Two centuries ago, there lived in London a highly skilled engraver whose head was full of religious imagery, as he struggled to earn a living. In his spare time, he wrote poetry that was like a diary of his mystical spiritual life, illustrated with extraordinary gothic paintings and drawings. He was argumentative, he had visions, he dabbled in obscure religious ideas, and was generally thought to be mad and dangerously radical.
William Blake, born in London 250 years ago on Wednesday, was not taken seriously while he was alive. The idea that his art might have been of sufficient quality to merit a place in the Royal Academy, where he could have mingled with establishment figures such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, would have been thought laughable. His contemporaries would have dismissed with similar derision a suggestion that he was a poet to be compared, say, with Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate.
Nobody remembers a line of Southey's poetry any more, and Sir Joshua's paintings hang on gallery walls as a relic of times long gone. But Blake is still with us. His strange paintings, like the one of a demented Nebuchadnezzar, sentenced by God to eat grass as punishment for his arrogance, naked on all fours with his long hair brushing the ground, are curiously modern. Though his subject matter was usually religious, Blake's subjects were often mortals living outside the comfort of religious certainty, bewildered by a world that had ceased to make sense.
And everyone brought up in an Anglican tradition knows one particular Blake poem – the one normally mistitled "Jerusalem", which he wrote as tribute to Milton, with its references to England's green and pleasant land despoiled by dark satanic mills.
Blake is even, in his way, a rock 'n' roll star. The writer Aldous Huxley was so impressed by a line from Blake – "If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite" – that he borrowed that phrase "doors of perception" for a book title. The book made a deep impression on the young wannabe rock star, Jim Morrison, who gave the name The Doors to the group he founded. One of the best-known tracks by The Doors, "End of the Night", has the line "Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night" – a straight lift from Blake's "Auguries of Innocence".
The number of events organised to mark Blake's 250th anniversary have been disappointingly few, but at least his home city of London has not forgotten him altogether. On Thursday night, the Blake Society will host a discussion on Blake and the Bible, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Professor Christopher Rowland, of Oxford University. On Wednesday night, there will also be a 250th birthday party in a nightclub close to where Blake once lived – organised, appropriately, by Jude Rawlins, lead singer of an art-rock band called the Subterraneans.
One house where Blake lived and worked is still standing, at 17 South Molton Street, just off Oxford Street. An exhibition will open there tomorrow of works by more than 50 artists and poets, who were asked to contribute an original hand-made page to a book similar to the illuminated books Blake put together.
William Blake was born in London, in 1757, into a world where skilled craftsmen working on their own or in small workshops made up the backbone of the economy. The phenomenon familiar to us, in which rapid changes in technology or the organisation of industry cause people's livelihoods to disappear was unknown to the young Blake. Having spent seven years training to be an engraver, he could reasonably expect a modest but secure income for life. By the time he was 40, he was well known to London book publishers as one of the best and most original designer and engravers – if not the best – in the capital.
In 1796, Blake was commissioned to provide more than 500 coloured designs for a book called Night Thoughts. He asked for a fee of a hundred guineas. The bookseller offered him twenty – take it or leave it. He took it. As printing was becoming cheaper, the market for expensively produced individually designed books was disappearing, and with it, Blake's livelihood.
For the remaining 30 years of his life, he was dependent on the goodwill of rich patrons. Even before this disaster befell him, he was a dissenter, who was deeply religious but without respect for established authority. In 1780, he was a leader of a crowd of rioters who burned down Newgate Prison, celebrating the event with a drawing called Glad Day.
As he brooded on the ruin of his craft, Blake became more and more convinced that the new factories were like visions of Hell. He was angered also by the treatment of black slaves, and of young boys made to work as chimney sweeps. He rejected the established church and delved into mysticism, influenced by the visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, and by 17th-century Puritan dissenters. He despised the rationalism of England's greatest philosophers and scientists, for their absence of spirituality. As a young man, he ridiculed John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, renaming it "An Easy of Huming Understanding", by John Lookye Gent.
He is also the artist who created a strangely disrespectful portrait of that great Englishman, Isaac Newton. In Blake's painting, Newton is seated stark naked on a rock, leaning forward making geometric calculations on a piece of paper spread out at his feet. The Newton of Blake's imagination is full of youthful energy, but so absorbed in his calculations that he is in danger of not seeing the actual. The message is repeated in one of Blake's poems – "Newton's Particles of light are sands upon Red sea shore, Where Israel's tents do shine so bright."
As news reached London that the Bastille had fallen and the life of the king was under threat, Blake evidently thought that guillotining Louis and Queen Marie Antionette was not such a bad idea. "The Queen of France just touched this Globe, and the pestilence darted from her robe," he wrote. The same poem veered towards obscenity as he described the King giving the order to crush the rebellion –"Then old Nobodaddy aloft Farted & belch'd & cough'd, And said, 'I love hanging & drawing & quartering..."
He started mingling with the republican and other dangerous radicals to be found in London, including Tom Paine. His poem about chimney sweeps was used for years by campaigners seeking to abolish this form of child labour. He contributed drawings to a book by John Gabriel Stedman, a leading campaigner against the slave trade, including a gruesome illustration with the self-explanatory title "A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to the Gallows".
He might have written more, but he evidently believed that the censorship introduced in England to prevent the spread of revolution would be used to crush religious dissent, or what he regarded as true religious belief. "To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life," he complained. "The Beast & the Whore rule without control."
In 1800, William Hayley, a wealthy gentleman who had taken a liking to Blake, tried to keep him away from starvation and trouble by inviting him to live in Felpham, on the West Sussex coast. One day, a few months after the resumption of war with France, Blake discovered two soldiers loitering in the garden, lost his temper, and allegedly told them: "I would for Bonaparte as long as I am able. Damn the King and Country. His subjects and all you soldiers are sold for slaves, and poor people in general."
Blake was hauled up in court, accused of being "a wicked, seditious and evil-disposed person". Given his known opinions, there is no particular reason to doubt that he said what he was accused of saying but, fortunately for Blake, the jury did not believe the two soldiers and acquitted him. This was not London, and Felpham had never been much of a hotbed of dissent. If the jury had known that Blake was an associate of Tom Paine, he would possibly have died in prison.
After that scare, he decided to keep out of radical politics and concentrate on his religious visions. But unlike his younger contemporaries, Wordsworth and Coleridge, he did not become a social reactionary as he grew older: he simply damned the King under his breath rather than out loud. In 1827, when Blake was 69, a much acclaimed new translation of the Lord's Prayer went on the market. He did not like it, and wrote his own version, with lines that could have been written later in the century by Karl Marx – "Give us the Bread that is our due & right, by taking away money, or a Price, or Tax upon what is Common to all ..."
Not long afterwards, at 6pm on 12 August 1827, he died – without yet having received the earthly rewards or recognition that his genius deserved. But as a religious man, he would have expected all that to come in that afterlife, full of bewildered mortals and ruled by a wild-looking God, that he pictured so vividly.
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