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NA147212 - BLAKE: Great Poets (The)

The Great Poets
William Blake


William Blake was an engraver, an artist, a poet and a visionary, and a creative man of such unique and vivid talents that he stands apart—almost aloof—from his time, but whose writings and drawings have resonated through English literature for over two hundred years. He was born in November 1757 and died nearly seventy years later in 1827; and while he nominally lived almost all his life in London, he lived essentially in a world of powerful and vibrant imagination, where his visionary companions were rather more real than any literary friends. In theology and creativity he was a bullish individual, a man never at home in society or societies. He believed that the political and religious hierarchies of his time were oppressive forces against the individual and his relationship with the divine; and developed a vast and complex mythology of his own, expressed in his long works such as Vala, or the Four Zoas, Thel, and Urizen. His is a complex world where the traditional values held by the Church and State were often anathema to his ideals, and much of his poetry alludes to this. The Gates of Paradise and Jerusalem, for example, use the wide range of his own cosmological imagery and theology to imagine an idealised England (Albion) as it moves towards a state of harmony with the creator and becomes a new Jerusalem.

He lived at a time of profound revolutions, in America, in France and in the arts. He was also living in an England wary of individual liberty and fearful of invasion; but also at a time of the flowering of the Romantics in poetry and music. Blake however had nothing to do with such schools, not just constitutionally (he was too resolutely individual to fit comfortably into any literary or artistic movement) but also in terms of the work he produced. He was a hard-working and dedicated artisan professionally, and in his own works was trying to express something mystic and eternal rather than personal. As such, he was neither at home in the dying years of the Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality, nor the early ones of Romanticism which focussed on the individual’s sentiments.

Some of Blake’s verse has a rhythm and cadence that stands comparison to the King James Bible; his works for children still sing with innocence and delight; many of his angry social polemics are couched in seemingly easy stanzas; he produced allusive and symbolic works whose poetical strengths carry them through generations even without their meaning. A good example of the latter is the work for which he is perhaps best known in Britain—the poem that became the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. This was written as part of the preface to a substantial work called Milton, but Blake removed the preface from later editions. In it, he considers the suggestion that Jesus was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, and questions whether Christ could have allowed the spiritual deprivation that Blake sees in his contemporary England. The ‘dark satanic mills’ are almost certainly not those of the industrial revolution, but represent the enslavement of the individual’s imagination; or possibly the institutions that do the enslaving, such as the organised religions, the schools and the legal and political systems that Blake believed overwhelmed the natural man. Blake would be unlikely to view the irony of these verses becoming almost a national anthem with equanimity.

The apparently endless range of his creative energy was by no means limited to his major works. He was expressively spontaneous, too, and scattered epigrams, verses, comments, philosophical or satirical couplets and fragments in margins and notebooks throughout his life. Some of these are included here, in the tracks named ‘Gnomic Verses’ and ‘On Art and Artists’. At the same time, his visual imagination was as vibrant, unique and compelling as his written works, and he deserves to be considered alongside the likes of Turner in the history of British art. Engraving and printing may have been his profession; but the scale and scope, the vigour and expressiveness of his work are outstanding and now iconic. Although this collection is oral rather than visual, it would be wrong—indeed impossible—to disentangle the two completely. They were, after all, almost always paired together, with verses sinewing their way around or into the engravings, which themselves were full of movement, brilliant colour and hauntingly powerful images of gods and monsters, symbols and allegories.

This selection can serve only as a brief introduction to Blake and his works, and it draws heavily upon his two best known collections, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. These contain some of his finest, most beautiful and concentrated works, as well as many of his best known ones. Some have the memorability of nursery rhymes, others the darker implications of fairy tales; some are straightforward, some almost impenetrable; but all carry the stamp of Blake’s complex world, one where innocence is celebrated and mythologised, but shadowed by the dark and forbidding symbol of experience with all the terrors of the London of 1795 and its implications for mankind in general. The poems in the two books are intended to stand in opposition to each other, and this collection acknowledges that with several pairings of poems, contrasting for example the two views of The Chimney Sweeper or Holy Thursday (the annual service for the capital’s charity children. Songs of Experience contains works that are in open outrage at the cruelties he saw around him at the time; Songs of Innocence was originally intended as a kind of primer for children, although much of it is of more use to parents as it places its emphasis on allowing the children to be free to express themselves and thus their essential spirituality.

Songs of Experience was published jointly with Songs of Innocence five years later and usually only published in conjunction with it. However, Blake occasionally continued to publish Songs of Innocence separately. This was to some extent a commercial decision, since the book was in the vein of other popular books of the time; but Blake is rarely straightforward. For him, the innocence and joy of childhood was a symbol of mankind’s innocence and freedom as well, a state to which he wanted everyone to return. 250 years after his birth, William Blake, engraver and printmaker, is still calling to us to return, and more people than ever before can hear him.

Notes by Roy McMillan

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