Monday, November 28, 2016

William Blake: An Unmasked Rebel In Eternity's Sunrise

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

                                               from Auguries of Innocence, William Blake, 1803

On this day in 1757 the British artist and writer, William Blake, was born in London. He is without a doubt my favorite anarchist. He helps me dream.

In his own time he was so eccentric his neighbors and friends thought he was a madman. As an engraver and illustrator he was caught between the decline of the guilds and the rise of industrialization. It was a time when men saw the value of their labors swept away from the cottage and into the factory under the watchful eye of the manager. For workers, the loss of autonomy, the shift in control and production, and the helplessness in the face of change led to a revolt against the Age of Reason and a rage against technologies it spawned. Two centuries later he would be recognized as both one whose vision, imagination and sensitivity were unmatched in the age of Romanticism, and a truly unique influence in the history of the Western world.

There is one certainty about Blake's work and that is its complexity. He is by far one of the most interesting visionaries to come out of the West and its traditions. I hope you will take time to examine him and his extraordinary contributions to our experience. To explore his work appropriately is beyond the intent of this blog and capability of its author. For readers who want to learn more about Blake, to me there's no finer work available than Jacob Bronowski's A Man Without A Mask, published in 1944, and it's expanded version, William Blake and the Age of Revolution, published in 1972.

William Blake                  Thomas Phillips, English, 1807

I have learned much from the artist and philosopher, William Blake, in an effort to balance my life between intellect and emotion. So far it's been a beautiful, productive, and fascinating journey. These works have been a part of that experience:

In the following illustration Blake depicts his character, Urizen, [You rising] as reason shaping the world and its experience. This engraving is also interpreted as God the Father [and often God the Son] as divining existence. It is a prime example of the complex and often confounding world of Blake's imagination.

The Ancient of Days                                                                  William Blake, 1793

Here Blake depicts Isaac Newton [and the Age of Reason] at the bottom of the sea shaping (the dividers, once more) the world of humankind on the earth. Newton has turned his back on the organic beauty of God's natural world. 

Newton                                                                                 William Blake, 1795

Here, the Angel of Peace descends forcibly out of heaven illustrating God's reason (the dividers) brought into the world in the form of his Son to reconcile Nature (the recline female nude) and a redeemed humanity 

The Descent of Peace                      William Blake, ca. 1815

One of Blake's most familiar pieces is his preface to Milton A Poem. The preface says much about Blake's philosophy opposing the Age of Reason as embodied in Greek and Roman thought and the dangers a reliance on intellect can bring to a world based equally on emotion. Furthermore, the preface is a perfect illustration of Blake's religious mysticism as well as his veneration of Milton.

The stolen and perverted writings of Homer and Ovid, of Plato and Cicero, which all men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible; but when the New Age is at leisure to pronounce, all will be set right, and those grand works of the more ancient, and consciously and professedly Inspired men will hold their proper rank, and the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration, Shakspeare and Milton were curb'd by the general malady and infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword. Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war. Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ and His Apostles that there is a class of men whose whole delight is in destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever, in Jesus our Lord.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills.

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Would to God that all the Lord's people were Prophets. Numbers xi, ch. 26

Readers may be more familiar with Blake's poem through this medium:

As this tribute comes to a close, I'd like to reference one of Blake's poems that virtually all children read before the end of their middle schools years a half century ago. It's remarkably simple in form yet its questions brim with imagination and wonder. I so hope that "The Tyger" is still read and heard by young students so they can remember its message over their varied lifetimes.

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire in thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake                            John Linnell, English, 1863

He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sunrise

                                                                              Eternity, William Blake, 1803


Photos and Illustrations:
Blake portrait, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Newton, Tate Gallery, London,

Text:, Blake entry
Jacob Bronowski, A Man Without A Mask, Seeker and Warburg, London, 1944

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