We forge manacles with our minds. We stick our hands out and say, “What are you waiting for?”
The manacles, or handcuffs, aren’t made of steel, and they aren’t the kind you see hanging from a policeman’s belt. They are formed by society’s rules and expectations.
The 18th century mystical poet and engraver, William Blake, charted the enslaving power of our minds 100 years before Freud:
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
William Blake, 1790, Proverbs of Hell
We are handcuffed by many things: By the beige office pod that locks us to a computer screen eight hours a day, by a job that is about dotting our bosses every “i” and crossing her every “t.” We are handcuffed by a way of seeing the world that doesn’t allow for the individual imagination, that robs us of individual fulfillment.
This week as part of my training at Wesley Theological Seminary near Ward Circle, we are readubg three visionary poets: the 18th century mystical poet, William Blake; the 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts poet, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet writing in England in the late 19th century. Each has something important to say about the social norms that keep us chained to mind-numbing jobs and certain ways of viewing the world.
You may know Blake from his most famous poem, Tyger:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Blake’s Tyger is powerful and primal, but it is also beautifully made, with a fearful symmetry. It is imagination and desire uncontained.
Blake was reacting to the 18th century Enlightenment, or Age of Reason. The Age of Reason was a wonderful thing: it brought us science, and a view into the unseen world of atoms and space. It taught us to think critically of traditional institutions, customs and morals. Religion, too, can be a powerful, positive force in our lives: it brings us together with other believers, and gives us order, ritual and sacrament by which we may reach God.
But both Reason and Religion can suck the juice out of us, too. They can pen us in with circumscribing order, wring us dry with rote learning.
“Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained,” Blake says in The Proverbs of Hell. “And the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling”
Blake would open us up to the wild, creative force of the imagination. We don’t know what we don’t know:
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five.
A Memorable Fancy, 1790
Blake wouldn’t condemn science and religion altogether. They give order: an organized means of creating, building and understanding our world, work and lives.
But he would have us free the Imagination: to take part in the creation of our worlds. He would have us plumb our inner selves, to find the Divine Spirit within and to relish the divine in our work and in our daily lives.