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Blake/Milton's encounter with Los. Illustration from Milton

Newton, of course, plays an important role, together with Francis Bacon and John Locke, in Blake's view of the world. They are among the nightmares produced during the long sleep of the Giant Albion. But I would suggest that as far as Blake is concerned Newton is in principle no different from Einstein or Max Planck or Nils Bohr. Higgs quotes the poem in a letter to Blake's friend and patron Thomas Butts that begins 'With happiness stretched along the hills' and ends:

'Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
'Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah's night
And twofold always. May God us keep
From single vision and Newton's sleep.'

I shall speak about how Higgs interprets this shortly, but, without actually quoting this passage,  the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye discusses the fourfold vision in his book Fearful Symmetry, first published in 1947. This was the second serious effort to come to grips with the complexities of Blake's symbolic system. The first was that made by W.B.Yeats and his father's friend, the poet Edwin Ellis, published in 1893. According to Frye: 'The lowest level is that of the isolated individual reflecting on his memories and evolving generalisations and abstract ideas. This world is single, for the distinction between subject and object is lost and we have only a brooding subject left. Blake calls this world Ulro: it is his hell, and his symbols for it are symbols of sterility, chiefly rocks and sand.'

This is the world as shown in Blake's great painting of the spiritual form of Newton, doubled up on himself in a barren landscape contemplating an abstract diagram. The next stage is a double vision because there is an encounter between a subject and an object, between the visionary and the perceived world of sound and colour. The third level 'begins with a vision of wonderful and unearthly beauty. The writings of many visionaries are full of a childlike delight in a paradisal world which is the same world that other people see, but seen differently. Traherne's Centuries of Meditation is a typical book of this kind. This is the state Blake calls "Beulah".' Yet, says Frye, 'they [love and wonder - PB] afford us only a lower Paradise after all ... The highest possible state, therefore, is not the union of lover and beloved, but of creator and creature, of energy and form. This latter is the state for which Blake reserves the name Eden.'

With regard to the Thomas Butts poem I would suggest, however, that there are actually five levels - that a distinction should be drawn between 'Newton's sleep' and 'single vision.' Newton's sleep is indeed, as Frye describes it, the state of brooding on pure mathematical abstractions without sound or colour. Single vision is the condition most of us are in when we encounter, to refer to the imagery of the poem, a thistle. We see ... a thistle. But according to Blake:

What to others a trifle appears
Fills me full of smiles or tears;
For double the vision my eyes do see
And a double vision is always with me.
With my inward eye 'tis an old man grey;
With my outward, a thistle across my way.

He then gets into a dialogue with the thistle/old man grey and irritated at what the thistle has to say to him, tramples it with his foot:

Then Los appeared in all his power;
In the sun he appeared, descending before
My face in fierce flames; in my double sight
'Twas outward a sun, inward Los in his might.

Los is the powerful heroic figure, symbolic of creative power, who strides through the pages of the prophetic books.

So it is with the double vision that the work begins, and correspondences are established between the 'external' world and the mental world, beginning of a recognition that the distinction between the two is spurious. In this understanding, 'Newton's sleep' isn't vision at all.


John Higgs might complain that the mathematical abstractions of Newton, Einstein and Nils Bohr have proved highly creative, what with motor cars, aeroplanes, space ships and the like. But Blake we should say is interested in only one thing - the advance of human life towards what he calls the 'Divine Vision', which may be a more accurate understanding of Eden, or the fourfold vision, than Frye's artistic creation. Motor cars, aeroplanes and space ships have nothing to do with that. They are of course very wonderful but in themselves they are dead. They have nothing to do with human life, at least as Blake would understand it.

Higgs - missing, I think, Blake's distinction between the inward eye and the outward eye - is much preoccupied with how Blake managed to see his visions, as if he actually saw the old man standing in front of him in the place of the thistle (in which case his stamping on it would surely have been very reprehensible); or, to take up a passage from the Visions of the Last Judgment, when the sun rose Blake saw with his external eye not 'a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea' but 'an immense company of the Heavenly Host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.' Oh no, no, as Blake might say, he saw it with his inward eye. But Higgs evokes 'Blake's two fold vision in which intense imagination leads to a weakened sense of self that results in imagined entities being seen as externally present' and he comments 'what he was experiencing neurologically does seem to be a state similar to that which can be triggered by psychedelic compounds.' This enables Higgs to turn back to his earlier book on Timothy Leary and to compare Blake's ascending  levels of vision to a theory of ascending levels of consciousness, or 'circuits', developed by Leary. In this scheme of things, Leary's fifth circuit (the first circuit that can be opened with the use of psychedelic drugs) corresponds to Blake's Beulah and Higgs suggests (having tried and failed to produce any evidence of Blake engaging in extra-marital affairs) 'the fact that Blake, Swedenborg and Leary were all highly sexed may be significant.' Leary's seventh circuit corresponds to Blake's 'eternity' and to the experience of 'saints, mystics and psychedelic pioneers.'

It seems to me that Blake explains what he means by vision quite clearly in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which could almost be seen as a discourse on method, a manifesto for the prophetic books. It is of course a satire and commentary on Swedenborg. In it he parodies Swedenborg's manner of describing comfortable chats with angels and devils. Higgs, however, is reluctant to recognise this as satire:

'Blake included accounts of meetings with angels, but the stories were chosen to display the limits and failings of angelic understanding. As he confessed, "I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning." To modern eyes, there is something very funny about a sentence as otherworldly and profound as this starting with the mundane phrase "I have always found …" It is tempting to suspect that he was mocking Swedenborg, who displays a very similar attitude in his written accounts of heaven and hell. It seems more likely, though, that the similarity of prose stems from similar experience. As we know, to both Blake and Swedenborg, visions were everyday experiences. Even conversations with angels can become commonplace.'

One wonders what he makes of the conversation Blake had over dinner with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel:

'I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood and so be the cause of imposition.

'Isaiah answered: "I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discovered the infinite in everything and as I was then persuaded and remain confirmed that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote."

'Then I asked: "does a firm persuasion that a thing is so make it so?"

'He replied: "All poets believe that it does and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything."'

Timothy Leary emerges from Higgs's biography as a more substantial and interesting figure than I thought he was. At the time, in the friendly rivalry there was between him and Ken Kesey (author of One flew over the cuckoo's nest and Sometimes a great notion), I and my friends were on the side of Ken Kesey. Nonetheless, I don't think in any of the accounts of Leary's (or Kesey's) psychedelic experiences we read such interesting conversations as Blake had - or indeed Swedenborg had - with his angels and devils, or even with the little old man evoked by the thistle Blake found on his way. What Blake is describing isn't an external vision 'in a finite organical perception' such as was experienced by, for example, Bernadette of Lourdes (who didn't get a very interesting conversation out of it either) but an act of the imagination. Seeing the infinite in a grain of sand he imagines it as human and converses with it, under the 'firm persuasion' that his imagination is a work of the 'poetic genius' (a theme developed as the conversation continues with Ezekiel), Blake's term for the Holy Spirit.