The spirit of William Blake- still burning bright today

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The Independent Online

It is perhaps a tribute to William Blake's genius that he can be claimed as a prophet by such disparate admirers. To some nationalists, the peculiar Englishness of his visions is what appeals, although many are the sort of people who love a revolutionary so long as they are 200 years dead.

It is perhaps a tribute to William Blake's genius that he can be claimed as a prophet by such disparate admirers. To some nationalists, the peculiar Englishness of his visions is what appeals, although many are the sort of people who love a revolutionary so long as they are 200 years dead.

But then Blake is not an easy ally for any tendency of opinion.

Rationalists might feel that his religious mysticism has an uncomfortably New Age feel. He was quizzical about scientific progress, a utopian dreamer of a pre-industrial age. Socialists and conservatives alike have adopted "Jerusalem" as their anthem, conveniently ignoring the parts they do not like.

That is part of his enduring appeal: not only was he a lyricist of shining lucidity, there is always more complexity, contradiction and challenge in both his art and his writing than first meets the eye.

His "Songs of Innocence" and "Experience", which combined worldly cynicism with a childlike openness to life, and which saw each reflected in the other, were so modern in sensibility that they remained totally obscure in his lifetime. His work was even adopted as a theme for the Millennium Dome, although not so prominently as anyone would notice - it would have been difficult for such a New Labour monument to cope with his multiple subversions. In his range, ambition and methodical madness there have been few artists to compare.

It is heartening, therefore, to see the continuing revival of interest in Blake generated by the largest ever exhibition of his art and poetry at Tate Britain (which is sponsored by The Independent, running until 11 February, 2000).

Anyone in search of one of those "moments in each day that Satan cannot find" of which he wrote would be well advised not to miss it.

Blake would have been insufferable to have had much to do with as a living companion, yet his work is the product of such a vivid and challenging imagination that it is almost impossible not to learn from it. Besides, anyone who can start a hymn with the word "And" deserves respect.

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