Friday, 15 April 2011


William Blake  lived from 1757–1827. He was a Revolutionary Poet, an Artist, but before anything else, he was a Visionary. Because if Blake hadn’t had the visions, we wouldn’t have the Poetry and the Art.

From Wiki.

“Considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterised as part of both the Romantic movement and "Pre-Romantic", for its large appearance in the 18th century. Reverent of the Bible but hostile to theChurch of England - indeed, to all forms of organised religion - Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French andAmerican revolutions, as well as by such thinkers as Jakob Böhme and Emanuel Swedenborg.”

From Poetry

“William Blake was born in London in 1757, one of six children of a hosiery merchant. He was an imaginative child, “different” from the beginning, so he was not sent to school, but educated at home. He talked of visionary experiences from a very early age: at 10, he saw a tree filled with angels when he was wandering the countryside just outside town. He read Milton as a child and he began writing “Poetical Sketches” at 13. He was also interested in painting and drawing in childhood, but his parents could not afford art school, so he was apprenticed to an engraver at the age of 14.”

Except for a few years in Sussex, his entire life was spent in London. Its streets and their names took on spiritual symbolism in his writings, much as the place names of the Holy Land did in the writings of the biblical prophets whom Blake always regarded as his spiritual progenitors. If Blake’s visions were not true mystical visions, it is probably best to regard them not as hallucinations but as the artist's intense spiritual and sensory realization of the world.”

I had what I would call a vision when I was a child. It didn’t mean anything to me then, other than that I had seen something that wasn’t really there. I’m sure that a lot of people have those sort of experiences as children. I can see it before me now, just as I saw it then. It still doesn’t make any sort of sense to me. I believe those people who saw God, when they took LSD. Their visions were mystical, transcendental; as I think that Blake’s were. Who can say that they were not real? Who can question another person’s reality?

From Open Democracy. Net

Yes, William Blake was a visionary (but not a dreamer), aware of the realities and complexities of experience, particularly the poverty and oppression of the urban world where he spent most of his life. He had an amazing insight into contemporary economics, politics and culture, and was able to discern the effects of the authoritarianism of church and state as well as what he considered the arid philosophy of a rationalist view of the world which left little scope for the imagination. His critique was carried out by means of the language of the Bible, his own specially created mythology and the extraordinary juxtaposition of text and image in his illuminated books, by means of which he intended (as he put it) to "rouze the Faculties to act".

He abhorred the way in which Christians looked up to a God enthroned in heaven, a view which offered a model for a hierarchical human politics, which subordinated the majority to a (supposedly) superior elite. He also criticised the dominant philosophy of his day which believed that a narrow view of sense experience could help us to understand everything that there was to be known, including God. Blake's own visionary experiences showed him that rationalism ignored important dimensions of human life which would enable people to hope, to look for change, and to rely on more than that which their senses told them.

From “Masterworks of British Literature”.

“No poet of all the poets, was quite as enigmatic, visionary and, well, as far-out as William Blake. Although he ranks as one of the most important and influential of all Romantic poets, he had very little (if any) contact with romantic poetry or philosophy. In fact, from a very early age, Blake felt that he had a “Divine Vision,” a spiritual calling which meant for him a life of isolation in which to pursue poetry and art. Throughout most of his life, his brilliant poetry and illustrations gained little, if any, public recognition, and he lived in loneliness and abject poverty. He is, in many respects, one of the first British individuals to choose writing and art as a profession, and, therefore, one of the first stereotypical “starving artists,” someone who sacrifices a social and material life for the sequestered life of creation.

Particularly in his later career, Blake’s poetry grows in tremendous length as he creates phantasmagorical epics in which he creates a Byzantine and fantastic world that allegorises Christianity, creating poetic narratives out of the Fall of Man, the Passion story, the struggle between good and evil. He follows in the shadow of his precursor, John Milton and Paradise Lost. Blake, however, suffuses the Christian narrative with his own wild, visionary, allegorical and, quite often, bizarre poetry”.

No less important than his Poetry was Blake’s Art. In fact, the illustrations and prints that he created for all of his volumes of poetry are as influential on Romanticism (if not more so) than his poetry itself. He created wild, swirling illustrations of angels, devils, scenes from the Bible and brilliantly colourful prints showing scenes from his own poems. Blake’s poetry is meant to be read with their accompanying illustrations.

Blake’s two collections; “The Songs of Innocence”, and “The Songs of Experience,” are companion pieces. Blake writes the poems in the former from the point of view of childlike innocence, and generally represents both a perspective that has not gained knowledge and experience concerning evil, that is poems that derive from experience before the Fall of Man and Original Sin. Blake writes poems in the latter from the point of view of adult experience in the world, or, more aptly, adulterated experience, the perspective from human experience with sin; that is poems that represent experience after the Fall of Man, and when sin becomes wrapped up in life.

Generally, each poem in each collection has its counterpart. In other words, a poem from the Songs of Innocence has its companion poem in the Songs of Experience. The most clear and famous example of this poetic dichotomy is “The Lamb” from Innocence, and “The Tyger” from Experience. The first mirrors a sort of nursery-rhyme voice of a child (of course, really, an adult creating the world as it might be seen by the child). “The Lamb” explores the Christian mystery of God’s unconditional love evidenced through Christ with complete and simple closure. All of the poem’s questions in stanza one, are answered with Christian but child-like affirmation in the second stanza. “The Tyger,” from Experience, however, is a comparatively dark and terrifying experience. In contrast to the innocent cuddliness of the Lamb, and the sweet question-answer between the child and the lamb, the Tyger depicts a fiery, powerful and dangerous creature. There is evident imagery of fire, darkness and hell. Whereas “The Lamb” answers all of the questions posed, “The Tyger” consists entirely of unanswered questions. Of course, the majority of the theological questions posed in the poem do not have answers.”

I want to look a little more closely at two of Blake’s poems from “Songs of Experience”.

In “The Sick Rose”, here Blake is the Revolutionary. He is talking about unacceptable desires: “his dark secret love” is a euphemism for corruption; not such a surprising idea in Blake’s day in a London rife with prostitution and where marriage was the socially acceptable surface that covered a multitude of other less socially-acceptable “sins”. This is, after all, about experience.

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

While the rose exists as a beautiful natural object that has become infected by a worm, it also exists as a literary rose, the conventional symbol of love. The image of the worm resonates with the Biblical serpent and also suggests a phallus. Worms are quintessentially earthbound, and symbolize death and decay. The "bed" into which the worm creeps denotes both the natural flowerbed and also the lovers' bed. The rose is sick, and the poem implies that love is sick as well. Yet the rose is unaware of its sickness. Of course, an actual rose could not know anything about its own condition, and so the emphasis falls on the allegorical suggestion that it is love that does not recognize its own ailing state. This results partly from the insidious secrecy with which the "worm" performs its work of corruption--not only is it invisible, it enters the bed at night. This secrecy indeed constitutes part of the infection itself. The "crimson joy" of the rose connotes both sexual pleasure and shame, thus joining the two concepts in a way that Blake thought was perverted and unhealthy. The rose's joyful attitude toward love is tainted by the aura of shame and secrecy that our culture attaches to love.

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art. 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain? 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? what dread grasp 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears, 
And watered heaven with their tears, 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

To go to someway to understanding “The Tyger”, we need to know Blake's symbols. One of the central themes in his major works is that of the Creator as a blacksmith. This is both God the Creator (personified in Blake's myth as Los) and Blake himself (again with Los as his alter-ego.) Blake identified God's creative process with the work of an artist. And it is art that brings creation to its fulfilment -- by showing the world as it is, by sharpening perception, by giving form to ideas.


Blake's story of creation differs from the Genesis account. In Blake’s story, the familiar world was created only after a cosmic catastrophe. When the life of the spirit was reduced to a sea of atoms, the Creator set a limit below which it could not deteriorate farther, and began creating the world of nature. The longer books that Blake wrote describe Los's creation of animals and people within the world of nature.

In believing that creation followed a cosmic catastrophe and a fall of spiritual beings into matter, Blake recalls Gnosticism, a multi-faceted religious movement that has run parallel to mainstream Christianity. Unlike most other Gnostics, Blake considered our own world to be a fine and wonderful place, but one that would ultimately give way to a restored universe. Blake believed that his own visions, which included end-of-the- world images and sometimes a sense of cosmic oneness, prefigured this, and that his art would help raise others "to the perception of the infinite." For Blake the purpose of creation is as a place for our own growth, in preparation for the beginning of our real lives.

A casual reader or student does not have to understand Blake's mystical-visionary beliefs to appreciate "The Tyger". For the casual reader, the poem is about the question that most of us asked when we first heard about God as the benevolent creator of nature. "Why is there bloodshed and pain and horror?" Well, we’ve all heard various answers that are obviously not true and "The Tyger",in finishing without an answer, is more honest than the unsatisfactory answers we have been given, regarding this essential question of faith.

I think that "The Tyger" is about having your reason overwhelmed at once by the beauty and the horror of the natural world. "When the stars threw down their spears / And watered heaven with their tears" is the most difficult section of "The Tyger". In the creation story in "Job", the stars sing for joy at creation, a scene that Blake illustrated. While Blake greatly appreciated the explosion of scientific knowledge during his era, the beauty and power of the poem illustrates that there is something about seeing a Tyger that we can't learn from science. Perhaps he is saying that we should wonder more; let ourselves go, and permit the sense of awe and fear that defies reason. And Blake's contemporary "rationalists" who had hoped for a tame, gentle world guided by kindness and understanding must face the reality of the Tyger.

The Tyger draws us are into the presence of a transcendent mystery at the very heart of creation. It inspires a certain horror and a sense of awe, that, and a certain terrible beauty.

In his own time, Blake was often ridiculed; whether he cared or not, we don’t know. But it is Fantastic that we have his Art, his Poetry and his Visions -- and that is Fantastic, in the true sense of the word.

I think that you can see most of William Blake's artwork at The Tate Gallery in London.

1 comment:

  1. I love "The Tyger." As an ex-Christian, I read it as a chilling damnation of the spurious "God is love" touted by theists.