I wouldn’t have discovered William Blake’s longer works if I hadn’t noticed that he was a contemporary of William Paley, the Anglican clergyman whose pre-Darwinian book, Natural Theology influenced education for decades afterwards. As I’ve noted before (see “If Society Were Child’s Play” posted on May 19, 2012) these contemporaries never met and represented totally different worlds and world views. Blake was in London. Paley was up in the north. After being educated and teaching in Cambridge, he moved to a town near the mouth of the Wear River. Blake was horrified by the mills which were expanding in his time; he wanted to return England to “a green and pleasant land.” Paley delighted in all forms of mechanical and scientific development.
They were also on opposite sides in religious matters. Blake was a dissenter, raised and steeped in a tradition that did not trust the authorized religion. Paley was an organization man, a parson in the Anglican church system. Blake took Milton, a fellow dissenter, though a more conventional one, as one of his guides.
Blake’s visions are highly evocative and multi-layered, often difficult to interpret without clues from commentaries. He combined words and picture in his most powerful pieces, as if to say that words are not enough, but are needed to complement the meaning of his pictures. The pictures expand what the words say; the words both expand and limit what the pictures may “mean.” In reading Blake I’m not always sure where meaning ends and sheer emotive force takes over.
Paley is the opposite. His world is unified, and compared to Blake’s it is uncomplicated. Everything has its form and its function. Everything is ordained and by and large it is as it should be.
I say by-and-large because there are certain features of the world which Paley realizes require some justification. His explanations are less than satisfying to a person of the current century. He sees the inequalities of birth and opportunity as given. God has set things up this way in the human condition and there is no expectation that they can be changed. So Paley finds reasons why they should not be changed. While there are discomforts in the world, this is still, he seems to say, though he doesn’t use the phrase, “the best of all possible worlds.” Of course he has the idea that “suffering produces character” (a quotation from one of St. Paul’s letters) to fall back on. Anything that is difficult in this world is mere testing and cleansing to make one better fit for the next world.
William Paley and William Blake read the same Bible and found different truths in it. A great deal more scholarship and a broader understanding of the importance of the cultural context of any traditional text has widened the range of possible readings in our time. Contradictory understandings of the world from the same sacred text, however, is nothing new.