Monday, 17 August 2009

Kathleen Raine on William Blake

This essay was published in book form with the title ‘William Blake’ under the auspices of the British Council, by Longmans, Green & Co., London, in 1951.

William Blake

by Kathleen Raine

When Alexander Gilchrist published, in 1863, thirty-six years after the death of that great man, his Life of William Blake, he found it necessary to justify himself, in the very first paragraph, for writing of a painter and poet ignored by biographical dictionaries, and passed over in silence by critics of poetry and painting alike. Gilchrist, in quoting the opinions of Fuseli and Flaxman that ‘the time would come when the finest of Blake’s designs would be as much sought after and treasured . . . as those of Michael Angelo now’ was exposing the critical reputations of these two distinguished artists to a grave risk -- a risk, as it happens, that they have triumphantly survived; for during the first half of this century, Blake’s reputation both as poet and painter has so risen, that it is doubtful whether the discovery of a new drawing by Michaelangelo could have caused more widespread delight, than the discovery, in 1949, of a new Blake painting, among the lumber of an English country house in Devonshire. (Many of Blake’s finest paintings have lain as lumber for a hundred years, and many are irretrievably lost.) The name of Michaelangelo, indeed, seems to recur in connexion with Blake in an odd way; for Blake himself once described a mystical diagram by Jacob Boehme as equal to Michaelangelo, the painter he himself chose as his measure of supreme greatness; and if to-day the name of William Blake stands with those of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton among English poets; and occupies a place altogether unique among English painters, it remains as difficult to explain why this should be so, as why Boehme’s diagram should be as great as Michaelangelo. Blake, as a painter, is clearly no more the equal of the depictor of Adam, than as a master of language, he can be compared with Chaucer or Milton, still less with Shakespeare; and yet, all these strange comparisons remain just. The genius of William Blake remains one of the most remarkable and potent that England has ever produced. One might go so far as to say that Blake is one of the half-dozen greatest men of genius of the modern world. But, if one were asked to point to one single example of his work that could be compared to the paintings in the Sistine Chapel, or to King Lear, one could scarcely name the Job engravings, exquisite as these are, or the Songs of Innocence and Experience, trifles, fragile as bubbles on a running stream, that flash off visionary wisdom as radium gives off electrons. It is, in some indescribable way, the total phenomenon of William Blake, the vision behind the poems, the engravings, the aphorisms and the life of that obscure and saintly man, that somehow conveys a whole imaginative world whose dimensions seem almost boundless. It is a question of human stature; Blake was one of those spiritual presences that are felt in the world, let them immure themselves within Carmelite walls, hide themselves in beggar’s rags, or leave behind them, like the creator of the Book of Job, not even a name.

William Blake was born on 28 November 1757, the second son of a respectable hosier in Broad Street. A Londoner of Londoners, he spent his childhood in the very heart of the city where, but for two or three years spent in the country, he lived his entire life. From his boyhood, he knew the pulse of the great city that he called ‘a human awful wonder of God’. He lived the greater part of his life in or near Soho. Blake’s poor rooms, once described by Samuel Palmer as ‘more attractive than the abode of princes’, were in Fountain Court, an alley between the Strand and the river, near the Coal Hole Tavern, that still remains; Fountain Court itself has been long since demolished.

Blake lived and died close to the beating heart of London. He loved to be near the river, at Lambeth, or Battersea, or the Strand. Friendship took him out as far as Hampstead, where, as an old man, he used to visit Linnell the painter, to be met by the Linnell children, or seen back to the coach by them, through the country lanes, by the light of a hurricane lamp; but even at Hampstead he felt himself on alien ground, so far from the Thames, that great artery of London, visible manifestation of the River of Life that so often appears in his poems and in his designs.

London was to Blake both home and school, both Pandemonium and Celestial City. Golgonooza, the ‘spiritual fourfold London’ is the theme and the setting of his prophetic visions of the spiritual destiny of ‘the Giant Albion’, the English race. The blood of human suffering ran down its walls; and heaven was so near at hand that the old visionary once touched it, so he said, with his walking-stick. Blake knew every pulsation of the great heart of the city, the vital centre of England -- England in the years of her still growing power, and the years of the more terrible growing power of the machine, whose cancer was to fasten so fatally upon the body and soul of the Giant Albion as the nineteenth century advanced.

To those who know London to-day, it is hard to realize that a London boy might have found green fields, elm-trees, lanes and footpaths and ponds within walking distance of Soho; the great cancerous proliferation of bricks and mortar that extends now for so many miles round a city, many of whose features remain much as Blake knew them, has utterly obliterated the trees and cornfields of Peckham Rye, where, as a young boy, Blake saw angels walking among the harvesters. Dulwich Village, Camberwell, Newington Butts, Sydenham, and Blackheath, to Croydon and beyond, rural haunts of Blake’s early youth, have been submerged in Greater London; Battersea, where he courted his wife, the illiterate daughter of a market-gardener, is a densely populated working-class district; only the church, where William Blake was married to one of the exemplary wives of literary history, still stands, as it did then, on a little muddy promontory on the south bank of the river. Looking upstream from Battersea Church you see an industrial landscape, across the silver or sombre river, on which the traditional swans still float, among tugs and barges, or paddle in the mud of the Battersea or Chelsea banks; but in the church itself, there remains a window on which is painted a lamb, the work of the vicar who married William and Catherine Blake -- a piece of symbolic coincidence significant enough for those familiar with the depth of meaning that Blake attached to the symbol of the Lamb of God.

It is often those who live between town and country, or for whom country scenes are a memory of childhood, a symbol of the lost Eden, who have the keenest and most poignant sense of pastoral beauty. It was after leaving for the first time his lakes and mountains that Wordsworth realized the intensity of his relationship with them; D. H. Lawrence, living in an industrial town, but on the fringe of the country, wrote of bluebell-woods, lapwings, and hayfields with an intensity of sensation never surpassed. Gerard Manley Hopkins had almost, so it seems, to banish himself from the natural world in order to write about it with the passion of a lover separated for ever from his beloved. And so it is that Blake’s pastoral world, of the Songs of Innocence, The Book of Thel, the woodcuts illustrating Thornton’s translation of Virgil Pastorals, has the double intensity of the natural world, seen and known and loved in every detail, and of a Lost Paradise, radiant in the golden visionary distance of memory in which Traherne saw his fields of orient and immortal wheat, and Wordsworth the tree loved in boyhood. Blake, from his very childhood, knew two worlds, city and country: the innocence of green fields, and the experience of industrial revolution; a pastoral heaven, and a hell of ‘dark satanic mills’. It is characteristic of his whole philosophy that he took both into account. A less courageous soul might well have hated the city and loved the fields, or, like Dr. Johnson, loved the coffeehouses and shrunk from the solitudes of nature. Blake felt with full intensity the martyrdom of the toiling, suffering humanity of London, and he loved fields, green mountains, summer trees; but he saw the human spirit at work alike amid the furnaces of hell and the fountains of paradise. He desired to see a ‘marriage’ of heaven and hell, and, for him, the innocence of pastoral man did not seem lost in the satanic mills; the hell of experience is, for Blake, only the turning of the Wheel of Life; the indestructible purity of the human spirit returns, at the end of the circle of destiny, to its original innocence again; the furnaces of the fallen world become once more the fountains of Eden. It seems likely that much of Blake’s vision of a reconciliation of two contraries -- of good and evil, innocence and experience, arose out of his own early memories of city squalor and suffering, side by side with the world of hay-fields and harvesters under the hedgerow elms of Kent, on the south bank of the Thames.

Blake’s father the hosier must have been a kindly and sensible man, for he appears to have done everything in his power to enable his remarkable son to follow his bent. Blake, at his own request, never went to school; instead, he used to spend hours in the print-shops, where he spent his pocket-money on engravings of the Italian masters; or wandering off into the outlying country lanes. It is a great thing for a boy to have his freedom, as Wordsworth also had his, during those years in which poets gather the impressions and sensations upon which they draw, to the end of their lives. When the time came for Blake to decide upon his career, it was the son’s wish, it seems, to save his father expense; Blake himself chose to be apprenticed as an engraver, rather than enter upon the more precarious career of a pure artist. He was accordingly apprenticed to Basire, with whom he learned one of those skilled crafts that, before the Industrial Revolution, lent a dignity to manual work that the machine has largely destroyed. The engraver’s skill formed a bridge between craftsmanship and the higher branches of art, that has since been removed by the mechanization of so many processes once performed by engravers.

Blake never lost his link with the common people, or the men who work with their hands; and however high the flights of his imagination, he remained, all his life, a humble engraver working for his bread, with the skill of his hands. It is recorded that, when no money remained to pay their simple household expenses, Mrs. Blake used to set an empty plate before her husband at dinner-time and that he would then turn (with the remark ‘Damn the money!’) from his prophecies and visions of other worlds, and take up his graver to work on some humble task. Drawing tureens and tea-services for the Wedgwoods’ catalogue of the Etruria pottery was one such humble piece of hack-work that Blake performed (the drawings he made still survive). We may regret that Blake was not able to devote himself entirely to his creative genius as painter and poet -- and he himself felt bitterly enough on this question, and suffered both sorrow and indignation on account of the frustration of his genius by poverty and the neglect of his contemporaries; but it may be that the gain is as great as the loss. Blake lived, both geographically and socially, in the very heart of England; a poor Londoner and a man of the people, he was, besides, the friend of many of the greatest artists of his day -- Fuseli and Flaxman, and, later, Varley, Linnell, and Samuel Palmer; he met Sir Joshua Reynolds, visited Lady Caroline Lamb, where he met Coleridge; and knew Wordsworth’s friend Crabb Robinson the diarist. There were few aspects of London life, high or low, that were entirely unknown to him; as a young man he was an ardent revolutionary, and is said to have helped Tom Paine to escape from England with his life. In what better situation could a self-elected prophet of England, whose special role in our imaginative history was to read the signs of the times, have found himself, than between the worlds of artists and the world of artisans, between city and fields, and, historically, between the rural England of the eighteenth century, and the industrialized England of the nineteenth? Blake was a prophet not by inspiration alone, but by direct knowledge, and personal experience, of the most significant happenings in the social history of his country, and of his century.

As Basire’s apprentice, it fell to Blake’s task to make drawings of many of the monuments of kings and queens in Westminster Abbey, and these Gothic tombs and effigies deeply influenced his style as an artist. The Gothic stress on line was all-important to Blake, who insisted always on linear design, on clear outline, as against the chiaroscuro school favoured by Sir Joshua Reynolds. ‘Nature has no outline, but imagination has’, he wrote. Line, for Blake, is the hallmark of imagination; and it is remarkable that stress on line is a characteristic of religious art, from the cave-drawings of the stone age to the Gothic, from Buddhist Chinese art to El Greco. ‘Line is essence’, according to a contemporary artist, Cecil Collins -- essence as against appearance, or accident, which is the subject-matter of, say, the French impressionists, an essentially secular school; and it is remarkable that Blake, the greatest religious artist that England has produced, should have gone back, to find his next-of-kin, to medieval art, the product of a Christianity still irrational and imaginative. For Blake, the secular and the spiritual were undivided and in Westminster Abbey he recognized the work of artist-craftsmen, like himself, for whom ‘everything that lives is holy’ -- a world still unsecularized, and dominated by a single hierarchy of values that included, as Blake’s did, both heaven and earth in a single vision -- a religious conception not separate from, but underlying, the whole of life.

Blake’s earliest, and to this day his most widely known, and best loved, poems -- the Poetical Sketches, and the Songs of Innocence and Experience -- were written during his late boyhood, and the years of his early married life. The Poetical Sketches, most of them written in his teens, were published with the help of friends, the Rev. Mathew, a fashionable preacher, and his wife, ‘the accomplished Mrs. Mathew’, who for a while took Blake up, and whose literary salon no doubt inspired the poet to write, in an irreverent mood, his satire A Voyage to the Moon. It was Flaxman who took Blake to the Mathews’ salon in Rathbone Place, where it is on record that he recited, and also sang, his songs -- for, besides illustrating them with designs, the poet composed music to them which, unfortunately, was never written down, and so has been for ever lost. Blake’s imagination could express itself, with almost equal facility, in two arts, and perhaps a third; a fact not, perhaps, surprising, when we consider the specific nature of his genius, of which more will later be said.

Blake was married in 1782, when he was twenty-five, and went to live at 23 Green Street, near the Strand, where he was the humble neighbour of Reynolds and Hogarth, and of his own friend, Flaxman; but two years later, finding life in Green Street too expensive, he returned to Broad Street, where he lived next door to the family hosiery business that was carried on, after their father’s death, by Blake’s elder brother James. A younger brother, Robert, joined the young couple at this time, as William’s pupil in draughtsmanship -- indeed Robert was a promising artist, and several of his designs were for a long time mistaken for his brother William’s work. To his brother’s great grief, Robert died a year or two later. Blake, who had nursed him constantly during his illness, saw his spirit ‘ascending heavenwards, through the matter-of-fact ceiling, “clapping its hands for joy” -- a truly Blake-like detail’, as Gilchrist remarks. This much-loved brother, so Blake believed, often visited him, in spirit, throughout his life; and it was Robert’s spirit who gave Blake the secret of the process by which he produced those miraculously beautiful illuminated pages of his poems, printed and coloured by hand by the poet and his wife, and sold to the few purchasers who wanted to possess those most beautiful books, in which poems, lettering, and design are all the work of a single mind and a single vision. The illuminated copies of the Songs are the most remarkable books made in England, perhaps, since the illuminated missals of the Middle Ages, and belong to the earlier tradition of craftsmanship that rises to the level of imaginative art (or an imaginative art that includes craftsmanship), that Caxton’s printing-press virtually brought to an end. In vision and in technique alike, Blake was close to the Gothic middle ages; but what saves Blake’s books from the charge of preciosity that invalidates most modern hand-made hand-painted books is that he published his poems in that way not from choice but from necessity: no publisher would print them!

After Robert’s death Blake left Broad Street for neighbouring Poland Street, where he lived for five years. There he wrote and illustrated the Book of Thel and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell -- works of the purest genius, strangely alien, one might now think, from the spirit of the disreputable Soho street that has gone steadily down in the world since Blake’s day; and in 1793, the poet and his wife moved to Lambeth, to a little pleasant one-storied house, with a vine growing in its garden. All lovers of Blake’s designs must have noticed how often the free-flowing linear vine appears, with its tendrils and leaves, bordering a page, or filling a vacant line of the Prophetic Books. It is said by Gilchrist that the poet would never allow his own vine to be pruned -- one of those symbolic stories, like the tradition that Shakespeare never blotted a line, that has served as a text for critics of Blake’s unconfined and prolific genius. The other story -- of Blake and his wife reading Paradise Lost together under that same vine, in the undress of Eden -- might be true, and will always be repeated, for it is entirely in keeping with the poet’s intransigent innocence, and his wife’s literal willingness to follow her husband wherever his visions might lead him -- as she did, for better and for worse, throughout his life. What is certain is that the years at Lambeth were happy ones -- ‘lovely Lambeth’ is a recurring phrase in the Prophetic Books; ‘There is a grain of sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find’ -- a refuge of love and peace where the poet and his wife, a childless but devoted pair, happy in their work and in their companionship -- could live in peace untroubled, as yet, by the shadow of deepening poverty and neglect that was to overcast Blake’s later years. In Lambeth Blake wrote and engraved the Visions of the Daughters of Albion -- a great plea for sexual freedom, soon to be followed by America, an even more fundamental defence of liberty and revolution, whose theme is derived from the American War of Independence. In these two books we first meet some of the personages of Blake’s pantheon, ‘Red Orc’, the spirit of enchained passion; the ‘shadowy female’, Vala, cruel goddess of nature; Urthona, or Los, the spirit of prophecy and of history; Oothoon, and the daughters of Albion, those nymphs, not of springs and forests, but of looms and mills, suffering and toiling at the cruel machines of the Industrial Revolution. In each successive book -- Ahania, Urizen, The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem -- the characterization of the figures of his pantheon -- some dozen major deities, and various ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ who reduplicate certain of the leading figures -- become ever more distinct in character and potency, and, in the accompanying designs, their features are drawn with unforgettable clearness; the chained puer eternus, Orc; Los, that proletarian Apollo, god of prophecy and poetry, and ‘lord of the furnaces’; Urizen, the elderly, bearded, anxious god of rational knowledge, with his heavy, brass-bound books and iron pen; Enitharmon, the poetic muse, who gives aesthetic form to the poetic conceptions of Los; Tharmas, the ‘rough demon of the waters’, deity of sensory life and the forms of nature; and Enion the earth-mother, now age-bent, wandering among the graves, now a child in the garden of love. It has long been customary to dismiss these visionary beings with their uncouth names, as mere figments of Blake’s fancy; but as we become more and more familiar with their potencies and natures, with their place in the total myth that, year by year, Blake built up, so do they come -- for those, at any rate, who find it natural to think in symbolic terms -- to seem the most viable symbolism available to us. They are unmistakably English; gods and goddesses, they yet belong to the modern world; they include in their range the rationalism of Bacon, Newton, and Locke, the Industrial Revolution, and they are rooted, besides, in the tradition of Christianity. Once familiar with these figures, they come to seem as native as Hamlet, King Lear, or Milton’s Satan.

As Blake became ever more deeply immersed in the visions that he describes in the Prophetic Books, so he moved, as poet and as artist, into a poetic world that was to remain incomprehensible to the general public for a hundred years and more. His prophecies were, in his own day, closed books, to which the present generation, with our modern science of psychology, is the first to possess any key.

As Blake matured in his genius, so he outgrew his contemporaries; he was never to have any book of his prophecies published, greatly to his own grief, for these, he knew, concerned England and her spiritual well-being. His designs were likewise considered wild, and mad, by all but a small circle. Blake could never reconcile himself to his isolation, or understand why things that for him were clear, should, to the general public, seem incomprehensible. ‘Truth cannot be so spoken as to be understood and not be believed’, he wrote; and in the long run the truths that he spoke have come to be understood and believed. Blake to-day is rapidly becoming what Bunyan was before him, a household prophet in England. The lyric that prefaces his last Prophet Book, Jerusalem, is sung in Women’s Institutes up and down what remains of England’s green and pleasant land; his Prophecies, once thought unintelligible even by those who admired him most, are the subject of an ever-increasing literature of critical books, as a newly discovered continent in our literature, a territory of untold wealth and vast extent, yielding already rich harvests of wisdom for those who have persisted in their study of them. But, so far were these great works on which Blake was engaged from enabling him to earn a living, or a literary reputation, that by 1800 he found himself in some perplexity as to how he could live. Often he found himself forced to engrave the designs of artists far inferior to himself in invention, whose more insipid and conventional work was acceptable to their contemporaries. It is hard now to realize that Flaxman was ranked, in his own day, far higher than Blake; and that engraving Stothard’s pedestrian work, that now seems scarcely worth a glance, except for the interest of his being a contemporary of Blake, should have provided Blake, during the years of his early creative energy, with the means of earning a living. Many men of genius have been poor and obscure, but surely no man of equal genius has ever suffered, as Blake suffered, the daily and explicit humiliation of working in the service of artists inferior to himself. Blake learned a deep humility; but one is glad to know that his patience was not always exemplary, and that his outraged genius was apt to burst out in violent protest. Even Blake’s one patron was blind to the genius of the man whom he wished to help, and no doubt considered himself a far better poet than Blake. The laughable, humiliating, and yet, after all, not unkindly story of Blake’s relationship with Hayley must be told, if only because it was through Hayley that Blake spent the only years of his life that he lived outside London, at Felpham, on the Sussex coast.

Hayley, the biographer of Cowper, was a country squire with literary leanings. On Flaxman’s kindly suggestion, he proposed to employ Blake to engrave a portrait of Cowper for his biography, to design and engrave illustrations to his (Hayley’s) poems, to be sold as broadsheets for Blake’s benefit, and in various other tasks. He also, apparently, set himself to make up for Blake’s want of education, by reading him Pope Homer and other improving works, of an evening. (Blake’s scathing comments were confided to his notebooks, and his lifelong dislike of the Greeks may be in no small measure the result of these sessions with his patron.) So it was that during the years spent by Blake at Felpham -- the years when he was engaged on the great visionary poems Milton, and Jerusalem, later engraved and printed by hand, with their accompanying designs -- the great poet was busy illustrating Hayley’s worthless verses, listening to his views on poetry, and, so it seems, putting up with what patience he could summon with Hayley’s good advice on his own work. What seems particularly to have angered Blake was Hayley’s attempts to persuade the loyal Mrs. Blake that her husband must be made to see reason. ‘Natural friends are spiritual enemies’, Blake concluded with some bitterness and much truth -- for Hayley’s good will towards Blake, and wish to help him, is as certain as his utter inability to understand, or gauge the stature of this great man of genius whom chance had brought to his door. The relationship between artist and patron demands a measure of greatness and of humility on both sides. It is unfortunate that Hayley’s petty vanity about his own poems should have blinded him to the genius of Blake, who finally found the relationship insupportable, and returned to London, and to years of deepening neglect.

Those three years in the pretty cottage that Hayley lent him were not, even so, unhappy ones; for Blake saw angels descending on a ladder from heaven to his cottage, and the visions that came to him by the sea were among the most radiantly beautiful that he ever had. In his leafy garden he saw fairies among the leaves, and his description of a fairy’s funeral is a piece of rural lore that might have come from Shakespeare’s England. In that same garden occurred a very different incident, belonging to a more modern, and grimmer world. Blake, coming one day into his enchanted garden, innocent haunt of fairies and angels, found there a cruder figure from the World of Experience, a soldier -- ugly symbol of this world’s tyranny and brutality -- whom the gardener had asked to come in as his assistant. Blake asked the soldier to leave; the man refused. Blake’s poetic rage became inflamed, and he turned the soldier out of the garden by main force. The soldier retaliated by charging Blake with sedition, in particular with having spoken the words, ‘Damn the King; damn all his subjects, damn his soldiers, they are all slaves’ -- words that might have cost Blake his life. Blake denied having spoken them; and at the Quarter Sessions, at his trial, one old man, years later, remembered his flashing eye, as he denied the false charge. Hayley, the spiritual enemy, was on this occasion a valuable natural friend -- the squire may have cut a small figure in the eyes of the angels, but he was influential enough in the county of Sussex, perhaps, to save Blake’s natural life.

It is likely, since he denied it, that Blake did not speak the seditious words attributed to him; but there is seldom smoke without fire, and the prophet’s burning revolutionary zeal, his ardent spiritual presence must have been felt at Felpham; the mere look in his flashing eye must have struck consternation into the villagers and local soldiery, and brought down upon him one of those petty village persecutions, like that which befell D. H. Lawrence and his wife during the 1914 war. (Lawrence and his wife were falsely charged with signalling to the enemy from their cottage on the Cornish coast.) There is a certain poetic justice in both these false charges, brought against two prophets whose fiery zeal was directed against so much that was corrupt in English society; and the yokels who dimly sensed their power and the revolutionary trend of their very thoughts -- in Blake’s flashing eye, or in Lawrence’s red beard -- were right, as the scribes and pharisees are always right, in detecting the spiritual presence of the inspired enemy of false values. Neither were guilty of the actions with which they were charged, but both were guilty (if that is the word) of treason, not against England, but against the Lord of this World, more fundamental than their accusers could have known.

Blake returned to London in 1804 and for the next seventeen years he lived at No. 17 South Moulton Street, only a few yards from Oxford Street, within a mile of the house where he was born. Again he set to work, as an engraver, to earn his living, while he worked, in his spare hours, on the printing of his Prophetic Books, by the laborious process of engraving each plate, with its writing and designs, by hand. He painted many pictures, both in tempora, a medium that he preferred to oils, and water-colour, and sold some to a few constant buyers, Butts and Cumberland being chief among them at that time. In 1808, Blake, then at the height of his powers, impatient at the neglect of his genius, goaded into action by the theft by Stothard of his idea for a painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims, made one last attempt to appeal to ‘the public’, who would, he felt, be less blind to his message than the intellectuals of the day. The same mistake has been made by artists both before and since; but what could have been more understandable, in a prophet who knew that his work was of deep concern to the Sons and Daughters of Albion, the English nation? The one exhibition of Blake’s paintings, including the Canterbury Pilgrims, and a number of other important works, many of them now lost, was held in his brother the hosier’s house in Broad Street, and although few members of the public seem to have visited it, there remains, from that famous exhibition, Blake Descriptive Catalogue, the finest and longest of Blake’s prose writings, a work full of penetrating and profound criticism, psychological subtlety, visionary wisdom, and poetic eloquence. Crabb Robinson, the diarist, bought four copies when he visited the exhibition, one of which he gave to Charles Lamb. He must have been one of the very few purchasers for that famous work was already extremely rare by the time Gilchrist came to write his Life. The exhibition was, of course, a financial failure, and did nothing to arrest Blake’s decline into obscurity. Curiosity took a few -- like Crabb Robinson -- to see the works of the eccentric visionary, but no disciple stayed to listen, or attempted to understand his wisdom. Blake was to have no disciples, as painter or as poet, until the last years of his life, when the sun of his greatness came, as it were, from behind a cloud. Blake, as an old man, was the much-loved master of a group of distinguished young painters and Linnell, Calvert, Richmond, Tatham, Samuel Palmer, and Varley were his friends. To these younger painters, Blake’s poor room in Fountain Court -- to which he had moved from South Moulton Street a few years before his death -- was known as ‘the Interpreter’s House’, after the character in A Pilgrim’s Progress. George Richmond -- one of the youngest of this group -- afterwards used to say that being with Blake was ‘as if he were talking to the Prophet Isaiah’. Blake, like Job, emerged, at the end of his life, into a period of creative fruitfulness and radiant peace. It was Linnell who commissioned him to work on the finest completed work of his life -- the Job engravings, followed by the illustrations to Dante, on which he was at work when he died, in 1827, a few months before his seventieth birthday.

Describing Blake as an old man, Samuel Palmer wrote, ‘In him you saw at once the Maker, the Inventor; one of the few in any age: a fitting companion for Dante. He was energy itself, and shed around him a kindling influence; an atmosphere of life, full of the ideal. To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter; and the high, gloomy buildings between which, from his study window, a glimpse was caught of the Thames and the Surrey shore, assumed a kind of grandeur from the man dwelling near them. Those may laugh at this who never knew such a one as Blake; but of him it is the simple truth.

‘He was a man without a mask, his aim single, his path straight forwards, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy.’

Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields -- the burial place of Bunyan and Defoe -- in a common grave, that can no longer be traced, for there was no headstone to mark the spot where so great a man was buried. Nor, indeed, would the omission greatly have troubled Blake, for whom the mortal body was only ‘an excrementitious husk or covering over my immortal’. It was not until long after the resting-place of his mortal body had been forgotten, that Blake’s greatness began to be recognized by the public to whom, in his Descriptive Catalogue, he had appealed in vain.

In what, then, does Blake’s peculiar greatness consist? Among English artists his place is unique. His work is on a small scale; the Job engravings, his most perfect work, in his mature style, measure but a few inches; and yet in energy and beauty the human forms that he has depicted in them can without absurdity be compared with those of Michaelangelo. There is always, in the human form as Blake conceives it, a vitality more than sensual, that seems to lift the human body from the ground, free it from the limitations of gravity. His human bodies are not like the aspiring figures of Baroque art, that seem to be pulled upwards by the force of heavenly gravitation acting against the downward pull of earth; they seem, rather not subject to any stresses and strains at all, freely-moving spiritual beings, passing through air and fire unhindered. Blake was, as a young man, a Swedenborgian; and to Blake, as to the Swedish visionary, the material body of man is not his real body. According to Swedenborg, the Resurrection of the Body is a resurrection from, and not a resurrection of, the material body. Blake saw the soul of his brother Robert rising through the ceiling when he died; he saw, in his imagination, the clean bodies of the London chimneysweeps, who wash in the river of life and play in the sun. It is the imaginative immortal body of man that Blake represents. To occultists, like Yeats, or A.E., as to Swedenborg, the existence of such a body is a matter of faith. Blake himself says that (earthly) ‘body is that portion of Soul perceived by the five senses’; and he represents, in his designs to his Prophetic Books, in the Job and Dante illustrations, in every human form that he ever drew, the soul of man, bounded within that magic line drawn by imagination, but not to be found in nature. The ‘visionary forms’ of Pitt, and of Nelson, are the themes of two of his more ambitious compositions; but in truth all his forms of lamb or lion, flower or tendril, child or man, are visionary. When we look at Blake’s drawings, we look at the forms of spiritual beings; and the most voluptuous nudes, painted in satin texture, seem lifeless in comparison with these figures whose very essence is their imaginative immortality.

As a colourist, Blake is the father of the water-colour school of Samuel Palmer and his friends. The pages of the Songs of Innocence and Experience that Blake used to colour by hand for the few purchasers of the book, are even smaller than the Job designs; but they are of a delicacy and lyricism of colour quite unlike anything else. The colour-washed pages of the Book of Thel or the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with their gold and silver illuminated lettering, delicate tendril and leaf, create the illusion of a world fit for spirits to inhabit. Even the tiny woodcuts that illustrate Virgil Pastorals have that quality of belonging to eternity and not to time, a world wholly conceived by the imagination, and in which the senses but play the part of instruments. Not that Blake imagines an ‘other world’, or spiritual forms unrelated to the bodies they inhabit; on the contrary, his genius lay in his ability to see the body as an expression of soul, the natural forms of the temporal world as expressions of eternal archetypes. ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time’, he wrote; and no artist more disliked the vague and the abstract. Minute particulars he always insisted, were all important. A spirit, or a vision, is not ‘a cloudy vapour, or a nothing’ and ‘he who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light, than his perishing and mortal eye can see does not imagine at all’. It is precisely because his forms are imaginary that they have clear and distinct outline; for the senses, so Blake believed, have not the power of revealing form; like Coleridge, he realized the esemplastic’ power belongs to the imagination alone -- ‘Nature has no outline, but imagination has. Nature has no tune, but imagination has’. Describing his elaborate symbolic painting entitled ‘A Vision of the Last Judgment’, Blake wrote: ‘I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation and that to me it is hindrance and not Action; it is as the dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. “What”, it will be Question’d, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” Oh no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host, crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty”. I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight. I look thro’ it and not with it!’ The ‘I’ who looks through, and not with, the organ of sense is the Self of the Upanishads, known to mystics both Platonic and Christian as existing beyond the conscious self; Blake himself called it the Divine Humanity. The imagination is, for Blake, as for Coleridge, the divine presence in man; and his theory of the imagination is thus one that makes him, in the only significant sense, a religious artist -- probably the only English religious artist of significance since the anonymous craftsmen of the Middle Ages, whom Blake in so many respects resembled.

As a poet Blake is perhaps greater than he is as an artist. The small scale and technical limitations of his work as an artist must always make him seem provincial -- not in vision, but in achievement -- in comparison with the great masters of Italy or France or Spain; but as a poet, in the tradition of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton, he was working in a poetic medium that helped, rather than hindered, his genius. Blake, as a lyrical poet, is unsurpassed. His Songs have often been compared to those of Shakespeare; and one might say that lyrical form poetry is what outline is in drawing, or melody in music -- the contour drawn by imagination, the trace of spiritual life. His vocabulary is as simple as that of a child, and his symbols -- rose, sunflower, lion, lamb, beetle, ant, little girl, or little boy -- are few, and universal. It is (as with his woodcuts, one inch by two inches, or the colour-washed pages that illustrate his poems) a question of transparency. Every lyric is a window into the imaginative world, and even in these early poems his roses and lambs are more than metaphorical, they are archetypal, symbols that focus multiple meanings, soundings into the unconscious, into the universal source of myth and oracle; hence their power. Simple as nursery-rhymes, they are as profound as the Gospels, whose symbolism of corn, bread, wine, and fishes was firm enough foundation for an enduring civilization. Indeed the symbols upon which great religious and enduring civilizations are founded are always of Blake-like simplicity and universality, as common as the sun and stars, comprehensible to the unlearned, but for ever incomprehensible to the unwise.

Of Blake’s later poems, little can be said within the compass of this essay. For long they were considered the inchoate ramblings of a disordered mind; they lack, indeed, the lyrical felicity of the Songs, and in order to read them with understanding we must lay aside the poetic habits of two thousand years, and rediscover a part of the poetic art that has gradually been lost, as our Western civilization has advanced and perfected its one-sided mode of thought, and discarded the mythological for the rational. One might say that there are two levels of symbolism employed, simultaneously, in all the greatest poetry: an upper, linguistic layer, whose symbolic counters are words -- words, the perfected instruments of conscious thought. The metaphysical poets excelled in the extracting of multiple meanings from words placed and held in complex intellectual tensions as elaborate as magnetic fields. The mere ‘beauty’ of words has been exploited by the Victorian poets -- Tennyson and his contemporaries excelled in this relatively trivial, but still delightful art, which to-day still passes for the be-all and end-all of poetry among many persons who (rightly if this were so) hold poetry in some contempt. But there is, besides the texture of words, whether intellectual or sensual, a lower, symbolic layer in the greatest imaginative poetry that has little to do with words at all. Freud and Jung have convinced us, clearly enough, that there are regions of the mind that think, not in terms of words at all, but in a picture language of symbols. The unconscious is innocent of words, but it formulates its desires and fears, its primordial but profound statements of living experience, in those symbolic forms that haunt our dreams. For the most part such symbolism is fragmentary, for the art of using symbols to their full potency has, with our long-established habits of verbal thought, been largely lost. Yet the myths of primitive races, and of our own antiquity, move far more in this non-linguistic, symbolic layer of poetry than in the verbal. Ballad and legend and fairy-tale deal almost wholly in this non-linguistic symbolism, irreducibly poetic, and independent of the words in which the symbols are described. Talking animals like the Black Bull of Norroway; the sleeping princess, or king, in the underground palace; the grail, the magic child, dragon, and holy tree, are counters in the pre-verbal poetic language of which myths are made, and which we ourselves still speak, though without understanding or control, in our dreams. Such symbols may be painted, put into dance or mime, told in prose or verse, and always they remain magical.

The greatest achievement of the first half of the twentieth century will perhaps prove to have been the first elucidation given by Freud and his successors of regions of the human mind that had remained closed since antiquity -- the discovery of the extent, and significance, of the unconscious, or what is so-called; for it is not unconscious at all times -- in dreams, for instance -- or to all men. What in most men is latent, is consciously experienced by visionaries and imaginative poets of the stature of Shakespeare, Coleridge, or Blake. As we learn more of the nature of the unconscious, its laws and contents, so we are beginning to relearn the dead language of symbolism, spoken with such moving and poetic power by the framers of myths, the inventors of gods and goddesses. The languages of myth and poetry spring from a single source, at the level at which these symbols are created, and they express not rational concepts, but resonant potencies that sound the very depths of our souls, stirring overtones of meaning that extend beyond the narrow spectrum of conscious thought. This is the language that Blake speaks in his Prophetic Books. Blake had the gift, apparently artless, of making any medium a transparent lens, or window, through which his vision shines. His poems, woodcuts, engravings, or water-colour drawings all reveal the same imaginative world, peopled by beings that seem to have an existence in their own right, as have the Homeric gods or the Christian Holy Family. As the Greeks wrote about the gods, so Blake wrote about, or drew, or engraved, the real existing figures of his imaginative world; and we recognize them, as we do Apollo or the Blessed Virgin, as if they had an actual existence, independent of art, independent, almost, of Blake himself. Perhaps they are our own lost Pantheon, the ancient gods and goddesses of England, rediscovered by Blake in South Molton Street, Lambeth, Battersea, and Hampstead, and restored to us (unlike some members of the Irish pantheon, who refused baptism at the hands of St. Patrick), Christianized one and all. Blake combined the symbolic imaginative genius of antiquity, and the psychological insight of modern man. In the latter respect, he was a hundred years in advance of his time; his reasonable and calm attitude to his visions is more akin to the intellectual honesty of a twentieth-century scientist than to the pious obscurantism of the devout; and yet his visions retain the quality of holiness, that has at all times characterized the religions of mankind, and that fulfils an irreducible need of the human soul. Never, I suppose, in human history, has mythology been so meagre, symbolic thought so little understood, as at the turn of the century into which Blake was born. The indigenous gods of Celt and Saxon had long since been forgotten -- perhaps to our permanent imaginative impoverishment; and the rationalized and denaturized version of Christianity that remained at the beginning of the nineteenth century was all but devoid of symbolism and useless as a medium of imaginative thought. It is indeed astonishing that at such a time, Blake should have created, from his own visionary imagination, a pantheon as rich, varied, and complex as that of any primitive race; created some dozen gods and goddesses, defined their potencies, set the whole pantheon in motion, with all the subtle relation and interrelation of these imaginative forces set forth with all the penetration of a psychologist of the school of Freud or Jung. These beings that he has created have arisen from the depths of the poet’s unconscious, in all the energy and beauty of life, violent, shape-shifting forms of the eternal powers that mould man, the impulses that determine and control our life, from beyond the little world known to our reason.

It is not possible to read the Prophetic Books merely as exercises in the use of language; on the linguistic level, except for some fine passages, they are disappointing, as compared with the early lyrics; they must be read as myth. As such they are among the greatest poetry in any modern language, and stand beside the works of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, or James Joyce. The art of reading myth, as myth, must be re-learned if we are fully to understand such figures as Shakespeare’s Caliban, Ariel, or Lear, Joyce’s Anna Livia, or Blake’s Four Zoas; but, that taste once formed, we come to look, in poetry, for the gods and their symbols, and if we do not find them, the finest verse seems insipid, as if lacking a necessary dimension. Once we become accustomed to this pre-verbal interplay of symbol and the personified potencies of the eternal human archetypes, we come to find it a necessary part of any art, and in its absence, poetry of words alone, however felicitous, can no longer satisfy us.

It is now, perhaps, clear why Blake should have worked with equal facility in two media. The poetic process in which he excelled was neither verbal nor visual; it was symbolic and mythological. He was a creator not of pictures, not of verbal rhetoric, but of symbols, whose potency does not depend solely on the medium through which they are expressed. We recognize Urizen, or Los, or Vala, in Blake’s designs, or in his descriptions; a phrase, or a line, becomes enough, when we have learned Blake’s symbolic vocabulary, to evoke the archetype -- just as, for Christians, two crossed sticks tell the whole story of their religion. That such an uprushing fountain of spiritual energy should have broken through the crust of eighteenth-century rationalism, in the works of Coleridge, Shelley, Goethe, and, above all, of Blake, is a fact whose great significance has not, even now, been fully realized. There remains, in the closed books of Blake -- books first published only in this century and still in process of de-coding -- ‘a great world of delight, closed to your senses five’. Its very dimensions have, so far, blinded us to it; for it is easier to appreciate a single metaphor, than to encompass a whole pantheon of gods and the world they inhabit.

There is still another respect in which we must consider Blake; he is perhaps the greatest Christian prophet of the modern world. Blake, so far as we know, attended services in the Church of England only three times in his life -- on the occasions of his baptism, his marriage, and his burial; for he held organized religion in low esteem. As a young man he was a follower of Swedenborg, and a member of his New Church. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a commentary on, and criticism of, Swedenborg; Jacob Boehme, St. Teresa, and the Kabbala were other principal sources of Blake’s religious thought, and he appears to have known something of Gnosticism and of the Hindoo religion. Just as, in art, he went back to the Gothic tradition, so, in religious thought, he swept aside all that was reputable and established in his day, and, with his unfailing grasp of essentials, saw the whole edifice of Western rationalism, theist and atheist alike, as so much dust in the balance, in the matter of religious truth. His religious wisdom he drew from the same source as his painting and his poetry -- the human imagination, which he called, indifferently, the Bosom of God, the Saviour, the Divine Humanity, and Jesus. Imagination was, for Blake, the divine presence in man. Like contemporary psychologists, he distinguished clearly between the selfhood (the ego as we should say) and the ‘humanity’, the real man of which the ego is only a part. Like mystics of all times and places, and like contemporary psychologists, Blake’s spiritual aim was a widening of consciousness, a destruction of the selfhood, that would enable the real humanity to come into being. In this religious empiricism he was more akin to a Buddhist, or a contemporary psychologist, than to the devout and the moralistic of his own day or of ours. To anyone, mystic or psychologist, who has realized the extent of the human soul, the partial and superficial nature of the ego, conventional morality must seem to be almost entirely unrelated to the true nature of man. Good and evil, as we conceive them, have little meaning in the world of the gods and goddesses, of the unconscious regions of the psyche, that obey laws unknown to reason and convention. Blake, therefore, became, as Swedenborg had never become, the courageous prophet of a new morality, a ‘Marriage’ of Heaven and Hell, of ‘reason’ and ‘energy’, one might say of the conscious and the unconscious halves of man’s original wholeness. A wholly new conception of the nature of man implies a new morality -- as modern psychologists have likewise discovered. Current ideals of sexual chastity, for example, Blake saw -- as Freud was later to see them -- as a hypocritical pretence, and the repression of the energies of body or mind as a violence done to the ‘divine humanity’. Legalistic morality is, for Blake, the greatest of spiritual evils. His Jesus is the Divine Humanity -- the potential human Self that lies beyond the conscious ego and its moral formulations, ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven whose order is latent in every soul, and whose realization in life is the task and toil of man.

Blake’s spiritual technique, or discipline, is no less modern than his view of the nature of man. Painting, music, and poetry, were, for him, three ways of ‘conversing with paradise’ -- of awakening, and bringing into consciousness and reality, the latent contours of the Divine Humanity. It was the function, after all, of the symbolism of old religious myths, to reach those hidden springs, and poetry, as Blake understood it, is the real mythology, the real spiritual language, of modern man. Blake’s religious teaching, at once too simple and too revolutionary for the orthodox, appeals to our particular kind of honesty, and stands the test alike of experience and of our present scientific knowledge. There are many who are prepared to accept Blake’s imaginative interpretation of Christianity in an age when theology, a rational formulation, has become discredited in the light of our humbler modern conception of the scope of the human reason, and of the processes of thought. ‘Everything that lives is holy’ is Blake’s creed; and in his fundamental criticism of orthodox Christianity, made in the fragments called The Everlasting Gospel, he constantly affirms that the unique contribution of Christianity to morality is the idea of the forgiveness of sins. What is most remarkable is the psychological soundness of Blake’s intuitive conclusions about the nature of the human soul, and its redemption. Combining as he did the intellectual honesty of a scientist with a saint’s sense of the holy, Blake stands as a bridge between the religious intuitions of the past, and the psychological science of the present day. Take him as one will -- as artist, poet, or religious revolutionary, Blake is a figure whose stature overtops all but the greatest men of genius that England -- or for that matter, the Western world -- has known.

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