Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Religion in the Age of Enlightenment, Blake, prophecies


Had anyone been paying attention, the endings of Blake's major prophecies-Milton, The Four Zoas, and Jerusalem-might have either puzzled or appalled Blake's Christian contemporaries. Each ends in a movement out of the fractured, fallen state and, in the case of The Four Zoas and Jerusalem, into the promised, eternal paradise, if only for a brief glimpse. Blake's visions of the restored or "heavenly" state respond to common eighteenth-century Christian depictions of the afterlife, most of which he treats with suspicion, even disdain. Scholars have shown how conceptions of heaven shift during the period; theocentric eternities of pure spirit spent exulting in the presence of God give way to modern heavens of various personal delights. Despite this shift, most heavens before and after Blake either exclude the rest of earthly creation or include it in a kind of reflective or decorative role. If they appear at all, nonhuman creatures function either as evidence of God's greatness or merely as pleasurable ornamentation for a redeemed humanity's eternal home. Blake's rejection of these mainstream heavens may account for his tendency to use the term "heaven" with irony; "heaven'' in his poetry most often supports-and masks-systems of oppression or delusion. But in the major prophecies, he describes the movement toward heaven and a continued dynamic process that for Blake defines humanity's redeemed state. Blake's visions of "heaven" and the movement thereto recall the few writings of seventeenth-century radicalism in which animals and humans enjoy a new world of leveled political and natural hierarchies. In Blake's vision of renewal, nonhuman creatures play even more prominent roles. The animal, as it participates beside and with the human in Blake's visions of apocalypse and heaven, proves to be an integral aspect of the divine-human being. In casting the animal so, Blake contests common eighteenth-century discourses of heaven, as well as the earthly systems of power and subjugation he thinks they buttress.