Blake, William (1757–1827)

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BLAKE, WILLIAM
(17571827)

William Blake was an English poet, painter, and engraver. He was born in London, the second of five children in the family of a retail hosier. His social status precluded university education, and he was apprenticed to an engraver. Apart from that training and a few months at the Royal Academy, Blake was self-educated. Most of his pictorial work took the form of illustrations for books, biblical subjects forming the largest group. His painting and engraving were thus primarily related to literature, and the interdependence of poetry and painting is a central principle of all his work. He lived in London nearly all his life, very frugally, sometimes in poverty, and constantly dependent on patrons. He met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb, and was admired by the last two; but he died practically unknown as a poet, although he had been writing poetry since the age of twelve. After one volume of juvenile verse (Poetical Sketches, 1783) was published through the efforts of friends, Blake determined to produce his poetry by engraving the text himself and accompanying it with illustrations. Practically all his later poetry, except what was left in manuscript, took the form of a text and designs etched on copper, stamped on paper, and then colored by hand. Most of his lyrics are in two collections: Songs of Innocence (first engraved in 1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). Others are longer poems, generally called prophecies, which are sequences of plates. The "prophecies" include The Book of Thel (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), America (1793), Europe (1794), Milton (about 1808, in 50 plates) and Jerusalem (about 1818, in 100 plates).

Thought

The prophecies are symbolic poems in which the characters are states or attitudes of human life. This means that these poems embody religious and philosophical concepts as well as poetic imagery. These concepts are mainly concerned with Blake's sense of the relevance and importance of the arts and of the creative faculty of man, and seem to have been derived mainly from a negative reaction to the British empirical tradition of thought. He tells us that he had read John Locke and Francis Bacon in his youth and had decided that they mocked inspiration and vision. Blake's attitude would be better understood if it were thought of as anti-Cartesian, although he is unlikely to have read René Descartes, and his attitude embodies many elements that would now be called existential.

imagination

According to Blake, man is a working or constructing imaginationthe creative artist is normative man. In this context there is no difference between human essence and human existence, for the imagination is the human existence itself and is also essential human nature. Works of art are neither intellectual nor emotional, motivated neither by desire nor by reason, neither free nor compelled: all such antitheses become unities in them. Even more important, the imagination destroys the antithesis of subject and object. Man starts out as an isolated intelligence in an alien nature, but the imagination creates a world in its own image, the world of cities and gardens and human communities and domesticated animals.

interpretation of the bible

For Blake, the Bible is a definitive parable of human existence, as it tells how man finds himself in an unsatisfactory world and tries to build a better oneone which eventually takes the form of a splendid golden city, the symbol of the imaginative and creative human community. God in Blake's work is the creative power in man (here Blake shows the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg, with his emphasis on the unity of divine and human natures in Jesus), and human power is divine because it is infinite and eternal. These two words do not mean endless in time and spaces; they mean the genuine experience of the central points of time and space, the now and the here. Many features of Blake's anti-Lockean position remind us of George Berkeley, especially his insistence that "mental things are alone real"; but this doctrine of God takes Blake far beyond the subjective idealism and nominalism of Berkeley.

In Blake's reading of the Bible, "the creation"the alien and stupid nature that man now lives inis part of "the fall" and is the world man struggles to transcend. The objective world is the anticreation, the enemy to be destroyed. Blake says that man has no body distinct from his soul. He does oppose mind and body, but as contrasting attitudes to nature, not as separate essential principles. The "corporeal understanding," or perverted human activity, contemplates nature as it is (as a vast, objective, subhuman body) and tries to overcome the alienation of the subject by identifying the subject with nature as it sees nature. Nature is controlled, apparently, by automatic laws like the law of gravitation and by a struggle to survive in which force and cunning are more important than love or intelligence. Perverted human life imitates nature by continually waging war and by maintaining a parasitic class. Perverted religion, or natural religion, as Blake calls it, invents harsh and tyrannical gods on the analogy of nature. Perverted thought exposes itself passively to impressions from the external world and then evolves abstract principles out of these impressions that attempt to formulate the general laws of nature. These are the operations known as sensation and reflection in Locke. The abstracting tendency is perverted because it is not a genuine effort to understand nature, but is a step toward imitating the automatism of nature by imposing a conforming morality on human life. The principle of this conformity is the acceptance of injustice and exploitation as inescapable elements of existence. The end of this perverted process is hatred and contempt of life, as expressed in the deliberate efforts at self-annihilation that Blake saw as beginning with the Napoleonic wars in his own time.

prophetic books

The action in Blake's prophecies is concerned with the conflict of these creative and perverted states in human life. The sense of conservatism, of accepting things as they are, is symbolized by Urizen, who is associated with old age and the sky. When conservatism deepens into hatred of life itself, Urizen is replaced by Satan. The force that struggles against Urizen is the revolutionary impulse in man, called Orc or Luvah, who is associated with youth and sexual desire. Orc cannot achieve a permanent deliverance from Urizen; that is possible only for the creative power itself, called Los. The central theme of the prophecies is the effort of humanity, called Albion, to achieve through Los the kind of civilization that is symbolized in the Bible as Jerusalem and thus to reach the integration of human and divine powers represented in Christianity by Jesus.

See also Bacon, Francis; Berkeley, George; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Descartes, René; Existentialism; Imagination; Locke, John; Romanticism; Swedenborg, Emanuel.

Bibliography

The most convenient edition of Blake's literary work is the one-volume The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Random House, 1927).

Works on Blake include Bernard Blackstone, English Blake (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1949); Foster S. Damon, William Blake: His Philosophy and Symbols (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924); David V. Erdman, Blake: Prophet against Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954); Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947); and Mark Schorer, William Blake: The Politics of Vision (New York: Henry Holt, 1946).

Northrop Frye (1967)

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