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Cosmic Consciousness, by Richard Maurice Bucke, [1901], at


William Blake.

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" [52], gives an admirable sketch of

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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?

* The difficulty of Blake's biographers, subsequent to 1863, the date of Mr. Gilchrist's book, is of a different kind altogether. It is the difficulty of stating sufficiently high the extraordinary claims of Blake to admiration and reverence, without slurring over those other considerations which need to be plainly and fully set forth if we would obtain any real idea of the man as he was—of his total unlikeness to his contemporaries, of his amazing genius and noble performances in two arts, of the height by which he transcended other men, and the incapacity which he always evinced for performing at all what others accomplish easily. He could do vastly more than they, but he could seldom do the like. By some unknown process he had soared to the top of a cloud-capped Alp, while they were crouching in the valley: But to reach a middle station on the mountain was what they could readily manage step by step, while Blake found that ordinary achievement impracticable. He could not and he would not do it; the want of will, or rather the utter alienation of will, the resolve to soar (which was natural to him), and not to walk (which was unnatural and repulsive), constituted or counted instead of an actual want of power [139:9].

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].

* In the fact that Blake soared beyond, and far beyond, men of self consciousness merely, but could not see or do many things that these saw clearly and could do easily, we see a relationship between him and the great illuminati. For surely the very same thing could be said of all these. In worldly matters they are all, or nearly all, as little children, while in spiritual things they are as gods. Note Balzac contracting enormous debts for want of ordinary business common sense and laboring vainly for years to pay them while in the full exercise of enough genius to equip a regiment of Rothschilds. Bacon showered upon the human race intellectual and spiritual riches beyond all computation, but with every apparent advantage (position at court, hereditary prestige, influential friends) he labors in vain for years for position in the self conscious sphere, and after getting it cannot hold it. Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Las Casas, Yepes, Behmen and Whitman were wise: They saw that the things of the Cosmic Sense were enough, and they simply put by the things of self consciousness, but had they tried for these the chances are they would have failed to obtain them.

* 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].

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* In the preface to "The Jerusalem" Blake speaks of that composition as paving been "dictated" to him, and other expressions of his prove that he regarded it rather as a revelation of which he was the scribe than as the product of his own inventing and fashioning brain. Blake considered it "the grandest poem that this world contains;" adding, "I may praise it, since I dare not pretend to be any other than the secretary—the authors are in eternity." In an earlier letter (April 25th, 1803) he had said: "I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without premeditation, and even against my will" [139:41].

* 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].

* This is the declaration of each possessor of the Cosmic Sense. It is not I, the visible man who speaks, but (as Jesus says) "As the Father hath said unto me so I speak" [14: 12: 50]; or as Paul writes: "I will not dare to speak of any things save those which Christ wrought through me" [16: 15:18]. "Loose the stop from your throat" [193: 32] says Whitman to the Cosmic Sense. And so universally.

* "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.

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He knows that what he does is not inferior to the grandest antiques. Superior it cannot be, for human power cannot go beyond either what he does or what they have done. It is the gift of God, it is inspiration and vision [139:72].*

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].

* "Divine am I," says Whitman, "inside and out" [193: 49].

* "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.

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As to his religious belief,* it should be understood that Blake was a Christian in a certain way, and a truly fervent Christian; but it was a way of his own, exceedingly different from that of any of the churches. For the last forty years of his life he never entered a place of worship [139:76].

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].

* Blake's religion—his attitude toward the Church—toward God—toward immortality—is the characteristic attitude of the man who has attained to Cosmic Consciousness—as shown in each life and in all the writings of these men.

*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

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[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?

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. This world of imagination is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation, of vegetation, is finite and temporal. There exist in that eternal world the permanent realities of everything which we see reflected in this vegetable glass of nature [95: 163].

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].

* Blake's name for Cosmic Consciousness. With this paragraph compare Whitman's "I swear I think now that everything without exception has an eternal soul! The trees have rooted in the ground! The weeds of the sea have! The animals" [193: 337].

* 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].

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The last judgment is an overwhelming of bad art and science [95: 176].*

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].*

* I.e., it is the advent of universal Cosmic Consciousness. "Specialism [the Cosmic Sense] opens to man," says Balzac, "his true career; the infinite dawns upon him" [5: 144]. "The audit of nature, though delayed, must be answered, and her quietus is to render thee" [Cosmic Consciousness] [176: 126].

* 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].

p. 198 * "A message from the Heavens whispering  to me even in sleep" [193: 324].

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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.

Next: Chapter 12. Honoré de Balzac