Bunyan and Blake

Bunyan and Blake

And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Above: “And did those feet in ancient time” a poem by William Blake from the preface to his epic Milton a Poem, one of a collection of writings known as the Prophetic Books. The date of 1804 on the title page is probably when the plates were begun, but the poem was printed c. 1808.Today it is best known as the anthem “Jerusalem”, with music written by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 exactly a century ago.


In his ‘Literary Life of William Blake’, John Beer writes: “Although he made his living through visual art and practised it all his life Blake is remembered today first and foremost for his poems’.” Those who consider Blake an artist often recall him as an engraver and illuminator of his own poetic works than as an illustrator of the works of other writers. It is acknowledged that he illustrated works by Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, (amongst others) and his best, studied illustrations are those of The Book of Job (c. 1805-25) and of Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1824-27). Less known is the fact that in 1824, as he was completing the works for Job and before addressing Dante, Blake developed a series of twenty-nine images (drawings and watercolours) which illustrated John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim ‘s Progress. Those drawings are now part of the Frick Collection in New York, and are an unfinished series, additionally the purpose nor the intention behind the works have never been established. The works did not appear in any edition of ‘The Pilgrim ‘s Progress’ during Blake’s lifetime, despite its great

popularity (there were numerous versions). It was only in 1941, over a hundred years after their creation, that they were publically exhibited at the Knoedler Galleries, New York, and simultaneously used to illustrate an edition of Bunyan’s allegory published by the Limited Editions Club (LEC) In 1942, The Heritage Press reproduced twelve of the twenty-nine plates in a smaller version of the LEC publication of which Annett has a copy and are the versions shown here.

In his introduction to the 1942 Heritage Press edition, John T. Winterich wrote that Blake’s pictures are ‘things of Heaven, both in conception and in execution’.

“The spiritual dimension of any Blakean creation, verbal or pictorial, is a given. What needs to be established, however, in an assessment of Blake’s treatment of another writer’s text, is the nature and extent of the spirituality of that text. In his ‘Conclusion’ to the first part of the allegory, Bunyan himself invites his reader to ‘Put by the Curtains, look within my Vail’, ‘Turn up my Metaphors’, look beyond the ‘out side’ of his dream vision narrative and ‘the substance of my matter see’.

We are presented in Bunyan, as in Blake, with a didactic spiritual vision, in other words, a lesson in things of the numinous or immaterial. In The Pilgrim ‘s Progress, a personal interpretation/form of Christian spirituality relates to the form/content/interpretation of the ‘dream’. And is of course not without its political aspects. It actively processes and develops and existing system or codex of symbols encouraging thus a secondary operation of decoding and elucidating the allegory of the Christian ‘life on earth’ so that the reader could extract the ‘gold’ enclosed in the fiction and benefit from the vision offered in and through it. As Fay Weldon says, “all maps are fiction and are fiction (narratives) are maps”. This ‘gold’ can be taken as a direct allusion to the esoteric meaning of the ‘gold’ of the alchemists and natural scientists and it is suggested in many circles that Blake and Bunyan were both familiar with Alchemy and Christian Kabbalistic

teachings. Indeed Sheila Spector’s book, the ’Glorious Incomprehensible: Blake’s development of Kabbalistic Language’, which describes itself as tracing “the evolution of Hebraic etymologies and mystical grammars as indicators of a profound shift in Blake’s subjective consciousness from the earliest prose tracts, worked on before 1790, to the last years of his life, when he was still completing ‘Jerusalem’.” The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) cite Bunyan as using a Kabbalistic interpretation of the Bible after the traditional Jewish Treatment known as Remez, which deals with allegorical interpretations and the use of metaphor, symbol and meta-representation. It is clear that Bunyan as a close contemporary of John Dee, Marlow and Shakespeare (to name only three popular and powerful voices of his century) would have been aware of these trends in religious interpretation as well as potentially have contact with other marginalised or underground movements art the time. Any religious or cult group at the time was immediately politicised and linguistic styles, formats and adaptations adopted, as is clear today with for example social media memes and styles. These associations carried political risk.

Any reader getting both the text by Bunyan and the illustrations by Blake will be made to embark on a double journey through text and image, one that will take him or her even deeper into the matter of the original text.

Christian, Bunyan’s hero begins his journey fulfilling the role of the well-known allegory of ‘the fool’, or one perceived to be the fool by others.

Colin A Low on his ‘Digital Brilliance’ website writes articulately about the well-established narrative of the fool, one again so prevalent in Shakespearean literature (for example King Lear) and as three interpretations of what the fool and his Journey may represent.

Low; The Fool’s Journey

“The Fool’s Journey or Progress is an allegory of spiritual initiation. One might regard it as a Hermetic analogue of John Bunyan’s classic and influential The Pilgrim’s Progress. The full title of Bunyan’s work is “The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That which is to come”, and the Fool’s Progress has a similar allegorical flavour. The basic theme is the same: spiritual awakening and transcendence depicted as a sequence of encounters, and a progression of themes of increasing scope that leads towards a spiritual goal. The specific details depend on who is telling the story.” He puts forward three narrative frameworks are relevant to this discussion:

  • the Fool’s Journey as a Neoplatonic initiation of the parts of the soul as it awakens to the orders of the (pre-Christian) Kosmos.
  • the Fool’s Journey as a schema of Jungian individuation.
  • the Fool’s Journey as an ascent of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.

The Fool’s Journey as an education of three parts of the soul through three realms of being:

  • the soul of appetite in the Social Sphere,
  • the rational soul in the Moral Sphere,
  • and the intellectual soul in the Kosmic or Divine Sphere

The first group corresponds to the animal soul, or soul of appetite, expressed in the social sphere. The soul of appetite is characterised by its attachment to the material world in the form of possessions and physical appetites; a need for fame, celebrity or recognition; and a lust for spiritual or temporal power. Unregulated, an excess of these appetites tends towards consequences that we regard as evil. The second group corresponds to the rational soul, and the sphere of morality. Here the lesson is the regulation of

appetite and a Stoic steadfastness in the face of life’s trials and exigencies. The third group corresponds to pre-existent powers outside of the human sphere that provide a backdrop to human life. The intellectual soul apprehends the structures and forms that exist within the divine intellect that give rise to all existence. The Jungian telling requires an understanding of the psychology of the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung. He postulated that our cognitive apparatus has a deep structure that organises experience into patterns he called archetypes. This cognitive deep structure is unconscious, and imposes itself on the conscious mind in the same way that we have a tendency to see faces in clouds: the archetypes are projected onto raw experience. Archetypes provide an organising narrative to our internal life. Jung examined religion, mysticism, and – in particular – alchemy, and claimed to find archetypal themes similar to those occurring spontaneously in the dreams and fantasies of his patients. Jung also postulated that the conscious part of our mind is in some way aware of its partition from the unconscious, and experiences an impulse to be whole. This impulse to be whole is experienced as a drama in which projected components of the unconscious psyche are reified and seem to be interacting with the conscious ego. For example, a man’s interaction with a woman might be coloured by projections of the anima, and likewise a woman’s interaction with a man might be coloured by the animus. These projected components of the psyche lead to stereotypical dramas. When it is fully understood that the origin of the drama is internal, the unconscious archetypes become part of, and are integrated into, the conscious ego, and there is a consequent feeling of enlargement. The endpoint of this process of self-transcendence and enlargement is what Jung calls the Self, and is itself experienced as an

archetype of wholeness, completeness, symmetry, and transcendent holiness. The process of enlargement he calls individuation.” This can be compared to the reaching by Christian of the Celestial city. When he has performed this feat, and beaten all the material, phsychological and spiritual challenges he faces to reach his destination, as a whole, complete individual, he is then able to return for his wife and children to assist them in making the journey.

When seen on various levels, not just the literal and fictional, the narrative and symbolism of many of our ancient stories become powerful metaphors for psychological and personal development, in many contexts and when framed by many belief systems. The combination of Bunyan’s words and Blake’s images creates a timeless and very powerful story which still has resonances today, with characters whom may represent Christian moral virtues or sins but who are also often assumed to be internal personalities within the one individual and whom battle for power, creating internal conflict and lack of clarity) such as the personifications of Pliable and Obstinate, Mr. Worldly-wise, Wanton, Talkative, Envy or those which may help us; Discretion, Prudence, Faithful and Hopeful.

Text Sally Annett and Colin A.Low 2016

Other useful links include:

Cox, Michael, editor, The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature, “1808”, p 289, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-860634-6

Icons – a portrait of England. Icon: Jerusalem (hymn) Feature: And did those feet? Accessed 7 August 2008

John Walsh The Independent 18 May 1996 (link here)

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