’Art & Soul

The fascinating works of William Blake

It was only 50 years after his death that the world truly came to praise his work — his vision spanning both painting and poetry

The fascinating works of William Blake

‘Newton’: work presenting him as embodying scientific materialism. 1795

B N Goswamy

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake

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.
William Blake

Even if one looks hard for them, there are not too many examples that one can find of literary or artistic reputations lost and then, after a gap of time, not only re-established, but raised to great heights. Certainly nothing compared to the case of William Blake (1757-1827). Here was a man who was once dubbed “an unfortunate lunatic” by a critic who wrote these words after seeing an exhibition of his work, and someone who is now seen as “one of the most complex writers known”, “a seminal figure”, “a major poet, … one of the most fascinating British artists, an original thinker, and a conundrum of endless fascination”. A full 50 years after he passed away did the process of restitution begin, and praise of his work, his vision, began to turn into a chorus over time, some of the greatest names in the field joining in: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda. The enigma that William Blake was had begun to unfold. Today there would hardly be a student of English literature who would not be able to recite from memory at least the first four lines — ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright …’ — of a long poem of his, or, at least in England, a stanza cited above from his lyric, commonly called ‘Jerusalem’, that has become ‘a kind of alternative national anthem in Britain’. At the same time, there would be few who are not familiar with his almost Upanishadic words: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.”

Portrait of William Blake (dressed as a ‘gentleman’).

By Thomas Phillips. 1807

A part of the reason of the lack of notice, the virtual overlooking, of Blake during his lifetime must have been that he was in many ways a hard man to know. Perhaps even to deal with. He was not friendless even if strident in his irreverence, but there were aspects of his personality — one speaks here not of his great talent — which made him appear ‘strange’ to other people. That he ‘heard a different drummer’ is certain, and he made no secret of it. As a child he hardly attended school, most of his education coming from his mother at home, a prominent part of it being a study of the Bible. This was to remain a ‘lifetime source of inspiration’, both in his poetry and his painting. He was soaked in it, everything about him carrying this colour, a strain of intense spirituality. His contemporaries have written that as a child, at the tender age of four, he ‘saw’ God’s head appear in a window. Visions began to come to him: now the prophet Ezekiel, now ‘a tree filled with angels’. When his beloved brother, Robert, died at a young age of tuberculosis — a trauma that William was never able to get over for the rest of his own life — he told everyone that he saw with his own eyes his brother’s spirit ascend through the ceiling.

Painting came to him much earlier than poetry. Enrolment at a drawing school, apprenticeship with an engraver, cultivation of the habit of copying great masters like Durer and Michelangelo, and collecting prints of their works, all followed. Along with this grew his great fondness for writers of old, especially the Elizabethans — Shakespeare, Jonson, Spenser — and, before he was 25, he was ready with his first publication: Poetical Sketches. Soon afterwards, however, he ran into trouble with the law, being falsely accused of sedition. And then came the truly big blow: an exhibition of his works accompanied by his own poetry which was greeted mostly with silence but was savaged by one critic as “a farrago of nonsense and egregious vanity”. Blake was devastated, and began withdrawing more and more from society, even though working all the time, turning out remarkable work both in painting and in poetry. He wrote and published; engraved and illustrated; painted and provoked. This mystic was creating a world of angels and satan; of Milton and Dante and the Songs of Innocence; of Adam naming the Beasts, Albion Dancing, Angels hovering over the body of Christ, and Hecate, the Greek goddess of black magic. It is as if he were an inhabitant of different spheres.

‘The Ancient of Days’. 1794

But these were years in which he also steadily kept sinking into “poverty, obscurity and paranoia”. Quite undeservedly so, of course. There was tumult in the times: the news coming from America where the colonies were revolting was disturbing; there was the great revolution in France which was hurtling the whole of Europe, and Europe’s age-old traditions, into chaos; and there were the urgings in the heart which cried out for a different order. In the midst of all this, Blake had things to say. He kept speaking out: now questioning established values, now railing against injustice and materialism; always commending the power of love that heals. As the Spanish writer Madariaga said evaluating the poet-painter’s work: ‘In his pure and innocent individualism, in his courageous and lofty amorality, in his disinterestedness and utter lack of meanness, in that virility of his idea of love, so free and so chaste, and lastly in his almost mystic feeling of reality”, William Blake was all “truth”.

There is a painting of his called The Ancient of Days in which we see a naked, bearded old man, ‘leaning out from the sun to define the universe with golden compasses’. One is used to seeing it as an image of God or some other heavenly figure; it could as easily be an image of Blake himself beginning to fashion a world which was different from that in which he lived: “inevitably chaotic and contradictory’ as it was.

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