Satan Exulting over Eve, 1795
Art,  English

The Poetic visions of William Blake

The text below is the excerpt of the book William Blake (ISBN: 9781783107773), written by Osbert Burdett, published by Parkstone International.

We are led to believe a lie

When we see not thro’ the eye,

Which was born in a night, to perish in a night,

When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,

To those poor souls who dwell in Night;

But does a Human Form display

To those who dwell in realms of day.

The Songs of Innocence were engraved two years after Blake, on the death of his brother and the dissolution of his partnership with Parker, had settled at 28 Poland Street. Mr. Sampson thinks that the two tracts “There is no Natural Religion” and “All Religions are One” were probably engraved in 1788, a year before. While at Poland Street, Blake composed Tiriel (1788), the Book of Thel (1789), the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the first volume of the French Revolution. Before turning to these, which may be conveniently regarded as the earliest of the prophetic books, we need to picture Blake in his new surroundings, and to understand, as far as possible, the thoughts occupying his mind. Always highly susceptible to influence, he seems to have been started in this direction by certain books that came his way.

William Blake, Pity, c. 1795
Pity, c. 1795. Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper, 42.5 x 53.9 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

The year after Blake’s arrival in Poland Street, two books were published which lend some clue to the form and content of his subsequent writings. They interested him deeply, and his comments on them have survived. These books were the Aphorisms of Lavater and the Wisdom of Angels by Swedenborg. Copies of both books with Blake’s annotations still exist, and his comments have more than once been printed. Both of these authors were eccentric thinkers who were interested in theology; one had been ordained, while the other unintentionally founded the New Jerusalem Church; and both had scientific attainments and mystical leanings.

A study of these works is sufficient to reveal their effect on the mind of the poet that we have been studying, and his instinct to carry further any model that appealed to his imagination warns us what to expect from these studies. They were the most unfortunate models for him that could have been found, and as he read them quite uncritically the result may be imagined. Blake’s prophetic books became what they are through this disastrous contact with minds as eager as his own, but at least disciplined by active study. It was not the force of Blake’s genius that impelled him to the form that his writings were now to take; it was its surrender to ordinary models.

William Blake, Newton, c. 1805
Newton, c. 1805. Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper, 46 x 60 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

Lavater was a Swiss pastor, poet, and writer on physiognomy. He has been called an intractable individualist, the apostle of storm and stress, of fervour, genius, and idealism. His Aphorisms are of mixed quality and would not be of great interest to us now except that they suggested to Blake a similar gnomic form for his own challenging assertions. We doubtless owe to Lavater’s Aphorisms the Proverbs of Heaven and Hell by which Blake is best known. The proverb and the epigram are always popular, though no one has learned wisdom by their means unless he has appropriated them to himself out of the depths of personal experience. There is something intellectually unfair about their use, for they leave us to discover whether they are framing a rule or asserting an exception, and thus, as was observed by Jules Lemaître, they can never be proved to be wrong.

The early Swedenborgian influence that Blake had imbibed in his boyhood from his father and his father’s friends was now to be enforced by a new work from this transcendental scientist. Mysticism and visionary insight were so native to Blake that he could not fall without danger into the hands of one who claimed a scientific knowledge of the spiritual world, and included all things in heaven and in earth in his system. Swedenborg’s undeniable contributions to science, his habit of investigation, made him an almost overwhelming influence to all who fell under his spell.

William Blake, Illustration for The Book of Thel, frontispiece, 1789
Illustration for The Book of Thel, frontispiece, 1789. Relief etching, watercoloured by hand, 29.6 x 23.2 cm. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge (Massachusetts).

He was so universal in his range and so particular in his ideas that he necessarily imposed an intricate symbolism as the indispensable form for intuitive ideas. Blake was a little recalcitrant to such evident supremacy, and his annotations to the Wisdom of Angels show him anxious to preserve his mental independence. He could never question without desiring to surpass, and the effect on his mind was to project a new cosmogony of his own.

He was quite unfit for the task, for he was not, like Swedenborg, an orderly thinker, and when an opponent of systems determines to create one, he risks falling into the laborious creation of chaos. “I must create my own system, or be enslaved by another man’s!” is the pathetic cry of an intelligence that has mistaken its direction. It was on a hint from Lavater that Blake started to annotate. It was in rivalry with Swedenborg that he started systemising.

If Swedenborg had conversed with angels, so had Blake: if Swedenborg had had visions, so had Blake; if Swedenborg had found in the Bible the divine wisdom, and had received a special commission to be the interpreter of its spiritual meaning, Blake was impelled to the same task. From that day forward apocalyptic literature was the only literature to this poet, who came to think religion and art interchangeable terms at the very point where art is discarded for a revelation that boasts its independence from immediate beauty.

William Blake, Adam Naming the Beasts, 1810
Adam Naming the Beasts, 1810. Tempera on canvas, 74.9 x 61.1 cm. Glasgow Museums: The Stirling Maxwell Collection, Pollok House, Glasgow.

The mystic, who claims a direct personal experience of reality, may not need art for himself, but if he would communicate his knowledge and remain an artist at the same time, he must respect the form that he has chosen. By inventing an arbitrary and unnecessary symbolism for his intuitions, and by refusing to employ the traditional forms of literature, Blake did not transcend either but left a chaos of both. When he came at last to repudiate Swedenborg, he deserted all form and all models, and we see another fine mind dethroned in a chaos of its own creating…

Some of the artist’s famous paintings:

William Blake, The Song of Los, copy A, plate 1, frontispiece, 1795
The Song of Los, copy A, plate 1, frontispiece, 1795. Colour relief etching, with added hand colouring, 23.5 x 17.7 cm. The British Museum, London.
Illustration from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, plate 51, c. 1804-c. 1820
Illustration from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, plate 51, c. 1804-c. 1820. Relief etching and white- and black-line engraving, with watercolour and grey wash, 34.5 x 27 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (Connecticut).
Illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradise XXVI, 103-139, 1824-1827
Illustration from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradise XXVI, 103-139, 1824-1827. Pen and ink and watercolour over pencil, c. 37 x 52.5 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Explore more on William Blake’s artworks here:

The British Museum

Tate, UK

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

National Gallery of Art

Harvard Art Museums

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Brooklyn Museum

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