Well, I seem to be moving to a weekly publishing schedule, but not this week – because today Allumination is celebrating one of its heroes. Because yesterday was the 250th anniversary of William Blake’s birth, and so today I’m just going to genuflect.
Why? Well, HE’S WILLIAM BLAKE!!!!! Perhaps the greatest graphic artist we – as a nation – have ever produced; certainly our greatest prophetic poet, a man who realised that poetic truth can only ever be a personal creation and so not only tried to write his own books of the Bible, but succeeded; an authentic visionary, who absolutely refused any related bullshit or self-indulgence.
Blake knew that what he saw was both real and nothing special – or at least, nothing that made him more special than any of us. What he saw, we can all see; his famous quote, ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: infinite’ is animated by a profound faith in our common (if underdeveloped) ability to live quotidian life in a perpetual visionary state.
Avoiding the standard Romantic dodge – ‘I saw, I saw, but it was so overwhelming that I can not describe’ – he not only saw deeper and further than of his contemporaries, but described that seeing with an absolute precision and focus that none have matched. Witnessing the ghost of a flea in the corner of his rooms, his immediate response was to request his pen and sketchbook – ‘reach me my things’ – the entirely practical response of a craftsman of eternity, which he was.
As for the content. The easy response to Blake – sustained for over a century, still current – is ‘well, he’s a bit mad, isn’t he?’ – but that response represents a failure of imagination, a failure to look or read with any sense of real curiosity, engagement or risk. He’s not easy, certainly; but that’s because as a writer and artist he is a changer; the demands he makes on the reader drive change in that reader. In that, he anticipates the more interesting strands of modern poetry, seeking as they do active creative engagement to make them live, and living all the more through those acts of engagement.
And what of the sadness of his life? Astonishing as it may seem in the context of his achievement, so much of his potential was wasted. He wanted to decorate Westminster Abbey, creating an English counterpart to – say – the Sistine Chapel; he spent much of every working day slaving over others’ engravings; his sole exhibition took place in a Soho draper’s shop, and was widely derided; far from being an isolated genius, he was known to all the major artists of his day, and generally not taken remotely seriously. Coleridge was one of the few people to respect him, complimenting ‘The Tyger’ (this lonely piece of praise a measure of STC’s independence and worth as a critic).
He could have been one of our great visionaries; he is one of our great visionaries; a sense of wasted potential is irrelevant in the light of the fire and brilliance of his achievement, of its persistent, roaring, utterly grounded life. Now he walks in eternity; but then again, he always did, so for him nothing has changed. But we can still be changed by him – opened to the infinite – so, to celebrate his birthday, I’d say – get out there and read him, NOW. And if that link don’t grab you, why not start with The Book of Urizen – the complete history of eternity in ix short chapters…