The other attitude is usually described as "creative," a somewhat hazy metaphor of religious origin, or as imaginative. This is the vision, not of what is, but of what otherwise might be done with a given situation. Along with the given world, there is or may be present an invisible model of something non-existent but possible and desirable. Imagination exists in all areas of human activity, but in three of particular importance, the arts, love and religion. Where we see a landscape, a painter also sees the possibility of a picture. He sees more than we see, and the picture itself is the proof that he really does see it. The standard of reality does not inhere in what is there, but in an unreal and subjective excess over what is there which then comes into being with its own kind of reality. In love, we frequently hear the voice of sense in some such phrase as "I don't know what he sees in her," or vice versa. But it is generally admitted that here it is the subjective excess over reality which is appropriate. Similarly in religion. The New Testament defines faith as the evidence of things unseen: reality in religion is not "there": it is brought into being through a certain kind of experience. The religious life is, like the artist's picture, the manifestation of such experience in the world of sense, or what the gospel calls letting one's light shine.
The imaginative or creative force in the mind is what has produced everything that we call culture and civilization. It is the power of transforming a sub-human physical world into a world with a human shape and meaning, a world not of rocks and trees but of cities and gardens, not an environment but a home. The drive behind it we may call desire, a desire which has nothing to do with the biological needs and wants of psychological theory, but is rather the impulse toward what Aristotle calls telos, realizing the form that one potentially has. As desire, it works dialectically, separating what is wanted from what is not wanted. Planting a garden develops the conception "weed," a conception of vegetable value unintelligible except in the context of a garden.
The attitude we have just called sense can only distinguish itself from what is below itself. It can separate the real from the imaginary, sense from nonsense, what is there from what is not there, but it has no criteria for recognizing what is above itself. It is a fact of experience that the world we live in is a world largely created by the human imagination. It is a part of sense's own recognition of reality that there must be a standard above sense, and one that has the power of veto over it. But it is the resemblance between vision and hallucination, ecstasy and neurosis, the imaginative and the imaginary, that impresses itself on sense. These resemblances are, of course, obvious and remarkable. The creative and the neurotic reactions to experience are both dissatisfied with what they see; they both believe that something else should be "there"; they both attempt to remake the world of experience into something more responsive to their desire. There are equally important differences, but in themselves the visions of the artist, the lover and the saint can only be regarded by sense as illusions, and all that sense can say about them is that certain significant types of activity seem to be guided by illusion.
We may therefore see the creative imagination as polarized by two opposite and complementary forces. One is sense itself, which tells us what kind of reality the imagination must found itself on, what is possible for it, and what must remain on the level of wish or fantasy. The other pole I shall call vision, the pure uninhibited wish or desire to extend human power or perception (directly or by proxy in gods or angels) without regard to its possible realization. This polarizing of creative power between vision and sense is the basis of the distinction between the arts and the sciences. The sciences begin with sense, and work toward a mental construct founded on it. The arts begin with vision, and work toward a complementary mental construct founded on it. As sense is incorporated in science, and as science continually evolves and improves, wrhat sense declares to be impossible in one age, such as aeroplanes, may become possible in the next. The arts do not evolve or improve, partly because vision, being pure wish, can reach its conceivable limits at once. The aeroplane is a recent invention, but the vision that produced it was already ancient in the arts when Daedalus flew out of the labyrinth and Jehovah rode the sky on the wings of a seraph.
But there may be considerable differences of emphasis within the arts themselves. Some cultures have a more uninhibited vision than other cultures: we find the most soaring imaginations, as a rule, in defeated or oppressed nations, like the Hebrews and the Celts. The attitude in the arts that we call "romantic," too, tends to stress vision rather than sense, and our ordinary use of the word indicates that a "romantic" approach to things may some¬times be in danger of a facile or rose-coloured idealization. On the other hand, a culture may be dominated by a feeling of proportion and limitation derived ultimately from what we have been calling sense, and a culture of this kind may achieve the clarity and simplicity that we associate with the word "classical." The most impressive example of such a culture is probably the Chinese, but in our Western tradition we tend naturally to think of the Greeks.
Greek culture was founded on the conception of dike, a contract entered into by gods, man and nature, where each accepted certain limitations. The working out of this contract was the process of ananke or inoira, words that we translate, very loosely, as "fate." Zeus, in the Iliad, goes to bed with his consort Hera and nearly allows the Greeks to win the Trojan war, that being Hera's idea in getting him to bed, and scrambles out in time to help the Trojans, whom on the whole he prefers. But the contract says that the Greeks are to win in the end, and Zeus himself dares not ignore it. And if the contract binds even the king of gods and men, still more is man bound to avoid the proud and boastful spirit that the Greeks called hybris and saw as the main cause of tragedy; still more must he avoid excess and seek moderation and limits in all things. Know thyself, said the Delphic oracle, implying that self-knowledge was the final secret of wisdom. For man's mind is turned outward to nature, and his knowledge of himself is an inference from his knowledge of the much greater thing that is not himself.
The classical inheritance was incorporated into later Western culture: medieval philosophers described the attitude we call sense as prudentia, and gave it a central place in their moral hierarchy. Even so, the attitude of the age of Shakespeare to sense and imagination was very different from ours, and perhaps we can learn something about our own age by examining the differences.
When Shakespeare's Theseus, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, classified "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet," as being "of imagination all compact," he was expressing an Elizabethan commonplace, and one usually summed up in the word "melancholy." Melancholy was a physiological disturbance caused by the excess of one of the four humours, but this excess in its turn was the cause of emotional and mental illness. Body and mind were therefore treated as a unit: a collection of remarkably cheerful songs bears the title "Pills to Purge Melancholy." There were two kinds of melancholy. One was a disease; the other was a mood which was the prerequisite of certain important experiences in religion, love or poetry. Love and poetry were combined in the literary convention within which the bulk of poetry in that age was produced. A young man sees his destined mistress and instantly falls a prey to melancholy. He stays awake all night and keeps his house dark all day; he mopes, sighs, forsakes his friends, turns absent-minded and slovenly in his appearance. More to the point, he writes poetry incessantly, complaining of his lady's inflexibility, cruelty and disdain. It was understood that a poet could hardly get properly started as a poet without falling in love in this way, and that a lover was hardly doing his duty by his lady without leaving a stack of lyrical complaints at her door. In the background was the religious experience on which this conventional love was modelled, and of which it was to some extent a parody: the experience of becoming aware of sin and the wrath of God, of the necessity for supplicating grace and acceptance.
Melancholy of this kind was certainly an emotional disturbance: it could become a mental disease, or at least there are many love poems threatening madness or suicide to impress an obdurate mistress. Normally, however, such disturbance was more in the nature of a calculated risk, undertaken for the sake of a certain intensity of experience. It was a kind of male pregnancy, a creative state with some analogies to illness. But melancholy as a disease was equally familiar, and Shakespeare's audience would have recognized its characteristic symptoms in Hamlet. The indecision, the inability to act through "thinking too precisely on th' event," the clairvoyant sense of the evil and corruption of human nature, the addiction to black clothes, the obsession with death both in others and in oneself, the deranged behavior that could easily modulate into actual madness with little outward change, were stock attributes of melancholy. So too was the fact that Hamlet, though not a poet, as he tells Ophelia, shows many similarities to the poetic temperament. Polonius, who has literary tastes, has a literary explanation for Hamlet's melancholy: he is in love with Ophelia; but the audience has already been given a more convincing reason. Of course a tendency to melancholy would be greatly increased if one had been born under either of the two melancholy planets, Saturn and the moon, which tended to make one saturnine or lunatic. Nations as well as individuals had their tutelary planets, and the fact that England's was the moon was responsible for many jokes, including some from Hamlet's grave-digger.
Not only the most fascinating play of the period, but its greatest prose work (in England), has melancholy for its theme. Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy is an exhaustive analysis of the causes, symptoms, treatment and cure of melancholy, with two enormous appendices on love melancholy and religious melancholy. Burton was an Oxford don, and his chief amusement is said to have been going down to the Isis river and listening to the bargemen swear. The story may be true, or it may have been invented by someone who noticed that the qualities of Burton's prose, with its vast catalogues, piled-up epithets, Latin tags, allusiveness and exhaustive knowledge of theology and personal hygiene, are essentially the qualities of good swearing. Burton assumes rather than discusses the connexion of melancholy with creative power: being a scholar himself, like Hamlet, he associates it rather with the scholarly temperament, and includes a long digression on the miseries of scholars. On religious melancholy his position is simple: one can best avoid it by sticking to the reasonable middle way of the Church of England, avoiding the neurotic extremes of papist and puritan on either side. But in love there is no reasonable ground to take, for its very essence is illusion. On this point we had better let Burton speak for himself:
Every lover admires his mistress, though she be very deformed of herself, ill-favoured, wrinkled, pimpled, pale, red, yellow, tanned, tallow-faced, having a swollen juggler's platter face, or a thin, lean, chitty face, have clouds in her face, be crooked, dry, bald, goggle-eyed, blear-eyed, or with staring eyes, she looks like a squis'd cat, hold her head still awry, heavy, dull, hollow-eyed, black or yellow about the eyes, or squint-eyed, sparrow-mouthed, Persian hook-nosed, have a sharp fox-nose, a red nose, China flat, great nose, nare simo patuloque, a nose like a promontory, gubber-tushed, rotten teeth, black, uneven, brown teeth, beetle-browed, a witch's beard, her breath stink all over the room, her nose drop winter and summer, with a Bavarian poke under her chin, a sharp chin, lave-eared, with a long crane's neck, which stands awry too, pendulis mammis, "her dugs like two double jugs," or else no dugs, in that other extreme, bloody-fallen fingers, she have filthy, long unpared nails, scabbed hands or wrists, a tanned skin, a rotten carcass, crooked back, she stoops, is lame, splay-footed, "as slender in the middle as a cow in the waist," gouty legs, her ankles hang over her shoes, her feet stink, she breed lice, a mere changeling, a very monster, an oaf imperfect, her whole complexion savours, an harsh voice, incondite gesture, vile gait, a vast virago, or an ugly tit, a slug, a fat fustilugs, a truss, a long lean rawbone, a skeleton, a sneaker (si qua latent meliora puta, and to thy judgment looks like a mard in a lanthorn, whom thou couldst not fancy for a world, but hatest, loathest, and wouldest have spit in her face, or blow thy nose in her bosom, remedium amoris to another man, a dowdy, a slut, a scold, a nasty, rank, rammy, filthy, beastly quean, dishonest peradventure, ob¬scene, base, beggarly, rude, foolish, untaught, peevish, Irus' daughter, Thersites' sister, Grobian's scholar; if he love her once, he admires her for all this, he takes no notice of any such errors or imperfections of body or mind, Ipsa haec Delectant, veluti Balbinum polypus Agnae; he had rather have her than any woman in the world.Renaissance w/iters, when they speak of the imagination, are interested chiefly in its pathology, in hysteria and hallucination and the influence of the mind on the body. This is true of Montaigne's essay on the force of imagination, where an example of what may be called psychological vampirism comes from his own experience:
Simon Thomas was a great Physician in his daies. I remember upon a time comming by chance to visit a rich old man that dwelt in Tholouse, and who was troubled with the cough of the lungs, who discoursing with the said Simon Thomas of the meanes of his recoverie, he told him, that one of the best was, to give me occasion to be delighted in his companie, and that fixing his eyes upon tlje livelines and freshness of my face, and setting his thoughts upon the jolitie and vigor, wherewith my youthfull age did then flourish, and filling all his senses with my florishing estate, his habitude might thereby be amended, and his health recovered. But he forgot to say, that mine might also be empaired and infected.At that stage of scientific development, scientific and occult explanations could be given of the same phenomena, and hysteria and hallucination might be explained either as mental disorders or as caused by witchcraft or diabolical suggestion. Burton gives a good deal of attention to such matters, though with a detachment toward them unusual in his age. He has read all the books about devils and witches, and has gathered from them that there is more theorizing than solid knowledge of the subject. He drops a hint that belief in their existence is convenient for an organized priestcraft, and continues:
Many such stories I find amongst pontifical writers, to prove their assertions; let them free their own credits; some few I will recite in this kind out of most approved physicians, Cornelius Gemma, lib. 2 de nat. mirac. cap. 4, related of a young maid, called Katherine Gualter, a cooper's daughter, anno 1571, that had such strange passions and convulsions, three men could not sometimes hold her; she purged a live eel, which he saw, a foot and a half long, and touched himself; but the eel afterwards vanished; she vomited some twenty-four pounds of fulsome stuif of all colours, twice a day for fourteen days; and after that she voided great balls of hair, pieces of wood, pigeon's dung, parchment, goose dung, coals; and after them two pound of pure blood, and then again coals and stones, of which some had inscriptions, bigger than a walnut, some of them pieces of glass, brass, etc., besides paroxysms of laughing, weeping and ecstasies, etc. Et hoc (inquit) cum horrore vidi, "this I saw with horror." They could do no good on her by physic, but left her to the clergy.Burton is aware that he is describing a case of hysteria; what he is not sure of is whether it was the doctor or the patient who had it, and the reader is left with the feeling that Burton regards hysteria as a highly contagious illness.
We notice that the association of poetry, love and melancholy extends only so far. The lover's melancholy was of no more lasting importance in his life than a contemporary teen-ager's crush on a movie star: it was understood to be normal, even expected, of youth, and it had nothing to do with the serious business of marriage which was being arranged for him by his parents. Religious melancholy would turn instantly to the church, and be restored to normality by the sacraments and disciplines of that church. The kind of lyrical poetry produced by the lover's melancholy, too, was regarded as relatively minor poetry, appropriate to young poets learning their trade or to well-born amateurs who were merely using poetry as a status symbol. The major poet, who had advanced to the major or heroic genres of epic and tragedy, was no longer inspired by melancholy but was working in the same general educational area as the philosopher, the jurist or the theologian. Thus the difference between the creative imagination of the professional artist and the practical skill of other professional men was minimized as far as possible. The great epic poet of Shakespeare's age, Edmund Spenser, includes in the second book of his Faerie Queene an allegory of the human body and mind, which he calls the House of Alma, and compares to a building. He explores the brain, and finds it divided into three parts. At the back of the brain is an old man called Eumnestes, good memory, who is concerned with the past. In the middle is the judgement, which is concerned with the present. In front is a melancholy figure named Phantastes, born under Saturn, concerned not so much with the future as with the possible, or rather with that uncritical kind of perception which cannot clearly distinguish the real from the fanciful:
His chamber was dispainted all within,The poetic faculty, it is important to notice, does not belong to this aspect of the brain: it belongs to the judgement in the middle, which also produces philosophy and law:
With sundry colours, in the which were writ
Infinite shapes of things dispersed thin;
Some such as in the world were neuer yit,
Ne can deuized be of mortall wit;
Some daily scene, and knowen by their names,
Such as in idle fantasies doe flit:
Infernall Hags, Centaurs, feendes, Hippodames,
Apes, Lions, Aegles, Owles, fooles, louers, children, Dames.
Of Magistrates, of courts, of tribunals,Spenser had a disciple in the next generation, Phineas Fletcher, who produced a long didactic poem called The Purple Island (i.e., the body of man, traditionally formed of red clay). Half of it consists of an expansion of Spenser's House of Alma, an exhaustive survey of anatomy under the allegory of a building. Fletcher finds the same three divisions in the brain that Spenser found: he seems in fact to be merely cribbing from Spenser, but when he comes to Phantastes he makes a significant change:
Of commen wealthes, of states, of policy,
Of Lawes, of iudgements, and of decretals;
All artes, all science, all Philosophy,
And all that in the world was aye thought wittily.
The next that in the Castles front is plac't,Here, we see, Phantastes is the source of the arts, and of the creative aspect of the mind generally. The change may be sheer inadvertence, or it may mean that an actual change of emphasis is beginning to make itself felt on the level of informed but un-specialized opinion represented by such a poem. If so, it was not for another century that the change becomes generally perceptible.
Phantastes hight; his yeares are fresh and green,
His visage old, his face too much defac't
With ashes pale, his eyes deep sunken been
With often thoughts, and never slackt intention:
Yet he the fount of speedy apprehension,
Father of wit, the well of arts, and quick invention.
The refusal of Renaissance thinkers to carry through the association of the creative and the neurotic temperaments is the result of a certain view of the world that was ultimately religious in origin. They thought of human culture and civilization as an order of nature or reality separable from, and superior to, the ordinary physical environment. This latter world is theologically "fallen"; man entered it with Adam's sin, and is now in it but not of it. He does not belong in physical nature like the animals and plants; he is confronted with a moral choice, and must either rise above nature into his own proper human home, or sink below it into sin, the latter a degradation that the animals cannot reach. The crux of the argument, however, is that the higher human order was not created by man: it was created by God and designed for man. Adam awoke in a garden not of his planting, a human world pre-established and ordered by a divine mind. In Milton's Paradise Lost Adam and Eve are suburbanites in the nude, and angels on a brief outing from the City of God drop in for lunch. But the City of God was there, along with another city in hell, long before the descendants of Cain started imitating them on earth. The corollary of this view was that the divine intention in regard to man was revealed in law and in the institutions of society, not in the dreams of poets. All ancient societies tend to ascribe their laws and customs to the gods, and, as the name of Moses reminds us, the Judaeo-Christian tradition is no exception.
We said at the beginning that the order of human existence represented by such words as culture and civilization has been established by man. This statement may seem obviously true now, but it is only within the last two centuries that it has been generally accepted. In earlier centuries, when man was not regarded as the creator of the human order, it could even be disputed whether the arts themselves, poetry, painting, architecture, were genuinely educational agencies or not. Naturally the poets insisted that poetry at least was; for most, however, obedience to law, the habit of virtue, and the disciplines of religion were far safer guides than the arts.
Even those who were sympathetic to poetry, in fact even the poets themselves, placed strict limits on human creative power. The poet was urged to follow nature, and the nature he was to follow was conceived, not as the physical world, which could only be copied at second hand, but as an order of reality, a structure or system of divine ordinance. If one believes, as Sir Thomas Browne says in his Religio Medici, that "nature is the art of God," the art of man which follows nature does not transform the world but merely comes to terms with it. The social results of such a view are, of course, intensely conservative. Whatever is of serious importance, in the arts or elsewhere, serves the interests of the community of church and state; whatever is immature is also divisive and anarchic, and exalts the individual at the expense of society. The imaginary belongs to the melancholy individual and his whims;, the imaginative is incorporated into a natural and human order established by divine decree.
The eighteenth century was the period in which this view of the imagination struggled with, and was finally defeated by, an opposed conception which came to power in the Romantic movement. At the beginning of the century, we have Swift, for whom established authority in church and state was the only thing in human life strong enough to restrain the desperately irrational soul of man. In his day the conception of "melancholy" was out of fashion, but another ancient medical notion of "spirits" or "vapors" rising from the loins into the head was still going strong. For Swift, or at least for the purposes of Swift's satire, all behavior that breaks down society is caused by an uprush either of digestive disturbances or of sexual excitement into the head. Swift's chief target is the left-wing Protestantism which in the seventeenth century had carried religious melancholy to the point of replacing the authority of the Church with private judgement and had made a virtue even of political rebellion. But he finds the same phenomena in the political tyrant who substitutes his own will for the social contract, or the poet who allows his emotions to take precedence over communication. "The very same principle," he says, "that influences a bully to break the windows of a whore who has jilted him, naturally stirs up a great prince to raise mighty armies, and dream of nothing but sieges, battles and victories." In his Discourse of the Mechanical Operation of Spirit Swift says that three sources of abnormal behavior have been generally recognized. One is of divine origin, or revelation, one of demonic origin, or possession, and one of natural origin, which produces such emotions as grief and anger. To these he proposes to add a fourth, which is artificial or mechanical, and is essentially a transfer of sexual energy to the brain, where it produces lofty rationalizations of erotic drives. Or, as Swift says with a nice calculation of doubles entendres:
.... however Spiritual Intrigues begin, they generally conclude like all others; they may branch upwards toward Heaven, but the Root is in the Earth. Too intense a Contemplation is not the Business of Flesh and Blood; it must by the necessary Course of Things in a little Time, let go its Hold, and fall into Matter. Lovers, for the sake of Celestial Converse, are but another sort of Platonicks, who pretend to see Stars and Heaven in Ladies Eyes, and to look or think no lower; but the same Pit is provided for both; and they seem a perfect Moral to the Story of that Philosopher, who, while his Thoughts and Eyes were fixed upon the Constellations, found himself seduced by his lower Parts into a Ditch.Swift is a satirist, and the attitude he takes is congenial to satire. For satire usually takes the point of view of sense: it requires a standard of the normal against which the absurd is to be measured, and, like sense, does not distinguish what is above it from what is below it. Such satire speaks with the voice of the consensus of society, and society can protect itself but cannot surpass itself. Hence a great age of satire like the early eighteenth century is likely to represent a culture which has clearly defined views about madness, but feels fairly confident about its own sanity.
But even as Swift was writing there was beginning one of those great changes in cultural attitude, where we cannot see any origin or clear development of the change, but realize after a certain time that we are looking at a different world. As this different world, which came in with Romanticism, is essentially our world, we may take a moment to characterize some of the changes. Slowly but steadily the doctrine of the divine creation of the human order fades out, not perhaps as a religious conception, but as a historical and literal fact taking place at a specific point in past time. Man thus comes to be thought of as the architect of his own order, a conception which instantly puts the creative arts in the very centre of human culture. This new emphasis on the primacy of the arts in social life is clear in the statements and assumptions of the Romantic poets. The conception of nature as a divine artefact also fades out, and nature is thought of, not so much as a structure or system presented objectively to man, but rather as a total creative process in which man, the creation of man, and the creation of man's art, are all involved. For the Romantics, the poet no longer follows nature: nature works through the poet, and poems are natural as well as human creations. But if man has created his own order, he is in a position to judge of his own achievement, and to measure that achievement against the kind of ideals his imagination suggests. In Rousseau we meet the doctrine that much of human culture and civilization has in fact been perverse in direction, full of inequalities caused by aggression which have blotted out the true form of human community. This latter Rousseau saw as a society made up of a "general will" of free and equal individuals. And as society can speak only with the middle voice of sense, and cannot by itself distinguish the creative from the neurotic, we thus arrive at two typically Romantic, and therefore modern, conceptions.
First, any genuinely creative individual is likely to be regarded by society as antisocial or even mad, merely because he is creative. The association of the creative and the neurotic, being largely imposed on the artist by society, places creative abilities under a curse, a capacity of misunderstanding that may blight or destroy the artist's social personality. Baudelaire symbolizes the creative spirit by an albatross, so superbly beautiful in its lonely flight, so grotesquely awkward and comic when captured and brought into the view of a human society. If we compare the target of Swift's satire, the melancholy individual creating his own poetry and religion out of a powerful erotic stimulus, with the figure of Byron a century later, we can see how completely cultural standards have reversed themselves. Byron like Swift was a satirist, but his satire does not speak with the voice of society against the erratic individual: it speaks with the voice of the individual against society, and assumes the individual's possession of a set of standards superior to those of society. This leads us at once to the second new conception: a society may judge an individual to be mad because that society is actually mad itself.
The notion that the whole of mankind has been injured in its wits as the result of Adam's fall was familiar enough, and is the basis for a great deal of satire, including that of Burton's Anatomy. In the seventeenth century the poet and dramatist Nathaniel Lee, a contemporary of Dryden, remarked when confined to a madhouse: "They said I was mad, and I said they were mad, and, damn them, they outvoted me." Fifty years later Hogarth, depicting the last stage of the rake's progress in the madhouse of Bed-larn, sticks an enormous penny on the wall, indicating that the whole of Britannia is as mad as the rake. But the notion that madness can be a social disease affecting a specific society at a specific time is, I think, not older than the French Revolution. At that time those on one side of politics saw a whole society gone mad in revolutionary France; those on the opposite side saw an equally dangerous delusion in accepting the status quo. This social dimension of madness is, to put it mildly, still with us in the century of Fascism, Communism, and the parasites in the democracies who devote themselves to spreading hysteria.
Of all the great artists of the Romantic movement, the most interesting for our present purposes is William Blake. Blake had practically no influence in his own day, and his reputation during his life and for long after his death was that of a lunatic. Gradually it was realized that he was a great creative genius, and that if the normal attitude regards him as a lunatic, so much the worse for the normal attitude. Blake himself had very clear notions of what constituted mental health and mental disease. For him, mental health consisted in the practice of the imagination, a practice exemplified by the artist, but manifested in every act of mankind that proceeds from a vision of a better world. Madness, for Blake, was essentially the attitude of mind that we have been calling sense, when regarded as an end in itself. The world outside us, or physical nature, is a blind and mechanical order, hence if we merely accept its conditions we find ourselves setting up blind and mechanistic patterns of behaviour. The world outside is also a fiercely competitive world, and living under its conditions involves us in unending war and misery. Blake's lyrics contrast the vision of experience, the stupefied adult view that the evils of nature are built into human life and cannot be changed, with the vision of innocence in the child, who assumes that the world is a pleasant place made for his benefit. The adult tends to think of the child's vision as ignorant and undeveloped, but actually it is a clearer and more civilized vision than his own.
Blake interpreted the ancient myths of titans, giants and universal deluges to mean that man had in the past very nearly succeeded in exterminating himself. He warns us that this danger will return unless we stop accepting experience and shift our energies to remaking the world on the model of a more desirable vision. This model Blake found in the Bible, but in his reading of the Bible he identifies God with the imaginative or creative part of the human mind. Thus his vision is quixotic in the strict sense, seeing the world about him as having fallen away from the vision of the Word of God, just as Don Quixote saw the world of his day as having fallen away from a vision of chivalry which he found in his library.
Don Quixote is of course another great Renaissance masterpiece in which imagination is treated primarily as diseased vision. It would be easy to see in Quixote a relatively harmless example of a very sinister type, one of the line of paranoiacs culminating in Hitler who have attempted to destroy the present on the pretext of restoring the past. But we soon realize that there is something better than this in Quixote, something that gives him a dignity and pathos which he never loses in his wildest escapades. He is followed by Sancho Panza, who is so completely an incarnation of sense that only one thing about him is mysterious: the source of his loyalty to Quixote. We get a clue to this near the beginning of the book. Quixote and Sancho meet a group of peasants who invite them to share their lunch of goat's milk and acorns. Acorns were traditionally the food of those who lived in the golden age, that legendary time of simplicity and equality which has haunted so many discussions of human culture from Plato's Laws to Rousseau's Social Contract. Don Quixote is prompted by the sight of acorns to make a long speech about the golden age, first inviting Sancho to sit beside him, quoting from the Bible the verse about the exalting of the humble. He says that it is his mission to restore the golden age, which is, incidentally, exactly what Blake said the purpose of his art was. True, elsewhere he tells Sancho that the golden age would soon return if people would only see things as they really are, and not allow themselves to be deluded by enchanters who make giants look like windmills. But we can see that Quixote's obsession about chivalry is not so much what he believes in as what he thinks he believes in, a childish world where dreams of conquered giants and rescued damsels keep coming true, and which has thrust itself in front of his real social vision. This latter is a vision of simplicity and innocence, not childish but childlike, the element in Quixote that makes him courteous, chaste, generous (except that he has no money), intelligent and cultured within the limits of his obsession, and, of course, courageous. It is the solid core of moral reality in the middle of his fantasy that holds the loyalty not only of Sancho but of the readers of his adventures. For this wistful sense of a golden age, lost but still possible, the child's vision which the Gospel tells us is so dangerous to lose, is something that makes Quixotes of us all, and gives our minds, too, whatever dignity they may possess.
In Part Two of the book, Quixote and Sancho come into the dominions of a duke who has read Part One, and who, to amuse himself, makes Sancho the governor of an island. We are perhaps less surprised than he to learn that Sancho rules his island so honestly and efficiently that he has to be pulled out of office in a hurry before he starts to disintegrate the Spanish aristocracy. We are even less surprised to find that Quixote's advice to him is full of gentle and shrewd good sense. The world is still looking for that lost island, and it still asks for nothing better than to have Sancho Panza for its ruler and Don Quixote for his honoured counsellor.
In the fifth book of Wordsworth's Prelude, the great epic poem in which he describes the growth and formation of his own very modern mind, Wordsworth deals with the influence that his reading has had on him. As a student he was interested in mathematics and literature, and the literary works he particularly mentions are the Arabian Nights and Don Quixote. He tells us that he (at least we may assume it was he) fell asleep while reading Don Quixote, and had a strange dream. He saw an Arab horseman, who was also Don Quixote, riding over the sands of a desert carrying a stone and a shell, which were also books. The books were Euclid and an unnamed book of poetry: in other words they were the keys to the worlds of words and numbers, the two great instruments that man has invented for transforming reality. The Arab, or "Semi-Quixote" as Wordsworth calls him, is fleeing from some unimaginable catastrophe, which the poet calls a deluge, and is going to bury these two books to keep them safe until the disaster is past. Wordsworth says that he often reverts to this dream, and that he has felt
A reverence for a Being thus employ'd;Perhaps in the age of the useless bomb-shelter it may be easier for us than it was even for Wordsworth to understand that if the human race is to have any future at all, it can only obtain it through a concern for preserving its powers of creation which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish clearly from a "'Maniac's anxiousness."
And thought that in the blind and awful lair
Of such a madness, reason did lie couch'd.
Enow there are on earth to take in charge
Their Wives, their Children, and their virgin Loves,
Or whatsoever else the heart holds dear;
Enow to think of these; yea, will I say,
In sober contemplation of the approach
Of such great overthrow, made manifest
By certain evidence, that I, methinks,
Could share that Maniac's anxiousness, could go
Upon like errand.