William Blake on Doubt

William Blake, in his “Auguries of Innocence” (early 1800s), has these lines on doubt: 

He who mocks the Infant’s Faith

Shall be mockd in Age & Death.

He who shall teach the Child to Doubt

The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.

He who respects the Infant’s faith

Triumphs over Hell & Death.

The Child’s Toys & the Old Man’s Reasons

Are the Fruits of the Two seasons.

The Questioner who sits so sly

Shall never know how to Reply;

He who replies to words of Doubt

Doth put the Light of Knowledge out.

This obviously seems to be grossly anti-intellectual—but Blake was attached to the notion of VISION—of direct apprehension of the “divine.” The imagination, from Blake’s perspective, is stultified by the intervention of intellectual reductionism. A little further on in Blake’s poem he offers this aphoristic couplet:

A Riddle or the Cricket’s Cry

Is to Doubt a fit Reply.

And just a little further on down he writes:

He who Doubts from what he sees

Will ne’er Believe, do what you Please.

If the Sun & Moon should doubt,

They’d immediately Go out.

Direct experience is, for Blake, something killed when one begins to question it and take it apart (and it is a folly to do so). I understand Blake’s position from the vantage of the imaginitive genius of poetic vision—but it is hard to imagine such a principle being applied as a defense of religious faith as such, for it would make the believer impervious to “reality testing”, discourse, and argument.

It would be a very interesting meeting of minds should Richard Dawkins and William Blake ever meet in Dante’s Purgatorio someday, and have a conversation.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to William Blake on Doubt

  1. Frank Kelly says:

    I have just read ‘The Selfish Gene’ but, believe it or not, at irregular intervals as I did so, guess what other book I read! A selected works of William Blake, of course. Was I or am I in Purgatorio? … for I think I heard them talking to each other! Was I deluded when I imagined I heard them agree to disagree? Perhaps the only difference between them was the language. I’ve also read that Dawkins called Blake an obscurantist. I imagine Blake might say the same of Dawkins.
    A new Divine Comedy … Blake leads Dawkins through the nether world, an upside-down, back-to-front world.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Frank:

    Some interesting reflections there! Blake as Dawkins’s Virgil. Hmm.

    Also, I think it is odd for a Brit to fluff off Blake with one word: “Obscurantist.”

    —Santi

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