William Blake: ‘rational and inspired’

William Blake had flaws. But 250 years after his birth, his humanist ambition is still - like his Tyger - ‘burning bright’.

Shirley Dent

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‘He couldn’t draw properly and his figures are all wobbly…. In this day and age we are very used to the idea of the eccentric artist who doesn’t follow the rules. Modern audiences have projected back a lot of their tolerances and preferences onto another age and see him as a pioneering wild man of art… The man was a lunatic. He claimed to speak to angels. In this day and age we lock up people like that. A lot of his stuff is exceedingly boring.’

Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak was putting the boot into William Blake, the poet and engraver who I have spent many years studying and writing about. And this on Blake’s 250th birthday and all – some people can be so insensitive.

Januszczak is, in fact, entirely on the money in most of his analysis of the Lambeth bard. Yet, 250 years after he was born ‘amid the gloom of a London November’, as his first and greatest biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, put it, Blake still matters.

Januszczak, as Blake’s critic-in-chief, ticks almost every anti-Blake box going. He likened visiting the much-praised 2001 William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain in London (one of the largest displays of Blake’s art work ever) to ‘being chained to the soapbox of a ranting religious lunatic at Speakers’ Corner’. So what are the charges against Blake? Can’t draw; panders to modern outré beliefs and peccadilloes; is a nutter; is a bore. There’s truth in all these claims.

The famous eponymous illustration of The Tyger is an example of Blake’s limitations as an artist. The picture can, in some copies of his Songs of Innocence and Experience (each one was individually printed and coloured by hand), look like a pussycat who’s just traversed a dual-carriage way and is an inch off becoming roadkill.

It is undoubtedly true that Blake is a totem for all sorts of modern ‘tolerances and preferences’; from the drop-out-and-tune-in culture of the 1960s and 1970s to today’s eco-criticism. As to the ‘bonkers Blake’ theory, there is again a degree of truth. I don’t believe Blake was ‘mad’ in the sense that he had a diagnosable psychiatric condition – there is little evidence for his madness beyond personal eccentricities. It is true, however, that Blake is not a neat and tidy thinker or artist. His thoughts and ideas overspill in the most undisciplined way and can sometimes wreak havoc in his work, causing the reader and viewer to stop and ask ‘what the f***?’ Blake was not a great thinker. He was often a very confused thinker, albeit an incredibly imaginative one.

When he proclaims in his poem Jerusalem, ‘I must Create a System. or be enslav’d by another Mans/ I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create’, he unintentionally puts his finger on the problem of engaging with his work. He sure did create his own system (particularly in Jerusalem), but it is a system so arcane, so embroiled in its own recondite mythology, that it is a resounding failure. A magnificent failure, but a failure nonetheless, having no rational anchor in which to ground its creativity. It’s for this same reason that Januszczak is right to say that Blake is boring; the longer prophetic books in particular are hard work, precisely because they rely so much on Blake’s personally rendered and constantly reinvented system, offering few ways in for the uninitiated.

And yet it is in those longer prophetic books – the triumph and blight of Blake’s later life – that we find the real reason to keep on reading him, despite all the difficulties. Milton and Jerusalem are very different from the works in Songs of Innocence and Experience, lacking almost entirely the twee charm of those poems. There is far more complexity in Songs of Innocence and Experience than it is credited with, but it takes work and patience to appreciate this complexity and most readers and lovers of Blake are lazy. It is often not Blake’s works, but his image as a self-educated rough diamond whose native wit begins and ends with children and lambs, that people fall in love with. It is this ‘quiet’ Blake, this DIY outsider, this forever esoteric, who is gobbled up by those who want to stand apart from society and sink into their own solipsistic worlds.

The most amusing example of this is probably the eccentric Church of William Blake, set up in the 1970s in Ohio. But I find it less amusing when, as I have heard several times, people use Blake to justify a politics of quietude and localism, a politics that shuts the rest of society out. This is not simply because I disagree with this political outlook. It is because it misses, as Januszczak does, the enduring and dazzling aspect of the Blake phenomenon: Blake was an arrogant sonofabitch. When he talked about the ‘human form divine’ he really believed it. His ambition was vast – he believed the human imagination could re-make the world.

This hosier’s son, this self-taught engraver buried in an ummarked grave in the dissenters’ graveyard, Bunhill Fields, expressed and explored a humanism that stripped out the authoritarian and the arbitary, one where our imaginations were the only limits to what the world could be. It is a vision of the human that puts some of our more mealy-mouthed contemporary notions of what it is to be human to shame.

In Milton – written over 200 years ago – Blake damns the biological determinism that reduces humans to little more than the sum of fleshy DNA: ‘No Human Form but only a Fibrous Vegetation/ A Polypus of soft affections without Thought or Vision.’ For Blake the ‘human form divine’ is a very human imagination that transforms the world. Throughout Jerusalem, Blake’s clarion call is ‘the wonders Divine/ Of Human Imagination’, the very thing for building up Jerusalem, for creating a new society. Every time I have pushed Jerusalem away as being too arcane, too impenetrable, too beautifully bizarre to be bothered with, I’ve ended up returning to it because of the sense inherent in it of a mind running towards being human, ascending to who knows where.

Jacob Bronowksi, the scientist and presenter of the still remarkable TV series The Ascent of Man, loved Blake. The book accompanying the series ends with Blake’s frontispiece to Songs of Experience, accompanied by a note that concludes: ‘The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional equipment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.’

In his book on Blake, A Man Without a Mask, Bronowski unwraps Blake’s vision in context. It is humanist to the core and should inspire us to this day: ‘The cast of mind which searches, which questions, which dissents, has a great history. Each society has given it its own form: religious, literary. scientific. Much of the strength of Blake derives from the twofold form which dissent took in his time: rational and inspired… The history of dissent is not yet ended; it does not end. Men die, and societies die. They are not more lasting for being without dissent, they are more brittle: for they are purposeless, because they deny themselves a future.’

Shirley Dent is communications director of the Institute of Ideas and author, with Jason Whittaker, of Radical Blake (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

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