After William Blake died in 1827, his executor destroyed many drawings and manuscripts containing "his most radical sexual, religious and political expression". Other "friends" rubbed out erect penises in his pencilled drawings, or even drew underpants over them. "Notebooks, poems, designs, in lavish quantity, annihilated: a gag... thrust into the piteous mouth of Blake's corpse," wrote William Michael Rossetti, brother of the artist.
William Blake was born two centuries too early. He could happily have been a child of the 1960s; like many a good hippie, he "linked sexual liberation to political liberation", while also searching for Enlightenment. It's clear from Marsha Keith Schuchard's study of Blake and "the sexual basis of spiritual vision" that, if he had been around in our time, he'd have been meditating with the Maharishi.
The sexual-spiritual influences on Blake began with his parents. At the Moravian church in Fetter Lane, London, they sang hymns envisioning Jesus in the most erotic language - men should have an erection when worshipping God. They were taught, in great detail, the delights of the marriage bed: "When my dear husband / lets his oil sizzle in me... this grace is a sacrament".
Blake's other spiritually erotic influences included the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, Kabbalistic teachings, Yogic mysticism and Hindu images. Blake and his freethinking friends lived at the centre of a maelstrom of sexualised spirituality, or spiritualised sexuality. In one of his drawings a nude woman is shown with a Gothic chapel in her vagina.
Blake'sobsession with sexual experimentation became too much for his wife Catherine. He bemoaned their arid sex-life openly: "He embrac'd her, she wept, she refus'd / In perverse and cruel delight / She fled from his arms." Blake considered taking a concubine; both Swedenborg and the Kabbalists taught that a wife's barrenness justified this. Mrs Blake seemed to have quite a number of reasons to cry.
In their old age they finally found happiness in their marital bed. Catherine's "incessant bursting sobbing" gave way to "her serene acceptance of sacramental sensuality". This remarkable book opens the reader's eyes to what fired Blake's writings and art. One chapter is entitled "Phallic Feet and Tantric Toes": the Women's Institute singing the opening lines of "Jerusalem" will never sound quite the same again.
David V Barrett is author of 'The New Believers' (Cassell)