“William Blake is an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement….the proor man fancies himself a great master, and has painted a few wretched pictures, some of which are intelligible allegory, others an attempt at sober character by caricature representation, and the whole “blotted and blurred”, and very badly drawn. These he calls an Exhibition, of which he has published a Catalogue, or rather farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain. ” ( The Examiner, 1808 )
Long before our time, William Blake ( 1757-1827 ) believed that Christianity was a revolutionary faith and poetry a radical art, and that the poet’s duty was to speak for the slave, the captive, and the poor. Yesterday’s lunacy has a disconcerting way of becoming today’s wisdom; more than 200 years have passed since the unsigned review above appeared and in the meanwhile William Blake’s wild effusions have acquired an almost Biblical authority. Had he been a Catholic, he might have been canonized by now.
It is not just that he was once thought mad and is now adjudged sane, beautiful and prophetic, but that his vision, dazzling and hyperbolic, suddenly seems so applicable to our heaviest problems of the here and now; how to live, what to do, mental space, utopian possibilities and other options that avoided the great crime of what Blake referred to as “hindering another”.
Although he was very conscientious about being a prophet, and made it his business ” to speak to future generations by a Sublime Allegory…address’d to the Intellectual Powers,” his nuggets are buried in a vast and rambling mother-lode which takes up nearly a thousand pages of small print in the standard Oxford edition of his complete writings. A Blake succinct edition would demonstrate the extent to which he had important things to say on issues of concern to the Age of Earthmanship, and the neatly aphoristic way he had of expressing them, in a style often reminiscent of haiku, Laotse, and certain of the Chinese calligraphic poets.
And then there is his gift for anticipating everything. He knew long before Einstein that “energy is the only life”, long before Marx that “Without contraries there is no progression,” and long before Frantz Fanon that “The Whole Creation Groans to be deliver’d”.
On Propaganda: He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer.
On Complacency: It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity: Thus could I sing & thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.
On Self Determination: No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings
On Meditation: I rest not fmy great task… to open the immortal Eyes of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought
On Social Responsibility: The poet’s allegiance is to the “slave grinding at the mill, and the captive in chains, & the poor in the prison, & the soldier in the field.” His allies are “all the gentle Souls who guide the great Wine-Press of Love.
On Thought Control: His struggle is directed against “Those who, having no Passions of their own because No Intellect, Have spent their lives in Curbing & Governing other People’s”. The intellectual battle consistes of “Striving with Systemsto deliver Individuals from those Systems”.
On Dissent: “Opposition is true Friendship”
On Sexual Freedom: “I cry: Love! Love! Love! happy happy Love! free as the mountain wind!” so that man and woman can be united in “lovely copulation, bliss on bliss.”
On Women’s Liberation: “Must she drag the chain of life in weary lust…driv’n to madness, bound to hold a rod over her shrinking shoulders all the day, & all the night to turn the wheel of false desire.
On the Function of the Orgasm: The moment of desire! the moment of desire! The Virgin that pines for man will awaken her womb to enormous joys in the secret shadows of her chamber
On Art and Artists: A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect: the Man or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian. You must leave Fathers & Mothers & Houses & Lands if they stand in the way of Art.
On Prudery: Art can never exist without Naked Beauty displayed
On War and Peace: To Extirpate a nation by means of another is as wicked as to destroy an individual by means of another individual; For everything that lives is Holy. Life delights in life.
Even the handful of abbreviated quotations should suffice to show that Blake had a knack for coming to grips with problems that other, more conventional poets simply overlooked. While they were busy writing about Greek shepherdesses, this one samll Englishman, he was less than 5 feet 6 inches tall, was sweating in the “furnace of affliction” and wondering whether a new Jerusalem could be built here, “Among these dark Satanic Mills”.
Yet he was both a social realist and a mystic. As a poet he could be a leviathan maunderer when he wanted to be, which was often enough, but at the same time, like the early English folk poets, he could achieve prodigies of verbal compression. He had the power, so rare in that prolix age, ” To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour
He was, indeed, a kind of folk artist transposed to the urban mode; the English equivalent of a phenomenon better known in Germany; the beekeeper or shoemaker mystic. Like Jacob Boehme, who was one of Blake’s models. As a painter, too, he belongs to the “naive” folk tradition of which Le Douanier Rousseau is the outstanding representative.Unless we see his works in this light, many of his drawings and prints would suggest that he was a bit daft. Nothing came easily to him; Blake visibly struggles with his material even when, as he frequently does, he adopts the forms of the more relaxed or facile draftsmen, like Fuseli.
This awkwardness is a quality we have latterly learned to appreciate through the expressionists Munch and Ensor, who deliberately emphasized a certain heavy handedness that is very close to Blakes’s, and is also related to compassion as one of the leitmotifs of art.
“The esteemed poet William Wordsworth said on the death of Blake: “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”Blake died on August 12 1827, he was buried in an unmarked grave in a public cemetery and Bunhill Fields. After his death his influence steadily grew through the pre Raphaelites and later noted poets such as T.S.Eliot and W.B.Yeats.”