WAS WILLIAM BLAKE A SATANIST?
In 2018, we declared English poet and artist William Blake one of our Patron Sinners, and critics today remember him as a visionary of the European literary movement we call Romantic Satanism.
But was Blake ACTUALLY a Satanist, in the modern religious sense of the word? Was he, for lack of a better term, one of us?
Well…no. But not for the reasons you’d probably expect. Nor is it as simple to get to that “no” as people might imagine if they never gave it much thought.
This isn’t really just about Blake, of course. No matter who we’re talking about, questions of religious identity are almost always more complex, more nuanced, and in this case, just plain more strange than we expect. Belief, like art, is rarely ever just one thing.
We selected our first Patron Sinners three years ago, singling out historical figures whom we believed best embodied our Satanic values.
Thus far, only one of the selected Sinners is an actual, professing Satanist–in fact, many were devotees of conventional mainstream religions instead. (Nobody’s perfect, sadly.)
We’re not venerating the people per se, but rather their actions and their ideas, or at least the cross-section of them that appeal to us. And we are just about to open nominations for our 2021 class, by the way.
From the beginning, Blake was an obvious choice, not only a renowned literary figure in our time but a lurid and mysterious artistic and social outsider in his own time.
“Blake was a nonconformist who associated with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day,” writes the American Academy of Poets. “In defiance of 18th-century neoclassical conventions, he privileged imagination over reason in the creation of both his poetry and images, asserting that ideal forms should be constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions. He declared in one poem, ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.'”
He also had some wild ideas about Satan, although sources like the academy do not always bring these up when reviewing his legacy. Blake’s 1793 poetic text The Marriage Of Heaven & Hell praised the devil as a vital component of human living, and declared among other things that Satan’s agenda of liberation “has been adopted by both parties” (that is, saints and sinners alike). He calls Satan both “tempter” and “messiah.”
In the poet’s mind, “evil” was a word used to vilify “energy,” which is to say, instinct, impulsiveness, entropy, lust, and worldliness, while “good” was merely a term used to privilege more conservative qualities. In Blake’s estimation, since “all deities reside in the human breast,” spiritual matters were perhaps emotional ones. “Energy, called evil, is alone from the body; and reason, called good, is alone from the soul,” he preached.
In works like America: A Prophecy, Blake imagined the conventional idea of god as a shallow and vain figure. But to call this character just “god” is misleading, since Blake’s prophetic works featured a baffling pantheon of cosmic powers and roles.
“Blake’s true god was the human imagination,” poet Michael Burch writes. “He did not need to be saved by Christ” but rather by “the salvation of his own imagination.”
The Romantic Satanists wrote around the dawn of the 19th century and for decades after, noted for their scandalous treatment of religious topics like god–whom they generally regarded as a tyrant–and the devil, whom they praised as the spirit of liberty–or libertinism.
The terms “Satanic” and “Satanism” were contemporary to writers like Byron, Shelley, and Hugo, and not really intended as a compliment: 19th century narc Robert Southey scourged his fellow poets as a “Satanic School” in 1821, apparently unaware that this was the coolest goddamn thing anybody could possibly have said about them.
Scholarly writer Maximilian Rudwin went so far as to say in his 1931 The Devil In Legend & Literature that “Satanism is not a part of Romanticism, it IS Romanticism.” However, modern academics/spoilsports move with algorithmic speed to qualify that they weren’t Satanists like we’re Satanists, because to them Satanism was not a religion.
“The Romantic Satanism of the poets was not a Satanism in the form of religious beliefs” but rather “artistic and political expression” the trinity of authors behind the 2016 book The Invention of Satanism insist.
This of course is an artificial distinction: There’s no reason artistic and political expression cannot also be religious. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone consuming any art or political output and remaining unsullied by religious opinions.
But more importantly, in the case of Blake it’s just not true: His art was about almost nothing except his somewhat bizarre religious views on the nature of the soul and life and his radical reinterpretation of conventional religiosity into what Burch calls a “cult of one.” He titled his poems “prophecies” for a reason.
But I did say up front that despite these arguments, William Blake was not really a Satanist as we use that term today, and that’s true. But there’s one very critical reason why:
Because he did not say so himself. In fact, Blake thought of himself as a good Christian.
His relationship with Satan–whom he believed to be his own spiritual companion–was part and parcel of his idea of Christianity. Of course, Blake’s ideas about his religion were so outre that almost any other believer would have called him a heretic–a heretic at best.
The truth is, “Satanist” as we use the word today would be an anachronism during this time. The word existed, but it could never have meant a religion like Modern Satanism, for which the framework did not yet exist–largely because people like Blake hadn’t created it yet.
The degree of religious nuance we rely on couldn’t encompass Romantic Satanists, for the same reason that the strongest person in the world cannot ever pick themselves up.
This poses the question: If William Blake were alive today, would he be a Satanist? Well, it’s not for us to know. But we wouldn’t shut the door on him.