William Blake: Tortured visions

Michael Glover takes a close look at the William Blake etchings purchased by the Tate this week

It is thanks to the careful habits of the descendants of his much-beloved and long-suffering wife Catherine that this remarkable suite of etchings by the great visionary English poet and artist William Blake have survived. Catherine was Blake's companion and helpmate throughout his life, at work or play – they toiled side by side in his engraving studio, etching, hand-colouring, retouching. No one else counted.

This suite of newly discovered etchings could not be more characteristic of the man whose work was so undervalued for so long. The great majority of them – six of the eight - served to illustrate one of Blake's so-called prophetic books of the 1790s, The Book of Urizen. For Blake, the visual and the verbal emerged side by side. It was as if he snatched his visions from his own teeming and fantastical imagination. In his shorter poems, Blake is almost entirely comprehensible and essentially rooted in our common world; he railed against the injustices of his day – poverty, conscription, the hypocrites who marched behind the banner of religion, for example – in a great sequence of poems called Songs of Experience, which were written and illustrated not too long before he created The Book of Urizen.

With the prophetic books, it is quite otherwise. Blake invents, transposes, steals from scripture and ancient myth – or from the more recent mythologising of others: Emanuel Swedenborg, for example, the 18th-century Swedish mystic, who was also said to have communed with angels. There is a riotous mingling of the political, the psychological and the wilder shores of the purely fanciful. Blake regarded himself as a conduit for celestial beings and forces. He was in touch with them. They conversed with him. He wrote down and illustrated what they whispered into his ear. It was a world that could be full of terrors, as these images never fail to remind us.

Who was Urizen anyway? One of the four different aspects of human nature. The others were called Luvah, Los and Tharmas. Urizen represented the rational, thinking, intellectual function. This fact is not immediately apparent to anyone reading the poem today, which abounds in gothic imagery from first to last. In fact, it reads like a kind of creation myth, gothicised. Here we get a glimpse of Urizen at work, dividing the creation:

Times on times he divided & measured

Space by space in his ninefold darkness,

Unseen, unknown; changes appear'd

Like desolate mountains, rifted furious

By the black winds of perturbation

The book itself, a long poem, was never finished – only the first book was written. The turbulent, nightmarish atmosphere of the words is also the atmosphere of this suite of etchings. Everything is so charged, intense, brooding, teetering on the edge of desolation, full of physical drama. The bodies are often muscular, which shows Blake's great debts to the example of Michelangelo. You can almost hear the voices of lamentation as these beings, part human, part heavenly, contort, twist and prostrate themselves. Great mouths yawn open; faces stare into the abyss. A huge body floats through the ether, arms outstretched, beard streaming.

One of the most striking images shows two beings sitting, knees drawn up, side by side. The figure to the left is part human and part skeleton. The figure to the right, flame-haired, anguished, stares balefully at his companion with a look of the utmost dread. Everything is being consumed by flames. The skeletal figure seems to be raising its head to the flames as if wearily resigned to the onset of destruction. Blake argued that unless the four aspects of human nature worked in harmony with each other, disaster would strike – and here it is about to strike. The reign of harmoniousness is over.

What makes Blake's work so striking is its sheer psychological intensity. Here are beings in extreme, ungovernable states from which they may never be able to liberate themselves. One of the etchings has this inscription, written in hand beneath it: "I sought Pleasure and found Pain." Beneath that statement appears just the one word, and it is a chilling and unanswerable one: "Unutterable."

This creature, which occupies the entire picture frame and seems to be squeezed against its very edge, piling torment upon torment – is naked, helpless and on its knees. It is crawling towards us, boggle-eyed, mouth hugely agape. Can we offer it freedom from its torment? it seems to be asking. Its arms and hands are wrapped, weirdly, around its own head, clawing, raking at its own temples in some dire extremity of pain. It is wholly – in fact, quite prettily – surrounded by lusciously colourful licks of red and yellow flame, eagerly devouring this creature, whose skin seems to be melting from its body, almost effortlessly.

Who is this? It does not matter. And even if we were to give it a name, that name would probably completely baffle us – like so many of the puzzling names of the beings that inhabit Blake's invented worlds. No, the point is that it evokes for us a psychological pain so intense that we wince in its presence. We know exactly what this state of body and mind means. It means that this being has been cast into outer darkness; that it is irredeemable. It is an image of complete rejection, alienation from the self and the world. The figure looms huge within the picture plain. It would beat against the walls of its cage if it could. But it cannot. There is no way out. It is as trapped as any victim of the pen of Edgar Allen Poe.