The city was London, England, and I (as usual) was lost. Sure, I had the GPS on my phone—the phone with the newly cracked screen, thanks to a patch of VERY UNEVEN SIDEWALK near Big Ben. But the address at which the GPS insisted I had “arrived” looked nothing like the destination I’d expected. Apparently though, somewhere amidst the glassy buildings which now rose above the neighborhood in which I’d landed, there had once stood the home of eighteenth-century poet William Blake.
Why had I embarked on this ill-fated pilgrimage to Blake’s neighborhood? It was another stop along my backpacking journey to trace the history and consequences of Marxism. Blake and his fellow English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had been two key members of the “Romantic” movement,1 which marked another milestone on the road to the neo-Marxian “sexual humanism” pervading Western culture.2 Who were these provocative poets, and how has their thinking helped pave that cultural pathway?
Born and raised in London among a family of non-conformists,3 Blake helped open a print shop and worked with the publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s business served as a social epicenter for a circle of influential political radicals including chemist and Unitarian theologian Joseph Priestley and feminist forerunner Mary Wollstonecraft,4 whom some scholars interpret as pioneering the “free love” movement alongside Blake.5
Although sometimes referred to as a “Christian socialist” or a “committed Christian,” Blake hardly embraced a biblical worldview. For instance, instead of accepting the Bible’s core salvation doctrines that humans are fallen and only Jesus can save us, Blake wrote that “Men are admitted into Heaven . . . because they have cultivated their understandings.”6 In fact, Blake endorsed the original lie, “You [can] be like God” which Satan wielded in Genesis 3:5. He believed “men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast”7 and was quoted by an acquaintance as blasphemously declaring that “[Jesus] is the only God . . . and so am I, and so are you.”8
Having rejected God’s Word, Blake also famously shunned a biblical view of sexuality founded in the Genesis passages which Jesus cited when questioned about marriage.9 Contrary to the truth revealed in Scripture, Blake criticized purity as an unnatural stricture associated with “pale religious lechery.”10 The church, according to Blake, therefore functions as an oppressive force suppressing sexual “freedom.”11
In Blake then, we clearly see the early themes of sexual revolution, which later movements would leverage as a means to destabilize society by undermining family.
In Blake then, we clearly see the early themes of sexual revolution, which later movements would leverage as a means to destabilize society by undermining family.12 The marriage and family institutions which God ordained in Genesis serve as pillars of civil stability, and it’s no secret that an efficient way to demolish a building is to weaken its pillars. Still, the extent to which Blake personally pursued this destabilization is debated. Historian E. P. Thomson states, “Blake was not a hurrah-revolutionary, as he is sometimes represented, nor was he a premature practitioner of Marxist dialectic.”13 Even so, Blake has been claimed as a figure of socialism. As an entry on Marxist.org states,
Blake was a political radical for his times, being a democrat, a republican, a supporter of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, a free thinker, a critic of industrial capitalism, a fierce opponent of slavery, empire and imperialism, a champion of free love and women’s rights, and committed to a proto form of Anarchism and of Socialism . . . . Blake was a left-wing radical and is still respected today within the British Left and the British Radical movement.14
Furthermore, another entry on Marxist.org notes that both Blake and Marx structured their thinking around a vision for the future transformation of humanity—a vision later picked up by today’s transhumanists.
There is no need to repeat: Marx is not Blake. But while ‘Marxism’ merely sought some changes in economic structure, Marx was concerned with ‘self-alteration’ [Selbstveränderung], ‘the alteration of men on a mass scale’. This question of self-alteration – the aspect which Marx has in common with Blake – is not an aspect but the whole point of Marx.15
Blake’s fellow Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, anticipated certain elements of Marxist thinking even more directly. For instance, both Shelley and Marx remarked that the social systems of their days needed to be overthrown.16
Not all scholars interpret Shelley as a forerunner of Marxism so much as a voice for anarchism.17 But regardless of how directly his ideas may have connected with Marx’s, Shelley clearly stood alongside Blake in the path toward the “sexual humanism” we see today. And just like our culture’s messages about sexuality are symptoms of society basing its thinking on man’s word rather than God’s, so Shelley’s views about sexuality arose from his rejection of God’s Word.
Instead of basing his thinking on Scripture, Shelley dabbled in the occult as a youth before becoming a vocal atheist.18 Although Charles Darwin had not yet popularized evolutionary thinking, Shelley read the evolutionary writings of Darwin’s grandfather19 and promoted ideas which have been called “evolutionary pantheism.”20 Karl Marx’s daughter and her common-law partner even praised Shelley for possessing “a certain conception of evolution long before it had been enunciated in clear language by Darwin, or had even entered seriously into the region of scientific possibilities.”21
From his unbiblical worldview foundation, Shelley advocated for “free love,” calling purity “a monkish and evangelical superstition.”22 And like Blake, he viewed Christianity as a storm cloud of oppression hovering over society in general and sexuality in particular.23
In a helpful analysis of these themes in Shelley’s writings, Carl Trueman explains how Shelley believed that a key to political liberation was to “free” humanity from marriage.24 Shelley viewed marriage as a restrictive, unnatural, and inauthentic institution that thwarted human happiness.25 Like Marx, he thought that inequality and oppression resulted from society’s economic system, which kept its stability thanks to marriage.26 Because marriage rests on the biblical doctrines founded in Genesis, “freeing” society would therefore require rejecting God’s Word.
So, Shelley promoted the idea that freedom, justice, and authenticity demanded the erosion of marriage and “religion”—themes we also see in contemporary culture. And like today’s culture harnesses popular media to convey these themes to the public, Shelley harnessed poetry as a weapon of social transformation.27
Rather, these attacks mark the continuation of lies as old as Eden—the message that God’s Word is not completely true and that humans can become “like God,” serving as their own authorities for truth.
Ultimately, the writings of eighteenth-century romantic poets like Blake and Shelley remind us that today’s attacks on family, marriage, and religion in the name of freedom, justice, and authenticity are nothing new. Rather, these attacks mark the continuation of lies as old as Eden—the message that God’s Word is not completely true and that humans can become “like God,” serving as their own authorities for truth.
Embracing these lies leads only to destruction, as Adam and Eve learned all too well. Following the broken compasses of our fallen hearts leads to more than the temporary lostness I experienced in London. It leads to eternal death. But thanks be to God that Jesus, the Son of God himself, took on human flesh to pay the death penalty for the sins of all who believe in him (John 3:16). As the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Jesus offers the hope and freedom which the Romantics missed—and which our lost culture is searching for today.
Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.