Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Points of View Paper about Blake’s Ancient of Days, 1794

WILLIAM BLAKE, Ancient of Days, 1794. Colour Print.
British Museum, London

William Blake’s Ancient of Days is a  piece which at first makes one think of the Christian God as he creates the universe, which also seems to be suggested by the title. Blunt postulates that this print is not Blake’s representation of God, but is a daemon. Blunt, Morris, and Berger agree that Blake saw reason and logic as limits to human imagination. Blake’s Ancient of Days represents the mythological deity he created that represents the rationality that he found so contemptible.
According to Berger, Blake made a “religion and philosophy out of everything that was regarded by the eighteenth century as contemptible or ridiculous. It was a rationalistic age, basing upon reason its philosophy, its religion and even its poetry.” In Blake’s Ancient, he represents the logical and rational nature of the being portrayed by the compass that comes from the being’s fingers. Blunt states that, during the late Middle Ages, the compass had come to represent mathematics, science, and philosophy. He goes on to say that Blake had attributed a significance to the compass. In the case of this print, the compass is one of the attributes of Blake’s deity, which Blunt identifies as ‘Urizen:’

“He form’d a line and a plummet
To divide the Abyss beneath;
He form’d a dividing rule;
He form’d scales to weigh,
He form’d massy weights; 
He formed a brazen quadrant;
He formed golden compasses,
And began to explore the Abyss.” 

From Blake’s own words, Blunt ascertains that “the essence of the creation of Urizen therefore is the imposition of the rational methods of mathematics on chaos.” He explains that Blake saw reason as the limitation of the infinite, the constraint and destruction of imagination. According to Blunt, Urizen was also associated with the Christian God. He quotes the First Book of Urizen, which has a passage similar to a passage in Genesis, referring to the six days of work and the seventh day of rest. Due to these parallel accounts, Blunt assumes that Blake intended to draw this parallel, thus associating Urizen with the Jehovah of the Old Testament. So it appears that Blunt believes the association between the being in Ancient of Days and the Christian God isn’t completely unfounded, although the being in the print is an invention of Blake.

According to Blunt, Blake often associated rationalism with the Greeks, especially Plato. Blake is quoted as saying, “Christ addressed himself to Man, not to his Reason. Plato did not bring Life and Immortality to Light. Jesus only did this.” Blunt states that Blake compared Urizen’s beliefs to the views presented in Plato’s book Timaeus. Blake and Plato agreed that order was imposed on chaos. Byt while Plato considered it a positive think, Blake did not. But while Blake did not agree with Plato, he did use Platonic symbolism borrowed from a Medieval theme.

In Morris’ article, he supports Blunt’s view that Blake was anti-reason and science. Morris quotes Robinson, a contemporary of Blake, who says that “he would not admit that any education should be attempted except the cultivation of the imagination and the fine arts.” Morris states that Blake found that the truth of reality could be attained through artistic expression, rather than through philosophy. “Imagination thus became for him a real world to which he gained occasional entrance in a glowing flash of intuition, a haven of refuge where he could find true beauty.” Morris says that Blake led a life of disappointment, far removed from the visions that he portrayed in his work. As life did not meet up to the inspirations that  Blake had, he found it supreme to reject life and to have faith in "the visions of his soul."

Morris states that Blake believed that childhood was the purest state that man should strive to attain. Childhood is "that age of exquisite illusion when lif is not to be reasoned about, but the world is a toy of the imagination, and the delicatelycoloured visions of the chhild are the only real things of life." Blake believed, Morris says, that art's purpose was to express an idea so that it's meaning would become apparent. The most perfect ideas were those purely created by the imagination, like the ideas of a child.

Morris postulates that Blake's etchings and prints convey a sense of movement and power based around a strong study of form, which would have been more philosophical, but around simplicity. Blake would condemn the focus of the Greeks on their forms represented in a form achieved by the careful study of nature. Morris states that Blake believed that the Greeks had been "estranged from the world of imagination." Morris contrasts Blakes view by comparing the fairy tail-like works of Blake to the mythology of the Greeks, where neither gave the audience a better understanding of the world. That would have been in opposition to Blake's belief in the supremacy of imagination over reason.
Unlike Blunt's article, Morris focuses more on the artistry of Blake's Ancient of Days. He states that, while Blake believed  the "integrity of the bounding line." He states that the figure represented is characteristic of Blake's work. "The tremendous Titanic energy of the crouching figure in whose eye the foreknowledge of of destiny resides." Morris does not mirror Blunt's assertion that the being of Ancient of Days is not an amicable being, but a being who that constrains humanity by the restricting power of reason. Morris concludes by stating that Blake’s work was so important because “imagination and inspiration were both fundamentally the expression of personality.”

Berger states that, according to Blake, there was a being that separated himself from the infinite Unity. Berger says that this is the origin of Urizen, who is represented in Ancient of Days. As the story of Urizen continues, Berger tells us that Los, another of Blake’s deities, was tasked with removing this new personality, this Urizen, for the Eternals, and binding him to time. “He is the smith who will bind Urizen in the chain of Days and Years.” This, according to Berger, was Blake’s Beginning of Time. The story is similar to the story in Genesis. Berger states, “The story in Genesis… [signifies] to Blake that Urizen tore himself  apart from Eternity, and that Time began.” Both Blunt and Berger seem to agree that Blake associates Urizen, represented in Ancient of Days, with the God of the Old Testament. Berger says that “We must not forget that the visible universe is only an illusion created by our senses and having no existence except in our own minds; that it is a kind of intellectual mirage, a product of the state of the soul personified and ruled by Urizen, material in its nature and, as such, unreal and transitory.” Berger goes on to tell us that our senses lead us to rationality and Reason, which is personified in Blake’s Urizen.

It seems that Berger, Blunt, and Morris all agree that the being represented in Ancient of Days is Blake’s mythological representation of Reason, Urizen. Blunt states that the compass that Urizen is using divides the chaos up into a rational universe. Both Berger and Morris agree that Urizen divides the chaos into a rational universe, but neither make the connection that Blunt makes of the compass being Urizen’s tool. Berger and Blunt both agree that Blake considered Urizen to be a daemon, a negative force in the universe. Morris does not seem to agree with this. He does not specifically state that Urizen is a positive force in the universe, but he does not imply that Blake considered the deity a negative thing. Morris sees the power and the majesty in Ancient of Days and seems to feel that Blake was representing a great being. From the evidence presented by the Berger and Blunt, I think that Blake really did despise reason, logic, and all things rational. Berger and Blunt make a strong argument that Blake personified this distaste in the form of Urizen, who is represented in Ancient of Days. And while it might seem that the being is a representation of the Christian God, the God of the Old Testament, the evidence presented by the authors makes it clear that, while associated with Jehovah, the being is in fact Urizen.

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Berger, Pierre. William Blake: Poet and Mystic. Chapman and Hall, Ltd, 1915.

Blunt, A. “Blake's 'Ancient of Days': The Symbolism of the Compasses.” Journal of the Warburg
     Institute. 2, no. 1 (1938):53-63.

Morris, Llyod R. “William Blake: The First of the Moderns,” The Forum 51 (1914):232-239.