A meeting with the last of the Muggletonians: Witness against the beast: William Blake and the Moral By ZACHARY LEADER
Sunday 05 December 1993
THAT William Blake was self-taught ‘terrified’ T S Eliot. Here, alarmingly, was a major poet who was ‘not compelled to acquire any other education in literature than that he wanted it’. Hence Blake’s free way with tradition, as in the annotation to a crowded design for The Last Judgement:
The Ladies will be pleased to see that I have represented the Furies by Three Men and not by three Women. It is not because I think the Ancients wrong but they will be pleased to remember that mine is Vision and not Fable. The Spectator may suppose them Clergymen in the Pulpit Scourging Sin instead of Forgiving it.
Such breezy iconoclasm is set in rich context in Witness Against the Beast, E P Thompson’s much- projected posthumous study of Blake, and its tone is carefully pondered. Blake is teasing in The Last Judgement note, which is relatively late (it was written around 1810). Late Blake can be wilful, cranky, impatient; so that, as Thompson admits, ‘a symbol can mean whatever he decided it means at any moment’. Thompson admires late Blake, but not as much as he admires the Blake of the 1790s, of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (which is convenient for the non-specialist reader: the reader as interested in Thompson as in Blake); he’s also prepared, when the occasion warrants, to call Blake obscure, dogmatic, divided. These are rare and welcome virtues in a ‘Blakean’, especially one who so proudly identifies with his subject.
Dissent, in several senses, is the key to that identification. Blake’s tradition, Thompson argues, was neither that of the Eliotic polite culture, nor of an occult ‘perennial philosophy’ (Kathleen Raine’s ‘tradition’). Blake was of sturdy, English, Dissenting stock – as was Thompson. Blake’s ‘tradition’ was not that of Enlightened or Rationalist Dissent – of Paley, Priestley, Wedgwood or the Godwin circle – it was older, more consistently oppositional, lacking ‘the least complicity with the kingdom of the Beast’.
By ‘Beast’, Blake and Thompson, like their 17th-century forbears – Ranters, Anabaptists, Muggletonians – mean ‘Antichrist’, a compound of oppressive tendencies in Church and State. The terms ‘Beast’ and ‘Antichrist’ are ‘antinomian’ – literally, ‘against the law’. They come from a specific and radical strain of English Dissent, one characterised by heretical hostility to authority, anticlericalism, justification by faith or grace (as opposed to deeds, which is why Christopher Hill calls antinomianism ‘Calvinism’s lower- class alter ego’), and stress on Christ’s loving forgiveness. In Blake’s words, from the late, unpublished The Everlasting Gospel (c. 1818):
The Moral Virtues in great fear
Formed the Cross & Nails & Spear,
And the Accuser standing by
Cried out, ‘Crucify] Crucify]’
Thompson argues for the ‘ubiquity and centrality’ of antinomian trends in Blake’s thinking and art. He also identifies Blake’s brand of antinomianism as Muggletonian, from the sect founded in 1652 by Lodowick Muggleton and John Reeve. The beliefs of this sect were ‘logical and powerful in their symbolic operations’, and have only been thought ‘ridiculous’ because of the sect’s name and class, that of ‘poor enthusiasts’ and ‘losers’ rather than established scholars or successful evangelists. Thompson’s exposition of these beliefs is detailed but for the most part clear, patient, and studded with lively comparisons – as in talk of ‘anti-Jacobin narks’.
The Muggletonian Church was still active not only in Blake’s day but well into the present century. For years Thompson sought – and even announced – a direct link between it and Blake. In the event, all he produces is a ‘possible’ Muggletonian great-uncle (on Blake’s mother’s side).
Miraculously, though, along the way he meets a figure straight out of Scott or Fenimore Cooper: ‘the last Muggletonian’ – a modest, courteous fruit farmer from Kent. This farmer contacted Thompson in the late 1970s, conversed with him about Muggletonian practice and doctrine ‘with a clarity (and indeed coherence) which reproduced their 17th-century origin’, and offered Thompson direct access to the Muggletonian ‘archives’ – 80 apple-boxes of church papers, correspondence, and publications stretching back to the 17th century. Thompson touchingly notes that the farmer ‘frequently said: ‘We believe’ – and yet one could not point to another believer’.
As Thompson himself insists, the antinomian inheritance is no ‘key to Blake’. What it provides is a structure of thought, a tone, a cluster of tenets and symbols which Blake ‘then employed (along with others) much as a painter sets the paints on his palette to work’. The book concludes with a deft unravelling of Muggletonian and other influences in detailed readings of two well-known Songs of Experience – ‘London’ and ‘The Human Abstract’. Though Blake’s writing can seem peculiar, as these readings show, ‘it comes out of a tradition. It has a confidence, an assured reference, very different from the speculations of an eccentric or a solitary.’ This tradition, especially when tempered in creative conflict with Jacobinism and Deism, ‘made it impossible for Blake to fall into the courses of apostasy’ – like Wordsworth, say, or Coleridge.
In other words, Blake kept the faith, which is partly why Thompson so admires him. But the affinities between Blake’s radicalism and Thompson’s radicalism go only so far. Part of Blake’s Muggletonian inheritance was its quietism: Muggletonians refused not only to proselytise but to worship in public. Thompson liked to think of himself as a Muggletonian, but his radicalism was neither ‘obscure’ (as in Blake’s ‘what is obscure to an idiot is not worth my care’) nor quiet. In Blake’s shoes, even with the ‘Beast’ at his heels, Thompson would have been more outspoken, less disguised, more like Paine or Thelwall or the Hunts – as he was, for example, in the polemical journalism collected in Writing by Candlelight (1980) or his work with European Nuclear Disarmament. Blake was a great poet and artist,
and a thoroughly consistent witness against the Beast, but he was hardly the most influential English radical of his age – a title that many claim for E P Thompson himself.