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  • Visionary Immaterialism: Berkeleian Empiricism in Blake’s Poetry
  • Chris Townsend (bio)

Adominant question in scholarship concerned with william Blake’s philosophical thinking is one that his works themselves pose: “what is the Material World, and is it dead?”1Turned towards Blake’s own understanding of the world of objects, and couched in the terms of philosophy, the question might be rephrased: was Blake a materialist? Though this is a proposition that might have once seemed unthinkable to Blake critics, there is, in late twentieth- and twenty-first-century Blake scholarship, a critical tendency toward treating his work as in some sense materialist. Saree Makdisi contends that “the body and the soul, and the material and the immaterial, are not opposed for Blake in the way we ordinarily think of them,” and he argues against scholars who have “gone so far as to think of Blake—that most comprehensively materialist artist—as a free-floating idealist, simply because they cannot recognize Blake’s form of materialism for what it is, in sharp distinction from that other kind of materialism, which Blake associated with Bacon, Newton and Locke.”2For Matthew J. A. Green, it is the apparent closeness of soul and body in Blake’s thinking that leads him to call Blake’s thought “visionary materialism,” a philosophical perspective founded on a “combination of spiritual perception and an emphasis on embodiment.”3And Steve Vine reads in Blake’s work a “material sublime,” one which brings together the Blakean emphases on corporeality and the particularity of experience.4These are scholarly accounts of Blake that all place emphasis on the tangibility and [End Page 357] perceptibility of the real world and real things in his work and life, even as they grapple with his visionary aspect.

There is, though, some uncertainty introduced to scholarship by the sometimes conflicting uses of the word materialism. Makdisi draws a distinction between the philosophical materialism of Bacon, Newton, and Locke—that is, the view that the world is a composition of qualities held in place by imperceptible matter, and the view that all things in the universe, including minds and thoughts, are material products—and what we might broadly call the materiality of Blake’s works. He does this to preserve a sense of Blake’s works, and his world, as real and physical objects in space and time: words painstakingly engraved in reverse onto metal plates, and the formal infusion of text and image. This also relates to the role of embodiment and the body in Blake’s art-making practices and in the substance of his writings, with Makdisi contending that body and soul are not in strict opposition. It is the issue of soul and body, too, that leads Green to argue for a visionary form of materialism in Blake, as Green seeks to reconcile the embodied model of empiricism that characterizes Blake’s epistemology with his visionariness. To some extent, the need felt by critics to understand Blake’s writings in accordance with materiality is consonant with a currently dominant strain of criticism which, as a recent handbook on the topic of literature and the body puts it, addresses “the issue of how the immediate materiality of the body can be represented in literary texts.”5Yet the body’s materiality, if not considered with a sensitivity to Blake’s idiosyncratic thought, risks leading Blake scholarship back towards philosophical materialism. It is precisely the emphasis on embodied empiricism that has seen S. H. Clark contend that the “general reinstatement of empiricist principles” in Blake’s Milton is “ultimately Lockean in origin.”6This is despite Blake’s pronouncement, via the character of Milton, that “Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies” (4:26; E98). Thus materialism might not be a helpful critical term for thinking about the reality of Blake’s work or the world as he saw it; it may, indeed, confuse more than clarify.

This essay revisits the question of Blake’s relation to materialism by focusing on the figure credited with coining the term materialism itself: George Berkeley.7I argue that we can indeed think of Blake as a particular [End Page 358] kind of empiricist thinker...


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