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Blake, Locke, & The Concept of “Generation”

The concept of “generation” as a level of existence in Blake’s poetry has been related to its use both in the Neoplatonists and in Swedenborg. In both instances, the term generally implies a world of generative being in a material sphere as opposed to a world of continuous being in a spiritual one.11 See, for example, George Mills Harper, The Neoplatonism of William Blake (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1961), p. 154; Kathleen Raine, Blake and Tradition, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), I, 100-05. There is, however, another possible source as undeniably central in Blake’s reactions to his philosophical milieu as any, John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, and about which Blake stated he felt “the same Contempt and Abhorrence” from first reading it “when very Young” onwards.22 William Blake, Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 476-77.

The particularly relevant passage in the Essay occurs amidst Locke’s speculations about the perception of cause-effect relationships. Having defined a cause as that which operates to produce an idea or collection of ideas, he proceeds to divide effects into two categories. The first is “creation,” an effect “wholly made new, so that no part thereof did ever exist before.” The second category, however, is extremely interesting in the light it throws on Blake’s choice of terms for a world barely human.

3 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 14th ed., (London: S. Birt et al., 1753), I, 27.
When a thing is made up of particles which did all of them before exist, but that very thing, so constituted of pre-existing particles which, considered all together, make up such a collection of simple ideas, had not any existence before as this man, this egg, rose, or cherry, etc. And this, when referred to a substance produced in the ordinary course of nature by an internal begin page 48 | back to top principle, but set on work by and received from some external agent or cause, and working by insensible ways which we perceive not, we call “generation”. . . . Thus, a man is generated. . . .3

Both the language and the concepts in this passage would indeed have been totally abhorrent to Blake, for Locke presents the generative principle in man as consisting of an “agent” working “insensibly” and uncomprehendingly on another “internal principle” and resulting in a unique configuration of “pre-existing particles.” There is no better description of the Blakean state of generation than this sterile meeting of two forces seemingly without communication, without emotion and even without a conscious purpose, but merely following the “ordinary course of nature.” It is, in fact, man’s existence reduced to its absolute natural limits in which he is seen as a combination of “simple ideas,” to use a Lockean term. Now, we know that Locke intended the passage as a neutral, objective description of simple cause and effect: sexual desire results in coitus which produces a human being made up of the atoms of the mother and father. But when Blake read it, it surely seemed to him to epitomize everything that is the exact opposite of man’s unified Edenic existence in pure imaginative perception. He found a ready-made image with a ready-made title to describe “the Barren waste of Locke and Newton,” the “philosophy of five senses” into which the eighteenth century was securely “Locked” (Blake himself makes this pun in An Island in the Moon). So, the two words, Locke and generation, become closely associated in Blake’s poetry, and both appear in conjunction with the image of looms, a mechanical form of creation which produces the veil of nature that must be rent at the apocalyptic moment. Locke, whose way of perceiving the world continually creates and sustains such generation, becomes synonymous with that state. In using the term generation, Blake gathers up the Lockean methodology in its own epitome, imbues it with his own symbolic meaning and turns it with the deftness of irony against its own source.

Nor is this the only instance of Blake ironically borrowing from Locke to illustrate the primary Lockean error. Quite obviously, the lines from “Auguries of Innocence,” “We are led to Believe a Lie / When we see not Thro’ the Eye,” are at the heart of Blake’s rebellion against the whole physical basis of eighteenth century science and philosophy. But a point generally missed is that Blake is ironically countering Locke’s statement of faith in reason by quoting a phrase from that statement. Toward the end of his Essay, Locke enumerates various kinds of errors that have crept into philosophy and rounds the discussion off by prescribing the only guard against such error. 4 Locke, Essay, II, 323. In this passage, Locke goes on to remark of divine revelation, “When he [God] illuminates the Mind with supernatural Light, he does not extinguish that which is natural. . . . Reason must be our last Judge and Guide in every Thing. . . . Consult it we must and by it examine whether it be a Revelation from God or no . . . ” (pp. 323-24). Surely Blake would have thought this the most pernicious of all lies.

Light, true light in the mind, is or can be nothing else but the evidence of the truth of any proposition; and if it be not a self-evident proposition, all the light it has, or can have, is from the clearness and validity of those proofs upon which it is received. To talk of any other light in the understanding, is to put ourselves in the dark, or in the power of the prince of darkness, and, by our own consent, to give ourselves up to delusion, to believe a lie.4
Not only does Blake use the phrase “to believe a lie” in correcting Locke’s premise that all we really know is sense data, but he follows this with Locke’s own dark-light imagery: “God appears & God is Light / To Those poor Souls who dwell in Night, / But does a Human Form Display / To those who dwell in Realms of day” (11. 129-32). As with “generation,” the trouble lies in Locke’s perspective. In saying that we must use reason to determine “whether [a revelation] be from God or no,” Locke is placing a non-existent barrier between human and divine and binding himself to a severely limited view of the world. He fails to realize that “God is man & exists in us & we in Him.” Again, Locke’s definition of generation both epitomizes such a narrow, physical, totally rational concept of man and perfectly describes the mental state of those who dwell in so circumscribed a world. This is the dual role which made Locke’s work so inviting a quarry from which Blake could build his image of the fallen world.

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