Review: Ankarsjö, William Blake and Religion
Book cover  

Magnus Ankarsjö. William Blake and Religion: A New Critical View. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009. viii + 163 pp. $39.95, paperback.

Christopher Rowland ( is Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford. He has written widely on Christian origins and the history of apocalypticism in Christianity. He has just completed a book on Blake and the Bible (Yale University Press, 2011).

1 This concise study of Blake’s religion starts from the recent work done on Blake’s Moravian background and the possible overlaps between Moravianism and Swedenborgianism. In the process, it seeks to elucidate what is meant by Blake’s radicalism, which, as the author points out, is a very slippery concept. The book starts with a rejection of E. P. Thompson’s theory that Blake’s mother was a Muggletonian and a consideration of the links with Unitarianism, Swedenborgianism, and Moravianism, but these last two loom largest, as they do throughout the rest of the book. The following chapter considers Blake’s religion, moving from a treatment of some of the poems in Blake’s Notebook via the apocalyptic passages in The Four Zoas to Milton and Jerusalem. There are interesting comments on the powerfully effective juxtaposition of sex and religion, which gives some of Blake’s lines such a radical feel. Ankarsjö explores Blake’s use of apocalyptic religion, especially the sense of climactic unity as male and female are united in the entry into Paradise. The chapter ends with a suggestion that the emphasis on the forgiveness of sins might be explained by Blake’s temptation to have an amorous affair with Nancy Flaxman, leading to his very personal interest in forgiveness.
  2 Ankarsjö explores the intertwining of sex and religion more thoroughly in the central chapter on Blake’s sexuality, which considers sexual elements throughout the Blake corpus. Here the supposed Moravian influence is especially brought out, with some interesting comments made about familiar poems, not least the “challenging and daring” “I Saw a Chapel All of Gold” (75-76), as well as the preoccupation with the blood of Christ (John 19.34), found particularly in “The Grey Monk.” Echoes of Moravian and Swedenborgian material are traced in Visions of the Daughters of Albion. As already noted, eschatological union is a feature of Blake’s later major works, echoing the kind of climax that we find in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. In some ways the material here retraces issues that the author has already enunciated in considering Blake’s religion. The final chapter, entitled “Blake’s Utopian ‘Colony,’” looks at plans to set up a Swedenborgian utopian community in Sierra Leone, with a mix of sexual and utopian idealism, reflected in The Book of Thel, though with Blake’s rejection of the patriarchal overtones. Throughout the book, the Swedenborgian elements that Ankarsjö identifies in the later works are less compelling than those found in the early ones.
  3 Despite its somewhat discursive style, this book is an interesting read, not least in exploring neglected areas of the Blake corpus to show how Swedenborgianism and Moravianism may have influenced Blake’s mental world. The definition of radicalism emerges from the content of the book and is focused on the attitude towards sexual issues. This may be a component of Blake’s religion, but it does not by any means represent its entirety, and it would have been helpful to see whether the various strands of antinomian biblical interpretation support the views taken in the book. We know from the history of apocalypticism that for centuries thinkers have appropriated apocalyptic images in order to understand individual psychological development. In early Christian interpretation of Revelation we find interpreters like Methodius and Tyconius relating the images either to the religious life of the individual or the struggle of the ecclesial community. Such elements have their echoes in Blake’s work. The impact of this kind of understanding in terms of wider society could have been brought out more, rather than being confined to the final chapter on utopianism. The book’s title seems to promise a broad review of Blake and religion, but in effect what we get is a rather narrowly focused discussion that omits key aspects of Blake’s concerns (the Bible, for example, and his understanding of the person of Christ). Of course, the treatment of sexual matters itself points to Blake’s radicalism as far as religion is concerned. The maintenance of taboos about sex and gender is one of the key features of any religion, not least the mainstream Christianity against which Blake reacted.
  4 In affirming the importance of the discovery of Blake’s Moravian antecedents and exploring the implications for his religion, Ankarsjö makes some pertinent points and offers a useful digest of the state of play of neglected elements in the study of Blake’s religious background. Students will find the summary chapter on Unitarianism, Swedenborgianism, and Moravianism helpful. Ankarsjö reminds us of the often mysterious and complex religious world from which Blake emerged and to which he reacted, much of which remained in his theological bloodstream.