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The Eye Altering Alters All 

Tucked away in William Blake’s poem, “The Mental Traveller,” is a line that elucidates one of the great mysteries of ancient and modern thought. He wrote, “The eye altering alters all.” Obviously, our own thoughts and feelings color our experience of the world. But Blake was getting at something much more fundamental. In effect, he was saying that how we see the world changes the world. We are not mere passive observers of reality but collaborators with it.

Blake is often identified as a visionary poet, although it remained unclear to his contemporaries whether he saw things others couldn’t see or just saw things that weren’t there. On his return to London in the spring of 1803, Blake wrote a patron how happy he was “that I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & Prophecy & Speak Parables unobserv’d & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals.” His visions and conversations with the netherworld began early. At age four he was terrified to see God leaning in his window. A few years later his father threatened him with a beating when he insisted he had seen a tree filled with angels "bespangling every bough like stars." His father was a follower of the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg but apparently didn’t welcome visionary behavior in his own household. On another occasion his mother slapped him for telling her had seen the prophet Ezekiel sitting in a meadow.

Apart from his terrifying early encounter with God as a four-year-old, Blake was normally unruffled by his otherworldly encounters. At various times he hobnobbed with the likes of Moses, Dante, Milton, King Edward the First, the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. On another occasion he was out walking with a friend and seemed to be engaged in an animated conversation with another party. “To whom are you speaking?” his friend inquired, since no one else was present. Blake replied, “The Apostle Paul.”

Perhaps inevitably, if you profess to see things others don’t see, you will be regarded as delusional. Blake had his admirers, including the young painter George Richmond, who recalled walking home with him one evening “as though he had been walking with the prophet Isaiah” – a claim Blake might well have made about the actual prophet. However, others were not so charitable toward Blake’s “singularities,” even those who recognized his artistic worth. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge marked him down as a mad genius, as did William Wordsworth, who nevertheless acknowledged "there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

An early biographer, William Gilchrist, confronted head-on the issue of Blake’s sanity in a chapter entitled, “Mad or Not Mad?” He interviewed many of the poet’s old friends and determined that Blake was anything but a raving lunatic. He was mild-mannered and quite matter-of-fact about his otherworldly encounters and was perfectly aware he was seeing things that others didn’t see. He knew he had been gifted with a kind of second sight that gave him access to the spiritual realm. Gilchrist concluded, "Does not prophet or hero always seem 'mad' to the respectable mob, and to polished men of the world...?" His two-volume Life of William Blake rescued his subject from obscurity and established him as one of the great artists of his age.

To the extent that our world extends only as far as our eye can see, it obviously matters what can or should be seen. Blake scorned what he called the “single vision” of Isaac Newton’s scientific worldview. In his epic poem Milton, he warned that ordinary sight is “a little narrow orb, clos’d up & dark, scarcely beholding the great light, conversing with the Void.” Similarly, in Auguries of Innocence, he wrote “We are led to Believe a Lie/ When we see with not Thro the Eye.” How far can the eye see? Under the right circumstances, Blake seems to be telling us, we can see forever. Or as he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

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