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Healing the Spirit: William Blake and Magnetic Religion

  • Robert W. Rix

…plus d’informations

  • Robert W. Rix
    University of Copenhagen

Corps de l’article

Blake and Swedenborg

It is a well-established fact that William and his wife Catherine in April 1789 attended the first General Conference of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in Great Eastcheap, London, and that they both put their signatures to a document of forty-two propositions in support of its doctrines ("New Jerusalem Church" 122-24). But, if many of the mystical-magnetic healers in question claimed to derive their theories of morality, society, state and cosmos from the teachings of the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, this was based on certain radical readings of the prophet that were treated as heresies by the more conservative clerics who came to dominate the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in London. The conflict is important for a consideration of Blake. One of the great unexplained mysteries in Blake research has been why he suddenly withdrew his support for the Swedenborgian Church to launch a virulent attack on the prophet in the satire The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.[1]

The relations between body and spirit, blindness and vision, sexual philosophy and the millennium are staples of Blake's writing which all revolve around the central concern of restoring man to spiritual health. Though these aspects have a meaning of their own within the specific mythology Blake invents, criticism has missed out on an important context by treating them as merely literary metaphors. What I aim to demonstrate is the extent to which Blake's writing shows fundamental sympathies with a contemporary practice of "healing the spirit," which made great progress in London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This was a development of ideas based in the popular notion of Animal Magnetism, which was given a decisively "spiritual" turn in Swedenborgian circles. I will show not only how Blake's recurrent references to sickness and cure are not just central metaphors but also determine his narrative structure and shape his poetics at the most fundamental level. More importantly, to a degree that has not been fully realized, I will reveal how Blake drew upon contemporary theories and actual practices of Swedenborgian "healers" operating in London. These he either befriended or would have known through their publications, in which they pursued mystical pursuit akin to his own.

Mesmer and Swedenborg

To enable an evaluation of Blake's ideas, we need to examine the context and background of his sources. A relatively unexplored area of eighteenth-century religion is the merger between the theories of Swedenborg and the Austrian physicist Franz Anton Mesmer. In his treatment of patients, Mesmer updated old occult theories of hypnotism with new discoveries in the field of electricity by Luigi Galvani, Benjamin Franklin, and others. He theorized that there was an invisible fluid—related to phlogiston, light and electricity—which permeated the universe and affected human bodies like a loadstone does iron. Mesmer believed that through "magnetizing" the patient one could redirect the fluid and thereby rid the patient of the his or her complaint. This discovery (or rather rediscovery) came to be known at the time as Animal Magnetism. Though the orthodox medical establishment rejected Mesmer as a quack, he himself maintained, in the true spirit of Enlightenment science, that his curative regimen of magnetic healing was based on ascertainable laws of nature.

Seeping from the Mesmerist Harmonial societies into Masonic circles (where members often overlapped), a determinedly spiritualist form of Animal Magnetism gained ground and spread widely as a healing praxis. This was especially the case among Swedenborgian Masonic circles, where it blended in with old mainstays of Cabalism, Illuminism, and various meditative techniques. In 1789, the Swedish Mason Göran Ulrik Silfverhjelm (Swedenborg's nephew and leader of the Swedenborgians in Sweden since the autumn of 1787) visited England and reported of great progress both for Magnetism and the New Church (Johannisson 91).

Many mystics in France and Britain balanced healing techniques with investigations of other realms. Especially the Swedenborgians, who in Swedenborg's idea of "correspondences" saw how the material and the spiritual were ultimately connected, took an interest in magnetic techniques. It is thus no coincidence that it was the founder of the orthodox Swedenborgian lodge Rite of Swedenborg, Marquis de Thomé, who was called to give evidence before the Royal Commission in France, when this had been set down in 1785 to investigate the veracity and demonstrable effects of magnetic cures.

The Swedenborgian magnetizers saw themselves as essentially faith healers curing the underlying moral disease of the patient that had manifested itself as somatic symptoms. Magnetic cures thus became a vehicle for bringing about the Swedenborgian belief in the "New Jerusalem," which was not an external happening but an internal transformation of the individual once he had rejected theological error (and embraced Swedenborg's true reading of the Scripture). To the Swedenborgians, the real benefit of Magnetism was the revelation of divine truth and wisdom. The Swedenborgian leader Silfverhjelm wrote in a book of 1787 that even though he considered the healing properties of Magnetism unassailable, this aspect is of little importance compared to its real worth, which is to "både på bredden och höjden utvidga HERRENS rike" ("extend the Kingdom of the LORD both in breadth and width"). Magnetism is not just an "Introduktion i Himmelska saker" ("introduction to Heavenly matters"), but also a way to turn one's heart to God (Silfverhjelm 2).[2]

In the mystical-spiritualist version of Magnetism that evolved, Mesmer's magnets, the baquets (magnetic baths) and other nostrums were abandoned and the pseudo-scientific interest in alternative medicine gave way to the exploration of unmapped regions of human consciousness. To induce a trancelike condition became an end in itself, as it enabled various degrees of enhanced perception. It was claimed that during the magnetic trances, or artificially induced somnambulism, dead or distant spirits channelled their messages to the patient. These were states Mesmer had discovered but written off as unimportant side effects in curing the patient. In the words of Robert Darnton, Mesmer's original claim to introduce a new scientific therapy "escaped his control and had run wildly through supernatural regions where he believed they had no business [. . .]. Mesmerists tended increasingly to neglect the sick in order to decipher hieroglyphics, manipulate magic numbers, communicate with spirits" (69-70).

One of the mystical English Masons who confessed to a belief in Swedenborg was the notorious General Rainsford, who was an experimenter in the art of spiritualist Magnetism, as it appears from his correspondence.[3] Another was the Swedenborgian painter Philip de Loutherbourg, who opened a magnetic clinic around 1789. He attracted a large number of customers; one report said "three Thousand People have waited for Tickets at a time" (Winter 18). There was also Benedict Chastanier, a high-ranking Mason from France, who was resident in London for over 25 years and one of the organizers of Swedenborgian meetings here during the 1780s. His signature can be found in support of the New Jerusalem Church alongside Blake's on the document of forty-two proposals. For a ten-month period during 1786, Chastanier served as the chief assistant to John Bonniot de Mainauduc, the high priest among magnetizer in England. De Mainauduc saw Fludd, Kircher, Swedenborg, and especially Paracelsus (Blake's intellectual hero) as the real discoverers of Animal Magnetism, claiming that Mesmer had debased the true mystical wisdom of the art. In the conclusion to his Lectures, de Mainauduc claimed to perform "the Almighty's real science," which he aligns with the spiritual cures performed by Christ and his disciples. The object of Christ and Magnetism was the same "to escape future punishment and enjoy eternal bliss" (de Mainauduc 222). On the list of de Mainauduc's patients, one again finds Rainsford and de Loutherbourg, as well as the miniature painter Richard Cosway, and Blake's fellow engraver and friend, William Sharp (Fara 163 n83). Like another of Blake's old friends, the sculptor John Flaxman, these were all connected with Swedenborgian circles in London, such as the Theosophical Society, which was the free debating forum to develop into the New Jerusalem Church in 1788.[4] In the same vein, the Behemist visionary Mary Pratt claimed that de Loutherbourg dispensed his cures with divine providence (Pratt 9). Similarly, the Swedenborgian Chastanier also set up his own clinic at his home where a group of Swedenborgian Masons who went under the name the Universal Society met (Chastanier 17-34). An advertisement of 16 June 1786 announces: "INTELLECTUAL TREATMENT OF DISEASE BY SENSATIONS, HITHERTO CALLED ANIMAL MAGNETISM" (Lyson 2: 156-57). It is clear that what was at stake here went beyond a limited interest in the physical body. The new direction was deeply concerned with religious redemption.

Theories of magnetism shared long and traditional connections with notions of a healthy coitus (Fara 137). The most notable propagator of this was the popular magnetizer, Dr. James Graham. Graham explained his medical cure as the unblocking of man's ability to spiritual influences. The material creation, of which man's body was part, contained in it the vital principle, which could only be brought to life if opened to its spiritual origin. Graham described his own electrical theory in terms of applying to his patients the "irresistible and salubrious influences of electricity or the elementary fire, air, and magnetism," which "constitute [. . .] the material soul of the universe:—the ETERNALLY SUPREME JEHOVA himself" (Sketch 12). Though Graham was not a Swedenborgian, in publications such as A Discourse [on Isaiah xl. 6] . . . wherein the Nature and Manner of the Resurrection of the Human Body, and the Immortality . . . of the Soul! Are . . . Explained, he entertained in a belief in wholesome sex as a means to regenerated men and instigate the Millennium, which could also be found with a branch of radical sexualist Swedenborgians, who were excluded from the New Jerusalem Church in 1789. And, yet the major difference was that the renegade Swedenborgians based their theories on a central, though little known, dimension of Swedenborg's theology, which saw the sexual union as a means of achieving "spiritual influx." This was a part of Swedenborg's teaching which the New Church attempted to silence (Odhner 26-30). But though it cannot be established if Blake took sides in this debate, it is evident that his millennial ideas concerning the sexual union of man and woman as a means to restore the androgynous state of the human in the fallen world aligned with the banned readings of Swedenborg.[5]

Blake and Spiritual Healing

To examine Blake's relation to the circumscribed interpretations of Swedenborgian vision, we must begin with the shakeout in the New Jerusalem Church in 1789-90. It is clear that he not only confined his comments to appraisals of Swedenborg's words but also often to what is "asserted in the society" (ann. to Divine Love 608), showing that he takes up a discussion not just with the dead prophet but equally with the interpreters of Swedenborg he met. Developing this fact, John Howard was the first to point out that Blake's critique of Swedenborg in the Marriage may be related to developments within the New Jerusalem Church (Howard 19-52).

Soon after the Church was established, an internal shakeout took place, conservatives seeking to streamline Swedenborgianism to respectability. This meant a necessary dissociation from the Masonic and mystical appropriations of the prophet. In 1789, shortly after Blake had signed, six members who propounded a sexual-enthusiast reading of Swedenborg were excluded. A belief banished from the New Jerusalem Church was that Swedenborg's visions could be augmented through experiments with hypnotic trances and spirit communication. Swedenborg's whole theology is based on his communications with spirits of the dead. Thus, some Swedenborgian followers saw this as an endorsement for establishing similar communications themselves. However, the view that dominated in the official New Jerusalem Church was that Swedenborg's visions were divinely authorized to him alone and his writing should be considered a complete and finished gospel.

The Swedenborgian magnetizers claimed that the access to true religion—acceptance of which was the basis for "healing the spirit"—was achieved through magnetic trances or artificial somnambulism. This was a state induced on the patients by the magnetizer through early hypnotic techniques. In fact, all communication with the Divine was seen as the result of trances. Swedenborg had described that he communicated with spirits in Heaven while in trance, and as one Swedenborgian writes, "we conceive, just the same ground for affirming that Isaiah, and Daniel, and John, were Mesmerised, as that Swedenborg was" (Bush 22). That the prophets' prophecies were given to them by spirits was a commonplace concept, and many years later, spiritualists of the nineteenth century would further believe that this was the basis of revelations in all religions from East to West (Taves 182-93). This notion is known as "spiritualist universalism" and is accepted in Blake's All Religions are One (1788), where he speaks of the universal human "Genius," which by "the Ancients was call'd an Angel & spirit & Demon," and asserts that "The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call'd the Spirit of Prophecy" (1).

Experiments with Spiritualism, however, were an unwelcome tendency that caused controversy in the New Jerusalem Church at the time we know Blake was affiliated. The New Jerusalem Church was trying to consolidate itself as a respectable Christian church in a political milieu that after the French Revolution had become increasingly hostile to religious dissent. Thus the "enthusiasm" of spirit communication was seen to seriously compromise Swedenborgianism. The controversy that developed over Spiritualism is even more interesting than that over sex, which critics have previously discussed as relevant to understand Blake's alienation from the New Jerusalem Church, because he directly addresses the issue. In fact, this may have contributed to Blake's alienation from the New Jerusalem Church.

Robert Hindmarsh, the leader in the Great Eastcheap congregation, published in his journal New Magazine of Knowledge concerning Heaven and Hell a series of hostile letters and articles officially denouncing all Swedenborgians who practiced Magnetism as a means to visionary experiences. In the May issue of 1790, a letter speaks negatively of "the numerous persons who now practice animal magnetism [. . .] in the habit of conversing with spirits." The correspondent warns that "obtaining information concerning the spiritual world, by means of animal magnetism, is highly dangerous. And ought not to be pursued," because during elevation in trances "the removal of liberty and rationality, which are the residence of the Lord in man, insinuates things contrary to divine order." The reason for this is that only "enthusiatic spirits converse with Enthusiasts" ("Letter to the Editor 124-26).[6]

The anti-Spiritualism letters that appeared in Hindmarsh's magazine were part of a campaign to rid the New Church of its association with the occult interpretations of Swedenborg that held sway among a group of notorious mystical international Masons. In another letter of November 1790, the Masons of the revolutionary society at Avignon are attacked head-on for being the main propagators of spiritualist magnetism. The correspondent scorns them as "mystico-cabbalistico-magnetical practitioners" ("Letter to the Editor" 401-06). Connected at some time or another with the society at Avignon were such notorious eighteenth-century Masonic figures as Pernety, de Thomé, Grabianka, and not least, Cagliostro. They were all famous for their experiments with Magnetism and spirit communication. Indeed, Blake's consistent exploration of supernatural realms as a resource for higher truth is likely to have been a contributing factor in his alienation from the New Jerusalem Church. At least, he makes the defense of Vision a central issue in his annotations to Swedenborg's Divine Love and Divine Wisdom. This book had been published in 1788, and Blake probably annotated it before composition of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as it shows a sympathetic reception (Bentley, Blake Books 128).

In several of his comments, Blake does not take up an argument with Swedenborg but with his interpreters. The annotations were made at a time when Blake still accepted and tried to accommodate the Swedish prophet's ideas to his own. Therefore, he attacked those interpreters whom he felt corrupted the true potential of Swedenborg's teaching. Blake writes: "Many perversely understand him [Swedenborg] as if man while in the body was only conversant with natural Substances, because themselves are mercenary & worldly & have no idea of any but worldly gain" (ann. to Divine Love 606). For Blake, the great value of Swedenborg was that his explorations of Vision had shown the way for others. So against the "worldly" interpreters who understand Swedenborg to say that man's experiences are limited to the natural universe, Blake sets out to explicate Divine Love and Divine Wisdom with the intent to prove that license is granted here for everyone to pursue Vision. In 1788, Blake annotated Lavater's Aphorisms on Man, making clear that the divine knowledge—the object of the mystic's contemplations—can only be channelled to men on earth through the visitation of spirits who do not belong on earth:

Man is bad or good. as he unites himself with bad or good spirits. [. . . I]t is impossible to know God or heavenly things without conjunction with those who know God & heavenly things. therefore, all who converse in the spirit, converse with spirits. [& these are either Good or Evil]. For these reasons I say that this Book [. . .] is written by consultation with Good Spirits because it is Good.


In the copy of Swedenborg's Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, Blake brackets the prophet's claim that man may receive "Influx from above" and come into spiritual Wisdom "by laying asleep the Sensations of the Body," and further on he explains: "this is while in the Body" (606). Later, he seizes on a paragraph where Swedenborg says, "the natural Man can elevate his Understanding to superior Light as far as he desires it". Under the lines, he writes: "Who shall dare to say after this that all elevation is of self & is Enthusiasm & Madness" (606). This seems to raise an argument against those interpreters among the Swedenborgians who believed that elevation to visionary states entailed the removal of the enraptured person's liberty and rationality. Blake cast his support in favor of individual visionary experience, which later came to be considered a heresy in the New Jerusalem Church. The Church's determination to eject of some of the more radical ideas of visionary communication coincides roughly in time with Blake launching an attack on Swedenborg in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This correlation of historical background and literary production can undoubtedly help us to understand what moved Blake to write this pro-visionary tract as an attack on Swedenborg, the New Jerusalem Church's prophet, for being one of those who has "the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise" (Marriage 42). When Blake wrote the satiric The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (presumably in 1790), he then commented on Swedenborg's spirit communications relating to such accusations. Swedenborg's writings are not the means to regenerate man, as "He conversed with Angels who are all religious, & conversed not with Devils who all hate religion, for he was incapable thro' his conceited notions" (43). In fact, this particular line may be in direct response to the letters printed in the New Magazine of Knowledge of 1790.

It is important to note, however, that what Blake attacks is the claim that Swedenborg was uniquely privileged in his access to the wisdom to be got through communications with the otherworldly realm. This was probably to provoke the reactionary New Churchmen, who did not allow their members to experiment with trances, and which explains partially why Blake left the New Jerusalem Church. That Blake, however, could still find inspiration in the visionary world beyond the "Philosophy of the five senses" has been noted by Morton Paley, who has shown that Blake's interest extends to a long list of borrowings and adaptations in works engraved long after the Marriage was completed and while it was still being sold ("A New Heaven" 65-67).

What I will now trace through the evidence found in Blake's poetry and illustrations is the extent to which he maintained an intellectual relationship with the Swedenborgian magnetizers' theories of "healing the spirit," which were circumscribed by the New Jerusalem Church. It is important here to note that even in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake makes use of magnetic references. According to de Mainauduc, all beings of the created universe are made up of "pores," which "allow the passage or circulation" of the invisible "fluid" which "the Almighty Wisdom" has made to "pass in and out of all forms" (19-21) in the universe. The "free circulation of healthy atoms through the entire form is necessary" (36) for it is in this that "the Great Creating Hand" (58) has installed man with "sensible strings [. . .] for the purpose of transmitting impressions" controlled by the "Power" of "a very superior SOMETHING" (67). De Mainauduc links the "Spirit" intimately with the "Corporeal": for "though [according to the Bible] there appears to be two powers in Man," one being the Spirit, the other the Body," the latter is "perfectly dependable on the former" (68-71). When Blake explains his statement that "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul" because "the chief inlets of Soul in this age" are men's senses, and that "Energy is the only life and is from the Body," it supports Mainaduc's theory of an energetic divinity operating on "the nervous system," which is the "medium through which every impression received [. . .] is announced [. . .] under five separate divisions, called senses" (42). In the Marriage, Blake refers to his art as "salutary and medicinal [. . .] displaying the infinite which was hid." Magnetic cures worked from the idea that they would cleanse the blockages in man that prevented celestial influences. Blake maintains that his "medicinal" art could do the same: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite" (39). The traditional perception of art as catharsis, originating with Aristotle, here mixes with de Mainauduc's claim that there is a "superior" world of objects "withheld from us" due to the "size" of our perceptive organs (42).

Instead of Mesmer's various magnets, de Mainauduc and the new generation of magnetic healers believed that the body could be influenced simply by the magnetizer fixing his gaze on the patient, staring intensely into his or her eyes. This was an early hypnotic technique often depicted in contemporary prints (Fara 140, 144). Blake also draws such a scene of magnetic attraction on plate 16 of America (1793). The illustration shows a woman stretching out her arm and hand in a hypnotic gesture towards a young boy held in suspense. The image of the boy, docilely resting his arms on a pile of books and with his hands folded in prayer, has traditionally been interpreted as a scene of educational brainwashing (Behrendt 119). The snake that starts forward from between the woman's legs, also fixing its gaze on the boy, further spells out the image's connection with Magnetism; the snake's ability to terrify its prey into submission was often chosen as an example when natural philosophers speculated on optical powers of enchantment. Thus, in the early nineteenth century, the Encyclopedia Britannica still defined the snake's gaze as analogous to magnetic attraction (Fara 145).

Magnetic phenomena become metaphors illustrating important themes in Blake's mythological narratives as he developed it up through the 1790s. De Mainauduc taught that life depended on an immaterial principle, and he founded his ideas of magnetic cures on the cosmology in which the nervous system of the human body is placed in a much greater "atmospheric" system made up of "conductors" or "Atmospheric Nerves" (45). His key diagnosis of sickness was that the fluidity and circulation of the atoms flowing into and out of the body was blocked, thus reaching "a state of solid coagulation" (8). The treatment is thus essentially a spiritual process in which the magnetizer uses his spiritual power to re-establish a free circulation of the atoms by breaking down the impediment (115-116, 69, 106). By contrast, in The Book of Urizen, Blake describes how the loss of vision of men on earth coincides with "their Nerves change into Marrow/And hardening Bones began/In swift diseases and torments [. . .]. The Senses inward rush'd shrinking" (82). The Urizenic universe is in turn described negatively as "A wide world of solid obstruction" (72) and "obstruction, a Solid/ Without fluctuation, hard as adamant" (Book of Los 91). Quite in accordance with a magnetic paradigm, the perfected state of the universe is one in which "nature felt thro' all her pores [. . .] enormous revelry" (Europe 66) and the fallen world of solidification is one in which man lives in "ghastly torment sick" (Book of Urizen 76).[7]

If Blake's poetry of the 1790s shows his familiarity with magnetic diagnostics, it is seemingly referred to only in negative contexts. What we see in the later works, however, is an increasingly stronger commitment to magnetic therapy as spiritual healing. It now becomes a principal metaphor that organizes the narrative structures as well as forms the basis for his poetics. Blake's intensified use of a magnetic lexicon correlates with what many critics see as Blake's "conversion" around 1800 by which he found new spiritual faith. This "conversion," as Morton D. Paley has been noted, also entailed a "return to Swedenborg."

Between September 1800 and 1803, Blake was separated from the London circles of spiritualist Magnetism, as he had taken up residence with his patron William Hayley in Felpham, Sussex. It is interesting, however, that Hayley took a keen interest in Animal Magnetism, especially his purchase of an "electrical machine," which functioned as a healing "shower bath" (Bishop 95-96). This makes it clear that Hayley would have understood the connection Blake makes between poetry and electrical phenomena in a letter: "My fingers Emit sparks of fire with Expectation of my future labours" (Letter to Hayley. 16 Sep. 1800, 709). Apparently, Blake's belief in magnetic phenomena did not diminish during his sojourn. Even though we know nothing of the exact circumstances under which Blake received his poetic inspiration, his personal correspondence during the years in Felpham shows an increased interest in attributing the origin of his poetry to spirit communication, whether these were in fact trance-like somnambulism or not. For example, he confirms that he speaks daily and hourly with his dead brother Robert who dictates to him (Letter to Hayley. 6 May 1800, 705), and that he can "converse with [. . .] friends in Eternity. See Visions, Dream Dreams, & Prophecy [. . .]." (Letter to Butts. 25 Apr. 1803, 728-29) and calls himself nothing but a "Secretary" as the "Authors" of his poetry are "in Eternity" (Letter to Butts. 6 Jul. 1803, 730).

Making spirits of Eternity the authors of poetic output was not unknown within magnetic circles. An interesting figure in the milieu of magnetizers was George Baldwin, a friend of Cosway. As British consul in Egypt, he built a special temple for magnetic healing in the consulate grounds in Alexandria. Here, Baldwin experimented with magnetising the Italian poet Cesare Avena de Valdiere. While in enraptured states, de Valdiere poured out numerous verses dictated by spirits, which Baldwin then recorded and later published—first time in a privately published edition of 1801.[8] Having made spirit communications an integral part of his poetic composition technique, while in Felpham, it seems only natural that Blake would have renewed his contact with the Magnetic circles upon his return to London. What we do know from a letter of 18 December 1804 is that Blake's wife, Catherine, was cured with the use of electricity, as the poet praises a "Mr. Birch" for his "Electrical Magic" (Letter to Hayley. 18 Dec. 1804, 759), having cured Catherine's rheumatism. Dr. John Birch was a surgeon of St. Thomas's Hospital in London (where de Mainauduc had been a student in 1789), where he established a department for treating patients with medical electricity. Birch describes his methods and machines in Essay on the Mechanical Application of Electricity, which was published and sold in 1802 by Joseph Johnson (Paley, Apocalypse 82). In his letters, Blake several times refers to Birch in favourable terms (Letters to Butts. 11 Sep. 1801, 717; and 25 Apr. 1803, 728). It appears from the correspondence that Birch was a mutual friend of both the Butts family and the Blakes.[9]

From The Four Zoas and onwards, dream visions take a more central place in Blake's poetry. The Four Zoas was started as "VALA" with the subtitle "a DREAM / of Nine Nights," probably around 1797. Blake revised the poem extensively until around 1807 or perhaps even later; the most significant revisions taking place after Blake's so-called post-1800 "conversion," which also entailed a "return to Swedenborg. Much of the dream material, of course, comes from the work being inspired by Edward Young's Night Thoughts (for which Blake had made a large number of designs) and should not be interpreted as related to magnetic practices. But the somnambulistic dimension of the poem undoubtedly uses Swedenborgian spiritual visions as a backdrop. Because Blake takes a renewed interest in Swedenborgian concepts throughout, as Peter Otto has recently shown.

"Night the Ninth Being The Last Judgment," the last Book and resolution of the poem, has elements that clearly mark an interest in magnetic therapeutics. Both Vala and the aspect from which she has been separated, Luvah, enter a beautiful garden. The garden is the realm of reverie, in which they will renew "their ancient golden age" (395). Here, Luvah is invisible, and Vala cannot communicate with him except in dream visions. Thus, she enters "the pleasant gates of sleep" to find that he "like a spirit stand in the bright air." The visionary experience restores her faith and is represented in the metaphor of Luvah performing a somnambulistic trance healing: "he laid his hand on my head/And when he laid his hand upon me from the gates of sleep I came/Into this bodily house [. . .]" (397). Blake's plot of the reunion of the divided Zoas, the "Four Mighty Ones" once "in every Man; a Perfect Unity" (300), share its mystical and cabalistic sources with the Swedenborg inspired magnetic healers, who believed that, through the visionary experiences of hypnotic trances, one could reunite one's divided consciousness with forgotten aspects of a primordial, unified world soul. To illustrate this, we find in Blake's manuscript (Night IX) a highly finished drawing that shows a turbaned woman, her head resting on a large pouf, and her transparent Eastern dancing costume revealing her genitals. She is clearly in a trancelike condition, and, as Brian Wilkie and Mary Lynn Johnson have suggested, the pipe-playing girl hovering above her is possibly a genie (227).

Chronologically, it is probably no coincidence that Milton, Blake's first complete post-"conversion" poem in illuminated printing, is Blake's most "magnetic" work. In correspondence with de Mainauduc's belief in a "universal connection" between all living beings (de Mainauduc 15), Blake writes that "Within the vegetated mortal Nerves [. . .] every Man born is joined/ Within into One mighty Polypus [. . .]" (Milton 127). But the notion of Milton descending in spiritual form also distinctly points beyond de Mainauduc to notions of Spiritualism current among those Swedenborgian healers, who had learned from him but established a practice ultimately independent of both him and directly against the conservative men of the New Jerusalem Church.

The hostile letters that appeared in the Swedenborgian New Magazine of Knowledge concerning Heaven and Hell in 1790 warned against "the numerous persons who now practise animal magnetism [. . .] in the habit of conversing with spirits" as "highly dangerous," because it will "reduce them into [. . .] a state," where "they have no longer the power of acting from their own will and reason, but become the passive organs for spirits to speak through" ("Letter to the Editor" 124). On plate 22 of Milton, Blake, however, accepts that "Los enterd into my soul" and "his terrors now posse'd me whole," so he becomes "One Man with him arising in my strength". This spirit possession is followed by an attack on those "Churches" that "perpetuate the Laws of Sin," among which we find an unspecified "They," who have "perverted Swedenborgs Visions in Beulah & in Ulro/ To destroy Jerusalem as a Harlot & her Sons as Reprobates" (117). Though Blake goes on to list Swedenborg's mistakes, he presumably also remembered the debate over the prophet's sexual theories in the New Jerusalem Church.[10]

In Milton, spirit communications are described in biographical terms as both the origin and end of Blake's poetry:

Los joind with me he took me [. . .]

My Vegetated portion was hurried from Lambeths shades

He set me down in Felphams Vale & prepard a beautiful

Cottage for me that in three years I might write all these Visions.


Spiritism is the central issue around which the plot revolves, for it is through the communication with spirits that the fallen world may recapture a Golden Age. Blake returns several times to Milton's sleep and dreams in reference to somnambulistic visions, where his "Sleeping Body" makes companion with the divine "Spirits of the Seven Angels," "walking" with them "as one walks/ In sleep" (109). The poem introduces the peculiar sounding concepts of Allamanda and Bowlahoola. The former is the nervous system of man and the apparatus for giving and receiving communications with other realities. Here (dead) souls "With neither lineament nor form" can take residence, as the body will "clothe them" (123). Bowlahoola "is the Stomach in every individual man" (121). The abdominal region was especially important for the Magnetists, but Blake also expands it to include the heart and lungs (121). These regions of the body are essential for raising man to become a divine body. "Were it not for Bowlahoola & Allemanda," Blake writes, "No Human Form but only a Fibrous Vegetation [. . .] without Thought or Vision" would exist (120). When Milton descends from heaven, the Sons ask for permission to chain him in Bowlahoola. The reason for this is that it is the abode of the poetic genius: "In Bowlahoola Los's Anvils stand & his Furnaces rage [. . .]. The bellows are the Animal lungs: the Hammers the Animal Heart/The Furnaces the Stomach for digestion" (120-21). All unbodied spirits descend to Los here (138).

Milton is called upon as the spirit of the greatest of Christian poets to cure the sickness and failure of faith of faith in his nation. In this, Blake's vocabulary referring to magnetic therapy is unmistakable. In the beginning of the poem, Blake invokes his "Muses" to "Come into my hand/ By your mild power; descending down the Nerves of my right arm" (96). The cure is figured in the terms of electric therapeutics: "Now Albion's sleeping Humanity began to turn upon his Couch;/Feeling the electrical flame of Miltons awful precipitate descent (114). In Blake's next epic poem, Jerusalem, the introductory address "To the Public," is Blake's strongest commitment to the importance of spirit visitations, proclaiming that "We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves, everything is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep" (145).

Blake casts Jerusalem in a framework seeped in a magnetic-spiritualist metaphors. On the frontispiece of this work, we see a type of nightwatchman entering a portal carrying in his right hand a spherical disc of concentric circles emitting a radiant light. What at first seems to be a solid lamp or lantern is not solid at all, as the figure's thumb and fingers are visible through it. Albert Boime has persuasively argued that the ball-shaped lantern is an "image of a rotating glass globe used to generate electricity in contemporary electrical experiments," of which several illustrations were reproduced in Joseph Priestley's History and Present State of Electricity (1767) (351-52). What Boime could have mentioned is that Blake is likely to have seen such apparatuses with his own eyes when Dr. Birch cured his wife Catherine.

As basis for the narrative structure, Blake uses the grand form Albion, the embodiment of England, who is "sick to death" (Jerusalem 182) because "the inhabitants" of Britain are "sick to death" (219). This sickness of the nation is a moral disease, a blindness to true Christian vision. Cure is the poet's opening of the doors of perception for the reader to true religious vision. The elements of the cure Blake visualizes on plates 25, 57, 74, 85, 91 and 94, where we see fibrous strings that extend from the bodies of the unredeemed Albion and Jerusalem. These are manipulated by various benign beings in the attempt to heal them to renewed spiritual strength. On plate 100, the concluding plate, where the world is redeemed and the New Jerusalem is being built, we see Enitharmon with a distaff or spindle in her hand winding up the fibres from the earth as man is remade a spiritual body (Paley, Jerusalem, 296-97). This iconography is remarkably reminiscent of de Mainauduc's concept of nervous "strings," which can be contracted and or pulled to re-create the fluctuations of atoms in the body (de Mainauduc 67).

On plate 45 of Jerusalem, we have what is a reference to the frontispiece illustration, identifying this figure as Los. Blake's poet-prophet acts as the magnetic healer, who often claimed to be able to visualize the inside of the patient and see his diseased organ, for "Fearing that Albion should turn his back against the Divine Vision [. . .] took his globe of fire to search the interiors of Albions Bosom" (194). This plays a very significant role in the plot development of the poem. Central is Los' attempt with his "thunderous Words" (250) to awaken Albion from his slumberous disease—which is his absence of faith. This is finally achieved as a result of Albion's conversation with Christ, who here takes over the role of Los: Christ having "the likeness & similitude of Los" (96). Poetry and Christ's miraculous healing powers are here associated.

In one of the prose segments of Jerusalem, Blake implores all Christians to "Go [. . .] cast out devils in Christs name" and "Heal [. . .] the sick of spiritual disease" (233). This is perfectly coherent with the precepts of mystical-millennial healing, where it was commonly believed that Christ himself had been a magnetizer in performing his miraculous cures (Bush 252). For the magnetizers who invested millennial beliefs in their therapy, treatment was predicated on the Swedenborgian ideas of human life as a battle between good and evil spirits. Drawing on Swedenborgian and Paracelcian notion of the human soul as operated upon by spiritual agents, they believed that disease was caused by evil influences of a supernatural origin. Cure was perceived as the dislodgement of the malignant influence for the benefit of a benign spirit to take possession. A foul miasma had to be cleared before the mind could be opened to "spiritual influx." Therefore, de Loutherbourg and others practiced a mild form of exorcism as part of their cures.

That Blake subscribed to the millennial version of Magnetism, over its more commercial guise as practical treatment of society ladies' minor ailments, is substantiated by his criticism of three contemporary magnetizers—Richard Cosway, George Baldwin and the unknown Frazer—in a satiric Notebook poem of unknown date. He attacks them because they "Fear to associate with Blake" and criticizes them for capitalizing on the popular market for Magnetism at the expense of higher spiritual purposes: "This Life is a Warfare against Evils/They heal the sick he [Blake] casts out Devils" (505). Of "Frazer" we know little, but he has been identified as a student of de Mainauduc's (Schuchard 21). Cosway set himself up as a popular magnetic entrepreneur. Blake's patron George Cumberland wrote on the verso of a broadsheet entitled "A Syllabus of Dr. de MAINADUC's INSTRUCTIONS," a memorandum criticizing Cosway for his commercial opportunism. He denounces him as part of a "Sect" headed by de Loutherbourg, "who I suspect have a Scheme to empty the pockets of all the credulous christians they can find—the price of Initiation is £25 Guis and 4 must enter at a time" (Bentley, "Mainauduc": 295).

Also Baldwin ventured into the commercialism of magnetic healing, and upon his return from Egypt, he set up a magnetic salon in London. In Mr Baldwin's Legacy to his Daughter or the Divinity of Truth (1811), Baldwin refers to the Bible as an authority to prove that divine Vision is an essential part of spiritual life. However, he also admits his hesitation in committing himself to Spiritualism in public, which has delayed the publication of his book, out of the fear "that I shall be called a Visionary" (iii). This would probably have been seen as cowardice by Blake, who was not so reluctant, signing a letter to his patron Hayley, "Enthusiastic, hope-fostered visionary, William Blake" (Letter to Hayley. 26 Nov. 1800, 715).

Blake's offensive in the Notebook verses shows his dedication to further the Millennium from which he felt others had fallen off. To "cast out devils in Christs name" and "Heal [. . .] the sick of spiritual disease," as Blake beseeches his readers in Jerusalem, is only the culmination of a long and sustained interest in magnetic theology: a contemporary context by which Blake's works are opened up to resonate with new meaning.

Parties annexes