William Blake

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It’s not unusual for artists in one medium to dabble in another, but usually that’s a sideline for them. William Blake was different having great skills in both drawing and writing, and in his early works especially he didn’t care to separate the two.

He was also different from most people (even artists) in pretty continually seeing visions. Many people have hallucinations, at least occasionally, but a lot of these are meaningless. There are physiological problems that cause some of them, but not all. For some they’re a source of amusement or irritation, but for Blake they were often deeply meaningful. He was of a religious turn of mind, but not conventionally religious. His family were Dissenters, so he was open to a variety of religious ideas, which did much to shape his art. He saw himself as both poet and prophet, and created his own religious system, which he tried, not very effectively, to popularize, not having much talent for business. He said, “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.”

He began his working life as an engraver, and probably most of his art was in that medium, which is (or was) an extremely demanding one. The engraver has to prepare the plate (usually sheets of copper, in his case) before drawing the desired image on it, which could take a very long time. He made money copying various pictures for books, but was never able to make a lot of money at that, let alone his own work.

He was a man of the 18th century, a most interesting time, and lived almost all his life in London, though he did spend 3 years in a village before returning, but never left England. And he lived almost all his life in the same area of London, which might have made him insular, though London also gave him access to the theater and art exhibitions. So he was a man of his own time, but was also out of step. That probably contributed to his lack of commercial success, but also brought him insights which were in advance of his time and place.

He despised the ideas of Newton and Locke, which he saw as describing a mechanical universe (Peter Ackroyd, his biographer, comments that he can’t have been aware of Newton’s interests in the occult) which was exactly contrary to his beliefs, which more modern science has partially confirmed. Blake saw Newton’s atoms as being cold bits of material: modern science says they’re no such thing. The modern picture of the universe is still mechanistic, but there are aspects of it that approach the mystical,  if in a very different sense from Blake.

Songs of Innocence was one of Blake’s earliest works, with the later Songs of Experience to complement it. He has a striking poem about chimney sweeps–young boys whose indigent parents would sell them from ages 4 to 7, and who were forced to climb through chimneys through very tight spaces to clean them. It was a very dangerous job: some died doing it, some were crippled or liable to cancer of the scrotum, they made little money, and their clothes were usually ragged if they had clothes at all. Many saw them as connected to sexuality because of their entrance into small places, and they must have been very vulnerable to sexual abuse. If they managed to survive to adulthood they were most likely to become criminals, having little other option.  In Songs of Innocence Blake ends the poem by saying that anyone who does his duty has nothing to fear, which was obviously absurd in this case. A companion poem from Songs of Experience makes it clear that the sweep is quite aware that no one cares about him, and that society is quite willing to take advantage of his suffering. Blake said, “Innocence dwells with Wisdom, but never with Ignorance,” and in the first poem the sweep is ignorant. Blake’s statement seems a conundrum to ordinary consciousness, which would be tempted to equate innocence and ignorance, but that was precisely the point of Blake’s art: he believed human consciousness to be constricted and unable to perceive much of reality, and in his art he tried to encourage fuller consciousness.

It has been suggested that the ancient Egyptians and others perceived much differently from the way we do today. One author says that humans used to be able to perceive the stars even during the day, and also used to live much longer. He says that incorrect living blunted human perceptions, reduced human life span, and caused overpopulation. Blake might have agreed. He knew that each perceives the same object with greater or lesser difference.

He saw the Biblical Fall of Man as having been a descent from the spiritual into the material workd, and that the spiritual world could be regained, though immense processes barred the way. He also saw repressed sexuality, industrialization and war as being at least part of what entangled people and prevented them from attaining their spiritual inheritance.

To have the perceptions of an uncontracted consciousness would be “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flowr/Hold Infinity in the plam of your hand/And eternity in an hour.”

To write this sort of thing was to be considered mad, they as now; and Blake had a friend who also had religious visions, but who died insane because he accepted the world’s valuation of them, rather than believing in his own ability to be spiritually renewed. Blake was stronger than that.

His desire was to return mankind to the purity of perception that would be able to perceive evils and awake from them, to perceive the mental states like drunkenness, in which people could be ensnared for a time, but from which they could recover, something like what we might now call addictions.

He never had worldly success. He married, and was fortunate in finding a wife devolted to him, who did all the work of the house, cooking, cleaning and making his clothes, as well as helping him with his engraving. She apparently learned to have visions herself, though she may never have understood what Blake was writing about in any depth. She commented to a visitor that she didn’t have much of Mr. Blake’s company, as he was frequently in Paradise.

Similarly, he had friends and admirers who helped support him by giving him commissions (which could be a problem when the subjects they gave were superficial and he felt he was neglecting his own work) or sometimes money. He felt the world should pay attention to him, but also that he had to accept his situation. Which was what he did, continuing to work almost to the end  of his life, expanding from engraving into watercolors and tempera and always refining what he had to say and how he said it. The substance of it never changed much, but his techniques did.

From one perspective his might seem a wasted life, since he never made much money from it, and because people around him were generally unable to appreciate his work, but I wonder just how a life of devotion and almost continuous work is to be evaluated. His message wasn’t gladly received by either the secular or religious. For one he was too religions, for the other heretical. Many would have abandoned such a path after years without success, but he never did.

“Knowledge of Ideal Beauty is Not to be Acquired It is Born with us Innate Ideas one in Every Man born with him…Man Brings All that he has or Can have Into the World with him. Man is Born Like a Garden ready Planted and Sown This World is too poor to Produce one Seed…He who does not Know Truth at Sight is unworthy of Her Notice…The Man who never in his Mind and Thoughts travels to Heaven is No Artist.”

Compare this to Goethe (Blake’s contemporary): “A man must strive to be what he is.” As humans we have many potentials, but often fail to realize them. A common belief at present is that anyone realizing his or her potential will automatically become wealthy. This seems not to be the case. Not everyone can be good at business, and I am unable to believe in money as the only measure of success. Blake certainly didn’t.

That being said, I wonder (and the biographer doesn’t go into this) just how Blake attained the fame that he has now. Someone must have discovered him, since he and his works are now studied, but I don’t know who, and suspect (his biographer says as much) that his works are still rarely paid much attention. A curious man with a curious sort of success.

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