Blake’s Visions

Michael O’Sullivan


Blake denigrates the visual, and sensory experience generally, as incapable of yielding genuine insight. Yet he cites his own “visions” as sources of spiritual insight. How does he conceive of visions such that they escape the limitations of the sensory? I argue that he has a coherent solution to this problem, combining an empiricist view of sense experience with an anti-empiricist view of experience in general.


There is an apparent tension in William Blake’s attitude to the visual. Blake denies the value of sense perception, and of perceptible natural objects, as sources of genuine insight. And he is dismissive of “natural religion” (as natural theology was called in the period) on the grounds that natural objects as present to the senses are insufficient to ground religious experience.

Blake’s own spiritual experiences are, however, typically described in intensely visual terms. As a child of eight, he saw “a tree filled with angels” on the common at Peckham Rye in south London, and throughout his life reports “visions” as a source of insight. The narrative of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is largely composed of reports of what the narrator “saw” in hell. What observation of nature lacks is, it seems, to be supplied by visions undergone by Blake himself and by others.

This generates a puzzle. Given the limitations of the senses, as they are conceived by Blake himself, how can he have understood his visions such that they transcend these limitations? Why do such experiences not yield merely more of the same?

In this paper I argue that the tension can be resolved by attention to Blake’s implicit conception of what a vision is. There is an important sense in which Blake does not conceive of visions as primarily visual experiences at all. I begin in section one by exploring Blake’s doubts about the scope and value of sense perception. We find that these arise from a conception of sense perception which is fundamentally empiricist. In section two I explore how Blake conceives of visions, and find that he adheres to an anti-empiricist conception of the nature of visions or hallucinations. In the third section I explore some implications of this contrast for how Blake understands human beings and human cognition.

§ 1. Blake on the senses

Blake conceives of spiritual insight in terms of knowledge, and insists that knowledge is to be gained through experience. He declares, in “All Religions Are One” (p. 98), that “As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences” (1). But he denigrates mere sense perception, saying in “There is No Natural Religion” (p. 97) that “None could have other than natural or organic thoughts if he had none but organic perceptions”. And, in a passage from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” to which we will return (p. 153), he has the prophet Isaiah deny that his experiences of God were “finite organical perceptions”. The distinction between the mere sense perception that he denigrates, and the visions to which he attributes such spiritual significance must therefore be a difference between kinds of experience.

Sensory experience is impoverished, in the first instance, because of the finitude of its objects. Those things which we can perceive through the senses are all of them finite. In distinguishing mere sensory experience from those perceptions which he held to be of value, Blake emphasised the finitude of the former. “The bounded is loathed by its possessor”, but “He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God” (There is No Natural Religion, p. 98).

As a result, Wordworth’s claim to “see into the life of things” through the observation of nature is suspect. In his annotations to the first volume of Wordsworth’s collected poems (1815), Blake writes (p. 783): “Natural Objects did & now do weaken, deaden & obliterate Imagination in Me. Wordsworth must know that what he writes valuable is not to be found in nature.” Blake holds that genuine artistic inspiration cannot be derived from nature. We should note here the strength of Blake’s criticism. One might argue that an experience of natural objects, if described in merely naturalistic terms, is of little spiritual value. The poet has to do more than describe the natural properties of the world in order to capture the value of such experiences. But Blake’s position is much stronger: valuable experience does not arise from confrontation with natural objects at all. Though Wordsworth’s poetry is of value, its value is not founded in Wordsworth’s experiences of nature: such experiences lack value because they have the wrong sort of object.

Writers of the period had, under the rubric of “natural religion”, attempted to justify inferences from the observation of natural objects to the existence or attributes of God. The inference is typically meant as an explanatory one. God qua craftsman is required to explain the presence of certain phenomena in nature. Blake holds that such arguments are futile. The problem is not that positing a divine craftsman fails as explanation. Instead, the problem stems once again from the finitude of natural objects. Since these are finite, any craftsman whose existence could be required to explain them need not be other than finite, and a finite craftsman is not genuinely divine. “He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only” (p.98).

In this Blake echoes a criticism of natural religion made by David Hume in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding: “if the cause be known only by the effect, we never ought to ascribe to it any qualities, beyond what are precisely requisite to produce the effect: Nor can we, by any rules of just reasoning, return back from the cause, and infer other effects from it, beyond those by which alone it is known to us” (2). The finite and imperfect objects (however impressive) to be found in nature do not provide a basis for a sound inference to the existence of God, if by “God” we mean something either perfect or infinite. The argument from design, assuming it to be valid, would prove at most that nature is the product of a clever craftsman.

This is problematic in two ways. First, apparent imperfections in nature would have also to be ascribed to the creator. One could not legitimately explain away such apparent imperfections by invoking an unknown divine plan, since would have no grounds to assume that God is any more perfect than natural phenomena themselves. It is inconsistent to claim that apparent imperfections in nature will be made good by God in the end, while one’s argument for God is itself based on the putative excellence of nature. Second (and most pertinently in this context), even in the absence of apparent imperfections, one would not be justified in inferring the existence of a greatest possible being. That is, even if one were justified in affirming a craftsman skilful enough to design a plant or animal, one would not be justified in denying that a greater craftsman again could not exist. Naturalistic inference cannot bring us to the God that the natural theologian had in his sights to begin with. Similarly, Blake denies that one can cognise the infinite through the observation of finite particulars.

In his conception of sense perception, Blake echoes his predecessors in the tradition of British empiricism, who also held that it is limited to finite particulars. The parallels between Blake and Hume on natural religion should therefore be unsurprising. He does the same in his conception of reason. Reason is limited by what is afford to it by the deliverances of the senses.

In the series of etchings “There is No Natural Religion” (circa 1788), Blake writes that man, if limited in “desires and perceptions” by the organs of sense would be “unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again” (p. 97). Reasoning based on sensory perception does nothing to extend the range of things we can know.

The concept of reason is connected with that of a ratio: “the ratio of all we have already known” (p. 97). Reason is considered merely as an operation on what is given to the senses: nothing new can be known through reason. Thus Blake’s conception of reason follows that of the British empiricists (particularly Locke and Berkeley, both of whom he seems to have read): reason does not originate knowledge. It is because of reason’s merely comparative or analytical function that man limited by the organs of natural perception is condemned merely “to repeat the same dull round over again”.

The notion of the ratio connects reason with finitude. What can be seen is what can be divided.

The notion of the ratio may remind us of Blake’s figure of Newton, dividing geometrical figures with a compass while crouching, gazing downward. In “The Song of Los”, Blake’s narrative of modernity, we find that (p. 246)

the terrible race of Los & Enitharmon gaves

Laws & Religions to the songs of Har, binding them more

And more to Earth, closing and restraining,

Till a Philosophy of Five Senses was complete.

Urizen wept & gave it into the hands of Newton & Locke.

More generally, Blake’s delimitation of reason is a critique of Enlightenment thought. What had seemed to some a liberation was in reality a further imprisonment in the domain of the merely sensory.

§ 2. Blake’s visions

How, then, does Blake conceive of his visions, if they are not to be limited in the same way as merely sensory experience? Isaiah in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (p. 153), describes in this way his own experience of speaking to God to Blake’s narrator: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception.” In Blake’s words in propria persona in “There is No Natural Religion” (p. 97): “Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception; he percieves more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.”

In “Marriage” (p. 153), Blake’s narrator asks Isaiah and Ezekiel “how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them”, and Isaiah answers: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception, but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”

In answer to the narrator’s question “does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?”, Isaiah replies : “All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing.”

Isaiah’s reference to persuasion – that is, conviction – make it plain that visions are not themselves merely sensory experiences. They are cognitive achievements. Indeed, they must be so, since a further sensory experience, even if not the product of eyesight or any of the other sense organs, would presumably be limited to the same domain of objects as is eyesight itself. Merely postulating a further sense organ would not explain how one can know more than the merely finite.

Blake sometimes uses the notion of the imagination to describe the human capacity for knowledge of the infinite. What is of value in Wordsworth’s work is yielded not by perception but by imagination. In his annotations to Wordsworth (p. 783) Blake writes, “Imagination is the Divine Vision not of The World, or of Man, nor from Man, as he is a Natural Man, but only as he is a Spiritual Man. Imagination has nothing to do with Memory.”

Blake’s conception of the imagination contrasts with Wordsworth’s. For Wordsworth, imagination reconciles man with nature; for Blake it allows him to transcend it. Wordsworth’s imagination is the human analogue of that soul which he considers to be present in the nature.

Wordsworth had a transcendental conception of the imagination. He began with a certain conception of nature and ask what human capacities must be like in order to be equal to an experience of nature so conceived. For Blake, by contrast, the understanding of the mind as bearing a relation to natural objects is precisely the limitation which human beings must transcend and which the imagination allows them to transcend.

To appreciate the novelty of Blake’s approach, we can usefully compare it to the accounts of hallucination offered by the British empiricists. Discussing Blake’s visions under the rubric of “hallucination” is not wholly unproblematic. In particular, the term “hallucination” may connote a psychological style of explanation, according to which such experiences are pathologies either of the perceptual system or of the intellect. Such connotations are part of Blake’s target, as I shall argue in section three. Nevertheless, the empiricists were interested in hallucinations understood as quasi-perceptual experiences without any natural object. Understood in this broad sense, it may be worthwhile to draw the comparison. In doing so, we find that Blake combines an empiricist account of sense perception with an anti-empiricist account of hallucination.

Two distinct accounts of hallucination can be found in the writings of the early modern empiricists. On one account, hallucinations are to be distinguished from perceptions through their faintness. A genuine perception involves the formation of a particularly vivid image. This view is notably expressed by Hume, according to whom the contents of the mind divide into what he calls “ideas” and “impressions”. Impressions are more forceful and lively than ideas.

In general, Hume wishes to identify impressions with perceptual experiences, and ideas with other forms of mental imagery, including memory and imagination. But his effort to distinguish these mental events in this way breaks down. “In sleep, in a fever, in madness, or in any very violent emotions of the soul our ideas may approach to our impressions” (3). Hallucinations can be just as vivid as perceptual experiences, but Hume is independently committed to considering these as different sorts of experience.

On the second view, notably advocated by Berkeley (4), hallucinations are to be distinguished by virtue of their relative incoherence. Our sensory experiences are regular and ordered – I see the same things before and after closing my eyes for a moment, or before leaving them and on returning. But hallucinatory objects appear and disappear unpredictably. For Berkeley, then, the ingredients of hallucinations and of perceptual experiences are of the same sort. The difference is one of structure.

Either account assumes that sense perceptions and hallucinations have contents of the same sort. They have the same sort of object – I may either perceive or hallucinate a lion or London. On Hume’s official account the two experience will differ in vividness; on Berkeley’s the lion will be more stable if perceived than if hallucinated. But it will be a lion in either case. Currently dominant accounts have the same implication. In contemporary philosophy of mind, it is most often assumed that hallucinations have a representational content similar to that of perceptual experiences, but a representational content that misrepresents the state of the world. Thus perceptions and hallucinations are mental states of the same type, and with representational contents of the same type, but they differ according to the accuracy of that content. On Blake’s conception this cannot be correct. Hallucinations have objects which are of a different order of significance from the objects of perception. Further, conviction enters into the having of hallucinations, which it does not into perceiving.

Given these points of contrast, it may be asked whether there is anything at all in common between sense perception and Blake’s spiritual experiences. If not, it might be thought that referring to the latter as “visions” is nothing but misleading. However, there are two crucial elements of sense perception that are retained in visions as Blake understands them. First, there is an emphasis on clarity. Visions are distinguished from mere sensory perception by their greater determinacy. Where the senses give us blur, visions give us determinacy. Thus in visions we see more than we do in sense perception: in this respect, they are perfected perceptions.

In his notebooks around 1810 Blake criticises Pope and others for their confused and vague manner of expression, comparing it to the painting style of Titian and Rubens. “Ideas cannot be given but in their minutely Appropriate Words, nor can a Design be made without its minute Appropriate Execution” (p. 596). The same idea is, I think, at work here. Indeterminacy marks a failure of cognition; to see things clearly is to see more, just as to express oneself in a determinate way is to express more (5).

Second, Blake is insistent on the particularity of the objects of his visions. In his visions he apprehends particulars: “it is in particulars that wisdom consists and happiness too” (p. 611). In this respect too visions resemble sense perception, since that faculty yields awareness of particulars and not of generalities. This was a crucial theme of Berkeley (6), whom Blake read and admired. Thus, in denying that the objects of his visions are “finite particulars”, it is their finitude and not their particularity that Blake wishes to deny.

§ 3. The psychological and the Satanic

Blake’s visions, we have already seen, have two features which distinguish them from hallucinations as understood in the empiricist tradition. First, they are not merely sensory experiences, in as much as conviction enters into the having of them. Second, their objects are of a different nature. They are not limited to the finite, as natural perceptions are.

In these respects, Blake’s visions may better be compared to the delusional experiences of the mentally ill, in particular of schizophrenics, than with ordinary perceptual experiences. These too come weighted with a significance which (it seems) a merely sensory experience could not bear. Schizophrenics see their experiences as revealing something about the world which is not revealed in ordinary sense experience. There is thus a sense in which Blake is a defender of the view that visions are a product of madness. They are neither pathologies of the visual system, nor are they misinterpreted by-products of it. Rather, they indicate a fundamentally different world view on the part of those who undergo the visions.

But there is a deeper sense in which Blake is a critic of the madness view. To see the point, we can return to his view of reason as a mere ratio of the deliverances of the senses. Since reason is limited in this way it cannot yield knowledge of the infinite. It follows that visions are not products of reason either. I wish to suggest that Blake’s thought makes the following step: he concludes that just as visions are not pathologies of the sensory faculty, they are not pathologies of the intellect either.

In this way, Blake rejects a certain sort of account of visions which explains them in not just sensory but, more broadly, psychological terms. In rejecting psychological explanations of visions, Blake aligns himself with a pre-modern conception of them as either divine or Satanic in origin. Indeed, in the first instance Blake’s concern is to defend the disjunction rather than either of the disjuncts. His visions have their origin not in human psychology as it is conceived within a scientific world-view, but rather in the domain which is shared by the divine and the Satanic. From this point of view, Blake’s defence of hell in “Marriage” arises from his insistence that Satanic experience has a significance beyond that of quotidian perceptual experience.

A remark made by Blake in his annotations to Lavater’s Aphorisms is relevant here. Lavater had written “He alone is good, who, though possessed of energy, prefers virtue, with the appearance of weakness, to the invitation of acting brilliantly ill.” Blake remarks (p. 77): “Noble! But Mark! Active Evil is better than Passive Good.”

Blake’s defence of the Satanic as not psychological is a rejection of modernity, including both scientific and religious modernity. The priesthood is guilty, along with the scientist, of pathologising the Satanic and thus suppressing some of the spiritual insights that are available to human beings. The sinister priests of “Songs of Experience” are described in terms that echo Blake’s criticisms of the merely sensory as limiting, binding and earthbound (p. 215):

And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tomb-stones where flowers should be;

And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds

And binding with briars my joys & desires (7).


(1) All quotations from Blake are taken from William Blake, Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Vesey, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).

(2) David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 136.

(3) David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), p. 2.

(4) George Berkeley, The Principles of Human Knowledge, ed. Jonathan Dancy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 113-4.

(5) On this point, see Simon Jarvis, “Thinking in verse”, in James Chandler and Maureen N. McLane, eds., The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 105-7.

(6) Berkeley, Principles, pp. 90ff.

(7) Thanks to Michael Campbell for comments on an early draft of this paper.