- One of the most important poets in the English language, or indeed any language, was born November 28, 1757 in London, England. He remained largely unknown during his lifetime. Though he had an established reputation as an engraver of considerable gifts, his reputation as a poet, something that he achieved world historical repute for in time, was rather mixed during his lifetime.
- Its hard to overestimate Blakes influence. He has has influenced writers and thinkers for hundreds of years, their names being too numerous to mention here – Bertrand Russell, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg, Adolous Huxley and David Foster Wallace immediately spring to mind. Though employing complex mythologies and elaborate imagery (he wrote for himself), Blake, this most visionary of visionary poets, believed firstly his work to be largely accessible to others and also that his body of work was of national importance. His self confidence was well founded, as it actually turned out that his work was of national and world historical importance.
- Living in London much of his life during a time of incredible social and political upheaval, Blake was born to relatively impecunious people, James and Catherine Harmitage Blake. He had a happy childhood, blissfully skipped the miseries of formal education, was taught at home, or self taught, and his parents actively encouraged his many gifts, sending him at first to an expensive drawing school, then when the money ran out to and engraver named Ryland. In other words Blake was uniquely positioned from an early age to maximise his abilities. He witnessed the London riots 1780, largely due to the rescinding of laws restricting the political and personal freedoms of Catholics enacted the previous century. This directly affected his literary production, especially the books America (1793) and Europe (1794). He was actively writing about things forbidden by acts of parliament, especially issues surrounding sedition. By 21 years old Blake was making something of a living as a travelling engraver. The aforementioned books were written while Blake was living in Lambeth, married (1782), happily for his entire life, to Catherine Boucher. They had no children.
- Between 1789 and 1794 two editions of the book Songs of Innocence and Experience appeared. The book’s full title was actually Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, as it analyses how the human soul goes through various stages of both innocence and of experience. Interestingly 1789 was the year the Bastille fell, which is a theme Blake went back to his whole life and wrote about again and again. Here we have the introduction of the figure of Orc, a figure that represents all religions, a force of oppression and narrowing of the human imagination. It is the same force of oppression that leads people to rebel against the restrictions of religions that causes people to rebel against the colonizing and controlling tactics of King George. Religion and politics, both limiting forces, are a shackle on the minds and souls of peoples everywhere. The books are accompanied by beautiful paintings and engravings and have been set to music many times by many different composers.
- Blake has written and illustrated countless books, all of which are extraordinary for their breath of vision, their insight, their lyricism, and the beauty of their illustration, but his most famous and perhaps most influential is the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) in which reason is heaven or the outward encapsulation and taming of that energy which is of the body which is called hell. this, according to Blake, comprises the great error of the bible and other religious texts. The following comes from The Voice of the Devil, being the second section or chapter:
“All Bibles or sacred codes. have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy. called Evil. is alone from the Body. & that Reason. called Good. is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.”
- The point of this contention being that humanity has no life outside the body and that there can be no life within the body without the life of the body as experienced through the senses and through reason which is the outward bounding or circumference of these energies. Thus a kind of union or marriage of heaven and hell is the only possibility for a happy life, neither condemning reason, nor the senses, nor the boundless energies that flow through the body of humanity.
- For instance, take the whole notion of sexuality. With sex we have potentially boundless energy going to the very cellular level, the very force of life itself. It is of course a very physical pleasure, but like all boundless energies it simply cannot be repressed or chained or consigned to some kind of furtive expression. Sexuality and sexual pleasure is indeed the doorway to true spiritual union, a route towards God. In this marriage of the physical and the spiritual we see Blake re imagining and reinventing the notion of heaven and hell and at the same time satirizing the authority of church and state, the first man indeed turned away from church and state because of its oppressive nature and the fact that it is steeped in hypocrisy and falsehood.
- Organized religion, according to Blake, is but a perversion of ancient visions by poets and seers who animated the world with gods and spirits, these very gods and spirits that were then codified and turned into organized religion, thus co opting the visions of poets into an instrument of political and personal and indeed sexual control. In Blake’s thinking, humanity and god were once united, but man separated himself from god, thus weakening humanity. in his fallen state humanity does not see the infinite. Its vision is limited by reason (Urizen – your reason) shewing the divine as some kind of crude lawgiver.
- As a final thought, my journey into the weird wonderful world of William Blake is but beginning. the material out there is boundless, the numbers of books on the subject near countless, and each age seems to interpret him in differing ways, depending on the needs of the times. I made these few notes firstly to remember and codify the work I was doing, never as a last word, for there is no last word on anything by Blake, no more than there is a last performance of Hamlet or Naked Lunch. I also wrote this blog in the secret hope to arouse interest in his work, and finally to point out what William Blake stands for – someone who dares to be different. Blake shows us that there are people with independent minds, unafraid of the strictures of conventional authority driven thinking, people who live freely and think beyond nationalism and religion in the formal sense, who exist as representatives of independent minded humanity who truly strive to understand the world in terms of transcendental ideals.