Global Blake keynote: Stephen F. Eisenman

Stephen F. Eisenman presents a wide-ranging discussion of Blake's attitudes to slavery and abolitionism.

That William Blake was sympathetic to abolitionism has long been recognized. Words and images from Songs of Innocence and Experience, America, a Prophesy and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, among other texts are frequently cited in evidence. But to call Blake an abolitionist in the usual sense is mistaken. First because he rejected any rights-based justification for emancipation. To liberate men and women from chattel slavery into a regime dominated by oppressive law and reason would be to consign them to a new prison. And second because Blake wished to extend emancipation to non-human animals and indeed the earth itself.  Fully sentient beings including sheep, frogs, flies, larks, dogs, worms, elephants, clouds, lilies, pebbles and clods of earth, are found everywhere in Blake’s work. Even the most fundamental among them possess the capacity for universal being and the desire to “bind another to its delight.” 

Blake’s animism is partly derived from popular, dissenting thought of the previous century: the sermons and speeches of antinomians, Levellers, Seekers, Ranters, and Quakers. It also drew upon elite thought, including the work of George Berkeley, David Hartley and Joseph Ritson. But of greater interest here is the fact that it both anticipated, and helped pave the way for modern, non-rights based theories and practices of liberation, including prison abolitionism, liberation theology, Buddhist environmental ethics, the Gaia theory, eco-feminism, deep ecology, nations without borders, and animal abolitionism, the latter being the idea that there is no morally relevant distinction between human and non-human animals, and that all exploitation of the latter must be ended. The Earth itself, in addition to its creatures, Blake writes in Songs of Experience, is “prison’d” until it can “break this heavy chain” and be emancipated by “free Love” and the anti-capitalist principle, found in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that “the most sublime act is to set another before you.”

Stephen F. Eisenman is the curator of the exhibition William Blake and the Age of Aquarius, and the main author and editor of the accompanying book. (Princeton University Press, 2017)