The Influence of Jacob Bryant on William Blake

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1969

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To understand William Blake's complex mythology, one must understand the sources of his theories. A primary source of mythic material in the eighteenth century was the research and writings of the antiquarians, principally of Jacob Bryant. Blake shared with the antiquarians a desire to understand the origins of man and of the development of man's political and religious institutions. But while the mythographers concentrated on giving simply a temporal account of the development of man and society, Blake expanded on their accounts of history by analyzing the importance of inner man in the development of his social institutions. In A New System, Jacob Bryant discusses three points of mutual interest for Blake. First, he dismisses Greek mythology for having corrupted the truth concerning man's past. Second, he attributes the degeneration of religion to man's error of materialism. And third, he discusses the fragmentation of society and man's subsequent fall from an earlier period of unity, freedom, and peace. Blake's writings contain concepts similar to those of Bryant, but Blake modified and refined them to fit into his unique mythological structure. Blake's most significant departure from Bryant is his paralleling of man's social and political conflicts with man's failure to maintain an equilibrium of his inner essences in his establishing a ratio between the inner man and the outer world. Blake's mythopoeic imagination surpasses those of Bryant and the antiquarians in meaning and significance when he goes on to forsee man's return to unity, to a Golden Age of freedom and peace.

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