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William Blake: Visions and Verses

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, May/June 2004 | Volume 25, Number 3

A chapter in the first biography of Blake, published in 1863, is entitled "Mad or Not Mad." William Wordsworth once wrote that William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience were "undoubtedly the production of insane genius," and yet, "there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another contemporary, doubted Blake's mental balance, but also called him "a man of Genius."

An etcher, printer, and poet, Blake's tastes ran contrary to the inclinations of his time. While philosophers and writers of the eighteenth century set store by rationalism and science, Blake valued the imagination: "I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create." And whereas a Neo-classical formality and artifice were the reigning aesthetic, Blake looked to the Bible and Milton. Above all, he believed that the poet is a mystic visionary whose inspiration arises from within.

"I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's," he wrote. He prized Shakespeare, Jonson, and Spenser, and collected prints of Dürer, Raphael, and Michelangelo--all of whom were unpopular at the time. One of his teachers at the Royal Academy told him to put out of his mind the "old, hard, stiff, and dry unfinished works" of the Italian Renaissance painters.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Wordsworth and Coleridge were recognized for having heralded English Romanticism with their joint work, the 1798 volume Lyrical Ballads--but Blake was overlooked. "Blake was not thought of as a major Romantic poet until after World War II," says Morris Eaves. "He's a kind of modern invention--although now, the most anthologized poem in the English language is 'Tyger Tyger,' which gives some indication of Blake's popularity."

Eaves, a professor at the University of Rochester, is working with Robert Essick of the University of California, Riverside, and Joseph Viscomi of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to change the way Blake is understood, two centuries after his death. Since 1996 the three have been pooling their resources and expertise to create the Blake Archive, a website that provides access to the comprehensive works of William Blake, both literary and visual, many of which are rare, fragile, or difficult to view. The site unites high-resolution images and texts from twenty Blake collections from institutions in England, Australia, and the United States. "There's no one else producing Blake with this fidelity, so that if someone wants to decide about whether a mark is a comma or a period, they can see it for themselves," Viscomi says.

J. Hillis Miller, a professor of English and comparative literature, praises the digital holdings and bibliography. "These, plus the remote borrowing privileges I have from the University of California, give me on my remote island in Maine the equivalent of a major research library of Blake materials, or rather something better than any physical library provides."

New additions to the archive include a colored version of America a Prophecy, printed circa 1807, completing the archive's collection of all extant copies. First published in 1793, the book is a meditation on the American Revolution, blending historical personages such as George Washington and Thomas Paine with Blake's own mythological characters--Urizen, the god of reason and political repression, and Orc, the spirit of energy and revolt. "The fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night; / For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease,'" Blake writes. The newly acquired copy is an oddity, the editors note, because it was printed with no other works at a time when Blake was not engaged in printing illuminated books.

The site allows the user to compare different copies of the same book, and to search all of Blake's work by a single word, character, or image. Graphics may be searched by a descriptive phrase, such as "chimney sweeper," "despair," or a gesture, such as "arm behind back." It also contains a biography, chronology, glossary, and contextual essays.

Born in 1757, Blake lived in relative poverty, was considered an eccentric by his generation, and died with little acclaim. Yet his influence has grown through the decades. The Pre-Raphaelites admired his poetry and artwork, as did W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, the French surrealists, and the American beats. "He approached everything with a mind unclouded by current opinions," T.S. Eliot wrote. "There was nothing of the superior person about him. This makes him terrifying."

Blake claimed to experience spiritual visions from early on. When he was nine years old he told his mother that he had seen "a tree filled with angels," and not long after, in a field of workers gathering hay, a vision of "angelic figures walking."

"My personal opinion is that he suffered from a kind of schizophrenia," says Eaves. "He saw visions, heard voices. Later in his life he claimed that he was not a poet, but that his poems were dictated to him."

At the age of ten, with the support of his family, Blake enrolled in a drawing school run by Henry Pars, and at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to James Basire, engraver to the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society. "He knew he wanted to be an artist, but he had to settle for craftsman status," Viscomi says. "This choice was important. It taught him that you can't separate invention from execution."

Blake's education involved the heavy work of preparing plates for etching and engraving, cutting, polishing and shaping plates, and rubbing them with soot. Although it is likely that he did a fair amount of engraving, as an apprentice he was not encouraged to develop his own individual style, and it is hard for scholars to discern the work that he did. It is known, however, that Basire allowed him to do pencil sketches of the gothic tombs in Westminster Abbey, which served as models for the plates for Richard Gough's Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain.

After seven years Blake completed his apprenticeship and entered the Royal Academy, but the education was not to his liking. Joshua Reynolds, the Academy's first president, told him to work with "less extravagance and more simplicity."

"He did exhibit, but he never even got close to becoming a member," Eaves says. "He said a number of nasty things about the Academy. The art establishment of his time rejected Blake, and he in turn, rejected the establishment."

In his notebook, Blake drafted an epigram about the School of Rubens: "Swelled limbs, with no outline than you can descry / That stink in the nose of a passer-by." In another, addressed to his friend, the neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman, he says, "I mock thee not though I by thee am mocked / Thou call'st me madman, but I call thee blockhead."

Blake earned his keep as a journeyman copy engraver. He worked on publishing projects, books, and prints such as stipple engravings of paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau, a French Rococo painter. He engraved plates for Cervantes's Don Quixote, Sterne's Sentimental Journey, and for a Wedgwood catalog advertising "specimens of the latest novelties in earthenware and porcelain. . . tea and dinner services"

Blake found himself at the center of a group of artist friends, among them Flaxman, who in 1783 helped finance the publication of Blake's first book, Poetical Sketches, together with Reverend Anthony S. Mathew and his wife Harriet. The Mathews held a literary and artistic circle that Blake attended regularly. He later satirized the gatherings in an unfinished manuscript, An Island in the Moon, containing characters named "Mrs. Nannicantipot" and "Obtuse Angle."

With James Parker, another of Basire's apprentices, Blake attempted to begin a printing and publishing business in 1784; but the effort soon collapsed.

"He never traveled. Except for one three-year stay at a cottage in Sussex, he hardly went out of London. . . . He was always very poor, and generally worked in such seclusion that at one period, near the end of his life, he did not leave his house for two years, except to go out for porter," Alfred Kazin writes in The Inmost Leaf. "It was the isolation of a temperament run on fixed ideas; and incidentally, of a craftsman who could not earn a living."

For several years he floundered, until in 1788 he earned a commission that took him two years to complete: a large engraving of William Hogarth's The Beggar's Opera, Act III.

In 1788 Blake invented relief etching as a way to print and publish his own books. The new process allowed him to illuminate his own manuscripts at home, using an acid- resistant varnish and copperplate. In traditional intaglio etching, the design must first be impressed in wax and then transferred to the plate with acid; Blake reversed the idea and painted his designs directly onto the plate with acid-resistant varnish, so that when it was treated with acid, the design remained in relief. This allowed Blake to write his poetry directly onto the plates--albeit backwards--alongside his images, without the use of a printing press. The next step was to color each book by hand and stitch them together.

Blake claimed to have discovered relief etching in a vision. "Supposedly, after Blake's younger and much-loved brother Robert died, Robert came to him in a dream, and explained how he was to create relief etchings," Eaves says.

The first two illuminated books he created were All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion, both of which reject the rational, empirical philosophy of Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and deism, or "natural religion." "Blake was very opposed to the church and state," Viscomi says. "He was a deeply spiritual poet, yet very opposed to organized religion."

"He was against society in toto: its prisons, churches, money, morals, fashionable opinions; he did not think that the faults of society stemmed from the faulty organization of society," Kazin writes. "To him the only restrictions over man are always in his own mind--the 'mind-forg'd manacles.'"

With his new printing method, Blake produced many of the works for which he is best known today: Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion.

Blake followed the developing French Revolution with interest, and published a long poem, The French Revolution, in 1791. The poem begins, "The dead brood over Europe, the cloud and vision descends over chearful France; / O cloud well appointed! Sick, sick: the Prince on his couch, wreath'd in dim / And appalling mist; his strong hand outstetch'd, from his shoulder down the bone / Runs aching cold into the scepter too heavy for mortal grasp. No more / To be swayed by visible hand, nor in cruelty bruise the mild flourishing mountains."

"In his work he is always calling for freedom, both at the political and spiritual level," Viscomi says. "This desire for liberty affects both the individual and the social body. Blake was very pro-revolution. He thought that the revolution would overthrow ways of being. He saw the French Revolution as the apocalypse, the beginning of the new age."

At the time, many poets and writers regarded the revolution as a religious event that corresponded to the apocalypse prophesied in the Bible. They believed that a period of violent upheaval was necessary to transform humanity and attain paradise. Many who initially supported the revolution were horrified and disillusioned by the brutality that ensued during the Reign of Terror. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in a letter to Lord Byron that the French Revolution was "the master theme of the epoch in which we live."

Jerusalem, the final illuminated epic that Blake created--and his longest--was written in 1827, the last year of his life. It unites his beliefs concerning the Bible, mythology, epistemology, Newton, the Druids, Jesus, and a host of deities of his own invention. In the third plate, he writes of his reasons for fashioning his own form of free verse, and makes his famous declaration that "Poetry fetter'd / Fetters the Human Race."

When this Verse was first dictated to me I consider'd a Monotonous Cadence like that used by Milton & Shakspeare & all writers of English Blank Verse. derived from the modern bondage of Rhyming; to be a necessary and indispensible part of Verse. But I soon found that in the mouth of a true Orator such monotony was not only awkward, but as much a bondage as rhyme itself. I therefore have produced a variety in every line. both of cadences & number of syllables. Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place: the terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific parts the mild & gentle, for the mild & gentle parts. and the prosaic, for inferior parts; all are necessary to each other.      Poetry      Fetter'd.      Fetters the Human Race. Nations are Destroy'd, or Flourish, in proportion as Their Poetry Painting and Music, are Destroy'd or Flourish! The Primeval State of Man, was Wisdom, Art, and Science.

In the last decade of his life, Blake attracted a circle of younger admirers, including John Linnell, John Varley, Edward Calvert, and George Richmond, who looked to him as a mentor. They called him "The Interpreter," and themselves, "The Ancients." They helped acquire projects for him, and Linnell himself commissioned drawings to illustrate Dante's Divine Comedy.

"I never saw anything the least like madness," Linnell said later, "for I never opposed him spitefully as many did but being really anxious to fathom if possible the amount of truth which might be in his most startling assertions I generally met with a sufficiently rational explanation in the most really friendly & conciliatory tone."

When Blake died, Richmond wrote in a letter, "He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ-- Just before he died His Countenance became fair--His eyes brighten'd and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven."

"Blake was a lyric poet interested chiefly in ideas, and a painter who did not believe in nature," Kazin writes. "He was a commercial artist who was a genius in poetry, painting, and religion. He was a libertarian obsessed with God; a mystic who reversed the mystical pattern, for he sought man as the end of his search. He was a Christian who hated the churches; a revolutionary who abhorred the materialism of the radicals."

The editors of the Blake Archive hope that reuniting the texts with the original illustrations will restore an understanding of Blake as an innovative artist not only in poetry, but also in printmaking. "He was not a copyist, but an important graphic artist with new ideas about printmaking, someone who was pushing engraving as an original art form," Viscomi says.

In Jerusalem, Blake writes, "Even from the depths of Hell his voice I hear, / Within the unfathomed caverns of my ear. / Therefore I print, nor vain my types shall be: / Heaven, Earth & Hell, henceforth shall live in harmony."