William Blake: Champion of the Imagination

Questo poeta, artista e incisore londinese è considerato un visionario, creatore di una visione del mondo in anticipo sui tempi. Incompreso durante la sua vita, la sua fu una esistenza di stenti.

Toby Saul

Bandera UK
Sarah Davison

Speaker (UK accent)

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William Blake's good and evil angels struggling for possession of a child.

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Born in London in 1757, William Blake was the son of a hosier. He was one of seven children, though two of his siblings died in infancy. He was home educated by his mother, and then apprenticed to an engraver. He studied art at the Royal Academy, but disliked the way they were taught.  

dark times

Blake lived in transformational times. The period saw a shift in the way people saw the world, and themselves. After the French Revolution in 1789, there was a loss of faith in industrial and scientific progress as key to human progress. There was a subsequent surge in creativity, with figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley coming to prominence as they explored the emotional, irrational side of human nature. 

MISUNDERSTOOD

Blake pioneered this evolution by decades, creating some of the most iconic and intriguing images in British cultural history: from a strange portrait of physicist Isaac Newton, bent over naked at the bottom of the ocean, to a young boy embracing human freedom, depicted as an explosion of colour. Blake’s engravings, using an innovative technique, were so discomforting that commissions were lost. His most famous were produced for The Book of Job (1826), which includes an image, as graphic as it sounds, entitled Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils.

JERUSALEM

Blake was also a misunderstood poet. His most famous poem And Did those Feet in Ancient Time —better known as Jerusalem— was written in 1804 and set to music more than a century later, in 1916. The poem speaks of an industrial present (“dark Satanic mills”) and questions the destruction of nature and human relationships. Yet it still manages to be stirring, even uplifting. So much so, that it has since become the unofficial English national anthem

POPULARITY

During his lifetime, Blake was regarded as eccentric at best, insane at worst! The Royal Academy rarely exhibited his work, and when it did, he got few sales from it. Yet he never faltered in his project of writing his own epic of the mind. It took World War One, and the universal loss of innocence and faith in human progress that accompanied it, for appreciation of Blake to surge. More than two hundred years after Blake began his competition with the world, the poet is still standing his ground.

william blake against the world

William Blake’s mythology is as extensive as the worlds created by J. R. R. Tolkien or George R. R. Martin, but, focused on the inner life of passions and the imagination, it can be a challenge to understand. In his book William Blake Vs The World, the English cultural historian John Higgs takes us directly into the system Blake created for himself. Higgs demonstrates how influential Blake and his theories about time and the universe have been to a large number of modern disciplines, from physics to neuroscience. He even suggests ways that we can use Blake’s ideas to enhance our own lives. Speak Up met with Higgs. We began by asking him why Blake is so popular in Britain today. 

John Higgs (English accent): Blake has a really interesting position in the English psyche. He’s sort of everywhere, but he’s not forced on us. He’s not like Shakespeare, where, you know, has been taken up by the establishment. Blake comes up through the cracks in the pavement. We find him via graffiti and video games and music and comics and things like that. He’s not imposed on us. But he’s so incredibly central that it’s fascinating. I think Blake is the carrier of the spiritual side of the country, and it’s not a side of the country that is promoted to the rest of the world.

material world

Blake was very unconventional, so what did England mean to him? 

John Higgs: England was what was around him. England was the material world. It was where he happened to be. And his experience of it was the meeting of the internal, mental world and the external, physical world, which in Blake’s eyes is a very, very special place to be. It can, if perceived in the right way, become golden, become enchanted and that’s very much what he did when he wrote his lengthy poem Jerusalem. It’s the way he’s turning the dirty old city of London into this golden, celestial city through the way it’s perceived.

A CLASS APART

And, says Higgs, Blake was unique among Romantic figures.

John Higgs: He came a little bit earlier than they did. He was much more working class. There was no sense that he would be going on grand tours of Europe, like Byron or Shelley did. There was no sense of luxury about him. He wasn’t reclining in beautiful Mediterranean villas with a quill writing his poetry, calling on the muses. He was in rainy London, with acid and metals and printing presses and inks and heat and working. He was a real grafter, he was much more working-class.

LIGHT AND DARK

Blake was writing in the age of revolutions, in France and America. They brought Blake an understanding of the light and darkness within us all, as Higgs explains.

John Higgs: He saw necessity, he saw violence, he saw horror. He saw the overthrowing of the corrupt, ancient system of kings and bishops. He could see that as necessary. But he saw the light and the dark. He saw all sides of it. When the French Revolution turned dark in the streets of Paris, running with blood and the Reign of Terror kicked in, I think Blake understood how that had happened, coming from such rationalist, Enlightenment reasons for the revolution. 

visionary

And Blake not only questioned standard beliefs, he set about creating his own system. 

John Higgs: The reason he wanted to write his own, personal mythology was that the already, existing mythologies, as he saw it, were flawed, they were wrong. Most of his peers, they would rely on mythologies, particularly Greek, ancient Greek mythologies and biblical mythologies, and those would frame their thoughts and the way they saw the world. But Blake saw the world in a very, very different way to people who’d been sent to school and educated in Greek thought. Particularly the notion that the divine, that the spiritual or the immaterial aspect of the world was what was inside us. This is very different to how we’ve been taught that, you know, that heaven is far off, that gods are far away. He wrote that “I must create my own system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” He was really just trying to avoid the flaws in the habits of thought that everybody else had. And creating his own mythology is one way to do that.

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