William Blake

William Blake (1757-1827) was the son of a Londonian haberdasher. Although he attended school for a while, his mother continued his general education at home.
Even at an early age Blake was dedicated to art. He was only ten years old when he entered a school for drawing. This led to his studying for a period at the Royal Academy of Arts.

By the time he was fourteen he served as apprentice under James Basire, a well known engraver of his time. Blake also read a great deal whenever he had the opportunity.
Ten years later he married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a market gardener. Blake taught her to read and to be able to assist him with his engravings.

He was probably not the easiest of husbands to live with. He was a very sensitive, budding genius, and some of his views, although philosophically commendable, were sometimes mistakenly construed as being those of a lunatic.

The Blakes got by reasonably well at first by his illustrating, engraving the work of other artists, and giving drawing lessons. But in 1800, when work became more scarce, Blake and his wife moved to Felpham on the Sussex coast, thanks to the patronage of William Hayley, a wealthy amateur of the arts who wrote poetry, some of which he had commissioned Blake to illustrate. 
Hayley tried to persuade Blake to be a more 'conventional artist', and this became the bone of contention between them. Blake affirmed that, 'Hayley is the Enemy of my Spiritual Life while he pretends to be the Friend of my Corporeal.'

In 1803, still in Felpham, something happened that was to deeply mark Blake. He had an argument with a private of the Royal Dragoons, a certain John Schofield. When Blake ordered the soldier to leave his garden, Schofield threatened both Blake and his wife, even resorting to a degree of violence. Following this he accused Blake of making seditious remarks about King and country. As England was then at war with France, sedition was a capital offence, punishable by hanging.

The court aquitted Blake, to the delight of its audience, but the whole dramatic event was to have a profound effect on him. He began to think in terms of the effects of contemporary forces of evil, and his religious opinions, poems and visual art were also to be influenced by this.

On his return to London he exhibited his work in 1809, but the exhibition was a flop, and from then on he was virtually forgotten.

Interest in Blake returned when he was in his sixties. By then he had become less tense, more confident and serene.

He died at the age of seventy.
Whilst his wife sat in tears at his bedside, Blake was still feverishly working on his Dante series. At one point he stopped working, turned to look at her and decided he should draw her portrait:  '... for you have been an angel to me...' 
He completed Kate's portrait, then began to sing hymns. After promising his wife that he would always be with her, he died at 6 pm.
A woman who was present at the time said, 'I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.'
George Richmond wrote the following in a letter to Samuel Palmer:
'He died... in a most glorious manner. 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 our Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.'

William Blake's way of illustrating using 'relief etching' was most pains-taking. He called it 'illuminated printing'. Contrary to etching where one 'draws' on a copper plate by scoring through the black acid-resistant ink thus finely exposing the metal, Blake worked directly on the plates with such ink drawing with pen or brush, and writing his text in reverse so that it would print to be lisable. The plate was then immersed in acid thus leaving the design (in ink) in relief. The pressed pages were then coloured by hand with water-colour before they were bound together.

Many of Blakes poems, such as The Tyger, have become so well known and timeless that one might refer to them sometimes forgetting who the author was. But isn't this essential to art, to speak for itself across time? This first poem, also known as Jerusalem, has since become a sort of anthem of England. It's a fine, inspiring example.

And Did Those Feet°

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 those dark Satanic Mills?¹

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 & pleasant land.


°Written in the preface of Blake's poem of prophesy Milton. The poem is Blake's spiritual conception of the ancient legend still believed in parts of the British Isles, that at one time Jesus, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea, came to England.
¹ Perhaps an allusion to 'industrial status-quo'.

The Fly

Little Fly
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath,
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

The Lamb

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life & bid thee feed,
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is callèd by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb;
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child;
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are callèd by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.  

Mad Song°

The wild winds weep,
And the night is a-cold;
Come hither, Sleep,
And my griefs infold:
But lo! the morning peeps
Over the eastern steeps,
And the rustling birds of dawn
The earth do scorn.

Lo! to the vault
Of paved heaven,
With sorrow fraught
My notes are driven;
They strike the ear of night,
Make weep the eyes of day;
They make mad the roaring winds,
And the tempests play.

Like a fiend in a cloud
With howling woe,
After night I do croud,
And with night will go;
I turn my back to the east,
From whence comforts have increas'd;
For light doth seize my brain
     With frantic pain.

°For the Fool in Shakespeare's scene of madness in King Lear act 3.
As a margin note on Spurzheim's Observations on Insanity Blake wrote the following : "Cowper came to me & said, 'O that I were insane always; I will never rest.... You retain health & yet are as mad as any of us all-- over us all-- mad as a refuge from unbelief--- from Bacon, Newton & Locke.' " Ironically Cowper was to go insane, as did several other 18th century poets.

The following from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was written purposefully as an outrageous devils advocat's provocation to counter, amongst other issues, religious hypocrisy. (some of this is reminiscent of the ironic observations in Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth).

A Memorable Fancy

Once I saw a Devil in a flame of fire, who arose before an Angel that sat on a cloud, and the Devil utterd these words:
"The worship of God is, Honouring his gifts in other men, each according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best. Those who envy or calumniate great men hate God, for there is no other God."

The Angel hearing this became almost blue; but mastering himself, he grew yellow, & at last white, pink and smiling, and then he replied:
"Thou Idolater, is not God One? & is not he visible in Jesus Christ? and has not Jesus Christ given his sanction to the law of ten commandments, and are not all other men fools, sinners, & nothings?"
The Devil answer'd; "Bray a fool in a mortar with wheat, yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him.° If Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love him in the greatest degree. Now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath's God? murder those who were murdered because of him? turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? steal the labor of others to support him? bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? covet when he pray'd for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them?¹ I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules."

When he had so spoken, I beheld the Angel, who stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire, & he was consumed and arose as Elijah.²
Note. This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal and diabolical sense, which the world shall have if they behave well.
I also have The Bible of Hell,³ which the world shall have whether they will or no.
One Law for the lion & Ox is Oppression.                  1790-93

º Bray, crush into fine particles. Though thou shouldst bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him. (Proverbs 27-22)
¹ Mark 2.27. The sabbath was made for man, John 7.2 (the woman taken in adultery), Matthew 35. 13-14 (Christ's silence before Pilate), Matthew 10.4. Whoever shall not receive you... shake off the dust of your feet.
² II Kings 2.11. The prophet Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven, in a chariot of fire.

Despite its irony, A memorable Fancy reminds one of Milton's view that those who have always been sheltered from temptation and sin, can ever pretend to be virtuous. The parable of The prodigal son could be regarded as another example.

Intro © Mirino. Poems and text of William Blake. Sources include The Norton Anthology of English Literature volume 2. With thanks. Top portrait of W. Blake (1807) by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845) National Portrait Gallery, London. Engravings: Illustration depicting Newton. Pages (relief etchings) from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  
Cerberus (pen, ink and watercolour over pencil and black chalk, National Gallery of Victoria. With thanks to Wikimedia Commons. June, 2012

No comments: