Glad Day - The Life and Works of William Blake Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Glad Day - The Life and Works of William Blake

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To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour.

Auguries of Innocence, 1789
Born: 28th November, 1757.

It was a time of change, when the spirit took the form of a child.

Birthplace: Golden Square, Soho, London, England.

An apposite location: his brow was drawn in gold, and the air about it coruscated with vital and eternal fire.

The second of three sons of a hosier. Received no formal education; taught at home by his mother. Apprenticed at age 14 to the engraver, Basire...

There are different ways to tell a tale. This italicised text in this Entry is inspired by an encyclopaedia's biography of William Blake. When we read an encyclopaedia, of course, we accept a premise that facts are the essence of knowledge. But Blake thought otherwise. In his remarkable philosophy, imagination is reality and rationality is merely an artifice. Would you like to learn more?

...Received no formal education...

Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.

...taught at home by his mother...

The spirit of William Blake, poet and painter, journeyed for seventy years upon this earth. He never claimed to have discovered his art. He believed that to be innate in man, along with other tenets of knowledge such as beauty and godliness. Instead, he discovered and refined a means of expression, one so perfect that it rings out still.

Apprenticed at age 14 to the engraver, Basire...

He wanted from the beginning to be considered a painter. His father insisted on the engraver's craft, mindful of the security of a respected trade. And so it was that young Blake found himself immersed in the sculpture of the sepulchre, the art of eternity. He was forever changed. His visions took form: Gothic form, but sans gravity.

Studied briefly at the Royal Academy, but rebelled against its aesthetic prescriptions...

Damn sneerers!

...Nonetheless, established friendships with academicians including John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli, whose work influenced him...

So what did Blake know in this early time? He already acknowledged a calling: to reveal to his fellow men those hidden truths that all men know already. In Blake's faith, such truths are known already since they are directly taught by God. And they are hidden through false constructs of science and religion.

...He was well-read, and his poetry shows the influence of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, and of Swedenborgianism...

Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.

His first published work, a collection of poems under the title 'Poetical Sketches,' was produced in 1783. During the following year he set up a print shop; although it failed in 1787 upon the death of his beloved younger brother. From that time, his wife helped him print the illuminated poetry for which he is remembered today...

Ah, Robert! Catherine!

Robert Blake was a sickly young man. William doted on him and brought him into his fledgling business. Always after this, William would credit Robert with the revelation of his printing method. After explaining it, Robert's apparition ascended through the ceiling, and William heard the spirit of his brother singing for joy.

Catherine, the daughter of a Battersea market-gardener, was illiterate when William married her. His family derided the union, considering her beneath him. William would teach her not only to read and write, but also to colour his prints and produce competent sketches of her own. Their love was tried many times, but was destined to endure until death.

At about this time, Blake's work began to combine the classical imagery of his engraving commissions with a highly personal philosophy expressed in verse. In 1788, the plates for his first two illuminated books There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One were etched...

Though he was never to make large works, these books were tiny, and they were crude and unremarkable when set against what would follow. It is likely that they were experiments in pursuit of a perfected technique, soon to flourish in its first masterpiece.

Blake's method of printing is still not wholly understood. He developed a means of reversing a paper rendering of script and image onto a copper plate, before outlining the detail and adding embellishments in an impervious liquid. The plate was then etched in aqua fortis, revealing a stereotype of the original. The plates could be reused; from some Blake would produce dozens of copies over a period of forty years. He illuminated the prints in watercolour and tempera, with wood glue as a binder and using a camelhair brush...

Letter-press, oils and sable were the preserve of those of greater means and lesser tenacity. In very many ways, had Blake been richer, we would be the poorer.

In 1789, Blake published Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel. These works have a lightness and an optimism which would not survive their author's youth. His original neo-Platonic vision would soon be clouded by disillusionment...

Blake would surely disagree. The Child, the Lamb, the Shepherd; they all lived on for him. Disillusionment is transient in a heart as strong as his. There would come anger, yes, but pessimism never. Innocence echoes green all through his later harvest.

Marvel at Thel, the assurance of the artist so swiftly matured. But treasure Innocence always. Share it with your own children, those at your knee and the child inside you still.

'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' was begun in 1790, though not completed until 1793...

Revolutionary fire coursed through Europe and ignited Blake's imagination. Orc, the fire-child, was conceived in his mind. Consumed by energy, all newborn terror with flame-licked limb and blaze of hair. Prose and image combined to champion the rebels of a New Age. The tygers of wrath indeed proved wiser than the horses of instruction.

During the gestation of this great oeuvre, Blake's work became more prolific, more rhetorical and more mystical. Publications in this period included For Children - The Gates of Paradise'...

By now, Blake's art is charged with a deeper purpose than the mere pursuit of beauty. These children are wanton and wilful. They enact the genesis and metamorphosis of lifelong themes. Here are protean Zoas, mirroring Michelangelo. Here is the man-chrysalis and here for the first time is the personification of the Soul. The little book poses Job's question: What is Man? Blake will endeavour to answer it again and again.

What did Blake really think of the classics? Why did he claim to abhor the Greeks, and yet mimic them so? In truth, he abhorred only the mores of his own time. In order to fill his table, he had to satisfy the contemporary taste for the ancients. But for Blake, this was art whose brilliant newness had perished two thousand years before. He wanted to build on tradition, not to replicate it. He saw the veneration of things past as sterile.

...'Visions of the Daughters of Albion'...

This denouncement of the sexual morality of his times is imbued with ideas assimilated through Blake's friendship with Mary Wollstonecraft. They shared a belief in free love, and some speculate that they shared more than a belief. If such was true, then Catherine's equanimity never faltered. She was more sorely tried by her husband's sojourns in a cerebral Paradise.

What did you learn, sweet Oothoon, through your descent into Hell? That the nature of each living thing is innate: one law for both lion and ox is an abomination. For all his political radicalism, Blake might readily have perceived a consequence overlooked by following generations: that democracies invite the ascendancy of the lowest common denominator.

...and 'America: a Prophecy'...

A little research will reveal that Blake is very widely studied in America. This is only natural; here is an artist who depicted that embryonic nation with visionary passion. But Blake was English, more English than almost anyone. Like his friend Tom Paine, he was inflamed by the possibilities of what might come of that time of rebellion. He wanted it for his own country.

There was soon another revolutionary prophecy too, for Europe. Blake seems carried away by the power of his own imagery. His frontpiece, the Ancient of Days, is perhaps his best-remembered motif and certainly his personal favourite, but its context within the poetry is frustrating and obscure.

Blake lacks the pragmatism of the successful revolutionary. His faith would always lead him back to a conviction that fresh hearts herald new ages. He was ever susceptible to the trickster's card-play, mistaking the shuffling of the deck for the changing of the kings and queens themselves.

In 1794, Blake added the complementary volume Songs of Experience to his earlier Innocence'...

A sombre counterpoint to its joyful companion. He seems to say: accursed be your cold charity and your cloying care! Chastened, but unbroken, the child may yet flourish without love. But beware what it might become. Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

This line comes, of course, from 'The Tyger', one of Blake's best-known poems. Even today, in a world where tigers are all caged or thankfully remote, its imagery is dreadful.

In Blake's time, this was a near-mythical beast that terrorised the margins of Britain's assiduously-controlled empire. This is the doom awaiting those who trust man's order, instead of God's.

Also in 1794, he published The First Book of Urizen and his pantheon of mystical and allegorical characters began to take on an overt role in espousing his radical ideas...

One of the many ironies that surround Blake is that he craved the respect of simple men, and yet he is mainly revered today by scholars of a sort for whom he had no time. He didn't despise those who analysed his work, for in truth he despised no-one. But he was a very difficult man, and being shunned by Blake was probably quite as unsettling as being despised by the rest of folk.

Urizen represents Blake's conception of the false god, the demiurge who confounds mankind through self-conviction in his own divinity. There was to be no Second Book, though this spirit would live on in many guises.

Pantheon indeed, but these characters are not mere allegories. Their spirits were real to Blake, since imagination to him was more than reason. Blake might ask: what is more real and more sharply delineated - the world of the imagination, or the laws of science? We are taught to believe in the latter, and yet they are nothing but models. They describe reality, within certain limits, but they are not of themselves real. Only the spirit is real. Even the shell of the body is ephemeral and inconstant, and so are the senses that inform it.

In time, Blake would become fascinated by the confusion and the misery of Sir Isaac Newton. To Blake, England's greatest scientist was the supreme rationalist, whose geometry enclosed himself but excluded his God. His science rendered impotent by the burden of sundered faith, Newton expended his anxious middle-age forever unable to renounce his constructs. The ultimate allegory of Folly in Reason, Blake's Newton is less real than his Urizen.

The Song of Los and the Book of Los continued this trend in 1795, which realised its full potential in a work started in 1796, though later much adapted Vala, or the Four Zoas'...

The 'Bible of Hell' now seemed complete in its enlightenment, and Blake would turn again to a wondrous and yet elusive intercourse of mystical beings. Los is the spirit of time; his consort Enitharmon is space, and bears him the other spirits of the pantheon. Urizen becomes the Messianic Satan of Milton, and Jesus the Imagination opposes him as the ruler of the world and of the spirit within.

The Vala was never to be published as an illuminated book. The completed engravings are disjointed and unnerving. Some of the sketches are so strange that Tatham (to whom Blake's widow bequeathed this material) would variously rub parts out, or destroy them completely.

But the poetry is consummate. Some academics denigrate Blake as an adequate draughtsman who adorned his pictures with pedagogic verse. The Vala is arguably the first of Blake's works to wholly refute this interpretation. To read it is to glimpse the astounding apocalyptic vision that informed it.

So - was Blake sane? Wordsworth and others deemed otherwise, but this is probably a meaningless question. If the sane man is the one who acknowledges the consequences of his actions, then Blake was quite mad. By the same token, though, so must have been a phalanx of unconventional philosophers from the Gnostics to Nietzsche. Does the state of the world encourage our thoughts and drive our actions, or is the opposite true, that the world we see is no more than a consequence of our thoughts? Blake suspected the latter. No, in fact he was absolutely certain of the latter. Through his arrogance, Man makes his fancies concrete. If sanity means the desire to wield power over nature, then better to choose the madhouse.

If an opinion is demanded, then this one may be given: Blake was sane throughout almost all of his life. But even a titan such as this, burdened forever by the contrary philosophy of deluded neighbours, succumbed once in a while to the ravings of the rest of us.

From this time, and perhaps as a result of penury, Blake would devote much of his effort to the illustration of works by lesser poets...

Lesser indeed, but that effort should not be dismissed. Much of it transcends the banality of Blair's and Hayley's visions (though not all, as his eternal detractor Southey observes in the unintentionally amusing fate of a dog). And who could be better equipped, in any case, to explore the recesses of the grave?

Nor was it the only work. Blake is beginning to develop a new method of printing, one that will grow to fruition in pieces larger and more substantial than those of the illuminated books. He seems to have stumbled on the method while rendering darker backgrounds for Urizen's immersion. He sketches quickly in distemper on mill-board, and takes an impression from the wet surface on paper, which he then colours by hand. To revive the original, he retouches it in tempera, and discovers a new effect. Eventually, he adopts a combination of these processes to produce a two-stage print, detailed in black outline between stages and finally coloured.

These prints are at once darker and richer than those of the illuminated books, with a brooding, mottled background suggestive of lichen-clad rock.

...though some of Blake's finest non-illuminated pictures also date from this time...

The new technique is used for a series of prints including God Creating Adam, Newton, Nebuchadnezzar, Pity and Hecate. Blake has now achieved full mastery of the visual medium, with compositions and perspectives more technically complex than almost any found in English art. His mind is afire; his vision is palpable; we are amazed.

Think for a moment what would have been if his benefactors had been other than working artists themselves, or if they had not been faded gentlemen with poetic pretensions, or if they had not been philanthropists and thinkers more bent on other causes. What if they had commissioned him to produce great canvases, altarpieces, triptychs, vaults?

The world would be a different place. His imagery would have redirected the rivers of history.

But it could never have been. That commission belonged to an estate that feared him, court and church alike.

The revolution never came to London's garrets.

He lived away from London between 1800 and 1803, culminating in a confrontation with a soldier which lead to a charge of sedition...

Trooper Scofield was assigned by Blake's new benefactor, Hayley, to cut the lawns at Felpham. Blake was neither comfortable in his new home, nor any admirer of the military. To denounce the uniformed gardener in a time of Napoleonic paranoia was to invite censure, or worse. He was acquitted; the bench deemed this radical harmless. A generation before they would have hanged him. Again comes the irony; he seems to have resented these peers who spared him, believing that they did so only through decadent apathy.

In 1804, the plates for both 'Milton' and 'Jerusalem' were begun. Both took far longer to complete than did his earlier works, but they are nonetheless masterful examples of the summit of his art...

If you would grow with every step, then you must expect the pace to slow and the path to steepen.

Both of these works are anyway epic in scale.

'Milton' was completed in 1808...

Milton was a giant in Blake's eyes. The poem Blake wrote to celebrate the doyen of poets is long, but came to him as inspiration. He would claim that parts of it were written while he was trying to write something else entirely. If true, the lines must have condensed in Blake's mind as the culmination of a lifetime of reverent study and musing.

The theme of the poem is itself poetic inspiration, as antidote to the framing of moral law. Milton himself might not have wholly approved, but then again Blake chides his subject's Puritanism. Years before, in 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell', he was declaiming on Milton when he wrote the lines: those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained. Nobody escaped chastisement by this ultimate critic, not even those he lionised.

The plates are quite fine, but the glory of the work is this time the poetry itself. Its imagery, especially its description of nature, is very beautiful. Blake did however produce prints to match the majesty of Milton's verse, since he illustrated several editions. Contemporaneous with his own poem are examples for both 'Paradise Lost' and 'Paradise Regained'.

What was Blake doing in the years that followed? He surely never languished. He might have lacked the means to produce new books, since sheets of copper were dear, but poems, drawings and his mill-board prints he must have produced in copious amounts.

The unthinkable likelihood is that Tatham destroyed much of this material. Ostensibly a great admirer, this devotee of the Apostolic Church could never reconcile Blake's prophecy with conventional doctrine. As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.

'Jerusalem' was completed in 1818...

The other great travail of his lost years did survive, since even Tatham understood its surpassing brilliance. Blake resolved to leave Felpham and return to the Soho streets of his childhood, and in a fever of anticipation engraved the title-page of his embryonic poem soon after his arrival in 1804.

He called it 'Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion'. As poetry, it is immense, overworked and reiterated to the point of incoherence, but shot through with passages of exhilarating perception. This time, the illustrations touch and indeed eclipse the splendour of the verse. Even by Blake's standards, the appearance of the work is awe-inspiring.

Blake has moved on far beyond the allusions to Jerusalem that form the preface to 'Milton'. Though familiar to all, those lines convey the merest glimpse of the compass of his vision. This whole would reduce Promenaders to stunned silence, and terrify the ladies of the Women's Institute.

...He appeared in later life to adopt a more conventional version of the Christian faith...

Ha! Bring me my Chariot of Fire!

...And did those feet? The plain interpretation of the famous question is attractive but probably simplistic. The idea that Christ set a literal foot anywhere, let alone England, might not have seemed credible to Blake. His spirits indeed adopt corporeal form, but for the divine ones this is least necessary. Blake's Christ-in-England is most likely figurative.

Neither are satanic mills what they seem. It is certainly true that Blake deplored industrialisation, but the smokestacks and tenements that this phrase conjures in the mind of a modern reader were not concrete evils in Blake's world. Rather they were outcomes of his contemporaries' obsession with rationalism; the real evil lay in the systematic shackling of nature.

He updated his early 'Gates of Paradise'...

And much else besides. He illustrated Virgil. He drew the Ghost of a Flea, and he designed a great fresco depicting the Last Judgement. (The former was assiduously kept; the latter lost). He met the young Samuel Palmer, and a bright torch was passed.

In 1825, Blake's last major finished work appeared, a series of engravings for 'Illustrations of the Book of Job'...

Had there been time enough he would have illustrated the whole Bible. And had the Establishment been minded to let him.

Blake's final years, spent in great poverty, were cheered by the admiring friendship of a group of younger artists. He died in London on 12 August, 1827, leaving uncompleted a cycle of drawings inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy...

Now that you have shared a little of his philosophy, you might begin to question these assertions. His spirit was never impoverished. And perhaps he did not die at all.

Blake would not find much delight in our testaments to him. We still insist on categorising and analysing his work in a structured, reasoned way. Whether we praise him or dismiss him, we have already missed the point. All he ever asked was for us to endeavour to comprehend his vision.

So, at the end of all this...what do you discern when you regard his work? Are you distracted by intriguing images - or are you seized and transported by unalloyed revelation? Do you smile at the lyric lilt of his poetry, or do you frown and wrestle with its meaning?

Not all that Blake left to us is penetrable. Not all of it is good, even. But all of it, every letter and every line, was meant. It tore out of him, screaming and searing. It shrills still with the pang of his soul.

Receive his legacy this way. Allow him that presumption, that his spirit might resonate with yours. Blake is neither trivial, nor pretentious. Blake is profound. Blake is Promethean. Blake is Piety wreathed in Flame.

And, lest we should forget our own, Blake is England, and England is forever Albion.

Further Reading

If you'd like to find out more, try Blake at the Tate

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