The Antinomians and the History of Blake Criticism


By James Stanger
University of California, Riverside
January 13, 1997

There has been a long and respectable tradition linking William Blake to the thought and practices of the antinomians, a rather notorious group of radical religious sects from the mid seventeenth century. In this short paper, I wish to sound a cautionary note concerning Blake's relation to any specific strain of antinomianism, while at the same time questioning the possibility of fully separating Blake from the idea of antinomianism on account of the way his biography has been transmitted to us. This is because our current idea of William Blake is inflected not only by an understanding of antinomianism, but also by a Victorian understanding of the antinomians, for it was in the Victorian period in which Alexander Gilchrist, Algernon Swinburne and others first articulated the idea of William Blake and things "Blakean." As inheritors of this articulation, it may be quite difficult, if not impossible, to separate Blake from Gilchrist's and Swinburne's historically situated understanding and categorization of the antinomians and Blake. Therefore, it is important to understand that current investigations into Blake's apparent antinomianism might be making a bit too much out of one of Gilchrist's narratives and Swinburne's rather tenuous association of Blake with the antinomians. Of course, the idea of antinomianism was first articulated well before Blake was born, but it found new life in narratives about Blake, narratives which still greatly affect the way in which Blake is represented in the late twentieth century. Some of Blake's writings certainly bear an antinomian imprint, such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), but it is important to note that his artistic production altered its tone in subsequent years. In 1993, E.P. Thompson wrote, "the closer we are to 1650, the closer we seem to be to Blake" (46). I wish to qualify this by arguing that the closer we are to understanding how the antinomians of the 1650's were articulated in the late 19th century as well as in our own, the closer we are to understanding our current representation of William Blake.

In the classic Searching for the Millennium (1945), Julius Braunthal traces the ideology and practice of antinomianism well beyond the era of Milton and the English Civil war back to the fall of the Roman empire. In regards to this tradition, Harold Bloom has discussed Blake's relation to early Christian gnosticism in The Anxiety of Influence (1973). However, most historicist critics, such as E.P. Thompson, A.L. Morton, Christopher Hill and Jon Mee, focus on Blake's relation to the radical dissent of the mid-seventeenth century. E.P. Thompson, with characteristic revisionist enthusiasm, writes that Blake was something of a Marxist Muggletonian (xxi), and insists that "Blake's consistently radical and antinomian stance persisted within large fluctuations in his preoccupations, in his optimism or pessimism as to the outcome of the revolutionary struggles of his own time (in France or in England), in his optimism or pessimism as to his own art, and in his relation to Painite or deist (and atheist) thought" (128). A generation earlier, A.L. Morton wrote that Blake was greatly indebted to antinomian doctrines (36). Jon Mee qualifies what he considers to be Morton and Thompson's rather romantic notion that Blake somehow tapped into mid-seventeenth century antinomian discourses by arguing that Blake was part of a movement that had a life of its own in Blake's time:

at its most radical the antinomian heresy could run over into complete rejection of civil and religious authority. It is this dimension that has attracted the attention of Marxist historians of the seventeenth century like Christopher Hill and A.L. Morton, but I shall argue below that a politically radical antinomianism can be traced in the London of the 1790's. (59)

Thompson posits the year 1650 as the answer to where Blake learned his antinomian-inflected language, yet Mee finds that in the late 18th century there was a contemporary antinomianism that Blake could have participated in without partaking in an atavistic relation with religious forbears. Mee's is a most convenient move, for it eliminates the need to establish tangible links to libraries of old Muggletonian, Moravian, and Ranter texts. However, even Mee's discovery of an antinomianism contemporary with Blake shows that this movement sentimentally patterned itself after the seventeenth century antinomians, suggesting that once again, the 1650's are a seminal time for Blakean studies. There is much to support this claim, especially considering that John Milton, one of Blake's most important precursors, was active during this time; it is indeed possible that much of the antinomian language and spirit found in Blake's writings is the result of his interest in Milton, whose own writing was not bereft of certain heresies, if not those of the antinomians.

Before I discuss the significance a rather entertaining narrative concerning what happened in the Blake's summer house in the year 1790, it is necessary to give a short summary of some of the more central antinomian tenets, and a list of the more active and notorious antinomian sects. First, it was common for antinomians to value the "quickening of the spirit over the letter of the law" (Mee 58). As a result, religious ceremony and the authority of written law were both seen as opposed to the spirit of Jesus, and many antinomians felt free to break normative cultural mores. For example, antinomians were known to partake in boisterous parties which included the singing of "vile and filthy songs to the tune of Psalms, and uttered many oaths (or asseverations of oaths) and execrations: some of which were "ram me, Dam me, & c." (Collins, The Ranters Ranting 2). In fact, such "intemperance," as John Collins writes in 1650, was considered a sign of faith in Christ, for in the world of the antinomian, true faith transgresses and exceeds the normative cultural laws.

Furthermore, many antinomians held that the ten commandments were no longer binding upon Christians, as faith in Jesus, not adherence to the law, led to salvation (Thompson 16). Finally, all antinomians, as a result of their interest in acting on faith and not adhering to law, held to the immanence of God: "all the antinomians believed that God existed in man, most that he existed in all created things, and many that he had no other existence" (Morton 36). According to Thomas Edwards, it was a Ranter doctrine that "`God is essentially in every creature, and that there is as much of God in one creature, as in another, though he doth not manifest himself so much in one as in another: I saw this expression in a Book of theirs, that the essence of God was as much in the ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel'" (Jonathan Edwards, as qtd. in Morton, 42). God, then, existed in man, as the result of man's actions born of faith. According to Thompson, such notions may seem quite religious and therefore anti-liberative, but in fact "for much of the eighteenth century, the doctrine of justification by faith was--and was seen to be--the more dangerous heresy . . . because it could . . . challenge very radically the authority of the ruling ideology and the cultural hegemony of Church, Schools, Law, and even of `common-sense' Morality" (5).

There were many antinomian sects, including the Muggletonians, Ranters, Familists, Seekers, Levellers, and many others as recorded in Thomas Edwards' famous Gangraena (1646), the multivolumed work which records all of the antinomian heresies. It seems that much that has survived has been the writings about the antinomians, the vast majority being vituperatively negative, than by the antinomians themselves. In spite of much persecution, many of these sects survived well into the eighteenth century, as did a some of their writings.

One of the more interesting practices of many antinomians was the tendency, at times, to foreswear the use of clothing. This is a particularly important aspect of antinomianism in regards to William Blake because it is often suggested that the narrative about the Blake's in their summer house proves his antinomian heritage and worldview. In The Ranters Ranting Collins writes about what was apparently a typical meeting of Ranters, which included the repeated practice of open nudity. He even saw fit to illustrate the practice on the title page with a woodcut depicting their orgiastic behavior (see appendix). Collins is not the only contemporary commentator on seventeenth-century antinomians to note their fondness for nudity as a sign of election. A.L Morton, quoting Abiezer Coppe's A Fiery Flying Roll (1650), writes that "Coppe, it was said, was accustomed `to preach stark naked many blasphemies and unheard of villanies in the daytime'" (52). Peter Ackroyd notes that during the 1650's, the Quakers "went naked as a sign" (154). The practice is often commented upon in Edwards' Gangraena (167).

Nudity and antinomianism are particularly relevant to Blake studies because, beginning with Morton, an anecdote about William Blake and his wife sitting naked in their summer house enables various critics to align Blake's worldview with that of the antinomians. Alexander Gilchrist, Blake's first and most important biographer, notes that Thomas Butts, one of Blake's most important patrons, encountered Blake sitting naked in this house with Catherine, his wife:

At the end of the little garden in Hercules Buildings there was a summer-house. Mr. Butts calling one day found Mr. and Mrs. Blake sitting in this summer-house, freed from `those troublesome disguises' which have prevailed since the Fall. `Come in! cried Blake; `it's only Adam and Eve, you know!' Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character, and the garden of Hercules Buildings had to represent the Garden of Eden. (Gilchrist 112).

This narrative certainly suggests Blake's antinomianism. Yet it is important to note that Gilchrist programmatically represents this scene as an instance of antinomian behavior, though he omits any explanation of his situating Blake within the notion of antinomianism. In essence, he is implicitly presenting Blake as an antinomian. Yet only five years later Swinburne was able to explicitly link Blake to antinomianism:

    In a word, translated into crude practical language, his creed was about this: as long as a man believes all things he may do any thing; scepticism (not sin) is alone damnable, being the one things purely barren and negative; do what you will with your body, as long as you refuse it leave to disprove or deny the life eternally in your soul. That we believe is what people call or have called by some such name as `antinomian mysticism:' do anything but doubt, and you shall not in the end be utterly lost Clearly enough it was Blake's faith; and one assuredly grounded not on mere contempt of the body, but on an equal reverence for spirit and flesh as the two sides or halves of a completed structure. (96)

This is the first association of Blake with antinomianism, made some forty one years after Blake's death. Apparently, this notion has caught on. It seems, then, that where Gilchrist has supplied Butts' narrative about Blake's nudity, Swinburne has supplied an ideology that enables subsequent readers and critics, such as Morton, Thompson and Mee, to categorize Blake's biography and artistic output. It only took a few more decades for these subsequent critics to combine an amusing, possibly accurate narrative and a tenuous evaluation to establish Blake as a political radical associated with a longstanding tradition of religious dissent.

Searching the English Short Title Catalogue, I have found a text written about the Ranters which at first seems to support the somewhat popular notion of Blake as an antinomian, and which seems to support Thomas Butts' famous narrative about Blake. Still, it is important to understand that our understanding of these texts, at least when it comes to William Blake, has been tempered by narratives that have their origin in the writings of Gilchrist, Swinburne, and others, all of whom partook in a decidedly different sensibility than those who wrote about the antinomians in the seventeenth century. Swinburne, especially, was an aristocrat, and had little use for such notions; to him, they detracted from Blake's fascinating art and poetry, and as such they must be contained, or at least apologized for. It seems, then, that we have data from the seventeenth and early 19th centuries which have been passed down to us and filtered through ideologies and notions held by Swinburne. As the narrative of the Blake's in their summer house comes to us, then, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the data from its modes of transmission, the "facts" of the story from the historically situated teller.

In other words, what began as some sort of conjecture in Swinburne's 1868 biography became, at least by the publication of Peter Ackroyd's 1995 biography, Blake, if not by Morton's The Everlasting Gospel (1966), hard fact: that Blake sat naked with his wife in his summer house directly links him to the antinomian/Ranter practices as found in Collins' 1650 text, The Ranters Ranting. Perhaps it is more accurate to write that the closer we get to Swinburne's, Thompson's, and Gilchrist's idea of Blake's relation to the 1650's, the closer we also get to a decidedly Victorian notion of Blake, one which remains with us.

I think it likely, then, that the vein of historicist criticism as represented by Mee, Thompson, and Morton, may have not so much uncovered a valid historical connection than it has a fascinating amalgamation of antinomian ideology and aristocratic, Victorian sensibility. This sensibility, faced with some of Blake's more eccentric ideologies and behaviors, found in antinomianism a category that enabled them to save Blake from accusations of madness which would enable people to ignore Blake's confusing, though intriguing, thought. Yet by the twentieth century, it seems that the antinomian connection has enabled Marxist critics to find in Blake a proletarian author with a legitimate, as it were, history. The antinomians remain controversial today because they seem to represent an important historical irruption of anti-hegemonic thinking which, to some teleologies of history, constitutes an important mode of anti-capitalistic, liberated consciousness. But this investment in a Blakean antinomianism requires us to accept uncritically these Victorian accounts, and this naive reception of Victorian biography continues a patronizing attitude toward Blake that obscures the radicality of his thought. This understanding of Blake, which can be rich and nuanced at times, tends to obscure one of the possible origins of this perspective, namely in an unreliable narrative told by Gilchrist, and in a rather tenuous observation made by Swinburne.

In short, where some historicist veins of criticism would attempt to privilege Blake's connection to antinomianism at the expense of Blake's clear investment with literary culture, some formalist and post-formalist critics privilege Blake's art at the expense of understanding Blake's investment in a radical vision that lies at the heart of his artistic production. The narrative about what happened in the summer house, then, becomes a moment where each approach, formalist and historicist, can begin to contain the elements of Blake's biography which exceed and disturb the categories and approaches they wish to apply. Where more aesthetic critiques wish to ignore Blake's political radicalism and embed it within his mythology and art, more ideologically minded critics wish to ignore Blake's artistic output and concentrate upon his apparently proletarian history.

Certainly Blake belonged in one way or another to some form of religious dissent. From his pro-Republican stance of the 1790's and his "Song of Liberty" and diatribe concerning the Ten Commandments in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) to many other instances where he sounded his idiosyncratic, distinctive voice, Blake clearly dissented from his culture's normative practices. In The Marriage, Blake writes "All Bibles or sacred codes. have been the causes of the following Errors: 1. Than Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul. 2. That Energy. calld Evil. is alone from the Body. & that Reason. calld Good. is alone from the Soul" (34). Here, Blake is repeating notions of resistance to written law, and the antinomian doctrine of a radical monism and immanence. On plate 23 of The Marriage, Blake writes:

      if Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love him in the greatest degree; now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbaths God? murder those who were murderd because of him? turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? steal the labor of others to support him? bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate . . . I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments: Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules. (43)

Here we find a programmatic rejection of the Ten Commandments in favor of exuberance and energy. This certainly suggests that Blake appropriated antinomian rhetoric for his purposes, at least in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Clearly Blake's rhetoric in The Marriage is closely aligned with that of the antinomians. However, it is important to understand the milieu in which this passage was written. Blake was in the midst of rejecting Swedenborgian mysticism, and he was also writing during the first year of the French Revolution. These were heady days for those who wished to reject or qualify the rule of law. In rejecting Swedenborg, the rhetoric of antinomianism was available to Blake, and he used it in his art. However, by the mid-1790's, Blake was writing in a decidedly different way, privileging the biography of Jesus and engaging in his own negotiation with Christian symbolism. I find that if we study the way in which Blake's biography and apparent ideology have been passed down to us, we might find that the claim for Blake's absolute antinomianism might simply be a case in which Gilchrist's retelling of Butts' narrative becomes combined with Swinburne's explicit association. This particular narrative is certainly helpful for understanding Blake's Marriage, but it is not an interpretation which exhausts all of his work.

Nevertheless, the mere repetition of the rather famous and entertaining story about Blake in the summer house in and of itself is a reenactment of notions held about the antinomians, notions which have become so intertwined with narratives about Blake that it may well be impossible to completely disentangle Blake's biography from the modes in which it has been passed down to us. This suggests that we should attempt to reconstruct--or deconstruct--Swinburne's understanding of Blake, as well as reevaluate our understanding of the antinomians. From Swinburne's very first book-length essay on Blake, to some of the latest discussions of Blake's work, antinomianism remains an integral consideration to Blake's biography, particularly his life during the first year of the French Revolution (1790). However, Blake's relation to antinomianism has been configured and articulated as a convenient way to categorize, and even totalize, his complex, energetic aesthetic of the body. Certainly categories, be they aesthetic or historicist, allow us to reach some sort of understanding of complex material. However, there are times when categories, to paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein, in some ways make sense, and in other ways create nonsense. To so squarely contextualize all of Blake's work within a quasi-antinomian milieu all too easily enables us to simplify the complexities that confront us in this poet and artist who seems so radical and yet so devout, who so clearly articulated a fervent faith that is at once affirmative and utterly skeptical. In this way, we might allow some of his thought and art to speak for itself in all of its complexity, a complexity which necessarily calls for multiple, contingent categorizations that cannot fully exhaust his art.


Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Blake: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford, 1973.

Braunthal, Julius. In Search of the Millennium. London: V. Gollancz, 1945.

Collins, John. The Ranters Ranting. London: B. Alsop, 1650.

Edwards, Thomas. Gangraena: or a Catalogue and Discovery of Many of the Errours, Heresies, Blasphemies, and Pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of this Time, Vented and Acted in England in These Four Last Years. London: R. Smith, 1646.

Gilchrist, Alexander. The Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus. London: Macmillan, 1880, rpt., EP Publishing, 1973.

Mee, Jon. Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790's. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

Morton, A.L. The Everlasting Gospel: A Study in the Sources of William Blake. New York: Haskell, 1966.

Swinburne, Algernon. William Blake: A Critical Essay. London, 1868, rpt., New York: Blom Publishers, 1967.

Thompson, E.P. Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. New York: The New Press, 1993.