Art and Selfhood in the works of Thomas Merton and William Blake

This new article explores in detail the influence of Blake on the famous American monk and writer

Volum 31, issue 1 of The Merton Journal has a new paper by Rebecca Gould, "Art and Selfhood: Thomas Merton on William Blake":

As a graduate student in Columbia University's Department of English and Comparative Literature, Thomas Merton was an avid reader. Having enrolled in graduate school immediately after his undergraduate studies, Merton looked forward to completing a doctorate and entering a career in academia. His goals shifted, of course, when he instead departed Columbia with a Master's degree and devoted himself entirely to his faith. Immediately preceding that transition, Merton completed a Master's thesis on William Blake. 

Merton titled his 1939 Master of Arts thesis, 'Nature and Art in William Blake: An Essay in Interpretation.' As Furlong summarizes, 'His method in his thesis was to use the esthetic ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas (as interpreted by Jacques Maritain) as a touchstone by which to test Blake's thought.' Though Blake is the primary subject of analysis, Merton's thesis does not dwell on close reading of either Blake's writing or visual art. Instead, Merton highlights Blake's mysticism and defends it passionately, claiming it as part of Christian thought. Also, Merton demonstrates more interest in the philosophy of art than in the features of any particular piece of artwork; for Merton, Blake epitomizes a pinnacle of artmaking because of how his work derives from imagination rather than from naturalistic copying. In his own summary of his thesis, Merton explains that, 'What it amounted to was a study of Blake's reaction against every kind of literalism and naturalism and narrow, classical realism in art, because of his own ideal which was essentially mystical and supernatural.' Merton's focus on Blake's philosophy reveals his own growing commitment to spirituality and contemplation, which would soon become key elements of his faith practice.

Rebecca Gould teaches English literacy at the International Community High School in the Bronx, NY. .

"Art and Selfhood: Thomas Merton on William Blake" can be downloaded from the The Thomas Merton Society (open access).