William Blake on Astrology: Part 2
"We are all subject to Error."
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Jodie Marley on astrology in William Blake’s art. Read part 1 here.
Blake’s recorded opinions on astrology are largely negative, yet reveal much about his attitudes towards mysticism. Blake declared to his astrologer-artist friend John Varley that:
your fortunate nativity I count the worst; you reckon to be born in August & have the notice & patronage of Kings to be the best of all where as the lives of the Apostles & Martyrs of whom it is said the world was not worthy would be counted by you as the worst
For Blake, Varley’s method ranked people’s worth according to their ‘good’ (e.g. the sun’s kingly Leo domicile) or ‘bad’ astrological placements. Blake’s own philosophy is best summarised with a line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790): ‘every thing that lives is Holy’.
Blake’s views on astrology first arise in an 1807 letter to Richard Phillips, editor of the Monthly Magazine, regarding The Oracle’s reporting on the arrest of astrologer Robert Powell.Despite Blake’s concern for Powell, he retains a negative opinion of astrology.
The Man who can Read the Stars. often is oppressed by their Influence, no less than the Newtonian […] is opressed [sic] by his own Reasonings & Experiments. We are all subject to Error
Blake notes that astrologers are often oppressed by the influence of ‘the Stars’. While he likely means an astrologer’s perspective is often oppressed by their astrological worldview, his statement also reflects that certain branches of astrology perceive specific planetary influences, such as that of Saturn, as oppressive. Blake’s point here is to present astrologers as limited in their worldview by comparing them to eighteenth-century rationalist sceptics who followed Isaac Newton’s philosophy.
Blake’s equation of astrology with rationalism might seem strange for present readers, who may be more accustomed to astrology and scepticism occupying opposing poles in popular discourse. Blake compares the two because each perspective assumes the ability to explain away the unseen and unexplainable. Blake does not condemn astrologers in his letter, but rather, he writes that they are subject to human error: both logic and astrology are, after all, human concepts. His tone is forgiving, as if both astrologers and sceptics still maintained the potential to see divinity in all things. Perhaps, as he advocated in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, such individuals merely needed to shift their worldview: not to study the heavens’ structure, but rather the point at which the seven spheres coalesce,
melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
John Linnell quoting Blake in Blake Records, ed. G. E. Bentley Jr., (1969), p. 263.
Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), in The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, p. 45, plate 27, line 7.
Morton D. Paley, ‘William Blake, Richard Phillips and the “Monthly Magazine”’, Studies in Romanticism 51:1 (Spring 2012), p. 52.
Blake, letter to Richard Phillips dated 14th October 1807, in The Complete Poetry & Prose, p. 769.
Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, p. 39, plate 14.