Angels in the poetry of William Blake by Mia Forbes
The poetry of William Blake is a study in contraries without contradictions. His verse rests on the fine balance of opposites, with the tension between divergent forces, such as good and evil, male and female, Innocence and Experience, playing a vital role in his work. And yet Blake abhorred the division of natural contraries into rigid dichotomies, the most reprehensible being the attempt to identify good and evil as separate features of the human soul, and to suppress the latter. To purge an entity of one part of a vital pairing eliminates any chance of harmony, offering only bleak uniformity. Like Jung’s syzygy, Blake held that organic opposites are at their healthiest and most effective when yoked together in dynamic union.
Just as antithetical properties meet in a single entity, so too can a single entity convey a multitude of meaning. Motifs, symbols and analogies are not something that can be relied upon in the Blakean corpus, since they are liable to change without warning and without explanation. In one poem, even in one line, gold may represent prosperity and success, while in another it quickly becomes a mark of avarice and entrapment. Among the most complex figures in Blake’s oeuvre is the angel. Angels appear again and again in both his poetry and prose, often in antithetical roles.
On the one hand, they are guardians who offer protection, inspiration and a pathway towards God. In Songs of Innocence (1789), one angel guards the bed of a sleeping child, while another liberates a group of young chimney sweeps: “Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, / And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.” They play a similar role in The Couch of Death, one of the pieces of prose-poetry published in Blake’s first collection, Poetical Sketches (1783). “The sorrowful pair lift up their heads, hovering Angels are around them, voices of comfort are heard over the Couch of Death, and the youth breathes out his soul with joy into eternity.” The simplicity and purity of such imagery conforms with the reader’s preconceived idea of an angel, watching over the innocent and warding off evil.
Likewise in the epic poem, Milton (1800-04), “each [thing] has its Guard, each Moment, Minute, Hour, Day, Month and Year; … The Guard are Angels of Providence on duty evermore”. Angels are there not only to comfort and protect individuals, but to maintain order and represent the good on earth. In other cases, angels play a similarly straightforward role as the representatives of God and His providence. In The War Song to Englishmen, for example, “Th’ Angel of Fate turns them with mighty hands, / And casts them out upon the darken’d earth!… The arrows of Almighty God are drawn! / Angels of Death stand in the louring heavens!”. Here they stand for divine strength and power.
These figures take on new meaning, however, in the poems of The Rosetti Manuscript, which span the middle decades of Blake’s career. The narrator tells of how he “heard an Angel singing / When the day was springing: / ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace / Is the world’s release”. The angel is answered by a cursing Devil, who refutes that “Mercy could be no more / If there was nobody poor, / And Pity no more could be, /If all were as happy as we”. In the final couplet, Blake concludes that “Misery’s increase / Is Mercy, Pity, Peace”. Although in this poem the angel remains a source of virtue and hope, his wish for mercy, pity and peace is boldly undermined by the logic of the devil, who demonstrates that such qualities can only exist alongside necessary evils. Here, the devil and the angel embody the contraries that characterise Blake’s poetry, contraries which become increasingly entangled and thought-provoking.
Another interaction between an angel and devil is recorded in one of the Memorable Fancys published in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93):
“Once I saw a Devil in a flame of fire, who arose before an Angel that sat
on a cloud, and the Devil utter’d these words: –
‘The worship of God is: Honouring his gifts in other men, each
according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best…
The Angel hearing this became almost blue; but mastering himself he
grew yellow, and at last white, pink, and smiling, and then replied: –
‘Thou Idolater! is not God One? …
and are not all other men fools, sinners, and nothings?’
The Devil answer’d:…
… Jesus was all virtue, and
acted from impulse, not from rules.’
When he had so spoken, I beheld the Angel, who stretched out his
arms, embracing the flame of fire, and he was consumed, and arose as
Note. This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend.
We often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense,
which the world shall have if they behave well.”
The angel initially balks at the devil’s suggestion that the divine is accessible to humankind through the talents and creations of great men. According to the devil, God’s universal and eternal wisdom does not make all men equal. Rather, those men who make use of their capacities, the poet who uses his genius to write an epic poem, for example, or the craftsman who harnesses his innate creativity to produce a fine piece of metalwork, cultivate the seed of divinity planted in mankind, through which we can best understand and worship God. Despite his colourful reaction, the angel is eventually won over by the devil’s argument, “embracing the flame of fire” and arising “as Elijah”. The poet explains that the angel “is now become a Devil” with whom he “often read[s] the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense”. To understand why Blake, by all accounts a man of faith, would put his own beliefs into the mouth of a devil, we need to look more closely at his spiritual position and his use of Biblical imagery.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a unique text which combines poetry, prose and proverbs, and serves as Blake’s manifesto against traditional organised religion and his contempt towards its officials. Orthodox moral categories are subverted, and those who maintain them are criticised, including John Milton, of whom Blake said that “The reason [he] wrote in fetters when he wrote of / Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is / because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without / knowing it”. This striking statement exemplifies the complaint made by Blake throughout his writings, but particularly in this collection and in his prophetic books: he felt that Milton had allowed his poetic imagination to be prescribed and curtailed by orthodox morality, and had thus sacrificed the element of the divine within him.
Creativity and liberty, the freedom to create, are essential qualities without which mankind is suppressed and diminished; imagination is the divine spark in humans which dogmatic religious beliefs and practices threaten to extinguish. “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to Create”, Los declares in Jerusalem. Los is one of the principal characters in Blake’s mythical world, a blacksmith and founder of Golgonooza, the City of Imagination, who is thought to represent Blake himself.
For Blake, the greatest threats to the individual’s imagination and creativity were institutions and dogma, mainly religious ones but also social and political. Angels are often used in his work to represent the adherents and agents of these restrictive forces, as powerful figures working on behalf of a higher entity to implement its rules. In doing so, however, they crush any hope of individual liberty, divergence and development. In William Bond, a poem from Blake’s first collection, the eponymous protagonist “went to church in a May morning, / Attended by Fairies, one, two, and three; / But the Angels of Providence drove them away / And he return’d home in misery”. Here, the fairies are symbols of imagination, individuality and creativity, whereas the angels represent the repressive effects of organised religion, which continues to oppress William: “And an Angel of Providence at his feet, / And an Angel of Providence at his head, / And in the midst a black, black cloud, / And in the midst the sick man on his bed”. When eventually the fairies reappear at William’s sickbed, the angels are forced to leave.
The angels that appear in Blake’s poetry, while masquerading as bringers of virtue, are often devious and unscrupulous beneath their façade. In The Angel, one of the Songs of Experience that accompany and contrast the Songs of Innocence, a maiden Queen arms herself “with ten thousand shields and spears” against the angel which guarded her in her youth, but whom she seems to fear as she grows older. In I Asked a Thief, the narrator explains that, where he had failed with direct requests, an angel succeeded with subtlety and stealth:
“I askèd a thief to steal me a peach:
He turnèd up his eyes.
I ask’d a lithe lady to lie her down:
Holy and meek, she cries.
As soon as I went
An Angel came:
He wink’d at the thief,
And smil’d at the dame;
And without one word said
Had a peach from the tree,
And still as a maid
Enjoy’d the lady.”
Another Memorable Fancy tells the story of a meeting between the Blakean narrator and an angel who offers him a glimpse of the hellish torment which was to be the punishment for his profane ideas. When the angel disappears, the scene vanishes too and “I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river, by moonlight, hearing a harper, who sung to the harp”. The speaker seeks out the angel and shows him his eternal lot: “in it were a number of monkeys, baboons, and all of that species, chain’d by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but withheld by the shortness of their chains. However, I saw that they sometimes grew numerous, and then the weak were caught by the strong, and with a grinning aspect, first coupled with, and then devour’d, by plucking off first one limb and then another, till the body was left a helpless trunk”. Here, the so-called angels are revealed for what they truly are: savage creatures restrained by chains but strong enough, when banded together, to oppress the smallest and weakest members of their group. This is how Blake see those who use the word of God to confine and control the individual who seeks his own path.
Thus in much of Blake’s weightier work, angels are not the dutiful messengers and servants of God, but deceptive schemers who would manipulate and exploit His word for their own gain, or out of their own misguided notions of right and wrong. They are the antithesis of the merciful angels who can be found in his other poems, guiding and guarding various characters. To complicate the matter even further, the title of angel also appears to mark figures of exceptional strength or power, such as the thirteen angels in America: A Prophecy, who “threw their golden sceptres / Down on the land of America; indignant they descended / Headlong from out their heav’nly heights, descending swift as fires”. In such cases, the idea of the angel seems to bring with it no particular moral significance, but simply identifies the figure as a source of authority or force.
The multiplicity of meaning contained within this one symbol epitomises the complex and often confusing poetry of William Blake. He demands that we be alert to subtle changes and pay thoughtful attention to context, as his symbols do not reliably correspond to a single referent but depend on the way and place in which they are used. Blake’s poetry is not for the passive reader, but to the active it offers a rich stock of emotions, meanings and ideas that can keep one reading, and guessing, for a lifetime.
In fact, Blake himself spent much of his life contemplating the mystery of angels. When he was eight years old, he claimed that he had had a vision while out walking with his mother in Peckham: he saw a tree filled with angels, their luminescent wings shining like stars from its boughs. The boy was heartily cuffed for telling such tall tales, but the punishment did not prevent him documenting many other similar visions. Blake continued to have such experiences throughout his life, conversing directly with divine figures such as Gabriel and a number of other Arch-angels, who he claimed not only instructed him to write his great works, but also enjoyed reading them! Lying on his deathbed in his London home in 1827, Blake sketched the portrait of his beloved and committed wife, Catherine. Shortly after finishing the drawing, he uttered his final words: “You have ever been an angel to me!”
Image: ‘Angels appearing to the Shepherds’ by William Blake
Credit: Asar Studios / Alamy Stock Photo