Recently I was reading a collection of essays by the remarkable Jungian analyst, Helen Luke and came across a reference to, and quotation from, Max Plowman's 'An Introduction to the Study of William Blake'. It was arresting and I turned to the notes to find the reference, not least because I had never heard of Plowman. I was dispirited on noticing that the book had been published in 1927; however, heartened to discover it had been reprinted by 'BiblioLife' as a historical reproduction.
Plowman had joined an ambulance unit in the First World War before he decided, despite his hatred of war, that others should not be responsible for fighting it. He joined an infantry regiment, was commissioned, injured and treated by W.H. Rivers before deciding to resign his commission as a conscientious objector. Pacifism became a central thread of his subsequent life as editor, journalist and activist.
Never has a book been more modestly named as Plowman's 'Introduction' from which you expect a simplifying text or guide to the biography, works and main themes of the author. Blake is certainly deemed an author for which a guide seems necessary.
But the book, though lucidly written and sometimes helpful in the manner of an expected guide, is in fact better described as a 'key'. It was one of Blake's teachers, the Protestant mystic and theologian, Jacob Boehme, who wrote a 'Key' to his own works that was both a creative text in its own right and a handmaiden to understanding his whole system of image and thought.
As R. H. Ward in his introductory on Plowman and Blake notes, Plowman does likewise. He creates a text that stands in its own right as an act of imagination as it serves to illuminate the work from which it takes its inspiration. I cannot think of any writer on Blake (of whom there are many and of whom many I have read) who writes from the same place as Blake as does Plowman.
Blake repeatedly tells us that our capacity to understand is commensurate with the state of our imagination. The brighter it burns, the cleaner the doors of our perception, the greater our capacity to know and to embody understanding. Plowman's perception glistens clear, burns in brightly.
By analogy I was reminded time and again of Buddhism: your understanding is a gift of your state of consciousness and such states can be precisely defined and through this recognised. Blake, as Plowman shows, is delineating in imaginative form the journey of the soul through its unfolding states and doing it with consummate precision. His apparent 'obscurity' is because such an undertaking was wholly foreign to his age and yet any contemporary in, say, Tibet, would have found it perfectly intelligible (considerations of language aside) and only been filled with compassion that it was an undertaking pursued in such human loneliness.
It is a short book of ten chapters, each an essay on a particular theme. Reading it I realise here is a book I am going to come back to time and again and that recognition brings a coursing of delight.
By way of example, Chapter VIII is entitled, 'The Human Instinct' explores why the only answer to the demands of our instinctual life is their redemption through imagination. In this context, Plowman discusses Blake's learning from, and subsequent abandonment of, Swedenborg because his doctrine of heaven and hell allows for no progression. Hell is a place of vague unpleasantness where unruly passions tortured one another. Heaven was stainless, spotless and sterile, defined principally by what it was not, a place where desire was never awakened.
"How could man live poised between immaculate complacence and useless wrath? What sort of soul was it that could rest in the contemplation of either? And if between these eternal symbols of good and evil the soul practised evasion, what hope could there ever be of its regaining lost integrity?" (Plowman)
The only way to true life was through hell being hallowed into heaven, of allowing our desires, that always threaten to close in on themselves, to be re-imagined and gifted away as love. There is a fabulous moment when Plowman shows that this requires us to become unique individual selves and yet surrender all selfishness and that this is the paradox of being human: becoming utterly William Blake yet utterly surrendered in the Divine imagination.
I am reminded again of a lay Buddhist teacher I once met who said it was only when you came to your ability to be utterly alone, dependent on none that you could give yourself away utterly in compassion.
The last chapter is entitled 'The Forgiveness of Sins'. How do you know that you dwell in the Divine Imagination (rather than your fantasy of it) to which Blake's response is because you are able to forgive sins. "He who waits to be righteous before he enters into the Saviour's Kingdom, the Divine Body, will never enter there" (Blake). To which the corollary is that forgiveness is not genuine when offered in response to repentance. In God there is no forgiveness (is the paradoxical way that Julian of Norwich puts this) because it suggests that God forgives in response to signs of repentance (whereas in fact signs of repentance are because God is forgiveness).
To use a current example, there are the 'Christian' demonstrators outside the court trying the 'Pussy Riot' case in Moscow, with their spokesperson, Fr Chaplain, saying that 'God is judging' them (the Pussy Riot band members) and 'looking for signs of their repentance' before He might forgive them.
The reality for Blake is that God is forgiveness and if Fr Chaplain wants to get in on God's action, he must forgive them unconditionally, and in that offering of unconditional forgiveness, there is the hope that all the protagonists bent on the path of their own desires might discover a wider kingdom in which they recognise one another as friends and re-imagine their relationships one with another in the divine commonwealth that is our shared home.
Blake vision of God's visioning is nothing if not demanding (and exalting) but what other than this is going to make the difference that makes a difference.