The Blake family house stood on the corner of Marshall Street and Broad Street (now Broadwick Street), in central London. It was tall and narrow, with the family haberdashery shop on the ground floor and a further three floors above for the growing family. William Blake was born in this building on 28 November 1757, the third of seven children (two of whom died in infancy). The house had been built on top of an old burial ground; above the stench of the dirty, noisy city, it was said that the smell of the dead could still be overpowering.
Blake’s home was in an area which then represented—as it still does—a mixture of poverty, commerce and genteel excess. A workhouse and an abattoir stood nearby, but so did the elegant lawns and gravel walks of Golden Square. It was a short walk along Oxford Street to the Tyburn gallows, which still drew large crowds for its regular hangings. The streets were muddy hollows, the city a maze of dark twisting alleyways, and violence and drunkenness were commonplace. It was in this house when, at the age of four, young William looked at the window and saw the face of God pressing in. He screamed.
The first decade of Blake’s childhood was carefree. His parents recognized that he was a sensitive child and made the decision not to send him to school with other children. Instead he was home-schooled by his mother, on the recommendation of the Moravian Church she had previously belonged to. Young Blake learnt to read and write, although his punctuation and spelling would always be eccentric. The principal object of study in those early years was the Bible, and this text remained the foundation of his work and imagination for the rest of his life.
Blake’s lack of formal education afforded him time and freedom to wander, and as a boy he loved to explore. London was then still small enough that he could leave the hectic streets of Soho behind and walk out into the lanes and footpaths of the countryside.
A typical walk, described nearly a century later in 1863 by his first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, took him south over Westminster Bridge, past St. George’s Fields to the “large and pleasant” village of Camberwell and the fields and hedgerows beyond. He would continue for a few more miles, perhaps to Blackheath or the “antique rustic town of Croydon.” The landscape Blake explored has now been almost entirely overlaid with concrete and construction, but it survives in idealized form in his work.
Blake enjoyed a level of freedom that modern-day children would find incomprehensible. From the evidence of his later recollections and work, it can appear that, to his innocent child’s eyes, unburdened by responsibility, he was free to explore paradise. Britain was at peace between Blake’s fifth and seventeenth years, so he grew up believing this was the natural condition of the world.
On one summer’s morning, around the age of eight or ten, he went out to Peckham Rye. As Gilchrist famously described this incident, “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” On returning home, Blake innocently related the incident to his parents. His father’s initial reaction to what he assumed was a lie was to hit him. It was only his mother’s intervention that saved him from a severe beating.
Gilchrist described the tree full of angels as Blake’s “first vision.” This may seem like an error, given that we have heard how he saw the face of God in the window at the age of four. But on one level, the reaction of his father does justify the description of the tree of angels as his first vision, because this was the moment when Blake learnt that his visions were not considered normal. Other people, he discovered, didn’t share them. As his dad’s reaction showed, regular people not only didn’t believe in them, but they could react to them with great anger.
Children accept the world they grow up in unquestioningly, regardless of poverty or privilege. Before this incident, Blake could have believed that the things he saw were a common part of the world. If you were being raised on the Bible, you might expect to occasionally see angels in much the same way that you occasionally saw cows, or stables, or palaces. It was only after his father reacted violently that Blake discovered this wasn’t the case. Blake’s Peckham Rye “first vision” was the moment he realized that he was different—the first crack in his innocence.
The Middle English word “vision” originally referred to a supernatural apparition, but its meaning has since been downgraded to describe regular, everyday sight. Nowadays, visions—in the original sense of the word—are almost entirely absent from the world we read about in the media or see reflected on our TV screens. Most people live their lives without once glimpsing an angel, let alone the face of God.People who experience visions, and who are also great enough artists to give others a convincing glimpse of what they have seen, are few and far between.
Because Blake’s visions continued throughout his entire life and inspired his painting and poetry, it’s not possible to tell his story without tackling them. His visions are central to his modern fame and more fundamental to our idea of the man than even his genius for painting and poetry. History is full of great artists, and there is no shortage of mystics who report strange and baffling visions. But people who experience visions, and who are also great enough artists to give others a convincing glimpse of what they have seen, are few and far between.
Most accounts of Blake’s life and work explain his visions away as a form of “eidetic imagery”—a vivid mental image which a person can see either in their mind’s eye or externally, as if the mental image was part of the observer’s environment. The term “eidetic imagery” may be an appropriate label for what Blake experienced, but a label is very different to an explanation. If we want to really understand William Blake, we need a deeper understanding of what it means when someone sees “a vision.”
There are many ways to interpret accounts of visions of angels or spiritual entities. One, which is common in the modern era, is to assume that people are simply lying—angels don’t exist, therefore anyone claiming to see them must not be telling the truth.
Few find this explanation satisfying in the case of William Blake. Given the artistic obscurity in which he lived his life and his reputation as a madman that these visions engendered, it is difficult to find a plausible reason why he would lie about them. It is not just that he reported such visions over his entire life, from childhood to old age, that makes him believable, but the eerie qualities of the work he produced inspired by them. After seeing the startling originality of many of his paintings, it can be harder to believe that he didn’t experience visions than it is to believe that he did.
Another explanation is that the spiritual beings do in fact exist, external to their observers, and that reports of them are straight-forward accounts of actual encounters. This was the approach favored in biblical and classical texts. When we read about how God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, or how Helen encountered Aphrodite in the Iliad, it was understood that these were regular accounts of things that happened.
It is hard not to be skeptical of an explanation like this in the materially minded twenty-first century. Even in Blake’s time, there were few who would have accepted a literal interpretation of his visions. Blake himself recognized that the entities he saw weren’t “really there” in the everyday sense. He knew that the people he was with did not see the things that he saw.
So if he wasn’t lying and if his visions weren’t objectively real, how should we interpret what was going on?
The first academic to really tackle this question was the American philosopher William James, who published The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1901. James was uninterested in theology or the structure and history of religions. Instead, he was concerned with religious experience itself. He wanted to know what was happening to people in the moments when they felt they were in touch with something larger and more important than the physical world. These experiences, he recognized, were universal. They occurred to people in different cultures, religions and historical periods. Those people interpreted the incidents through different cultural frameworks, of course, but the actual experiences they described were fundamentally similar.
If experiences such as these occurred regularly throughout history to people of widely different cultures, James reasoned, then the scientific worldview needed to recognize and study them. Science is an enquiry into the whole universe, after all. It is not an enquiry into only the parts of the universe that scientists are comfortable with.
As James realized, there were several qualities that reports of religious experiences had in common. The most obvious, and the most frustrating, was the quality of ineffability—the impossibility of communicating exactly what the experience was like. As he described a spiritual experience, “no adequate report of its contents can be given in words […] mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.” Just as you couldn’t explain to a person who had never tasted mustard exactly what the experience of eating mustard was like, people who had experienced a mystical state were equally unable to adequately describe it to others.
The American neurosurgeon Eben Alexander III experienced a visionary state in 2008. He spent seven days in a meningitis-induced coma, during which time he entered what he later described as “a world of consciousness that existed completely free of the limitations of my physical brain.” After he had returned to a normal mental state, he struggled with the difficulty in expressing exactly what he had experienced. It was, he wrote, “rather like being a chimpanzee, becoming human for a single day to experience all of the wonders of human knowledge, and then returning to one’s chimp friends and trying to tell them what it was like knowing several different Romance languages, the calculus, and the immense scale of the universe.”
The second quality that James identified was that the experience was noetic—meaning that it was imbued with information: “Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge […] They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority.”
It is this noetic quality, and the sense that during the experience you were granted profound, new knowledge, that gives a religious experience a sense of revelation. It is a glimpse of a larger state of mind that shows the poverty of our everyday awareness. Without this, an ineffable experience could be dismissed as little more than a period of feeling strange.
James also identified two subsidiary qualities, namely transiency and passivity—the experiences do not last for long, and they involve a lack of agency. As he wrote, “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.” Despite their transient nature, these experiences can produce lasting changes in people.
The author Philip Pullman, who is a prominent critic of religion, has had similar experiences. “The sense that the whole universe is alive—not just inanimate, but alive and conscious of meaning—is one that I’ve felt on two or three occasions, and they made such a deep impression on me that I shall never forget them,” he said in a 2002 talk at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education.
I’d never taken any drugs stronger than alcohol or cannabis, and not much of that, so I can’t compare it to a drug-induced trance, and there was nothing trancelike about it. I was intensely and ecstatically awake, if anything. I just saw connections between things—similarities, parallels. It was like rhyme, but instead of sounds rhyming it was meanings that rhymed, and there were endless series of them, and they went on forever in every direction. The whole universe was connected by lines and chains and fields of meaning, and I was part of it. It lasted about half an hour in each case, and then faded. I’ve hardly ever talked about it because it seems like something whose significance is private.
Pullman has a great dislike of the words “spiritual” and “mystical” and he avoids using them to describe what happened to him, but the ineffable, noetic and transient nature of his experiences suggests that they were of the same type as those that James was trying to understand a century earlier. It seems likely that these experiences have been an influence in Pullman’s move away from a strict atheistic worldview. As he told the comedian Adam Buxton in 2019, “I’m believing more and more firmly in this thing called panpsychism, the idea that consciousness is actually everywhere. Consciousness is a normal property of matter just like mass or electric charge, and it’s not something that is restricted to human beings.”
Although James was able to move our understanding of visionary experience on from being considered as either lies or literal truth, the shared qualities he identified were still frustratingly slippery things to get to grips with. There wasn’t much that objective study could do with reports of transient, passive reception of ineffable knowledge that had little impact on anything other than the recipient’s quality of life.
This is what makes the ineffable nature of these mystical moments so frustrating. To give others a glimpse of what these experiences were like was beyond most visionaries. Attempts to explain the impact of the visionary state can come across as trite, sentimental or embarrassingly obvious. The experience of a mystical state in which you understand that all is love can be life-changing, but to be simply told that all is love can have about as much emotional impact as reading a greetings card.
Perhaps more than any visionary before or since, Blake had the creative skill to express what he experienced. Not completely, of course, and not always clearly. But for those who have never had even a whiff of a vision themselves, the work of William Blake can do more than anything to convince them that such experiences are real.
Excerpted from William Blake vs. the World by John Higgs. Copyright © 2022. Available from Pegasus Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.