William Blake: Angels and demons

What was he thinking? The work of William Blake, born 250 years ago, continues to defy understanding. Michael Glover pays tribute to a visionary genius
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The Czech poet Miroslav Holub once wrote in a celebrated essay that human beings have an inescapable fascination for the miniaturised thing, be it a book or a toy. The smaller the artefact, the greater the fascination and reverence. The most intriguing products of the life of an artist or a poet are often their notebooks. Some of John Constable's notebooks at the Victoria and Albert Museum are scarcely larger than the palm of the hand in which they might be held - if only you were allowed to do so.

Other exquisite miniatures are to be found at the British Library. There, among other treasures, you will find a notebook by the great visionary English poet, painter and printmaker William Blake, the 250th anniversary of whose birth is now being celebrated at the library by a new exhibition called William Blake: Under the Influence.

The exhibition itself explores how influential Blake has been as artist, visionary and poet. It shows us works partially inspired by Blake's works - Benjamin Britten's score for Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, a draft of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and Tracy Chevalier's working notebook for her forthcoming novel Burning Bright.

Visit the library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery, and you will be able to see that Blake notebook on display. It contains the original draft and sketches for "The Tyger", one of the most loved and enigmatic of his Songs of Experience. If you visit the museum's website ( www.bl.uk/turningthepages), you will be able to turn the pages of the notebook online, magnify details and read the curator's notes.

It is a small exhibition - and a small notebook. By comparison, even the baldest, most laconic attempt to describe the importance of Blake himself, his art and his poetry, could fill worlds.

The life of William Blake was a relatively sedentary one. Born in 1757, he trained for seven years as an engraver with James Basire, and engraving and printmaking occupied him throughout his life. The publication of some early works - such as the Poetical Sketches of 1783 and the Songs of Innocence of 1789 - were made possible through the financial support of such friends as the sculptor John Flaxman. Later Blake did all the work on his own, etching, hand-colouring, retouching - it was all very labour-intensive and immensely unprofitable. He had a brief period of apprenticeship at the Royal Academy in London (which had not long been established), although he held unflattering opinions of its founder, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Blake lived in London, in Lambeth, for much of his life. When he did stray into the countryside with his wife and beloved life-long companion Catherine Boucher, whom he married in 1782, he found the experience an uncomfortable one.

Catherine was not only his wife, but also his companion at his labours in the engraving studio. He mentions her in a letter of 1800 to William Hayley, which begins with a reference to a broadsheet called Little Tom that they had been printing for Widow Spicer of Felpham, for the benefit of her orphans. It was to such tasks that Blake often turned his great talents. "Little Tom has been of late unattended to, and my wife's illness not being quite gone off, she has not printed any more since you went to London..."

Writing from Felpham in January 1803, Blake remarks upon the illnesses - the ague, rheumatism - that afflicted both of them. "When I came down here, I was more sanguine than I am at present," he writes to his friend Thomas Butts, "but it was because I was ignorant of many things which have since occurred, & chiefly the unhealthiness of the place."

The fact is that Blake did not need physical space or the sprawl of landscape in which to flourish as an artist and writer. The ever-expanding worlds he created were germinated inside his own head. He could live there; he could travel quite as far as he needed across and through those imaginary worlds whenever he wished to do so. Those who have read his prolific, rambling and often almost incoherent prophetic books will witness for themselves just how far he soared between heaven and earth and back again.

They will also come to understand to what extent he drew his inspiration from angelic beings. Some of these beings were pure inventions of his own; others were derived from pagan or biblical * * mythology. Blake happily mingled them all together. They were all at his beck and call. Some were his enemies, and others his fast friends. These intense preoccupations - near allied to madness, of course - make him close kindred of his contemporary Emanuel Swedenborg, who also witnessed - and wrote copiously about - the ceaseless traffic between heaven and earth.

As a poet, Blake's greatest works are the short ones, his Songs of Innocence and Experience. But there are passages of brilliance everywhere; you just have to seek it out with some determination in the longer works. The wonder of Blake is that he had an imagination that brought together words and images. They happily coalesced beneath his hand. It was as if they came down to him through the ether.

When he described in words an angelic being, he could see it so clearly that he could not resist the impulse to draw and to paint it. So the prophetic books - take Milton, for example, which was printed by Blake in 1808-09 - often came adorned with the most glorious and extravagant paintings. Each was hand-made, hand-written and hand-painted by himself.

His printed pages are always densely packed with text and image. First, you read the script in the middle of the page, every line written and aligned perfectly; then, surrounding it and even between and behind the lines, there will be embellishments of colour and form. Sometimes there will be the faintest streakings of pink and blue to suggest some heavenly domain; at other times there will be elaborate curlicues, leaves, tiny beings floating or flying through the air. And opposite each page, there will be a full-page illustration dramatising a particular moment in the unfolding drama.

There were many strong influences from the art of the past in Blake's work. We detect his love for the muscularity of Michelangelo - see his great painting of Nebuchadnezzar, for example - and his devotion to Raphael and Dürer.

In the poem Milton itself, the eponymous poet, who died almost 100 years before Blake was born, represents the spiritual pilgrim, the voice of prophecy. It is Blake himself who is speaking through Milton's voice, urging his readers to soar into the realms of pure imagination in order to avoid the "dull round" of the senses.

But what exactly did all these strange emanations of his imagination represent? Blake had his own very personal system of religious beliefs. God is an unlovely being; in the person of Urizen, he is terrifying, vengeful. Jesus, however, is the embodiment of humankind. Two other important players in this cosmic game are Enitharmon, the supreme manifestation of the male principle, and Los, the supreme manifestation of the female.

To look at one of Blake's greatest paintings, such as The Ancient of Days (1794), is to recognise to what extent he was out of key with his times. Of his contemporaries, only Henry Fuseli seems at all akin. In this painting, a great, ancient muscular being seems to be striding down the sky. Lightning flashes from his spread hand. His hair blows wildly, mingling with the painting's stormy, apocalyptic atmosphere. There is a furious intensity about the vision and the way it is realised. It is utterly uncompromising, like nothing seen on heaven or earth.

But were there readers and admirers? A few. Blake was a lonely figure in his day, and not until 1925 was a complete collection of his works made available. His letters are full of references to projects begun and stalled; of small sums of money begged or borrowed.

The poet WB Yeats was among the first to publish a selection of his poetry; the Irishman, a wild visionary himself, understood exactly what it was that quickened the spirit of William Blake. "He had learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that imagination was the first emanation of divinity, 'the body of God', 'the divine members'," Yeats wrote in 1897, "and he drew the deduction, which they did not, that the imaginative arts were the greatest of Divine revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is the forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ."

This is the world - wild, mystical, heterodox - through which Blake's mind swam. Clearly, he was nothing akin to the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Blake's wonderfully vituperative attack on Sir Joshua and his gang was written about 1808 under the relatively harmless title of "Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses". It begins with an explosion of resentment: "This man was Hired to Depress art... Having spent the Vigour of my Youth and Genius under the Oppression of Sr Joshua & his Gang of Cunning Hired Knaves Without Employment & as much as could possibly be Without Bread, The Reader must Expect to Read in all my Remarks on these Books Nothing but Indignation & Resentment." Blake then mercilessly attacks the "Discourses" for their ignorance, their errors of judgement, their equivocations and their self-contradictions.

Sir Joshua represented things Blake detested. Blake had turned his back on the academic traditions of the institution. Sir Joshua was also a conservative in Blake's eyes - and, what is more, a painter of the world of fashionable London, circles that Blake did not frequent. Blake, for all the hours he spent communing with angels, prophets and fabulous beings of his own invention, also had his eye and heart trained firmly on the predicament of the poor of the London streets, people with whom he stood shoulder to shoulder in poverty.

He was, in short, a political radical. He raised a hearty cheer at the spectacle of the American and then the French revolutions. Paine and Godwin were among his acquaintances. It was not for nothing that during the Felpham years he had had a furious argument with a soldier, which had led to a charge of sedition being brought against him. (He was acquitted.)

More evidence of political radicalism is found in his greatest poems (it is much less in evidence in his visual art, though he did etch many of the shorter poems). And these short poems - "London", "The Garden of Love", "Infant Sorrow", "A Divine Image" and of course "Jerusalem" - are among the most forceful and memorable ever written.

London

I wander thro' each chartered street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does

flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant's cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry

Every black'ning Church appals;

And the hapless Soldier's sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlot's curse

Blasts the new born Infant's tear,

And blights with plagues the Marriage

Hearse.

Blake's blast against the injustices of his time - poverty, war, prostitution, child labour - resonates today as it did when he wrote it (he etched the collection in 1793 and 1794). Two things are remarkable about this poem and others in Songs of Experience. First, it is written with a disarming directness and simplicity. It reads like a street ballad. Gone is the poetic diction that bedevilled so much poetry in the 18th century; the words are clean, sharp, clear. Second, it is fearless: to raise the issue of street prostitution, or to compare the plight of the impoverished chimney-sweep with the luxuries of the established church, were bold things to do. Blake wrote as he wrote. His opinions were his own.

The letters mirror the life. Many concern practical affairs - lists of sums he might receive for editions of his works; thanks for an interest shown here, a small loan proffered there. There are few mystical soarings. One of the last letters he wrote, from Fountain Court in the Strand in April 1827, speaks of his illnesses, of the fact that he is near the gates of death; that he is reduced to a skeleton, a feeble, tottering thing. For all that, he manages to send a list of prices of his works for sale. Though near death, such life as still exists has to be maintained somehow.

The last years were difficult. Blake fell into extreme poverty. Not even his heavenly emissaries could rescue him from that. A letter of 27 April 1827 to John Linnell finds him in a mood part-desperate, part-defiant, part-resigned. It was a cast of mind familiar to him throughout his life. "I go on without daring to count on Futurity, which I cannot do without doubt & Fear that ruins Activity, & are the greatest hurt to an artist... I count myself sufficiently paid if I live as I do now, & only fear that I may be Unlucky to my friends, & especially that I may be so to you."

To the young Yeats, the discovery of Blake came as a revelation; here was a heroic man who stared emanations of the divinity full in the face without flinching.

William Blake: Under the Influence is at the British Library, London NW1, to 21 March (08704 441 500; www.bl.uk)

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