The Greatness of William Blake

Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve’; watercolor by William Blake for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1808
Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve’; watercolor by William Blake for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1808

1.

There are many William Blakes, but mine arrived with the tigers in the 1960s. The first line I ever read by Blake was not in a book, but laid out in thick white paint (or should I say illuminated) along a brick wall in Silver Street, Cambridge, England, in 1968. It was not poetry, but prose: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” It sent a strange shiver down my spine, as it did for thousands of other university students in England and America that year.

It turns out that, according to The New York Times of December 28, 1968, exactly the same line from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” appeared on big posters at the conference of the Modern Language Association in New York. According to the Times it signified that “Radical Agitation Among Scholars Grows,” and it led to several arrests.

This of course was the time of radical disturbances on university campuses across Europe, as well as Vietnam War and civil rights protests in America. Very quickly we all seemed to be reading Blake’s preface to Milton. This contains the great radical hymn, now known as “Jerusalem,” with which we identified; although in England, paradoxically, it was also sung at the patriotic last night of the London Proms concert amid much flag-waving, and still is:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my
hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and
pleasant land.

But we also found at the start of the preface a thrilling exhortation that seemed to speak to us with extraordinary force and immediacy:

Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war.

Later this passage was used to set the theme and temper of Theodore Roszac’s influential book The Making of a Counter-Culture (1969). Penguin produced a popular anthology inspired by Blake: Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (1969). Allen Ginsberg began hypnotically chanting Blake at huge public readings, sometimes accompanied by what appeared to me (at the London Festival Hall, at any rate) to be a small, droning, portable harmonium.

In those days we didn’t tackle Milton itself, which seemed a strange production, one of the so-called Prophetic Books, very long and labyrinthine, and apparently requiring beforehand a total immersion in Fearful Symmetry (1947), Northrop Frye’s equally labyrinthine study of Blake’s symbolism. But we did find and celebrate Blake’s two great explosive revolutionary chants from the Songs of Experience (1794), “The Tyger” and “London.” The first seemed an invocation of pure energy (with unsettling hints of the atom bomb):

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

The second seemed like a piece of furious, contemporary street protest. The following year I found myself discussing it with two young GIs, as we stood together on the top platform of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They were on European leave, but expecting to fly back to Vietnam. We had a brief and totally unexpected meeting of minds—and hearts—that I have never forgotten. Looking down at the ornate Pisan Baptistery, we quoted Blake to one another:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appals;
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

All this seems a long time ago. The poem “London” is now carved for tourists into the pavement on the south side of Westminster Bridge. One can walk into the British Library in London, under the great bronze statue of Eduardo Paolozzi’s version of Blake’s “Newton” (1995), and find Blake’s “Rossetti Notebook” on display under the quiet lamps, and read a digital projection of the original version of “The Tyger,” with its many haunting manuscript variations:

In the well of sanguine woe
In what clay & in what mould
Were thy eyes of fury rolld…

My Blake, the radical visionary poet of the 1960s, seems almost old-fashioned now. I realize how many other Blakes there have been, both before and since. They include the bardic mystic popularized by the poets Algernon Charles Swinburne (1868) and W.B. Yeats (1893); the Marxist protester championed by the scientist Jacob Bronowski (1944); the inspired London dreamer summoned up by the biographers Mona Wilson (1927) and especially Peter Ackroyd (1995); the great psychological mythmaker analyzed by the critics Northrop Frye (1947) and Harold Bloom (1963); the agitator and revolutionary of the political historians E.P. Thompson (Witness Against the Beast, 1995) and David Erdman (Blake: Prophet Against Empire, 1974); and the man of “minute particulars” slowly and meticulously assembled by the inexhaustible scholar-researcher G.E. Bentley Jr., the author of two editions of Blake Records (1969, 1988) and A Stranger from Paradise (2001), a monumental compilation- biography, aimed to subdue “the factual Laocoön” of the life.

Add to these Blake as the protagonist of innumerable Freudian, Swedenborgian, Neoplatonist, Zen Buddhist, and, more recently, excellent feminist studies (Women Reading William Blake, 2007, including essays by Germaine Greer, Tracy Chevalier, and Helen Bruder). Nor can we overlook Marsha Keith Schuchard, the author of Why Mrs. Blake Cried (2006), with her detailed explorations (and illustrations) of Blake’s supposed excursions into ecstatic tantric sex.

2.

Yet there is a sense in which the first popular Blake emerged 150 years earlier in the 1860s, as a radical engraver and illustrator, or “Pictor Ignotus.” This was the subtitle—“The Unknown Painter”—of the great Victorian biography by Alexander Gilchrist, first published in 1863, that saved Blake from total obscurity.

In her fine recent study of the growth and decline of poetic reputations among the Romantic poets, Those Who Write for Immortality, Heather Jackson pays a good deal of attention to Gilchrist’s “superb” and “ground-breaking” achievement. Jackson is a distinguished Coleridge scholar and editor. Her lively and immensely knowledgeable book is based on a series of sharply contrasted nineteenth-century literary case histories. She challenges the notion that literary “immortality” must necessarily be based on intrinsic worth, or a “heroic” Wordsworthian concept of emerging merit. “Put not thy faith in posterity,” as she drily observes.

When more than five thousand British writers published at least one book of poems between 1780 and 1835, why—and how—she asks, did less than a dozen survive into the twenty-first century? Why did Wordsworth’s reputation flourish into the twenty-first century rather than George Crabbe’s or Robert Southey’s? Why has Keats survived rather than Barry Cornwall? Why were William Blake and John Clare eventually “recovered,” but not the hugely popular and best-selling “ploughboy poet” Robert Bloomfield?

Part of her answer lies in the reception of the work by each writer. In succeeding generations, there were favorable critics, publishers, biographers, literary societies, schoolteachers, heritage curators, even tourist authorities (like the English Lake District) ready to promote certain authors, but not others. Against all expectation, Blake found just such a champion.

In Chapter 5, neatly entitled “Raising the Unread,” Jackson looks at the idea of “recovery projects” in publishing, and singles out Gilchrist’s biography as the masterpiece. Aided by a handful of Blake’s barely surviving disciples, from the originally youthful “Ancients”—notably the aging painters John Linnell and Samuel Palmer—Gilchrist achieved an astonishing resurrection by the posthumous publication of his Life of William Blake in 1863. “Blake’s may be the most extreme case of rescue from oblivion in literary history.” To which Jackson adds shrewdly: “I doubt we are done reinventing him.”

It has to be remembered that Blake was almost completely forgotten at the time of his death in a tiny two-room apartment in Fountain Court, a narrow alley off the Strand in London, in 1827. He had sold less than thirty copies of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). Of the great illuminated Prophetic Books, The French Revolution (1791) had never been published for fear of prosecution, only four copies of Milton (1804/1810) were printed in his lifetime, and only five of his tortured, apocalyptic masterwork Jerusalem (1810/1820), of which just two fully colored originals now remain.

Blake had been mocked in a notorious obituary in Leigh Hunt’s liberal newspaper the Examiner as “an unfortunate lunatic.” Both Wordsworth and Southey thought Blake was “perfectly mad,” and even Coleridge—who was exceptional in having read the Songs in a rare copy, thought Blake was gifted but deeply eccentric. The author of “Kubla Khan” wrote: “You perhaps smile at my calling another poet a mystic; but verily I am in the very mire of commonplace common sense compared with Mr Blake, apo- or rather ana-calyptic poet and painter.” So Gilchrist’s biography was indeed an astonishing work of recovery.

It was also, in several senses, a labor of love. Having published a life of the erotic painter William Etty, Gilchrist and his young wife Anne Gilchrist dedicated themselves and their marriage to a decade of researching and retrieving Blake’s forgotten work, and faithfully retracing his footsteps and the places where he saw his visions. Among these activities is a superb account of Blake’s early and happiest home at 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, just south of the Thames in London, where he wrote and engraved so much of his best and most accessible work: Songs of Experience; America: A Prophecy; A Song of Liberty; Visions of the Daughters of Albion; and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (which includes those “Proverbs of Hell”).

Gilchrist unearthed the famous story of Blake and his wife discovered sunbathing naked in the little garden: “Come in! it’s only Adam and Eve, you know.” This supposedly shocking piece of Miltonic nudism has been passionately disputed by scholars ever since, notably by Wilson and Bentley (who consigns it to a footnote headed “Red Herrings”). Nonetheless Ackroyd believes Gilchrist’s account, as witnessing typical Swedenborgian “sexual magic…nothing peculiar,” while it is beautifully vindicated by the novelist Tracy Chevalier in her essay in Women Reading William Blake and in her Blakean fiction, Burning Bright (2007).

The Gilchrists also tracked down Blake’s cottage by the sea at Felpham, Sussex, the only place he lived outside London, where he worked on Milton between 1800 and 1803, writing that rousing preface and such stunning, angry passages as “The Wine-Press of Los”:

This Wine-press is call’d War
on Earth: it is the
Printing-Press
Of Los; and here he
lays his words in
order above the mortal brain…
But in the Wine
presses the Human
grapes sing not nor dance!
They howl and writhe
in shoals of torment…

It was also a period of wonderful letters filled with gnomic utterances: “The Ruins of Time build Mansions in Eternity” or “My fingers emit sparks of fire with Expectation of my future labors.” Here too he was arrested for throwing a drunken soldier out of his garden, and tried for sedition. Felpham incidentally is the one Blakean address that can still be visited today, a long low thatched cottage, of flint and brick, with an extraordinary brooding atmosphere, its deep windows staring out toward the sea and infinity. The Blake Society recently raised more than half a million pounds to purchase it but would still be grateful for any support.

The frontispiece, designed by William Blake, of Robert Blair’s poem <i>The Grave</i>, 1808
The frontispiece, designed by William Blake, of Robert Blair’s poem The Grave, 1808

Throughout, Gilchrist gives exuberant and unforgettable verbal descriptions of Blake’s illuminated manuscripts:

The ever-fluctuating colour, the spectral pigmies rolling, flying, leaping among the letters; the ripe bloom of quiet corners, the living light and bursts of flame…make the page seem to move and quiver within its boundaries.

These can at last be set against the magnificent six-volume Blake Trust/Princeton facsimile illuminated edition of the Prophetic Books.

But Gilchrist also does something biographically subtler. He draws attention to the quality and range of Blake’s professional work as a commercial illustrator and engraver for others. These examples gave a completely new idea of Blake’s rich and varied connections with his contemporaries, rather than his cultural isolation. It is now known that Blake engraved research papers for the Royal Society, for a children’s book by Mary Wollstonecraft, for Lavater’s Physiognomy, for Erasmus Darwin’s scientific poem The Botanic Garden, for the Wedgwoods’ Pottery Catalogue, for John Stedman’s antislavery NarrativeAgainst the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (illustrations of intense glooming power), and for the biography by his Felpham patron William Haley of the melancholy poet William Cowper, with whom Blake tenderly identified.

Blake also illustrated some of the most widely read serious classics of the day: Milton’s Paradise Lost; Dante’s Inferno; Edward Young’s Night Thoughts; the Book of Job; and Robert Blair’s The Grave, for which Heather Jackson reproduces, appropriately enough, Blake’s superb frontispiece showing a clamorous trumpet-blasting inverted airborne angel of Resurrection.

Gilchrist’s greatest strength lies in what Jackson calls his “sympathetic but not uncritical” understanding of Blake’s psychology, notably addressed in a forthright chapter entitled “Mad or Not Mad?” Gilchrist quietly explains the “extravagant and apocryphal stories” that were current: young Blake seeing angels in the trees, his many later visions in his studio, his jousts against science and literalism, and his belief that his dead brother Robert was still with him thirteen years later and that he wrote from Robert’s dictation. Equally Gilchrist briskly repudiates any attempt to associate Blake with the then-fashionable Victorian supernaturalism—“the table- turning, wainscot-knocking, bosh-propounding ‘Spiritualism’ of the present hour.”

Most important of all, Gilchrist identified—and reprinted for the first time—key passages in Blake’s work, such as the “Jerusalem” poem, “The Tyger,” and “The Proverbs of Hell.” Yet as Jackson points out, the one aspect of Blake’s work for which he drew something of a blank was the Prophetic Books. After Gilchrist’s premature death from scarlet fever, when weakened and exhausted from his Blake researches, Anne Gilchrist “abandoned” any serious attempt at a commentary. Much of the subsequent history of modern Blake studies has involved various attempts to grapple with these great but undoubtedly difficult works. As Blake wrote in Jerusalem:

I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

3.

Professor Leo Damrosch, from Yale, Princeton, and then Harvard, has taken a notable part in this long, scholarly tradition of winding in Blake’s golden string. He has spent a lifetime reading and teaching Blake, and over thirty-five years ago (when he was known as Leopold) he published his first long, detailed academic study, largely of the Prophetic Books, Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth (1980). In it he argued that Blake could never truly reconcile the elements of his whole symbolic system, and that the strength of the Prophetic Books—especially Milton and Jerusalem—lay precisely in their implicit psychological contradictions, their “contrary states” of mind, especially as described by Freud. “Blake turned psychosexual experience into philosophical structure.”

Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake is a shorter and more intimate book, part biography, part critical reflection, and part a scholar’s testimony to the experience of actually teaching Blake over many years to generations of eager (but often skeptical) students. Damrosch writes movingly of his own convictions:

After half a century of living with Blake, I am still in awe of the depth and range of his genius. He honors the simplicity of childhood without ever condescending. He exposes hypocrisy and exploitation with challenging severity. He movingly dramatizes the turbulent dynamics of the psyche. He celebrates a spiritual connection with the world…. Like the Zen masters, Blake urges us to put aside preoccupation with self and to learn to be.

He is in other words a true Blakean.

The book is dedicated to Harold Bloom (among others), and in some measure is a thoughtful revision of Bloom’s influential and flamboyant mythological approach in Blake’s Apocalypse (1963). But by contrast Damrosch’s entire tone is careful, sensible, and explanatory, though with occasional wicked professorial sallies:

The library in Donald Trump’s extravagant edifice on Central Park in New York reportedly displays another Proverb of Hell, transformed into a self-congratulatory slogan: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

The main sweep of his book carries the reader as steadily as possible into the increasingly complex world of Blake’s private mythology, while ingeniously relating it to his illuminated manuscripts (many beautifully reproduced in color, and some decidedly weird). Despite street-cred references to the psychedelic band the Doors, or Aldous Huxley’s drug-taking, or the film Chariots of Fire, there is a certain pedagogic earnestness about Eternity’s Sunrise. The two central chapters are entitled “How Should We Understand Blake’s Symbols?” and “Understanding Blake’s Myth.” One summary states: “Milton is about the Puritan poet’s quest to renounce his errors, reunite with his feminine element, and overcome selfhood. And Jerusalem is about the rehabilitation of the universal man, Albion….”

Yet Damrosch eschews the wilder excursions into world mythology favored for example by Frye. Indeed he is surprising critical of Frye, in both his antiscientific readings of Blake and his general theory of an “Orc cycle” in which “every revolution degenerates into repression.”

Instead Damrosch keeps a fine eye on the revealing biographical detail that continuously anchors Blake in the real world. He notes that Blake the engraver owned a big star wheel rolling press that weighed seven hundred pounds, stood five feet high, and was faithfully carried to each of his studios over thirty years, though it took “four strong men” to disassemble and transport it. Or he remarks that Blake could lean out of the window of his last tiny lodgings in Fountain Court and just glimpse the river Thames, sometimes “like a bar of gold.” He adds Blake’s comment: “I live in a hole here, but God has a beautiful mansion for me elsewhere.”

Threading through this observant biography, he patiently—if sometimes doggedly—follows the line of transformation that carries Blake’s early mythic figures from the unpublished The Four Zoas (1797), with what he now describes as each corresponding “Jungian category,” into the major Prophetic Books. Certainly it is a delight to meet such clear archetypes as the beautiful, young fiery Orc in eternal revolutionary opposition to tyrannical, ugly old Urizen. But after this there emerge the stranger, smokier, shifting figures like Los (the furious blacksmith-creator-destroyer), or Urthona-Enitharmon (his sometime wife, the voluptuous or dominating female force in Nature), or the Giant Albion (the nation or the universal man) with their increasingly convoluted system of “Emanations” or doubles, their ever-changing identities, and their ambiguous or “obsessive” illuminated imagery of liberation or imprisonment, sadism or submission.

In the end, Damrosch chooses to treat both Milton and Jerusalem as essentially psychological dramas, in which the original revolutionary impulse has dispersed. Their myths present “profound insights into the divided self, a condition that many people experience to some extent and that Blake experienced to a terrifying degree.” The account of Milton, if strange—Milton himself dives down like a falling star over the Felpham cottage to enter Blake by his left foot or “tarsus”—is impressive. But how far Damrosch’s students stuck it out with their Blakean professor to the wilder shore of Jerusalem, which he refers to as “a fantasized alternative to life,” citing a psychoanalytic verdict on the poem as “a compensatory fantasy…‘infantile megalomania,’” I wonder. Though he does make frequent reassuring asides: “No one is obliged to accept Blake’s system at face value.”

It strikes me that Damrosch writes particularly well about Blake and America. This begins with a fine, fresh description of America: A Prophecy, both its poetry and its artwork. It is the earliest Prophetic Book (1793), which is only eighteen pages long, most beautifully illustrated, and yet often too neglected. He quotes with great insight and originality from the text, for example this vision of “red Orc’s” revolutionary storm bursting upon an unsuspecting nation:

The citizens of New York close their books and lock their chests;
The mariners of Boston drop their anchors and unlade;
The scribe of Pennsylvania casts his pen upon the earth;
The builder of Virginia throws his hammer down in fear.
Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic,
And Earth had lost another portion of the infinite,
But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.

Here we are surprised not only by specific references to Franklin and Jefferson, but also the gathering power of the long, apocalyptic line that will resurface in Walt Whitman, and ultimately in Allen Ginsberg. Quoting William Michael Rossetti, Damrosch calls Blake aptly “the supreme painter of fire.” He later compares Blake’s increasingly visionary and distanced apocalypse to that of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.

But Damrosch is evidently uneasy about Blake’s attitude toward sex and women. He remarks that “in the heyday of the 1960s counterculture” Blake was frequently invoked as a representative of liberation and “positive” sexuality. The great chorus was: “Everything that lives is holy.” But in fact Blake “was always aware that sex can be a means of exerting control.” He was increasingly “tormented” by the subject and drew naked bodies that were “unerotic, and at times positively repellent,” a term of revulsion Damrosch later repeats.

These revisionist readings are explored in two powerful chapters: “The Torments of Love and Jealousy” and “The Female Will.” Here he takes on board the new feminist criticism of Blake, citing the scholar Helen Bruder: Blake was “by turns a searching critic of patriarchy but also a hectoring misogynist.” But Damrosch does believe that Blake once responded to Mary Wollstonecraft’s “pioneering feminist analysis” in her revolutionary tract Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The young Blake had “affinities” with her sexual politics, and reflected her appeal for sexual justice in another powerful poem the following year: “Enslav’d, the Daughters of Albion weep; a trembling lamentation/Upon their mountains; in their valleys, sighs toward America.” In Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), Blake also produced perhaps the most appealing female figure in his entire work, the “soft soul of America,” the wonderfully named Oothoon.

Damrosch asks if Blake’s marriage was really the happy, artisan partnership portrayed by Gilchrist. He mentions periods of estrangement and jealousy, Blake’s desire for several wives (recorded by the diarist Crabb Robinson), and many disturbing passages and illustrations in the Prophetic Books, not least Oothoon’s rape and subsequent sufferings. He cites contemporary testimony to Catherine’s wifely trials:

She would get up in the night, when he was under his very fierce inspirations, which were as if they would tear him asunder…. She had to sit motionless and silent, only to stay him mentally, without moving hand or foot; this for hours, and night after night.

Catherine’s famous remark “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company, he is always in Paradise” was innocently placed by G.E. Bentley Jr. as the epigraph to his biography of 2001. But Damrosch observes evenly that this is “surely ironic!” He concludes that in this matter at least, our liberated Blake of the 1960s must be regretfully relinquished. “Blake is not really a prophet of unconflicted sexuality, and his vision is closer to the tragic one that Freud expresses.”

Heather Jackson observes that after Gilchrist, it was the Americans, both poets and critics, who were the first to respond fully to Blake’s radicalism and open up the Prophetic Books. “The American Blake was from the start more actively rebellious than his British counterpart.” She cites Emerson, Whitman, S. Foster Damon, Mark Schorer, Northrop Frye, David Erdman, and Allen Ginsberg. One might say that American scholars especially responded to Blake’s own challenge: “What is not too Explicit is the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the Faculties to act.” Leo Damrosch is certainly in this great scholarly tradition of instruction, and his admirable book is rousing in its own way.

But perhaps we should not abandon too easily that early radical, naked, tigerish poetical Blake of the Lambeth days, the Blake of the 1860s and 1960s. The singer and songwriter Patti Smith recently edited her own Vintage anthology of Blake’s Poems (2007). She returned to the Blakean roots in a different mode. “There is in Blake’s song,” she wrote,

something of the Appalachian, whose ballads immigrated from British soil. Threnody played with a dark fiddle. They remind me that when I was young I thought Blake was American. Many might claim him now.

by Richard Holmes

Source: The New Yorker Review of Books

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