Walking Golgonooza: William Blake’s Spiritual City within London

The poet William Blake was raised in a church that believed in the “Doctrine of Correspondence,” which holds that everything material mirrors something spiritual. Blake argues that because of repressive social and religious systems, we are only able to see the material. However, if we liberate ourselves from these systems by embracing imagination, we can attain full vision. In his epic “Jerusalem,” he imagines a correspondence between human nature and London, represented by the spiritual city of “Golgonooza.” Blake maps out Golgonooza in descriptive verse, but this should not dissuade one from attempting to walk it. Though Blake does not outright describe the correspondence between locations in the real London and its spiritual counterpart Golgonooza, the very nature of Blake’s philosophy allows for, even requires, walking what we imagine the map to be.

In Golgonooza, “Los,” the great spirit signifying mankind’s imaginative force put to action, begins building by the Thames. This becomes the city’s center, the Palace of Los. To each of the four directions a gate is placed signifying an aspect of human nature:

North: inspiration and instinct
East: emotional life
South: reason and intellect
West: bodily senses + “the Door of Perception”

In Blake’s account, most men are engaged with all of these, but because of repression the Door of Perception is shut, forcing mankind to view only the material world, not the higher spiritual reality. Blake gives each direction 64,000 spirits– gnomes, genii, fairies, and nymphs–and other guardians, which are not necessary to cover here. Threatening Golgonooza are the forces of Babylon, another London characterized by materialism, manifest in industrialization, dehumanization, imperialism, and consumerism.

A walk of Golgonooza could hypothetically take place anywhere in London, as it depends on the imagination of the walker. Yet because Blake references other actual locations in England throughout the rest of “Jerusalem” and hints ever so slightly at a possible center of Golgonooza, I planned a London route one level above random, for reasons I will discuss in turn as I describe the walk through them. Unfortunately, I lack room to detail all of these places, so I have focused on the most interesting. I’ve had to completely exclude South. I chose MI6 as South, epitomizing the tyranny of intellect and culture of oppressive surveillance and law that Blake feared, but it was the most boring aspect of the walk, which I think Blake would not have found surprising.

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A “Map” of Golgonooza


North – Inspiration and Instinct – Southbank Centre

In Blake’s mythology, 64,000 gnomes guard North Golgonooza. I thought, London being London, I’d probably run into some “Lions of the South,” but not gnomes, so it was pretty funny to run into them exactly where they should be:

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I chose Southbank Centre because as home to a cluster of artistic and creative spaces like the Hayward Art Gallery and the Poetry Library, it seemed the imaginative nucleus of London. But Blake writes how the lower human aspect, instinct, susceptible to more materialist impulses, also dwells in North Golgonooza. Instinct misled manifests itself today in the Christmas market that crowds around the Centre, imitating its creative and joyful nature only to bend these to materialist purposes. Visitors, dazzled by the novelty of market stalls, music, and mulled wine, stray from what would actually cultivate their spiritual and imaginative lives. Though entirely free access to infinite enrichment through art, music, books, dance, friends, and conversation waits right through the doors of the Centre, the gleaming red booths snag the attention of the tube-tossed visitor on Southbank’s shore.

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But here, Blake would caution us against false binaries– we understand that materialist “goods” and the spiritual good both are aspects of human nature. Blake dreamed of a London with its higher impulses no longer crushed to base materialism, a London balancing desire for imagination as material delight and order. And Southbank is more like that now than when Blake lived nearby. A map from 1738 reveals the old Southbank, or rather “The Marsh,” a largely inaccessible wetland:

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Blake may have had this marsh in mind, when he described how “Around Golgonooza lies the land of death eternal…The Forest, and the Marsh, and the Pits of bitumen deadly”. I think Blake would praise Southbank’s progression from marsh to thriving cultural center, and while the Christmas market and other nearby attractions like the London Eye and “Shrek’s Adventure” may distract, they fail to choke out imagination here. I noticed that even those along the bank surrounded by enticements to spend and consume always turned eventually to watch the entirely immaterial sunset over the Thames.

 

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Center – Locus of Creation – Lambeth Palace

I’m fairly confident Blake envisioned Lambeth Palace as the center of his London, and of Golgonooza. Blake lived down the road from here. As the Archbishop’s residence, it likely symbolized for Blake the inordinate level of power held by religion. He respected the place itself as an ever-evolving cultural and spiritual center with deep roots, but as David Erdman describes, during Blake’s time, “at Lambeth Palace, which should be a center of love and freedom, State Religion is preaching war”. Further proof of Lambeth Palace as the center of Golgonooza is Blake’s adoring description of it:

…the secret furniture of Jerusalem’s chamber
Is wrought: Lambeth! the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife, loveth thee:
Thou art one with her & knowest not of self in thy supreme joy.
Go on, builders in hope : tho’ Jerusalem wanders far away,
Without the gate of Los: among the dark Satanic wheels.

This passage implies that the gate of Los (Los’ Palace, and the center of Golgonooza) rests in Lambeth, as here we find the “builders,” and here Jerusalem “wanders” away from both at once. For Blake, London’s Lambeth Palace has been appropriated by religious tyranny to champion war and repression, but its nature is as a spiritual center for imaginative development.

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Today, where Golgonooza’s palace is surrounded by a moat of illuminating fire, Lambeth Palace is entirely ringed in a high, brick wall. The Palace itself is an impressive amalgamation of centuries of architectural styles. No wonder Blake respected it– it squashes together a castle’s fortitude and a church’s grace in a borderline idiculous hodgepodge. Lambeth Palace embodies the splendidly messy, unrepressed creative impulse at our center. Unfortunately, the wall prevents one from fully pilgrimaging, except by scheduled guided tour. But like encountering the gnomes at Southbank, I found a funny coincidence of Blake and real life here. According to Blake, the Los stands at this center in a continual act of construction, and “ceas’d he not from labouring at the roarings of his Forge / With iron & brass Building Golgonooza in great contendings”. Currently, Lambeth Palace is roaring under construction, and there was even a brass-looking structure inside. Recalling that for Blake, Los exists inside mankind as the spirit of active creation, finding real people at work inside Lambeth Palace improving it for later public use was essentially finding Golgonooza alive and thriving in the real world.

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East – Emotional Life — Blake’s House

Blake’s house, or where it used to be, is slightly east of Lambeth Palace. As his home with his wife and workspace for creating his art, it seemed a plausible location for the space of “Emotional Life” in Blake’s ideal city. But Blake’s house here has long since been demolished, and we can only hope that the new inhabitants of the “William Blake Estate” are cultivating their emotional centers.

Blake’s house then:

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What stands on the site now:

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West – Life of the Senses and the Door of Perception – the Thames

Blake aligns each of the four directions with an element, and water he gives to the West. The Thames lies directly West of Lambeth Palace. It seems possible that Blake, with his emphasis on thinking outside the everyday, conceived of the river itself as the fourth direction of Golgonooza and the Gate of Perception that allows us to see the spiritual along with the material. Whether or not Blake thought so, he created Golgonooza with the aim of having us contemplate the aspects of our nature in relation to the city, so I felt I had license to choose the Thames as my West. It certainly functions within the mythology. A perpetual thread through the centuries, and the last powerful work of nature in London not invisible under human construction, the Thames provides an enduring and sublime object of contemplation. As I mentioned earlier, searching for “Imagination” at Southbank Centre, I found people most drawn from materialism in contemplating sunset over the Thames. The Thames uses our material senses, especially that of vision, to pull our attention from base materialism and to contemplate higher things, even in the very middle of a busy city. Blake mourned the “charter’d Thames” but through our imagination, the Thames breaks the human charters binding it, and then in turn frees us from the charters that bind our minds.

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