As Tate Britain prepares to host its first major Blake exhibition for more than 20 years and Thames and Hudson have produced an issue of The Complete and Illuminated Books of William Blake, it is perhaps worth asking what relevance the work of this singular 18th century artist might have for a modern audience? For most, our experience of Blake is as a children's poet. His famous poems about lambs and blacksmiths and, of course, his infamous Tyger, from his most popular works, The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience, are write large in many a childhood memory. Familiar, too, are his odd and prophetic images of fiery angles, of God and a handful of arcane prophets with long white beards. Was Blake, therefore, simply a one off, a mad eccentric who saw visions; ''poor Blake' or 'poor Will' as his contemporaries often referred to him? Or can he be seen as part of an alternative line of cultural dissent that still has ramifications for us today? Perhaps it is a nice irony that a major show Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art opens at The Royal Academy – the place where Blake studied and occasionally exhibited his work - when that apocalyptic prophet par excellence is about to be re-launched into the forefront of our thinking. But was Blake's understanding of the Apocalypse similar to the image we have now of a sort of Armageddon horror-show? Or would he be appalled by the appropriation of his apocalyptic vision?
The son of a tradesman, Blake was an odd and pugnacious child who never went to school but was apprenticed instead, by his father, a modest tradesman, in 1772 at the age of 15, to a well-known commercial engraver of his day, James Basire. Recalling in later life seeing 'the Angel at my Birth', his parents tolerance and unusual liberal attitudes sprang from the atmosphere of radical dissent that was, at that time, pervasive in London. As a young apprentice he was dispatched to draw the medieval monuments and tombs in Westminster Abbey and expressed a precocious desire, a 'great ambition to know everything.' At the same time, Blake was beginning to try his hand at verse, which he showed to the painter John Flaxman and the Revd. A.S. Mathew who paid to have them printed in 1783 as Poetical Sketches. These works, like those of his contemporary Thomas Chatterton, who created the so-called 'lost' corpus of work by a priest named Thomas Rowley, looked back nostalgically to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan period. This was part of the mood of the day. Romanticism – of which Blake is broadly and loosely a part – was largely historical in its outlook, seeing Medievalism as a lost Golden Age. This Gothic revival was, partly, a reaction against the rationalism of thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Newton and Locke, and the French philosopher, Constantin Voney, who argued that religion was a deception on the peoples of the world, giving power to the few. While Blake was certainly influenced by the mood of Revolution from the continent and the political atmosphere that embedded him in the political legacy of the Leveller wing of seventeenth century Puritanism with its penchant for millenarianism, it was his own idiosyncratic personality and his series of visions, which had started in childhood, that led him even further back to ancient Egypt, to the cave-paintings of India, to ancient Mexico and Britain and finally to his own myths of eternity. Whilst across the channel the comrades were espousing the essentially materialistic cause of overthrowing the ancien regime, Blake's egalitarian interests lay in other realms – in the Bible and the ancient world, in Bardic epics from a bygone age, in myth and the sublime. "All Religions are One" he argued. "As all men are alike in outward form, so (and with the same infinite variety) all are alike in the Poetic Genius."
These attitudes were greatly influenced by the contemporary prophet and visionary, Emmanuel Swedenborg, who saw spiritual, rather than political, possibilities in the era's tumult. 'The Last Judgement', he claimed, was accomplished in the Spiritual World in the year 1757 … the former heaven and the former earth are passed away, and things become New.' But in the mind of many the theories of Swedenborg were seen as 'mystical whims' similar those held 'by the fanatical and knavish doctrines of the modern Rosycrucians – by Magicians – Magnetisers – Exorcists.' This brew of magic and faith-healing found expression in Blake's friendship with the painter Richard Cosway, a mesmerist and magician, who practiced arcane related to alchemical and cabbalistic teaching. There were, according to Blake's biographer, Peter Ackroyd, 'reports of erotic ceremonies, the imbibing of drugs or 'elixirs' and ritual nudity.' This was an era of sexual licence and Blake's notion of sexual promiscuity, though probably not acted upon, is there to be seen in recurrent images in his work. Among the groups of London mystics, alchemists and astrologers with whom Blake would have been familiar, was frequent talk of prophecy, of the hearing of supernatural voices, while the apparent ministration of Angels was a common occurrence. If this portmanteau of beliefs seemed a little out of kilter with his images of Christ or Mary, then Blake could refer to Paracelsus, a devout Christian and a practising magician, for whom 'everything that lives is Holy!' And 'Each man has the essence of God, and all the wisdom and the power of the world within himself'. These magical views reflected the kernel of Blake's own beliefs.
To many contemporaries Blake seemed like a lost unworldly soul, adrift on the practicalities of life along with his wife and soul-mate, Catherine Butcher, to whom he announced his love, within minutes of their first meeting, because she admitted she 'pitied' him. Their childless marriage became central to his life. Though Catherine obviously had to endure a good deal, admitting to one young friend, 'I have very little of Mr Blake's company, he is always in Paradise.' For Blake believed, with an almost childlike innocence, in 'my Genius or Angel', pronouncing 'I laugh at Fortune & Go on & on. I think I foresee better Things than I have ever seen.' He had an extravagant belief in his own abilities, placing himself alongside the likes of Raphael and Durer.
Blake self-published his extraordinary works announcing that this was a project to bring high art into the homes of ordinary people. His range appeals to a variety of readers. Songs of Innocence, probably his best known work, and created primarily for children, is a nostalgic recollection of a London childhood, of walking out to the rural edges of the city. While its companion Songs of Experience reflects the intellectual activity of the revolutionary years as does The Marriage of Heaven and Hell c.1790 and Visions of the Daughters of Albion 1793. The books America a Prophecy 1793 and Europe a Prophecy 1794, are a turning point. Both have prophecy in the title and ally Blake to the prophets of the Old Testament and to the bards of Ancient Britain, warning of the need for moral transformation in the face of imminent apocalypse. This millenarianism had been strong since in Britain since at least the Middle Ages; almost everything Blake wrote or designed makes reference to the earthly destruction cited in the Book of Revelation. Jerusalem is offered as the ultimate Promised Land. The Prophetic Books, though arcane and difficult to interpret, display an extraordinary potency in their juxtaposition of text and design where tiny figures dance along the lines of poetry and flames appear to ignite the page. This new method of colour printing – a form of monotype – was able to produce only limited editions, but with stunning colourful effect.
Jerusalem, consists of 100 plates of relief-etched text and images of dazzling visual intensity. It is the culmination of Blake's visionary process. Jerusalem is only to be reached by individual and national rejection of materialism, while redemption can only be achieved through the restoration of the primal unity of man and Britain embodied in the figure of Albion. Blake also became more and more drawn to Celtic mythology through the work of Edward William, the poet, Unitarian and stonemason. Throughout his work he maintains a holistic position whereby the body cannot be separated from the mind or soul, or the human from the divine.
So where does Blake fit? Well the legacy of his vision can be seen in that of the Irish mystic poet Yeats, with his interest in arcane, ancient myth and Celtic revivalism. So, too, are many of his insights, according to Ackroyd, reflected in the work of Freud in the 19th century and some may argue in Jung's esoteric leanings and archetypes. A similar, though more prosaic vision of heaven, is to be found, this century, in the work of Stanley Spencer and Blake's legacy can be traced, obliquely, through those psychedelic, drug-induced, Nirvana-searching years, that Age of Aquarius, the 60s. But ultimately Blake's vision is unique. For him 'Poetic Genius is the true Man.' He envisaged Jerusalem as a sacred city of art and science for the lost English tribe. It is also London with 'Spires & Domes of ivory and gold.' But around it lies 'the land of death eternal' which includes the world's official religious creeds that have excluded 'Divine Vision.' Yet if Man can shake off the materialism of the world 'then you may approach the great City of Art and Manufacture where every lovely form exists in four-fold splendour'. This is the city of the Incarnation, the place of Divine Humanity that exists within each created being. For Blake the apocalypse was a chance to unite with Divinity, not as we might envisage it today, as some sort of final solution that points us only towards the horror of the void.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2000
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