A VORTEX is an idea which, becoming active, attracts and tends to absorb its surroundings. “The nature of infinity is this: That every thing has its own Vortex, and when once a traveller thro’ Eternity has pass’d that Vortex, he percieves it roll backward behind his path, into a globe itself infolding like a sun, or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty, while he keeps onwards in his wondrous journey on the earth, or like a human form, a friend with whom he liv’d benevolent. As the eye of man views both the east & west encompassing its vortex, and the north & south with all their starry host, also the rising sun & setting moon he views surrounding his corn-fields and his valleys of five hundred acres square, thus is the earth one infinite plane, and not as apparent to the weak traveller confin’d beneath the moony shade. Thus is the heaven a vortex pass’d already, and the earth a vortex not yet pass’d by the traveller thro’ Eternity” (Mil 15:21).
In brief, one learns by experience. When once an experience has been passed through, its human significance becomes apparent, and illumines the man with the sun of the imagination, the moon of love, the stars of reason, or the affection of a friend. A man’s private universe is such a Vortex. Urizen’s vortices, of course, are not so illuminating. When caught in his ruined world, he tries to escape upwards by forming a Vortex, but it only puts him to sleep, and when he wakes refreshed, “’tis downward all” (FZ vi:204–6). He then tries to build another world better suited to obey him; “and the Sciences were fix’d & the Vortexes began to operate on all the sons of men, & every human soul terrified at the turning wheels of heaven shrunk away, inward with’ring away” (FZ vi:234). Worse yet, the Net of Religion begins to grow from his soul, “shivering across from Vortex to Vortex” ( FZ vi:245).
Blake’s vortices may well have been suggested by the famous vortices of Descartes. He theorized that the material particles in space moved in vortices, producing sun and stars; the centrifugal particles produced radiating light, and so forth; until the astronomical universe was created mechanically, without the intervention of spirits, intelligences, and the like. It was a brilliant theory, which was accepted for many years.