Cosmic Consciousness, by Richard Maurice Bucke, , at sacred-texts.com
Born 1757; died 1827.
If Blake had Cosmic Consciousness the words written above as to the vastly greater scope and variety of this than of self consciousness will receive from his case illustration. The few short extracts from his writings, below quoted, almost prove that he had the Cosmic Sense, which he called "Imaginative Vision" [95: 166], and he must have attained to it within a very few years after reaching the thirtieth of his age. There do not appear to be any details extant of his entrance into it, but his writings may fairly be allowed to prove the fact of possession.
W. M. Rossetti, in the "Prefatory Memoir" to "The Poetical Works of William Blake" , gives an admirable sketch of
Blake's actual life and apparently a fair estimate of his abilities and defects. The following extracts therefrom will materially assist us in the inquiry now before us; that is: Had Blake Cosmic Consciousness?
Rapt in a passionate yearning, he realized, even on this earth and in his mortal body, a species of Nirvâna:* his whole faculty, his whole personality, the very essence of his mind and mould, attained to absorption into his ideal ultimate, into that which Dante's profound phrase designates "il Ben dell' intelletto" [139: 11].
* William Blake's education was of the scantiest, being confined to reading p. 193 and writing; arithmetic may also be guessed at, but is not recorded, and very probably his capacity for acquiring or retaining that item of knowledge was far below the average [139:14].
* Blake, too, found the world of the Cosmic Sense enough, and wisely did not waste time and energy seeking for the so-called goods and riches of the self-conscious life.
* These men are independent of education, and most of them—like Blake himself—p. 193 think it useless or worse. Blake says of it: "There is no use in education: I hold it to be wrong. It is the great sin; it is eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was the fault of Plato. He knew of nothing but the virtues and vices, and good and evil. There is nothing in all that. Everything is good in God's eyes" [139: 80]. This reminds us of what Hawley said of Bacon: "He had not his knowledge from books, but from some grounds within himself" [141: 47], and of Whitman's "You shall no longer feed on the spectres in books" [193: 30].
* Blake had a mental intuition, inspiration, or revelation—call it what we will; it was as real to his spiritual eye as a material object could be to his bodily eye; and no doubt his bodily eye, the eye of a designer or painter with a great gift of invention and composition, was far more than normally ready at following the dictate of the spiritual eye, and seeing, with an almost instantaneously creative and fashioning act, the visual semblance of a visionary essence [139:62].
* His unworldliness, extreme as it was, did not degenerate into ineptitude. He apprehended the requirements of practical life, was prepared to meet them in a resolute and diligent spirit from day to day, and could on occasions display a full share of sagacity. He was of lofty and independent spirit, not caring to refute any odd stories that were current regarding his conduct or demeanor, neither parading nor concealing his poverty, and seldom accepting any sort of aid for which he could not and did not supply a full equivalent [139:69].
* "O I am sure," says Whitman, "they really came from Thee—the urge, the ardor, the potent, felt, interior, command, a message from the heavens" [193: 324]. "The noble truths," Gautama said, ''were not among the doctrines banded down, but there arose within him the eye to perceive them" [159: 150].
* Each word of this passage is strictly true of Whitman, and allowing for difference of manners and customs in other times and countries, the paragraph could be read into the life of any one of the men discussed in this book.
It must be allowed that in many instances Blake spoke of himself with measureless and rather provoking self-applause. This is in truth one conspicuous outcome of that very simplicity of character of which I have just spoken; egotism it is, but not worldly, self-seeking [139: 71].*
That he was on the whole and in the best sense happy is*, considering all his trials and crosses, one of the very highest evidences in his praise. "If asked," writes Mr. Palmer, "whether I ever knew among the intellectual a happy man, Blake would be the only one who would immediately occur to me." Visionary and ideal aspirations of the intensest kind; the imaginative life wholly predominating over the corporeal and mundane life, and almost swallowing it up; and a child-like simplicity of personal character, free from self-interest, and ignorant or careless of any policy of self-control, though habitually guided and regulated by noble emotions and a resolute loyalty to duty—these are the main lines which we trace throughout the entire career of Blake, in his life and death, in his writings and his art. This it is which makes him so peculiarly lovable and admirable as a man, and invests his works, especially his poems, with so delightful a charm. We feel that he is truly "of the kingdom of heaven": above the firmament, his soul holds converse with archangels; on the earth, he is as the little child whom Jesus "sat in the midst of them" [139:70].
* The essence of Blake's faculty, the power by which he achieved his work, was intuition: this holds good of his artistic productions, and still more so of his poems. Intuition reigns supreme in them; and even the reader has to apprehend them intuitively, or else to leave them aside altogether [139:74].
Ample evidence exists to satisfy us that Blake had real conceptions In the metaphysical or supersensual regions of thought—conceptions which might have been termed speculations in other people, but in him rather intuitions; and that the "Prophetic Books" embody these in some sort of way cannot be disputed [139: 120].
* "I conned old times," says Whitman; "I sat studying at the feet of the great masters, now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me" [193: 20].
* Happiness is one of the marks of the Cosmic Sense.
* It is too bad that these "Prophetic Books" are not published. It seems almost certain that they embody (behind thick veils, doubtless) revelations of extraordinary value—news from "the kingdom of heaven"—from the better world—the world of the Cosmic Sense.
He believed—with a great profundity and ardor of faith—in God; but he believed also that men are gods, or that collective man is God. He believed in Christ; but exactly what he believed him to be is a separate question. "Jesus Christ," he said, conversing with Mr. Robinson, "is the only God, and so am I, and so are you" [139:77].
In immortality Blake seems to have believed implicitly,* and (in some main essentials) without much deviation from other people's credence. When he heard of Flaxman's death (December 7th, 1826), he observes, "I cannot think of death as more than the going out of one room into another." In one of his writings he says: "The world of imagination is the world of eternity. It is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body" [139:79].
Blake had in all probability read in his youth some of the mystical or cabalistic writers*—Paracelsus, Jacob Böhme, Cornelius Agrippa; and there is a good deal in his speculations, in substance and tone, and sometimes in detail, which can be traced back to authors of this class [139: 80].
*His attitude toward death is that of all the illuminati. He does not believe in "another life." He does not think he will be immortal. He has eternal life.
*So writes George Frederic Parsons about Balzac [6: 11]. Thoreau makes a similar suggestion as to Whitman [38: 143], and generally it is constantly being hinted or intimated that some of these men have been reading others of them. This may of course sometimes happen, but, speaking generally, it does not, for many of them are quite illiterate, and the studies of others, as, for instance, Bacon, do not lie in that direction. Blake, Balzac, Yepes, Behmen, Whitman, Carpenter and the rest has each seen for himself that other world of which he tells us. No one can tell of it at second hand, for no one who has not seen something of it can conceive it.
Blake's death was as noble and characteristic as his life. Gilchrist [94: 360–1] gives us the following simple and touching account of it:
"His illness was not violent, but a gradual and gentle failure of physical powers which nowise affected the mind. The speedy end was not foreseen by his friends. It came on a Sunday, August 12, 1827, nearly three months before completion of his seventieth year. 'On the day of his death,' writes Smith, who had his account from the widow, 'he composed and uttered songs to his
[paragraph continues] Maker so sweetly to the ear of his Catharine that when she stood to hear him he, looking upon her most affectionately, said: "My beloved, they are not mine—no, they are not mine!" He told her they would not be parted; he should always be about her to take care of her. To the pious songs followed, about six in the summer evening, a calm and painless withdrawal of breath; the exact moment almost unperceived by his wife, who sat by his side. A humble female neighbor, her only other companion, said afterwards: "I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel."'"
It remains to quote certain declarations emanating from Blake and which seem to bear upon the point under consideration—viz., upon the question, Was Blake a case of Cosmic Consciousness?
We are in a world of generation and death,* and this world we must cast off if we would be artists such as Raphael, Michael Angelo and the ancient sculptors. If we do not cast off this world we shall be only Venetian painters, who will be cast off and lost from art [95:172].
The player is a liar when he says: Angels are happier than men because they are better!* Angels are happier than men and devils because they are not always prying after good and evil in one another and eating the tree of knowledge for Satan's gratification [95:176].
* The world of self consciousness. Balzac says: (Self conscious) "man judges all things by his abstractions—good, evil, virtue, crime. His formulas of right are his scales, and his justice is blind; the justice of God [i.e., of the Cosmic Sense] sees—in that is everything" [5: 142].
* "Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age. Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent" [193: 31].
Some people flatter themselves that there will be no last judgment. . . .* I will not flatter them. Error is created; truth is eternal. Error or creation will be burned up, and then, and not till then, truth or eternity will appear. It [error] is burned up the moment men cease to behold it. I assert for myself that I do not behold outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. "What!" it will be questioned, "when the sun rises do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?" "Oh, no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!'" I question not my corporeal eye* any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it and not with it [95: 176].
Beneath the figures of Adam and Eve (descending the generative stream from there) is the seat of the harlot, named mystery [self conscious life], in the Revelations. She (mystery) is seized by two beings (life and death), each with three heads; they represent vegetative existence. As it is written in Revelations, they strip her naked and burn her with fire [i.e., death strips her naked, and the passions of the self conscious life burn it as with fire]. It represents the eternal consumption of vegetable life and death [the life and death of the merely self conscious] with its lusts. The wreathed torches in their hands [in the hands of life and death] represent eternal fire, which is the fire of generation or vegetation; it is an eternal consummation. Those who are blessed with imaginative vision [Cosmic Consciousness]* see this eternal female [mystery—the self conscious life] and tremble at what others fear not; while they despise and laugh* at what others fear [95:166].
*I am not ashamed, afraid or averse to tell you what ought to be told—that I am under the direction of messengers from heaven, daily and nightly. But p. 198 the nature of such things is not, as some suppose, without trouble or care [95: 185].*
* Blake says his self conscious faculties are a hindrance to him, not a help. So Balzac: "Baneful, it [self consciousness] exempts man from entering the path of specialism [Cosmic Consciousness], which leads to the infinite" [5: 142]. So the Hindoo experts teach and have always taught, that suppression and effacement of many of the self conscious faculties are necessary conditions to illumination [56: 166 et seq.].
* So Carpenter asks (knowing well the answer): ''Does there not exist in truth . . an inner illumination . . . by which we can ultimately see things as they are, beholding all creation . . . in its true being and order [57:98].
* "Their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched" [12: 9: 48], said by Jesus of the self conscious life, which (also) is the hell of Dante.
* So Whitman: "I laugh at what you call dissolution."
* "He [my other self], nor that affable, familiar ghost [the Cosmic Sense] which nightly gulls him with intelligence" [176: 86].
a. Blake seems to have entered into Cosmic Consciousness when a little more than thirty years of age.
b. The present editor does not know anything of the occurrence of subjective light in his case.
c. The fact of great intellectual illumination seems clear.
d. His moral elevation was very marked.
e. He seems to have had the sense of immortality that belongs to Cosmic Consciousness.
f. Specific details of proof are in this case, as they must inevitably often be, largely wanting, but a study of Blake's life, writings (he is not in a position nor is he competent to judge Blake from his drawings) and death convinces the writer that he was a genuine and even probably a great case.