‘Marked by or resulting in radical change’
This is a question which has plagued most poets during their lives, Keats, Byron, Shelley, they all sought tirelessly for fame, for recognition of their work, for people to appreciate their art. This was a lifetime of artistic searching, for a poet, life revolves around poetry, and around how that is accepted, and many of these great poets did not in fact find fame until many years after their death, dying then, with the belief that their life’s work had not been seen, had not been accepted. What then, classifies a poet as ‘revolutionary’? What allows us to classify someone’s work as resulting in change, indeed, how do we know if this one person’s work has resulted in change, has brought about a different way of thinking, or feeling, of looking at something. The question here is, does William Blake fall into one of the ‘great poet’ categories that have been so clearly and patently marked out for some of our other poets – for the great romantics, for John Keats who searched more earnestly for success in his lifetime than perhaps any other poet and who, in death has found perhaps more success than any of his contempories, but found it too late for his own peace of mind. As a nation now, we are only too quick to judge and compartmentalise people, and their trade, to comment without proper knowledge on where something or someone belongs, and whether or not someone has brought about change with their actions and words. Let us remember then, that Blake, like all poets before and after him, was simply a man that loved to express himself in this way, who loved poetry, who loved to write it and who hoped that some recognition would be given for what he was creating. The fact then that nearly 200 years after his death, we are still here, writing about him analysing his work, analysing the affect it had on others, on us as an audience now and on audiences at the time, probably means that in some way he was, indeed he is, revered. After all, since we are still talking about him, there must be something worth talking about.
William Blake was born in November, 1757, after learning to read and write at school he left – he seemed to intrinsically know, like many great artists, that his trade had already been learned and from there on out, it was him alone who could build upon this. One of the many fascinating aspects of Blake is that he was not just a great poet, but a great artist as well. His anthologies are often adorned with artwork which he himself has contributed to the book, to enrich it, and to enhance the words he has put down into full blown images to enable his reader’s to stimulate their imaginations onto better and higher images. He lived a simple life with his wife and children and suffered from the classic ‘artist’ malady of being great at his own trade and a very poor business man. This resulted in him not making a great amount of money during his life time, but he was in fact, happy just to be doing what he loved.
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
This extract from what many believe to be his greatest work of art, encomapsses perfectly why he has become since his death, one of the earliest and most respected pinacles of the romantic era of poetry. In his own words, ‘I do not behold the outward creation… it is a hindrance and not action’ , Blake’s religious and spiritual imagery is one of the things he has become most famous for over the years. His visions are gentle, and yet so powerful, ‘To see a world in a grain of sand’ is an image so strong and clear that it resounds fully throughout the mind. It is imagery such as this, such as ‘holding infinity in the palm of your hand’ that has made readers for centuries take what they have read with them. The strenth and clarity of the visions Blake has put down are too powerful to ignore and follow wherever you go.
These visions are perhaps so powerful to the reader because Blake himself really believed that he had seen a lot of what he wrote about. He claimed to have had religious visions since he was very young, and these clearly resounded and took effect, allowing him to portray what others may have wanted to see with utter clarity, because he had actually witnessed it firsthand. This designated him, during his lifetime to being dubbed an eccentric, consequently disallowing him from making a lucrative living, however, as we now know to be the case, these ‘misgivings’ are always forgotten in death and only the true artistry of the individual is then weighed up – Blake, being diverse in his talents, from poetry, to artistry, to engraving, and having such a spiritual slant to his work, was quickly laid upon as being one of the ‘great’ poets after he was dead and his eccentricities could not longer be witnessed. This is the`fickle nature of the reader. Wordsworth actually said of him,
‘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.’
Confirming the opinion that was widely believe to be true – but Wordsworth, with his own artistic advantage was perhaps more open minded to Blake’s ‘insanity’ and saw his artistic merits nonetheless, unlike Blake’s surrounding community who shunned his eccentricities.
Let us take for a moment, The Tyger, perhaps his most famous poem;
‘When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’
It is just this sort of imagery that made Blake so recognised and so widely respected. This constant searching in most of his work to find a reason for every thing, his eye for detail on every thing that surrounds him. It is again another example of his gentle but powerful and resonating imagery – ‘stars throwing down their spears, and watering heaven with their tears’, it is such a soft image, such a touching one, and yet in the same stroke, such a powerful and moving image. Blake is a master at blending the everyday aspects of life, everyday thoughts, everyday images, with spiritual and religious images, making the religious aspect of his work identifiable because it surrounds an image he have all seen or thought of, and elevating the mundane image to a level we, as readers had probably never considered. In this case we have a Tiger, granted, this is not an everyday image, but it is an earthly creature, and earthly identifiable image. However, when the image of the tiger is blended with the heavenly and spiritual images that Blake aligns it with – the stars, watering heaven with their tears, questioning if the same person who made the simple lamb, made the regal tiger, it throws a whole new slant on the tiger. The tiger now appears to be elevated to a higher level of respect – we question where it came from, its comparison to the lowly lamb allows us to see what a fascinating creature it is, the fact that he may have ‘smiled to see his work’ makes us think that the creation of the Tiger was obviously something special.
‘Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?’
This verse, which starts and ends the poem, confirms the view that the tiger is not just any ordinary creature, but one which was created with dare, with fear, with reverence by someone made every bit of the Tiger fearful and bright. Suddenly, a creature which was simply an earthly creature has been given new meaning. This is what Blake is masterful at, making the reader question the origins of relatively normal, earthly creatures and places, elevating normality to spirituality and bringing the religious to a much more accessible level.
Moreover, Blake started writing poetry at a very young age, eleven or twelve years old, and we do see a development throughout the published poetry as he matures and learns to better express the visions he was having even at such a tender age. Poetical Sketches, his first anthology to be published was a collection of songs and poems, and if we take an example from here, Song by 1st Shepherd, we can study how raw and developing his style was at the time;
‘Welcome, stranger, to this place,
Where joy doth sit on every bough,
Paleness flies from every face;
We reap not what we do not sow.
Innocence doth like a rose
Bloom on every maiden’s cheek;
Honour twines around her brows,
The jewel health adorns her neck.’
We can clearly see already the emerging style of Blake that was to become so famous – the way in which he makes everything he writes of seem revered and untouchable. Here however we see a slightly more naïve version of some of the poems that are to come, this is purely ecstatic the environment he is describing here ‘ where joy doth sit on every bough and paleness flies from every face’, he goes on to say how ‘innocence doth like a rose bloom on every maiden’s cheek’, this is a very natural and pure view of things, which does echo his later work – where he tends to put a pure, spiritual slant on any topic he approaches, but here it is not a dark subject matter that he is fundamentally trying to revere, or a large wild animal such as with The Tyger, it is simply a place, where everything is fantastic, joy is in abundance, maidens are innocent and honourable, everyone is healthy and happy and no-one reaps what they do not sow. This poem does not hold the same sinister undertones as some of his later work, it seems a little empty, a little like a shell in comparison to some of his later pieces where he tackles big topics like heaven and hell, and more fractious animated objects than honourable maidens.
’We safely arrived at our cottage, which is more beautiful than I thought and more convenient. Mr. Hayley received us with his usual brotherly affection. I have begun to work. Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours.’
The above letter is an interesting example of how Blake expressed himself outside of poetry. What is fascinating is that this desire for some essence of spirituality to permeate everything is clearly present in his day to day life as much as it is during his poetic writings. He is simply writing a letter to a friend, and yet here in a little village named Felpham, haven is opened on all sides with golden gates, unobstructed by vapours, making it more spiritual than London. It seems that this search for spirituality was a constant one, interestingly not just something he strove to express in his work, but something he clearly was striving to find in his own life, for his own soul, for his own peace of mind.
Blake’s poetry – from the early works right up to works such as The Tyger seems to portray God as a creator, and the earth and all beings in it as his canvas. Blake seems to feel as though he is a messenger to explain the work of God, explain what he has done artistically and how he created the concept of something, what emotions he was feeling at the time and how these have transcended into the creature of place he has just created. We can clearly see an echo of the bible in much of Blake’s work, indeed he illustrated for a lot of bible stories – for instance when ‘the stars throw down their spears and watered heaven with their tears’ this is very obviously a reference to the creation story in the bible where the stars wept with joy at creation.
Blake takes earthly objects and writes God’s message as he believes it should be told. Does this make him a revolutionary poet? Well, we have shown in several different ways his unique method of passing on his own spiritual message – but ultimately it is just his own message, his visions that he writes of. However, what is remarkable unquestionably is Blake’s ability to portray even the most normal events – such as moving house, as though it were an epiphany of some kind, as though every little detail of living is something that we should cherish. His work is fresh and original – not romantic in the same sense as some later romantics such as Keats, there is nothing insipid or idle about Blake’s work, he is an early romantic, his romance is found in what surrounds him and this is intriguing. In this way then, perhaps he is indeed revolutionary – his contemporaries did not find him so, they saw something else, but by the time the next generation had come along he was already beginning to be noticed by some other great poets who then used his work as inspiration for their own. If poets such as Wordsworth read him and were fascinated by him then it is hard to deny that his work has some revolutionary components. What is perhaps more poignant however is the fact that still today we write essays about him, other great writers such as T.S. Eliot write essays about him, books are written, his anthologies are brought and read all over the world and an original anthology will sell for thousands of pounds. If this man hasn’t been revolutionary in some way, then a lot of people are wasting their time and their money.
‘As I was walking among the fires of Hell,
Delighted with the enjoyments of Genius;
Which to angels look like torment and insanity.
I collected some of their proverbs.’
- Collins English Dictionary
- The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Erdman / Bloom
- William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books, David Bindman
- The Illuminated Blake, Erdman
- The Life of William Blake, Alexander Gilchrist
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