great chain

William Blake was a member of a social class with a long history of radical dissent. The Artisan class which he, as the son of a hosier, was born into and consequently remained in as an engraver later in his life, had opposed in turn first the landed mercantile aristocracy in the late eighteenth century and then the emerging industrial capitalism of the early nineteenth. However, in order to determine whether Blake’s visionary world had any relevance to the political realities of the period it is necessary to briefly outline what these were. Whilst history usually records these as the emergence of rationalism, utilitarianism, science in a form we now recognise, and political economy, it is precisely because these forces were destined to eventually become the core values of contemporary society that we must beware of recording them as the only significant movements of the time-victors always have the privilege of writing history to suit themselves. In the London of the 1780’s that Blake lived in there was, in reaction to the spread of the aforementioned values, an explosion of anti-rationalism with a re-emergence of illuminism, masonic rituals, animal magnetism, millenarian speculation and mysticism with the formation of several new groups such as the Rosicrucians, Behmenists and Swedenborgians (of whom Blake was reputedly an avid disciple) to name but a few. New factions of religious belief were also growing and Blake is known to have been actively involved in the setting up of The Church of The New Jerusalem which was a millenarian group who believed that the apocalypse and the creation of God’s kingdom on earth was imminent. Millenarianism was a particularly important idea for artists of the day, including Blake. Millenarianists took the rebellion of the American colonies and the French Revolution as signs of the prophesied New Age in the Bible which was to last for a thousand years before Christ would come again and create ‘a new…

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