The strange 1948 experience that Allen Ginsberg referred to as his “Blake Vision” was foundational to his identity and career as a poet and activist. His compulsion to retell the story, Ginsberg said, was comparable to that of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Through such verbal and textual reiterations, the vision became a central part of the Beat mythos, and a key element of the proselytizing mission which Ginsberg conducted on Blake’s behalf within the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. However, the narrative details of this visionary experience, as presented within Blake scholarship and in much writing on Ginsberg and the Beats, have nearly always been drawn from a single source: the Paris Review interview conducted in 1965, some seventeen years after the vision itself.
This reliance on one source has led critics to overlook other fascinating, frequently conflicting, accounts of the vision. These include a series of short, intense poems written in 1948 in a lyric style which is very different to Ginsberg’s later poetry, as well as a contemporaneous letter in which Ginsberg cryptically tells Neal Cassady that “The light broke for me several times in the past weeks.” Critics have also largely overlooked Ginsberg’s earliest sustained narrative account of his Blake vision, written in 1949 as part of an unpublished “Portrait” of the hustler and Beat muse Herbert Huncke. This contains many individual phrases which recur in the later Paris Review interview, but also notable factual differences. Ginsberg makes broad comparisons between his visionary experience and the content of Blake’s poetry, but omits any mention of hearing Blake’s voice, or the causative role of reading Blake’s poetry immediately prior to the vision.
Alongside an examination of these little-known early sources, my paper presents an overview of Ginsberg’s lifelong process of re-examination of his “Blake vision.” In doing so, it seeks to contextualize several other significant elements of the famous Paris Review interview, including Ginsberg’s statements on his changing relationship to Blake, his approach to visionary and psychedelic experience in general, and the process by which poetry works on the mind.
Luke Walker has spoken and published widely on topics relating to William Blake, Romanticism, Beat poetry and counterculture. His book, William Blake and Allen Ginsberg: Romanticism, Counterculture and Radical Reception, is forthcoming from Manchester University Press. Since completing his PhD, he has taught at the University of Sussex, University of Chichester and University of Roehampton.