“The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence… William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein… He was the loom’s loom, spinnin…
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,”William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) wrote in his most beautiful letter — a soaring defense of the imagination. A genius both tragic and transcendent, Blake was among humanity’s deepest and farthest seers — of truth, of beauty, of the universe in a grain of sand, of the human condition in a fly. His poetry and art went on to influence generations of creators as varied as Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who built his own singular sensibility upon a Blakean foundation, to Allen Ginsberg, who so cherished Blake that he recorded a strange and wonderful LP singing Blake’s Songs of Innocence with an electric orchestra.
But no artist in our time, and possibly none in all of time, has been a more spirited exponent of Blake’s enduring genius than Patti Smith.
Smith discovered Blake as a girl, after her mother purchased for her at a church bazaar a handsome 1927 edition of his Songs of Innocence, faithful to the 1789 original, which Blake printed and illuminated himself. Mesmerized by the exquisite marriage of text and image, the young Patti spent hours deciphering Blake’s calligraphy and absorbing every detail of his rich, sensitive illustrations. She returned to him again and again throughout her life, holding him up as consolation for the strife of struggling artists and eventually honoring him in a song. When her dear friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg fell mortally ill, she fetched a volume of Blake bound in blood-red leather from his library — a copy in which, she recalls, “each poem was deeply annotated in Allen’s hand, just as Blake had annotated Milton” — and read it by his dying bedside. Continue reading →
In the past few years, we’ve become increasingly used to hearing William Blake’s poetry being used to sell cars or seeing his art being used to sell Dr Martens. What is perhaps his most famous piece of work, the stanzas beginning ‘And did those feet’ from the Preface to the epic illuminated book Milton a Poem, is more likely to be heard at Last Night of the Proms, cricket matches, or jubilee celebrations.What is most surprising about this appropriation by royalty and the commercial establishment is that Blake publicly inveighed against ‘One King, one God, one Law’ and privately observed that ‘Every Body hates a King’, while denouncing in Milton the ‘ignorant Hirelings’ who demeaned art with their ‘expensive advertizing boasts’. George Orwell thought that there was more understanding of the nature of capitalism in the Song of Experience, ‘London’, than in most political writing, and throughout his life Blake repeatedly attacked a world which privileged the rich while subjecting the poor to war and degradation.
Blake was born during the Seven Years’ War, which has been described as perhaps the first global war, involving most European nations in conflict across the continents. His own political awakening, however, came during his years as an apprentice to the engraver James Basire. The American War of Independence served as a lightning rod for domestic discontent with the administrations of Lord North and George III at this time, and Blake was caught up in 1780’s Gordon Riots—anti-Catholic protests motivated by Lord George Gordon, head of the Protestant Association, which transformed into more violent assaults against institutions of property and repression in the capital. Newgate Prison was broken into, and a proclamation daubed on the walls that the inmates had been freed by the authority of ‘His Majesty, King Mob’.
Opposition to the Establishment, then, was something with which Blake was familiar during his teens, and there are echoes of rather conventional declamations against tyranny in his first collection, Poetical Sketches. As with many writers, artists, and thinkers of his generation, however, it was the events of the French Revolution that radicalised Blake. His first true biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, wrote that Blake had worn the red bonnet of liberty in support of the Revolution.
A great deal of his political education during this period came from his associations with the publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s circle included Henry Fuseli, William Godwin, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft, hosting legendary soirées at which his guests would discuss a wide range of the political and social events of the day. The 1790s saw Johnson publish more political works, including distributing a pamphlet by Gilbert Wakefield that criticised an address by the Bishop of Llandaff that supported the privileges of the wealthy, for which he was imprisoned.
It was Johnson’s trial that led Blake to write privately that ‘To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life’. Johnson and Blake had a working relationship that spanned two decades, with Johnson regularly hiring Blake to furnish engravings for many of his authors—although he refused to publish Blake’s euphoric The French Revolution, just as he turned away Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Nonetheless, it was through his associations with figures such as Godwin, Paine, and—most of all—Wollstonecraft that Blake developed a more radical political vision.
In works such as America a Prophecy and Europe a Prophecy, Blake celebrated the events of the American and French revolutions, but the true originality of this emerging vision is evident in works like Visions of the Daughters of Albion and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In Visions, Blake is one of the first writers to enthusiastically take up Wollstonecraft’s call to vindicate the rights of women, attacking rape culture and writing some of his most powerful poetry through the voice of his character Oothoon, who refuses to accept the brutal status accorded her as a woman and a slave.
It’s in The Marriage, however, that Blake most completely turned the world upside down, declaring himself on the side of the devils and against angels and a vision of God that he increasingly associated with Urizen, the false creator of this world. Blake was an intensely religious writer, but these views were highly heretical: ‘All deities,’ The Marriage observed, ‘reside in the human breast’, the creations of poets and artists to challenge and transform the world.
By the end of the century, as Britain became mired ever more deeply in war with France, Blake’s clear and overt radicalism made London a dangerous place. It was with some relief, then, that his friends welcomed a new arrangement in 1800 that saw him and his wife, Catherine, leave London for the only time in their life, for the coastal village of Felpham in Sussex, where they would work with a new patron, William Hayley. Relations with Hayley soured, however, and their venture on the shores of the ocean ended in disaster.
On 12 August 1803, Blake became involved in an argument with a soldier, John Scolfield, in which he was reported to have said ‘Damn the King’. Arrested and tried for sedition, Blake was found innocent, but the event scarred him and over the next decade he fell into increasing poverty. As he lamented in one of his personal poems: ‘O why was I born with a different Face / Why was I not born like this Envious Race?’
In his later works, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, Blake’s art and writing becomes both increasingly beautiful and more obscure. Although there was a tendency to view this complexity as a withdrawal from the world, both religiously and politically, Blake’s vision remained intensely radical. In Jerusalem, Blake’s alter ego, Los, walks through London, witnessing everywhere the appalling effects of continuing war on the poor and downtrodden in the city:
He came down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London
Till he came to old Stratford & thence to Stepney & the Isle
Of Leuthas Dogs, thence thro the narrows of the Rivers side
And saw every minute particular, the jewels of Albion, running down
The kennels of the streets & lanes as if they were abhorrd.
Blake’s continuing commitment to the transformation of Albion, his preferred name for Britain in his later works, is evident in his most famous—and often most misunderstood—poem, most commonly known as the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. Detached from its Preface, and later set to music by Hubert Parry to raise the morale of Britons during the First World War, Blake’s poem is an attack on the ‘Hirelings’ he sees in the camps, court, and universities who would if they could ‘for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War’. By 1916, a group of editors and writers had determined that a poem which criticised the fall of Albion into error and violence was instead a wholehearted celebration of England—but for Blake, building Jerusalem meant rejecting the newly emerging military-industrial complex that ground down the bodies and souls of ‘the jewels of Albion’ as fodder for their wars of colonialism.
Singing ‘Jerusalem’ while waving the Union Jack may have become an all-too familiar image, especially after it became embedded in Last Night of the Proms. Even when Parry was composing his music, however, others took a different approach. The writer and social campaigner Upton Sinclair included the poem in his anthology Cry for Justice, while Clement Attlee quoted Blake’s words favourably in his early book The Social Worker. Building Jerusalem would become Attlee’s guiding principle after the Second World War, when a Labour administration would quite literally build a new nation through the establishment of the NHS and the welfare state.
From the perspective of John Scolfield, Blake was a traitor—and yet into the twenty-first century it is the poet rather than the soldier who has inspired generations of artists and writers, whether the anarchic bluster of Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem or new settings of the poem by the singer Susheela Raman. 265 years after Blake’s birth, that radical vision remains more important than ever.
Could Allen Ginsberg have written “Howl” without him?
By Michael Glover
The great painter William Blake (1757-1827) traveled far in the realms of gold, to borrow a phrase from John Keats, but much less far in the body. (He lived in various parts of London for all but a little more than three years of his relatively long life.)
So, where did he go when he was not actually using his legs? According to Blake himself, the only known authority, he regularly conversed with Sophocles, Aristotle, and Jesus. And then there were the angels, many of whom were also his fast friends. He had his first angelic conversations on Peckham Rye, a glorious park, still thoroughly angelic in appearance and character, in south London. Did anyone mind?
When asked after his death whether she had any complaints about his behavior, Blake’s long-suffering wife Catherine tentatively mentioned an innate predisposition to spend a little too much time “in paradise.”
“I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company,” she said
In recent years, Blake’s works have traveled quite far physically through the galleries of Tate Britain, the principal earthly depository of his delicate works in the United Kingdom. This spring, the London museum had a major re-hang. The last time this had happened was in 2013, under Penelope Curtis, its last director. That year, a dedicated Blake Room was created inside the Clore Gallery. The extension, which opened in 1987, was created to show off prized works from the enormous J. M. W. Turner bequest. Blake had his own little room carved out of it to show off a choice selection of his paintings and prints.
The walls were royal blue. The space was very dimly lit because works by Blake are so fragile and so light-sensitive. His pioneering use of mixed media makes them very unstable. They are often not on show for very long.
Was Blake thoroughly embedded in the 18th and 19th centuries? Only partially.
His prints, and especially those commissioned by clients, are often thoroughly neo-classical in feel and execution. But when he was let loose to make works of his own imaginings, he was a wild thing, a freelance mythologizer, a blazing forerunner of psychedelia.
This spring the Blake Room of 2013 disappeared from amongst the Turners, and 15 Blakes did a flit to the other side of Tate Britain, in the general direction of modernity.
This is a good decision. Turner and Blake had precious little to talk about.
Blake now lives in room 7 beside a gallery devoted to a selection of works by Chris Ofili, a contemporary painter upon whom he has had a huge influence. Ofili loves Blake’s use of color, his free-flowing line, and his unparalleled ability to conjure into fantastical beings.
This decision, at a stroke, tells us a lot about Blake and his posthumous fame and reach. He was always out of key with his times. This is why he was ignored, abused, and so thoroughly misunderstood during his lifetime.
In fact, Blake feels very close to the near present. The doors of perception opened up to him almost 200 years ago. Could Allen Ginsberg have written “Howl” without him?
I recall, as if it were yesterday, one rainy evening I spent in a giant marquee at the Hay Festival in the early 1990s. Ginsberg was sitting on a chair on the stage in front of me, squeeze-box bouncing up and down on his bony knees as he sang, with painfully exquisite tunelessness, a fragment of a famous verse from Blake’s Songs of Innocence: “…And all the hills echo-ed.”
He sang it over and over, over and over, over and over, and over.
Ed Simon Searches for Milton’s Grave While Getting Blackout Drunk in Pubs
By Ed Simon
After aimlessly walking about Bloomsbury on an intermittently rainy afternoon, I unsuccessfully decided to search for the grave of John Milton while nursing a wicked hangover, or as is probably more likely, while still being drunk from the previous evening.
Only my second week in London, I was supported with a modest graduate stipend for my research at the British Library, mornings spent at that modernist building with the red-brick facade not far from the Victorian ostentation of King’s Cross Station, requesting four-and five-hundred year old books brought to me by pleasant librarians at concerningly efficient speed.
Obscure books such as the Puritan-minded Anglican divine William Crashaw’s A Sermon preached before the right honorable the Lord Lawarre, Lord Govoernour and Captaine Genrall of Virginea….Feb. 21, 1609 and the Scottish New World speculator William Alexander, the First Earl of Stirling’s 1614 epic poem Doomes-day. Every evening, however, since I’d arrived from Philadelphia, I’d started at the pubs while the sun was still out, because what else could be expected with the unnervingly late northern dusk?
Pint after pint of real ale at the Queen’s Head not far from the library; drams of Jameson’s at The Boot; Guinness at Miller’s across from the train station and, when feeling homesick and slightly patriotic, Sam Adams at the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub. As A. E. Housman wrote in that most English of poetic cycles, 1896’s A Shropshire Lad, “malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.”
Ostensibly here to transcribe sixteenth and seventeenth-century books that endowed geographical discoveries with apocalyptic significance, the majority of nights were either spent at the theater or getting horrendously shit-faced, blackout drunk. If I knew what pub my nights started at, I rarely remembered where they ended, though by the good graces of Something I was always able to stumble back mostly safely into the University of London dorm which I rented for an amazingly cheap price.
That summer, London suffered through an uncharacteristic heat wave, and the thin-blooded British hadn’t outfitted any of the dorms with air-conditioning, while all the windows were suicide-proof, making respite impossible and requiring several cold showers a day just to regulate body temperature. On top of that, my room looked directly into Joseph Grimaldi Park, named after the nineteenth-century master of pantomime who is entombed there. Hot, sweaty, drunk, and watched over by the spirit of a dead clown—July, 2013. Continue reading →
YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART – Matthew Hargraves looks at Paul Mellon as a collector of William Blake and the impact of his lifelong fascination with psychology and psychiatry on his collecting.
The Yale Center for British Art holds one of the world’s greatest collections of the work of William Blake thanks to the enthusiasm of its founder, Paul Mellon, for Blake’s art and ideas. Looking back on his life, Paul Mellon remembered that Blake’s “haunting poetry with its arcane mythology and his beautiful illuminated books have always had a special appeal for me,” an appeal rooted in his early passion for English literature which he studied at Yale in the later 1920s.1 But it was the interest of his first wife, Mary Conover Mellon, whom he married in 1935, in thought and methods of Carl Jung that helped transform Paul Mellon into a major collector of Blake’s work.2
Mary had introduced Paul Mellon to Jung’s ideas after they met in late 1933; even before marriage they had begun Jungian analysis in New York. In the early summer of 1938, Mr. and Mrs. Mellon journeyed to Switzerland and spent several weeks in Ascona above Lake Maggiore hoping the mountain air would relieve Mary’s chronic asthma. By coincidence Carl Jung was also in Ascona and the couple met the psychiatrist for the first time that summer. They returned the following year and saw Jung again before settling in Zurich in September 1939 to meet with Jung as patients several times a week. Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 meant this Swiss idyll could not last. In the spring of 1940 Mr. Mellon took a walking holiday with Jung but the obvious threat from Nazi Germany could not be ignored. He and Mary returned hastily to the United States shortly before the occupation of Denmark, Norway and France in May. By June 1941, feeling compelled to take action, Paul had enlisted in the US army; December saw the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States enter the war.
Fig. 1: There Is No Natural Religion, Plate 9, “Therefore God becomes . . . . ” (Bentley b12), ca. 1788 – Source.
While wartime service forced an end to the relationship with Jung, the year Paul Mellon enlisted was also the year he began to collect important works by Blake, an artist in whom Mr. Mellon found new interest through Jung’s exploration of the unconscious and his theories about collective archetypes. In 1941 he acquired some exceptional books. This included There is No Natural Religion (1794) [fig. 1], an “illuminated” book of eleven color-printed relief etchings with pithy text critiquing the reductive philosophical materialism of his day; a set of the engraved Illustrations to the Book of Job (1825) in its original binding; and a copy of Blake’s engravings illustrating Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1797) [fig. 2], one of two copies believed to have been hand-colored by Blake himself.
Fig. 2: Young’s Night Thoughts, Page 43, “Night the Third, Narcissa”, 1797 – Source.
Another very significant acquisition in 1941 was a version of Blake’s illustration to The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins [fig. 3], made around 1825 for William Haines of Chichester and one of four replicas of an original design drawn for his patron Thomas Butts in around 1805. Blake adapted the traditional iconography of the judgment of souls to capture the underlying theological meaning of the parable (Matthew 25:1-13), but in the Mellon version the setting has become distinctively English with its distant Gothic spires. It was also one of the first English drawings acquired by Paul Mellon who would eventually form the most comprehensive collection of English works on paper outside of Britain.
Fig. 3: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, ca. 1825 – Source.