Monday, 1 June 2015

William Blake

I only recently found out that an original version of Blake's The Tyger is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge - metres from where I work. It's one of the most anthologised poems. If The Tyger is the only poem of Blake's that you've read you might be surprised to learn that Blake's often considered a difficult poet. During his lifetime he had admirers but he also had detractors. When he died in 1827, the detractors won, and he fell into neglect for decades. Gilchrists' "Life of William Blake" published in 1863 gained admiration for Blake first from the Pre-Raphaelites then the wider reading community, but his mass-appeal was procured only by ignoring his later work, taking the pictures away from his early poems, and isolating his poems from each other. What remains is the Blake that most of us know.

When students study Blake in more depth, they discover that he intended the pictures and poems to be seen together. The pictures add new meanings to the words, and don't always support them. Moreover, when the poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience are read together, connections appear which undermine the apparent simplicity of the poems. Blake had many interests (the plight of exploited children in London, etc) that are there in the pictures, and once you see them in the pictures you begin to see them in the words. In his later work Blake invented a complex Mythology whose Gods were partly from existing Religions and partly based on his friends and enemies. Critics said that

  • he was mad - apparently Blake read a book about insanity to check if he was!
  • he could paint but he couldn't draw
  • he had good ideas but he couldn't execute them well

One of his friends, wanting to help him sell his work, suggested that he should concentrate on one thing at a time, but Blake wasn't like that. It wasn't that he flitted from subject to subject, more that he wanted to find connections between things.

Nowadays many of those earlier adverse reactions still persist. In the "The Cambridge Companion to William Blake" by Morris Eaves, it's suggested that students are offered 3 ways to cope with the difficulty of understanding Blake

  • Read his early poems. Ignore everything else
  • Look at his later pictures. Ignore everything else
  • Assume he's mad. Don't try to make sense of everything

Eaves goes on to say that "His defiance of the institutional structures of knowledge and the technological divisions that correspond to them resulted in unorthodox works that seemed ungainly if not ugly and shocking to his potential audience, who in their aversion have sometimes perceived a mind operating out of control"

I have a feeling that some writers today sympathise with Blake, especially those who are trying to combine pictures with words, or are resisting the lures of popularity. They'll face the same accusations that Blake faced. Blake's work is hard to analyse if you break it down into bits before trying to get a feel for the work as a whole. Northrop Frye (an important US literary critic) wrote that Blake "gives us so good an introduction to the nature and structure of poetic thought that, if one has any interest in the subject at all, one can hardly avoid exploiting him".

Genius? Madman?

  • Wordsworth said "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."
  • T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay on Blake that "the concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy is one of the reasons why Dante is a classic and Blake only a poet of genius."

Decide for yourselves, but I suggest first you look at his works the way he meant them to be seen - not just words, and not just pictures.

1 comment:

  1. Blake is understood and revered by mystics, indeed it is only they who fully understand his inspiration. Blake spoke of "fourfold vision" Jung could give no apriori reason why he chose to give the number of psychic functions as four, was Jung mad. We find people guilty with our own guilt, indeed we find people mad with our own madness, all those who found Blake mad were mad themselves, Blake was the sanest of men, a genuine Saint in Heaven, it makes my passions rise when I hear that the Roman Catholic church has made a new saint, as if whet mortal men could say will create a saint,laughable.