, where beer would be shared and the sect's songs would be sung. Much stress was put on the composing, recording and singing of songs, and over the decades members would be called upon to subscribe to the printing of new editions of the song book.
Muggletonian doctrine is fascinating and, to a great degree, internally coherent. In some respects their teachings remind one of the Gnostics; in others they couldn't be further from Gnostic thought.
According to the Muggletonian doctrine of the Two Seeds, the mixture of good and evil in humanity is to be ascribed to humanity's twin paternity. Abel and Seth were true children of Adam and Eve; Cain, however, was sired on Eve by the Serpent. Thompson quotes a Muggletonian text and explains:
The Tree of which Eve eat, called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, was her being overcome by the glorious Appearance of the Devil made in the form of an Angel of Light.
This Devil (or Angel of Light) appeared in the form of a glorious Serpent, who copulated with Eve. Entering within Eve's womb the Serpent transmuted himself "into Flesh, Blood and Bone" and the offspring of the intercourse was Cain, whereas Abel and his young brother Seth (in whose generation the Devil had no part) were the offspring of the divine principle in which God had created Adam. But from the moment of the Fall, Satan disappears from the rest of the cosmos, having dissolved himself in Eve's womb and perpetuated himself in Cain and Cain's seed and only there. (73)
As was also taught by certain of the Gnostic sects, the Muggletonians insisted there were two seeds in humanity: a good and an evil. Also like the Gnostics, the evil in humanity was not the result simply of man's temptation and disobedience, but of the evil principle actually tampering with (in this case impregnating) the first human generation.
The sect's doctrine of Christ is of the greatest interest and is parallel to their doctrine of the Fall. The Muggletonians rejected the Trinity, insisting instead, in a quite striking departure, that when God was incarnated as Jesus Christ he was no longer present in Heaven but only in Jesus. Entering Mary's womb, God dissolved there so as to be born in the human form of Jesus. Thus not only was Jesus wholly God, as other Christians insisted, but when he walked the earth God was present nowhere else in the universe. This teaching implied a further striking idea: that God died entirely on the cross, that God himself was dead for a time, coming back to life on the third day. As a Muggletonian text put it:
When Christ died the whole Godhead was absolutely Void of all Life heat or Motion. Father son & Holy Ghost became Extinct in Death. The whole Life of the Infinet power was Dead.
This accentuated the dramatic sacrificial symbolism of the Cross: God literally took on mortality and paid its penalty in order to redeem the faithful. How he got out of this situation at the Resurrection was a fruitful source of dispute and dissention among subsequent believers. (78)
From a Jewish or Muslim perspective, the Christian doctrine that Jesus was both God and man is already quite radical. The One God, it is asserted, would not lower Himself to become human. But the Muggletonians, rejecting the Trinity as these other Western monotheists do, push the humanism in Christianity even further: not only was Christ God incarnate, he was all of God.
One quickly notices an interesting parallel structure in Muggletonian thought. Just as the Fall was effected when the Serpent entered Eve's womb and transmuted himself into Cain, so redemption is effected when God enters Mary's womb and transmutes himself into Jesus. And just as it is asserted that God was entirely present in Jesus and present nowhere else in the universe while Jesus walked the earth, so it is said that Satan disappeared from the rest of the cosmos after dissolving himself in Eve's womb: Satan, thenceforth, was present only in fallen man. The extremism of such views, taken literally, is hard to credit; yet there is a remarkable humanism of a kind, as well as a strong narrative logic. Thompson's own assessment of the Muggletonian faith is sympathetic:
From a certain rational standpoint--the single vision of literalism--all religious symbolism may appear as absurd. The rational mind can do little more than stand outside it and comment on its consistency or inconsistency. From this standpoint I can see nothing more absurd in Muggletonian doctrine than in great and supposedly intellectually reputable faiths. . . . The Muggletonian doctrines of the Fall, the Two Seeds and the conception of Christ, combine literalism with a robust symbolic power. The dual impregnations of Eve and Mary give to the doctrine a certain symmetry, like a figure-of-eight, as well as intellectual consistency. . . . I will suggest that--a few peripheral doctrines apart--Muggletonian beliefs were logical, powerful in their symbolic operation and have only been held to be "ridiculous" because the Muggletonians were losers and because their faith was professed by "poor enthusiasts" and not by scholars, bishops or successful evangelists. (78-9)
This is well put and in large measure correct. Yet one would be curious to see how the sectarians defended some of their doctrines--for example their notion of Jesus being an incarnation of all of the Godhead--in relation to the text of the Gospels. The Gospels frequently quote Jesus referring to his "Father in Heaven" or to "our Father," and there is no implication in the texts that this father is somehow temporarily not there.
Although Blake was not a member of the sect--the poet, as Thompson says, "does not follow doctrine but turns it to his own account"--parallels between Muggletonian teachings and Blake's thought are clear. Across his long poetic and polemic career, Blake stressed many of the same themes the sectarians did. There is enough overlap in these themes to make Thompson's argument compelling.
The historian identifies four major thematic parallels between Blake and the sect, as follows: the repudiation of the Moral Law; the theme of Reason; the symbolism of the Fall; the prominent role given the Serpent. According to Thompson, it is the cumulative weight of the four that suggests not just a general Dissenting influence, but a specifically Muggletonian one.
Discussing the Moral Law and Reason, Thompson quotes the sectarian leaders at length, then shows passages where Blake is working with the same terms in much the same register. Thus Muggleton:
The law is not written in the seed of faith's nature at all, but in the seed of reason's nature only. Therefore the seed of faith is not under the law, but is above the law.
The law is imagined as a "flaming sword," and Muggleton writes in reference to the Fall: "Those cherubims which had the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the Tree of Life . . . had the same law of reason written in their seed." And: "[This] flaming sword . . . was that very law of reason which . . . is called the moral law, or the law of Moses."
There are passages in Blake that seem rooted in the same theology:
When Satan first the black bow bent
And the Moral Law from the Gospel rent
He forgd the Law into a Sword
And spilld the blood of mercys Lord. (93)
The Muggletonian condemnation of reason is very similar to that found in Blake. The rejection of temporal human reason as being "unclean" and "corrupted" goes all the way back to the founders of the sect, but, according to Thompson, becomes even stronger in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the sect felt its doctrines more threatened by Enlightenment thought. Thompson quotes a passage from Muggleton in which the founder identifies the corrupted force of human reason with Pilate: "his reason . . . delivered up the Just One to be crucified by reasonable Men." Thompson points to various parallel passages in Blake: "Christ & his Apostles were Illiterate Men. Caiaphas Pilate & Herod were Learned." "Rational Truth is not the Truth of Christ, but of Pilate. It is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil."
According to Thompson, Muggletonian discourse repeatedly returns to the theme of reason as Satanic principle, as a product of the Fall. And likewise:
Few themes recur with more consistency in the whole trajectory of Blake's work than Reason (often in association with the moral law) binding, constraining or corrupting life. (95)
The historian similarly treats the serpent symbolism in the Muggletonians and Blake, noting a striking echo in Blake's Book of Urizen. The sectarians had insisted on Eve literally being impregnated by Satan, the Serpent, who entered her womb and dissolved there, engendering Cain. In the Book of Urizen Blake writes of Enitharmon conceiving Orc:
When Enitharmon, sick, Felt a Worm within her womb
All day the worm lay on her bosom
All night within her womb
The worm lay till it grew to a serpent
With dolorous hissings & poisons
Round Enitharmon's loins folding. . .
[The serpent symbolism] continues in the convoluted couplings of serpents and females in the prophetic books; and it takes a new and powerful form (both visually and in verse) in the image of the 'mortal coil'--a literal serpent coil--which Christ sheds on the cross, shedding thus one of his two natures. (97)
Once again, with the serpent symbolism in the Muggletonians and Blake, one may be reminded of the ancient Gnostics. Here, however, the image of Christ shedding or defeating a serpent coil on the cross suggests a meaning directly contrary to that given the serpent in Gnostic thought. For the ancient Gnostics, the serpent in the Garden came to liberate man from an evil Demiurge. The knowledge given man by the Gnostic serpent is liberating; therefore thus knowledge may be associated with Jesus. It is quite the opposite for Blake and the Muggletonians.
Michael Foretells the Crucifixion, from Nine Illustrations to Paradise Lost.
Pen and watercolor on paper, 1808.
Thompson's book ends with perceptive readings of three major poems: "The Divine Image," "London," and "The Human Abstract." Particularly in the case of "London," Thompson demonstrates the importance of historical understanding to the appreciation of Blake's poetry. His careful attention to the poem's movement and to the particular charge of Blake's choice of terms brings new clarity to the poem.
By a noteworthy historical coincidence, Thompson was working on his thesis of a Muggletonian influence on Blake during the same decades that saw the sect's last surviving member pass away. Thompson was trying to track down the Muggletonian archive, which he knew had been held in the church's reading room as recently as the early part of the century. As of 1939, however, there was no longer a church reading room and no way of knowing what had happened to the church itself or the archive. Making inquiries through the Times Literary Supplement, Thompson was eventually led to a Mr. Philip Noakes, who, it turned out, was most likely the church's last living member. In his home Noakes held an important part of the archive, including papers and correspondence going back to the 17th century.
It was a strange situation. Mr Noakes himself was the last repository of a 300-year-old tradition. He conversed with me freely about Muggletonian practices and doctrine, which had been carried down to him with a clarity (and, indeed, coherence) which reproduced their seventeenth-century origin. Mr Noakes frequently said: "We believe"--and yet one could not point to another believer. There was absolutely nothing of the fanatic or crank in his manner. He was always quiet and concise in his explanations, and I quickly formed a respect for him. (116)
It was through Mr. Noakes that the main body of the archive had been saved after the London building in which it was kept was firebombed during the war. A fruit farmer, Noakes packed the archive into eighty-some apple crates and stored it in a furniture depository, where Thompson and Noakes went together to collect it. The archive is now in the British Library, thanks to Thompson's scholarly persistence and Philip Noakes' faith. The last Muggletonian passed away in 1979.
One wonders, reading this brilliant and wide-ranging study, what the Muggletonian faithful would have made of Blake. Doubtless they'd have appreciated many of his poems, as they'd have found others opaque or aberrant. In any case, there seems to be no evidence of a Muggletonian response to Blake, even if, as Thompson would have it, Blake is in some measure a brilliant and eccentric response to them. To what degree Thompson's thesis is correct is hard to say; that it hits the mark in some fundamental way, however, seems obvious. Blake and the sectarians thought in much the same theological idiom.
December 12, 2006
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