– by Tobias Churton
A brilliant new biography of the mystic poet and artist William Blake – and the first to reveal the full complexity of the man, with unprecedented insights into his intellectual, spiritual and creative life.
Every weekend of every week in England you can be sure a gang of revellers somewhere will launch into a spontaneous rendition of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – whether it be a wedding, pub-party or rugby carouse. Few of the voices raised in song will either have visited, or heard about, Tate Britain’s William Blake retrospective of 2009, or know that on 6 May 2013,Tate Britain re-launched designated Blake galleries to house examples from a collection that has toured the States, Spain and Russia. It doesn’t matter; Blake has reached them already.
On BBC Radio 3 in April 2013, a call was issued for a specifically English anthem. Top of the list came ‘Jerusalem’; it touches the parts other anthems can’t reach, including the National Anthem. Needless to say, it inspired Jez Butterworth’s 2009 Royal Court Theatre hit play Jerusalem, starring Mark Rylance, who first played William Blake (in the nude) in a fascinating BBC production back in 1993.
‘Jerusalem’ transcends the National Anthem because it is not a nationalistic anthem; it expresses a universal yearning in the English soul, something vital and appreciable by people across the Seven Seas. Americans need no reminding that William Blake inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson and US visionary Walt Whitman. Though Blake called himself ‘English Blake’, he would have been a poor poet and prophet if his message spoke only to one country. Some of his most insightful commentators have come from India. Blake addressed Man – and what had gone wrong with Man – and how to put it right.
Many people today yearn deeply for some kind of spiritual revival, not in the ‘Billy Graham’ sense, but a renewal of the faculty of vision, a re-embodying liberation of ourselves and of our narrowing culture. We look, mostly in vain, to television and cinema, finding confusion, superficiality and exploitation. Many of us feel lost among our own objects – and feel objects ourselves, numbered and taxed. The universe, for all its scale, has begun to feel closed, our lives imprisoning, our best thoughts and feelings closed in. Grand opportunities are thrown away, day in and day out, in the ceaseless media mayhem.
William Blake addressed our predicament at the dawn of the materialism that has enveloped us. He did so in poetry, painting and music (sadly his tunes, if not his verses, are lost to us). Blake can put us back in touch with paradise while on earth, as Kathleen Raine stated in the conversation quoted in the Preface to this book. Toward the end of Kathleen’s life, she would say simply: ‘Blake is my guru. He taught me everything.’ It was clear when you met her, that Blake – who could never afford a university education – knew everything worth knowing.
But Blake the guru has been lost under a myriad of inadequate biographies, college dissertations and arts commentaries, too frequently written by people who have not found the luminescent keys to Blake’s symbolism and liberating spirit. Too often, commentators strain at gnats and swallow camel-loads of trite or obscure, overly literary interpretation. Appropriate words appear – like ‘spiritual’ – but only in rare cases do you feel the writer really knows (as you would know a person) what he or she is talking about.
It was long ago observed that had Blake been born in Germany, he would have been as famous as Beethoven, with statues of him in the cities and his books required reading for the cultivated. It took a century after his death in 1827 for Blake to be appreciated at practically any level beyond a tiny coterie of supporters (viz: Samuel Palmer, John Linnell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti). The star that rose to bring the poet, engraver, painter and philosopher to ‘national treasure’ status rose steeply in the late 1960s when the efforts of poet-prophets like Adrian Mitchell (1932–2008) and free political experimentation let loose a visionary, youthful energy, formerly suppressed by party orthodoxies. Suddenly, with LSD, Pink Floyd, Yoga and Sufism in the air it became possible to join Blake in seeing, really seeing, ‘a heaven in a wild flower, a world in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour’. Even science seemed to be on the side of the visionaries: Jacob Bronowski, presenter and writer of the 1973 BBC documentary series, The Ascent of Man, was one of Blake’s biggest fans.
Aldous Huxley took to heart Blake’s line, ‘When the doors of perception are cleans’d, then we shall see all things as they are: infinite,’ and he took the concept to his influential book on expanded consciousness, The Doors of Perception (1954). Jim Morrison took those same ‘doors’ as the name for his revolutionary poetic/theatrical band, The Doors – who lit the fire of everyone who was listening after they burst onto the crowded scene to ‘Break On Through to the Other Side’ in that year of so many ‘Songs of Innocence’, 1967. Innocence soon became Experience – with Jimi Hendrix – and William Blake was there too with comfort and guidance through the darkening years that followed the first brief opening of perceptual doors in the late 1960s. Everyone now realizes that something happened in that time, though few are sure what exactly.
Blake wrote for us because he perceived, so far ahead of his time, that the philosophy of materialism would dominate the world, but not defeat ‘the Ancient Man’, ‘the Poetic Genius’, the ‘Divine Imagination’. He was ‘not a number’; he was ‘a free man’. Through fires of rebellion and cataclysmic change, the ‘Child of Freedom and Rebellion’ would rise again, challenge the dominance of abstracted Reason, and its baleful Law, and break the dams on the infinite worlds within. The spiritually Free Man and Woman would rise again and re-integrate the Broken Man, living in darkness, into the heart and centre of his or her own true being. Eternal Life would mean something to the objects of the Western world once more.
Blake’s titanic spiritual effort has been obscured and variegated by numerous academics and specialists who, in my judgement, have often not seen the wood for the trees, missing the essence. Thus, for some, Blake is a ‘romantic poet’ with some prescient ideas about poetic form. To others, he is a proto-socialist revolutionary, an angry Cockney ‘Digger’ with some ideas about free love – ‘one of the lads’ whose ‘visionary side’ is a bit of an aberration: allegedly too obscure for ‘modern people’. Chief among exceptions to prevailing misapprehensions stand, in my opinion, commentaries by WB Yeats and Kathleen Raine: they make sense of the man.
Blake was concerned with a total spiritual revival. If you had asked him to paint the church at Felpham, Sussex (where he lived 1800–03), he would not think you meant a portrait or landscape. Having little time for either genre, he would want to paint the church! From top to bottom, inside and out, restoring the colour of a popular church of a lost Middle Ages, before human beings became, in the words of Orson Welles, paraphrasing Blake, a ‘poor, forked radish’, cut adrift from immortality.
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