Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Today is William Blake’s 250th birthday. Happy birthday, William.

The Chimney-Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ‘weep, weep’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are thy father and mother? Say!’
‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.

‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

‘And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.’

I always think of Blake as one of a triumvirate of great London writers, along with Dickens and Pepys. There are plenty of other poets with impeccable London connections: Chaucer, Donne, Pope, Keats and Browning, just to pick some of the obvious ones. Hell, you could throw in Shakespeare at a pinch.

A poet

And you could hardly claim Blake as a typical Londoner. I mean, the revolutionary politics was common enough at the time; as a matter of fact, in his day job as an engraver/printer, Blake did one of the illustrations for a book by another C18th poet and radical I wrote about recently, Erasmus Darwin. And London has had its fair share of esoteric and peculiar religions, so that’s not too unusual. But Blake saw visions; as a child, he saw the head of God outside an upper-storey window in Soho, and a tree full of angels on Peckham Rye.

angels

It is that combination, though, which is the point: Blake walked the filthy, stinking, noisy streets of London, and found the transcendent. He saw it as a place of poverty, tyranny and oppression, of mind-forged manacles, but he also saw it as something more and stranger.

Hampstead, Highgate, Finchley, Hendon, Muswell Hill rage loud
Before Bromion’s iron tongs and glowing poker reddening fierce.
Hertfordshire glows with fierce vegetation; in the forests
The oak frowns terrible; the beech and ash and elm enroot
Among the spiritual fires. Loud the cornfields thunder along
The soldier’s fife, the harlot’s shriek, the virgin’s dismal groan,
The parent’s fear, the brother’s jealousy, the sister’s curse,
Beneath the storms of Theotormon; and the thund’ring bellows
Heaves in the hand of Palamabron, who in London’s darkness
Before the anvil watches the bellowing flames. Thundering
The hammer loud rages in Rintrah’s strong grasp, swinging loud
Round from heaven to earth, down falling with heavy blow
Dead on the anvil, where the red-hot wedge groans in pain.
He quenches it in the black trough of his forge. London’s river
Feeds the dread forge, trembling and shuddering along the valleys.

Three giants

That passage, and the illustration, are from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. It’s hard to know what to make of these long prophetic poems. I can only take them in small doses, although they contain some brilliant moments. Is their strangeness best understood as a radical artistic statement, which would make them comparable to, say, Walt Whitman; or do they reflect Blake’s weakening grip on reality? Was he insane? Does it matter?

It is an odd thought that Blake published the first of his prophetic poems, The Book of Thel, in the year of the Regency Crisis, while George III was being confined in a strait-waistcoat and kept away from sharp objects a few miles up the river at Kew. Considering how the King was treated in his illness, Blake did well to keep out of the hands of the doctors.

King on lily flower

There is a famous story that one of his friends once arrived at Blake’s house in Lambeth to find him and his wife sitting naked in the garden reading Paradise Lost aloud to each other. The friend was embarrassed, but Blake called out, ‘Come in! It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!’ Perhaps the King would have envied such freedom.

» all the pictures are by Blake and are taken from the extraordinarily comprehensive William Blake Archive.

‘Gothic Nightmares’ at the Tate

I went to Tate Britain at the weekend to see Gothic Nightmares – Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (which finished yesterday). It was mainly an exhibition of Henry Fuseli, with a few pictures by his imitators and contemporaries, including William Blake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large exhibition devoted to such a bad painter. This one, the snappily-titled Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma, from 1783, gives you the idea; contorted, rather inaccurately drawn figures, overwrought, melodramatic treatment, and obscure medieval subject matter (another of his paintings has the title Wolfram Introducing Bertrand of Navarre to the Place where he had Confined his Wife with the Skeleton of her Lover).

It’s not just that the subject matter and mood aren’t to my taste; the actual painting is clumsy. To be fair, he did do some that were both technically better and more sophisticated than that. The Shepherd’s Dream, for example. But even at the time, his reputation was based on his imagination and sensationalism rather than technical excellence, and while I can believe that the work was exciting at the time, it looks pretty tame now.

I found the most interesting thing was the context it provided for Blake’s work. The painting above may not look particularly Blake-y, but the exhibition made the connection obvious. For that matter, we know that Blake was a great admirer of Fuseli’s work. I preferred Blake’s pictures, on the whole. He wasn’t a great painter, any more than Fuseli, but he had a couple of things going for him, I think. The first is sincerity. Fuseli, you feel, relished the strange and sensational in the same way people relish a horror movie; Blake was a full-on visionary who believed in some kind of truth to his paintings and prints of angels and spirits. The fact that Blake’s work is much more stylised is also a help. Fuseli’s work is fundamentally representaional and narrative, and if the subject matter doesn’t do much for you, there isn’t much left. Blake’s work is just more visually interesting, on the whole. I was particularly struck by a couple of densely painted works in tempera I haven’t seen before. This is one of them, The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan:

Make of that what you will.

The other appealing thing was the Gillray cartoons that used imagery drawn from the paintings. Gillray is always good value, of course. Check out the portrayal of Charles Fox in The Covent Garden Night Mare on this page.

Having been rather negative about the exhibition, I do think it was interesting and I’m glad I went. It shed some light on a particularly moment of British artistic history, which is a good thing for Tate Britain to be doing; I just didn’t rate most of the work very highly.

Blake and Silliman

Silliman’s ‘School of Quietude’ idea is annoying in so many ways, but as an English, I find it particularly tiresome that he blames anglophilia for the quietudinosity. Today Ron is marking the 150th anniversary of Whitman self-publishing Leaves of Grass. Go and read what he has to say, then come back and read the rest of this.

This is from a poem which was self-published (and indeed self-printed) 201 years ago by an English poet, and named after another even earlier English poet. It is of course Milton a Poem by William Blake:

Timbrels & violins sport round the Wine-presses; the little Seed;
The sportive Root. the Earth-worm, the gold Beetle: the wise Emmet;
Dance round the Wine-presses of Luvah: the Centipede is there:
The ground Spider with many eyes: the Mole clothed in velvet
The ambitious Spider in his sullen web; the lucky golden Spinner;
The Earwig armd: the tender Maggot emblem of immortality:
The Flea: Louse: Bug: the Tape-Worm: all the Armies of Disease:
Visible or invisible to the slothful vegetating Man.
The slow Slug: the Grasshopper that sings & laughs & drinks:
Winter comes, he folds his slender bones without a murmur.
The cruel Scorpion is there: the Gnat: Wasp: Hornet & the Honey Bee:
The Toad & venomous Newt; the Serpent clothd in gems & gold:
They throw off their gorgeous raiment: they rejoice with loud jubilee
Around the Wine-presses of Luvah. naked & drunk with wine.

There is the Nettle that stings with soft down; and there
The indignant Thistle: whose bitterness is bred in his milk:
Who feeds on contempt of his neighbour: there all the idle Weeds
That creep around the obscure places, shew their various limbs.
Naked in all their beauty dancing–round the Wine-presses.

But in the Wine-presses the Human grapes sing not, nor dance
They howl & writhe in shoals of torment; in fierce flames consuming,
In chains of iron & in dungeons circled with ceaseless fires.
In pits & dens & shades of death: in shapes of torment & woe.
The plates & screws & wracks & saws & cords & fires & cisterns
The cruel joys of Luvahs Daughters lacerating with knives
And whips their Victims & the deadly sport of Luvahs Sons.

The late poems of Blake are not, of course, typical of English poetry in the C19th. But then Leaves of Grass isn’t typical of C19th American poetry either. Another C19th English poem can be found here. That one’s not typical either.

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