"Clos'd by your senses five": William Blake's early illuminated prophecies and Berkeleian epistemology

Date of Completion

January 2002


Philosophy|Literature, English




This study uses the key terms of Berkeleian epistemology as a framework for understanding Blake's early prophetic works. As a foil, Berkeley highlights the importance of epistemology to Blake and makes clear that the fundamental characteristic of the Fall for Blake is the mistaken assumption that sensory perceptions are effects of an external spiritual cause. ^ Most importantly: (1) “Independence” denotes Berkeley's tenet that the existence of a “real thing” or physical object is constantly maintained by God regardless of whether any human perceiver is perceiving it at any given moment. The term also entails the principle that God is the sole cause of all sensory “ideas” that constitute real things. These doctrines contrast sharply with Blake's insistence that “each thing is its own cause & its own effect.” (2) “Sensible qualities” denote the generic qualities such as color, shape, texture, etc., that according to Berkeley combine to constitute sensorily-perceived objects. Blake, however, would regard this account as hopelessly reductive, and a description of fallen sense experience. ^ Following a brief introduction and a second chapter that defines key theoretical terms, Chapter 3 contrasts Blake's pronouncement that “Energy is the only Life and is from the Body” to Berkeley's tenet that the body is merely a complex of passive sensory ideas. Chapter 4 demonstrates that Blake's conception of abstract “Reason” is equivalent to Berkeley's definition of Natural Law, since both entail an assumption of the external causation of sensory ideas. Chapter 5 finds the fire imagery in America a Prophecy marked by a stifled, repressed quality produced by the imposition of Urizenic Law on infinite Energy. Chapter 6 uses Berkeley's theory of relative space to demonstrate that in Europe a Prophecy separating space appears as a product of the illusion of external causation. Chapter 7 adduces the solipsistic consequences of Berkeley's epistemology to show that Enitharmon's dream of history in Europe is marked by a spiritual isolation resulting from the fallacy of external causation. A final chapter concludes that for Blake the unfallen, “infinite” mode of sense experience comprises immediate knowledge that the authentic forms of real things are entirely self-determined and self-caused. ^