John Mitchinson explores the lasting resonance of the works of the English poet and artist who attracted little acclaim during his lifetime.
Since William Blake’s canonization by the counter-culture of the 1960s, his status as a visionary has never been in doubt. But, like few others in the radical pantheon, Blake’s reputation crosses the cultural divide: he’s also the author of the patriotic lyrics to England’s unofficial national anthem, the hymn Jerusalem.
This cross-party acclaim was not much evident in his lifetime. Blake mounted only one exhibition of his work, in 1809. He sold nothing at all and attracted a single review. The Examiner dismissed him as “an unfortunate lunatic” who had published “a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain.”
It was a view widely held. On being shown some of Blake’s drawings, George III shouted “Take them away! Take them away!” Even the poet Wordsworth thought he was mad – although, to be fair, he qualified this by saying “that there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron or Walter Scott”.
His poetry didn’t fare much better. The illustrated Songs of Innocence & Experience – now firmly established as a core part of the English poetic canon and containing the most anthologised English poem of all time (The Tyger) – had sold a mere 30 copies by the time he died in 1827.
What turned things around?
The simple answer is: Blake did. He isn’t much like anyone else and people tend to remember their first experience of his work. Even an establishment snob such as T.S. Eliot was moved to write that “he approached everything with a mind unclouded by current opinions. There was nothing of the superior person about him. This makes him terrifying”.
Philip Pullman has written that the cheap US paperback edition of Blake he picked up in Foyles when he was 16 is the most precious book he owns. Reading these poems for the first time, he recalls: “I knew they were true in the way I knew that I was alive. I had stumbled into a country in which I was not a stranger, whose language I spoke by instinct, whose habits and customs fitted me like my own skin.”
It’s not hard to see why.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, published in 1790, Blake recounts a visit to Hell, where he saunters around like a tourist:
“As I was walking among the fires of hell… I collected some of their Proverbs…”
They are still exhilarating in their assault on conventional wisdom.
“The nakedness of woman is the work of God.”
“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
“Damn braces: Bless relaxes.”
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
“Exuberance is beauty.“
“What is now proved was once only imagin’d.”
More recently, in his excellent monograph William Blake Now: Why he Matters More than Ever, John Higgs concludes that this talent for the pithy one-liner would have made Blake a demon on Twitter.
At the core of Blake’s vision was a belief that “Contrarieties are equally True”; that the infinite was “in everything” and that “every particle of dust breathes forth its joy”. This is closer to Zen Buddhism than traditional Christianity – the idea that the cosmos is one conscious unity and therefore the act of perception itself has a moral dimension.
In one of his most famous poems Auguries of Innocence, he makes these connections clear:
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.
As Philip Pullman puts it: “Each couplet is a hammer-blow in the cause of a justice that includes all creatures, and tells the truth about power.”
Perhaps this is why he still speaks to us so directly. Blake was enraged by the class system, by slavery and by the urban poverty he saw around him in London. But his radicalism wasn’t party political (“Houses of Commons and Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools; they seem to me to be Something else besides Human Life”). It grew directly out of his spiritual imagination and out of his belief that the “single vision” offered by the rules and measurement of scientists such as Newton, society painters like Joshua Reynolds and the hypocrisies of organised religion represented a betrayal of reality itself: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Blake reminds us that our divisions are also connections (“Opposition is true Friendship”) and that underneath it all is energy (“the only life”) that drives and binds the universe. His tour of Hell ends with the line: “For everything that lives is Holy.“
It is a message we need now more than ever.
John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.