Monday, 16 September 2013

William Blake

To live like William Blake
Would be a grave mistake.
A talent then unrecognised,
By many even despised,
Seems to me such a waste.

Now declared a polymath
He has the final laugh
Poets and artists all agree
His genius by large degree
Is all a matter of taste.

When asked who he thought the greatest Englishman that ever lived was, universally acclaimed biographer Peter Ackroyd declared without hesitation, "William Blake." He is not alone in his opinion. Blake, famed for penning "Jerusalem," is without a doubt, or rather was, a great man. It would be no exaggeration to suggest he was indeed a genius. He certainly had all the qualities associated with such a grand epithet. He was multi-talented, a true polymath, gifted in both painting, composing poetry and printmaking. He was also, adding emphasis here to my claiming his brilliance, rather cranky, willful, obtuse and downright idiosyncratic.
How many men born in 1757 would swear reverence to the Bible whilst pouring vitriol onto the church? In fact not just the Christian Church but all forms of organised religion? What man of the Georgian epoch would have advocated free love?   

"Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound

In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain

Of life in weary lust?"

The answer to all the above is obviously William Blake. He seems to have detested the constraints of state sanctioned marriage which he likened to "legal prostitution." Blake was a man no convenient label could be affixed to; a man not for but ahead of his time,

His views on virtually everything were singular, they were his and his alone and did not conform, even to gain acceptance, with anyone else. He expressed grave concerns, if not outright dislike, for organised faith even though he had his own beliefs. His spirituality was very much concerned with there being a greater force, a grand creator but one not limited by human ritual and dogma. He was less desirous of shackling God's logic to that of mankind but especially not that of the church. He saw God as a powerful force, a concept perhaps, whose methods were closely merged with those of nature.
His art, which I think is among some of the greatest ever created, reflects this random sense of creation mixed with a potent portrayal of a deity presented in multi-forms that manifestly challenge all, at the time and perhaps still to this day, accepted religious wisdom.

Much of his art featured what can only be described as 'challenging' images. I fancy that eighteenth and nineteenth-century society would have used far stronger adjectives than I have. I imagine they would have been so alarmed that they would have ostracized  Blake's work along with the man himself.  Which is precisely what they did. He wasn't much loved by the circles he needed to move in to promote his talent. He simply did not fit with them. Many thought him mad, 
His art has since, as has much of his work in general, been described as being part of the 'Romantic' movement. This label has been largely dismissed by those with knowledge and good sense as being given in the absence of anyone that even vaguely applies. One critic even goes so far as to suggest Blake as  'far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced' but fails or maybe doesn't want to, pigeonhole such a talent. 

I had the good fortune to meet with someone recently, a very gentle, shy, self-effacing man but one with the prerequisite knowledge and education required to speak with authority on William Blake who explained what he, Blake, had attempted to do with all the many forms of his art. He brought together in sharp contrast, conflict even, opposing schools of thought so that they 'sparked in anguish at their close proximity' and from this perverse 'meeting' came a completely new set of understandings. He, Blake, effectively did what any great artist, author or musician has done before and since, merged threads of styles, juxtaposed them, forced them together  so that they coalesced into something new, something challenging, something vital for humankind.

File:William Blake - Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels.jpg

William Blake was more that a painter. He was also a poet, an imaginative writer whose symbolism was rich, diverse and electric in its vivid descriptions.

Mad Song

The wild winds weep,
And the night is a-cold;
Come hither, Sleep,
And my griefs enfold! . . .
But lo! the morning peeps
Over the eastern steeps,
And the rustling beds of dawn
The earth do scorn.

Lo! to the vault
Of pav├Ęd heaven,
With sorrow fraught,
My notes are driven:
They strike the ear of Night,
Make weak the eyes of Day;
They make mad the roaring winds,
And with the tempests play,

Like a fiend in a cloud,
With howling woe
After night I do crowd
And with night will go;
I turn my back to the east
From whence comforts have increased;
For light doth seize my brain
With frantic pain.

Unsurprisingly, his politics were equally unequivocal in their views and as unique as the man himself. Blake appears to have been neither of the left nor of the right though some have suggested he favoured an anarchist viewpoint. He did seem opposed to class power and very much against the senseless wars that afflicted the times he lived in but also despairing of the effects the industrial revolution had on the human spirit. 

Whatever the subject Blake had an opinion. He also had the gift of seeing beyond the now, beyond the dictates and antecedents of society. He thought outside and well beyond the box.

Of course there will be those, there always are, who will suggest I would be far better writing about someone who is now less praised, less retrospectively touted as being the greatest Englishman that ever lived, and some other 'clever bugger' who is currently being overlooked. Unfortunately, no matter how smart  we think we are, foresight like that takes genius, something Blake had in spades, leaving poor souls like me brandishing the only thing left to them -hindsight.

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.


Vanessa V Kilmer said...

He sounds like he could wake a place up.

Russell C.J. Duffy said...

Nessa>>>Largely forgotten over here but not with you guys apparently. It was a certain prof of English, an American who, just as I was learning more about Blake really enthused me, fired me up so to speak.
Blake was remarkable. One of a select few throughout history to be so gifted.

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