T.S. Eliot said that William Blake’s work had the “unpleasantness” of great poetry because it was the product of a kind of terrifying honesty. Blake ( 1757-1827 ) had never been spoilt by a formal, academic education, Eliot argued, and since “he was not compelled to acquire any other education in literature than he wanted, or to acquire it for any other reason than that he wanted it,” he was able to confine himself to essentials. ” He approached everything with a mind unclouded by current opinions. There was nothing of the superior person about him. This makes him terrifying.”
There was nothing in Blake’s life, for that matter, to make even his friends suspect that they were entertaining an angel unawares. He lived for nearly seventy years and spent all but three of them in London, more or less in deliberate obscurity. “I am hid” , he said of himself laconically when he was at the height of his powers. He may have lived the most intense life of any man of his time, but it was outwardly an uneventful existence. His adventures were all of the mind. He was born on November 28, 1757, and the London of his boyhood was a city of manageable size, where the open country began just after Oxford Street. Hence, his life long affection for all the place names that are chanted like mantras in his poetry, villages that were once verdant and have since become grimy components of Greater London.
In the golden age of his boyhood, Blake remembered afterward: ” The fields from Islington to Marybone,/To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,/Were builded over with pillars of gold,/And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood
Blake tried running a print shop,and predictably, failed. Instead, he set about earning a precarious living as an engraver and illustrator of other people’s works. In 1788 he began publishing his own poetry, using the elaborate technique of “illuminated printing” , which was revealed to him in a dream by his younger brother Robert, who had died of consumption. With the exception of the early “Poetical Sketches” which were set in ordinary type, all of the books that Blake published during his lifetime were printed by this laborious process, in which the handwritten texts as well as the drawings were etched on stereotype plates. After being run through the press, each sheet was hand colored according to his mood of the moment, with the result that no two copies of a Blake printed book are exactly alike.
He never found out how to make money with his work. “Money flies from me,” he decided ruefully. But the books themselves are beyond price. There is nothing quite like the interplay of word and image in the whole history of European art. It is as though he had reverted to the magical images of preliterate societies, before painting and poetry had taken their separate forks in the road of communication. Some of the pages derive their power from the unity of opposites; mystical verses illustrated in a style suitable for cooky molds. His
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame the fearful symmetry?
is represented in some copies by a sort of smiling Cheshire feline, more Tigger than Tyger. Elsewhere Blake uses the elongated figures he learned from Fuseli, arranged in improbable poses; flying, floating, falling, diving, to symbolize his impatience with the law of gravity and all such earthbound Newtonian concepts. In these wild effusions, Blake exemplifies not so much the “rational animal” of the classical philosophers as the “animal symbolicum” of Ernest Cassirer’s philosophy of forms, which postulates “mansymbolizer” as the originator of myth, religion, art, language, and even science.
Blake, too, conceived of his art as embracing the whole spectrum of human knowledge and activity. “Art is the Tree of Life.” During the 1780’s, Blake and his wife belonged to something called the Great Eastcheap Swedenborgian Society, which taught a fusion of mysticism, science and morality. Though Blake soon outgrew the society, his reaction to Swedenborg’s work led directly to his most astonishing book, ” The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, which was a revolutionary attempt to overthrow the existing order of good-versus-evil morality.
But during these same years, political events abroad such as the American and French Revolutions were drawing Blake’s attention to these imminent utopias and his poetry and painting were profoundly affected by these events. Like other British radicals, including the unruly Thomas Paine, Blake welcomed the French Revolution as the dawning of a new age that would see the old guard fade away. Later, when he saw that his ideals of justice were not to be fulfilled, Blake gradually shifted his focus from Energy to Love as the foundation of the golden age to which he aspired; in part based on being appalled by the slaughter and misery of the Napoleonic wars.
Blake realized, decades before Marx, that the demands of factory production, accelerated by the war, were alienating the worker from his traditional tools and skills; a process by which farm workers and artisans were being transformed into the laboring poor. After 1800 Blake himself grew dissatisfied with the conditions of life in London, and was persuaded to move to Felpham , a seaside village in Sussex, about one hundred kilometers south of London; a move made at the urging of the well-intentioned but utterly pedestrian poet, William Hayley who supplied the Blake’s with a variety of engraving jobs. However, the relationship to Hayley proved increasingly irksome to Blake who felt patronized and resented the intrusion on his private world; a world of visionary studies, dreams and prophecy.