Tomorrow I’ll be introducing my class in ‘English Romantic Literature’ to the pleasure of discovering William Blake (1757-1827). I haven’t taught this course in fifteen years and, so, I needed to re-discover Blake myself, re-learn the basics I must transmit. Within limits, careful as usual not to let myself be carried away and use for three hours of lecturing five times that in preparation, or more. We lead hectic lives and even the most interesting tasks need to be restricted, or else risk producing no new research at all.
I’ll mention first a 1995 episode of The South Bank Show devoted to Blake, available from YouTube (for instance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qvx0on0Hj2I). The documentary is conducted by novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd, not by chance: he had just published then his well-received biography Blake, part of a long list that began in 1863 with Alexander and Anne’s Gilchrist pioneering work (of which more, later). The biggest surprise in this documentary is, no doubt, the presence of notorious American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg singing Blake’s poems as he plays a vintage harmonium. This, he explains, is how Blake would have presented his poems to an audience, since for him the figure of the bard of ancient times was essential. Funnily, even though Blake’s best-known works are Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, I had missed that the word ‘songs’ has a literal meaning. Leaving this aside, the documentary, about 50 minutes long, made me wonder what the point of classroom lecturing is in the times of YouTube and, generally, the internet. My lectures will borrow, after all, from online sources, including Wikipedia and Google Books. And of course, the simply splendid Blake Archive.
In my times as an undergrad there was no internet, strange as this may sound to current undergrads. I was very lucky, nonetheless, because having heard about Blake in some introduction to English Literature, I could see some of his original drawings in a stunning room of London’s Tate Gallery. This was in the mid-1980s, before Erasmus, when every girl student who wanted to learn English spent a year as an au-pair. A decade later, in 1996, ‘La Caixa’ staged a major exhibition of Blake’s works in Barcelona, which was a marvel to see. Nothing compares to seeing the originals but the Blake Archive (www.blakearchive.org)–founded also in 1996 as a joint international project by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and now run now by the Carolina Digital Library and Archives–has digitalised practically everything by Blake which the ravages of time have respected. This is a great little miracle, considering that he made and sold very few prints of his major works and that his best-selling work sold about 30 copies.
Browsing through the Archive, I wished I could be free from the onerous task of assessing my students–I would gladly give all of them an A+ if they promised to read the Romantic poems I have selected for study and spend a few hours enjoying online wonders like the Archive. Honestly: how can an exam or any alternative exercise replace the joy of admiring Blake’s work? What can I possibly say that makes a lecture more exciting? I could, naturally, use my classroom time to show a selection of what is in the Archive (or The South Bank Show episode) but public sharing doesn’t work. Somehow, one must be alone to enjoy the feeling of personal discovery; ideally, the teacher’s task should only be pointing out where to find the best resources. On Blake or anyone else.
Some places where Blake is present are obvious (Wikipedia!), others unexpected. Three comments on the YouTube channel offering the documentary named the videogame Devil May Cry 5 as the reason why these persons where interested in Blake. As it turns out, in Capcom’s new release of their popular videogame, just launched this week, there is a new character called V, who is fond of quoting Blake. This is great but no novelty: William Blake often crops up in popular culture. For instance, he is a central element in the first Hannibal Lecter novel by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon (1981), made into a film as Manhunter in 1986 and later again in 2002. Harris’s serial killer (not Lecter but another man) is so obsessed by Blake’s series of watercolour paintings (1805-1810) for the Book of Revelation that he has a tattoo of the red dragon covering his whole back (he even tries to eat Blake’s original). Check on Google images of English actor Ralph Fiennes made up in this way. I wonder what Blake would think!
The South Bank Show episode does not explain why William Blake, an obscure artist few knew in his own time, has become such an ubiquitous presence. In fact, Blake is remembered because of the biography by Alexander Gilchrist, which I have named before. A reference in the Wikipedia page led me to an excellent article by top-rank biographer Richard Holmes, actually a segment of the introduction to the 2004 re-issue of Gilchrist’s work, The Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus: “Saving Blake” (The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/may/29/classics.williamblake). ‘Pictor Ignotus’ means ‘unknown painter’ and we must wonder why publisher Macmillan decided to issue a volume about someone who had been largely forgotten by the mid-19th century, with the exception of some keen admirers. Yet, this is how Blake survived into our times.
The story is worth telling, if only briefly. Gilchrist, born one year after Blake’s death, was a trained lawyer but also a budding art critic. He published a biography of minor artist William Etty before embarking in the two projects that articulated the rest of his brief life: his marriage to Anne Burrows and his work on William Blake–whom he discovered accidentally thanks to a second-hand copy of The Book of Job. Gilchrist’s subsequent research passed through interviewing people who had met Blake, and others interested in him, among them the leader of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti–a collector of Blake’s work. No wonder, since Blake had to appeal necessarily to the neo-Medieval spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Gilchrist succeeded in completing his investigation and signing the contract with Macmillan but he died of scarlet fever passed on by his daughter. His distraught wife Anne, a major collaborator in her husband’s work, completed the manuscript, attributing to herself only editorial tasks rather than co-authorship. William Rossetti, Dante’s brother and a major art critic, endorsed the biography, which found a receptive audience. This success started the process of canonization by which Blake eventually became studied both as an artist and a poet, and also his seeping down into popular culture, with the infinite lists of allusions.
Gilchrist’s many sacrifices to rescue Blake from oblivion raise an important issue: would we remember Blake without him? Or would, inevitably, someone else have fallen in love with his artwork and rescue it? How many other obscure artists are waiting to be rescued in similar ways? And how come that the Pictor Ignotus of a time can be the star of a later time? It is usually claimed that this happens because some artists are ahead of their times but in Blake’s case this is a peculiar stance. Blake is perhaps best explained as a belated Old Testament prophet rather than as a modern artist, though it is true that his Romantic pledge to follow his own course rather than the art of his time, and the niche he carved for himself as a unique engraver using his own technique of relief engraving, make him closer to us. He was his own person, and this is something we appreciate. As for his heavily religious writing, we tend to downplay it (and woefully misread it), preferring to enjoy on the whole the mystery of his muscular figures and his alluring, vibrant colours.
Here’s a pocket biography. Blake was the child of a middle-class Soho hosier, attended briefly school as he was a difficult child, and was next home-schooled by his mother. Between ages 10 to 14 he attended drawing school, while he continued his domestic education by reading voraciously (the Bible was a central text for him, also John Milton). At 15 he was apprenticed to engraver James Basire, formally becoming at 21 a professional engraver, even though he was always employed by others, mainly as an illustrator. He married Catherine Boucher in 1782 and the pair enjoyed a happy union for 45 years, only flawed by the birth of a stillborn child and Kate’s subsequent inability to bear children. She was a most valuable collaborator, to the point that Blake trained her as a fellow engraver, caring besides for her husband on the domestic front with no complaint about their poverty. Both worked very hard to turn Blake’s visions and ideas into the illustrated books that transmitted them to posterity (thanks to Gilchrist!). Incidentally, Blake and Kate spent their lives mainly in London, and appear not to have travelled at all (or very little).
Blake had proto-anarchist ideas, which we celebrate today. He defended that individuals should be free to enjoy life without being fettered by any tyrannical Government or Church. According to him, personal evolution should be encouraged, sexuality fully explored, the body respected as a source of perception indivisible from the soul. Because of these tenets we trick ourselves into believing that Blake is of our times, which he was not. The man constantly had, since age 4, visions of God, angels, spirits, the dead and even the Devil–that was the reason why he spent such short time in school. Most contemporaries believed him mad, whereas now we tend to call him depressed or, less gently, schizophrenic. Actually, he had the kind of self-mythologizing imagination that others like J.R.R. Tolkien also possessed with the difference that Blake drew no separation between rationality and his visions. He was not insane at all, just a man comfortable with a kind of mind we now call pathological but that used to be called mystical. Perhaps only Biblical New Agers can truly understand Blake. A New Age approach, however, is not encouraged in our ultra-rational Literary and Cultural Studies.
In many senses, therefore, we profoundly misunderstand Blake. He is, among the artists we insist on calling Romantic, possibly the most resistant to science, having made of Newton his main nemesis. In Newton’s mechanicist universe there is no room for spiritual visions, which have been denied by science since the Enlightenment. As a child of the 18th century, Blake seemingly sides with the writers of Gothic fiction, who claimed there must be something beyond stark reality. The difference is that whereas they imagine evil monsters– frequently explained as illusions rather than actual supernatural occurrences–what Blake imagines is not scary but comforting. He claimed to speak with his dead brother Robert on a daily basis, in the same way widowed Kate later claimed to speak daily to him once dead. Blake is an in-your-face example of a pre-Enlightenment imagination which is fully aware of Enlightenment rational restrictions, in a way that his Medieval predecessors could not be. It was easy to call him madman, but also convenient because accepting that his visions were not a product of disease would be too scary–too Gothic!
Tolkien wrote that although he had been fantasizing about Middle-Earth for as long as he could remember, he had no notion of having invented any element in it: when he wrote he felt as if he was being told what to write. Though a strict pro-establishment Catholic, and not an anti-establishment Dissenter like Blake, Tolkien also turned belief into mythology. I’ll argue, then, that individuals with a strong sense of belief are more prone to accepting the existence of other universes, which rational Enlightenment denied. This may sound like something borrowed from Carl Jung but I truly think that adamantly denying other possible universes is… irrational. I’m not myself a believer in God the patriarch but I do suspect that we live in just one of many possible multiverses, a view many scientists support today in view of what quantum physics is teaching us. We make enormous efforts to convince ourselves of the coherence of our world-view but perhaps individuals like Blake–and the many others after him that tap directly into their imaginations to create the parallel universes we enjoy in fiction–are simply quite at ease with the idea of this numinous elsewhere. We fear monsters as children and are taught to suppress that fear as adults but I always say that seeing an angel would be far scarier than seeing a monster, particularly if you’re not a believer. This is why we need to convince ourselves that Blake was a lunatic, though one whose art is wonderful.
Teaching the basics of any artist’s work is, then, reducing a person to trite, manageable slogans. Once a madman, later Pictor Ignotus, then a Victorian favourite and currently both canon and legend, William Blake reminds us that we cannot condense any living person, and much less an artist, into a matter for two lectures, a Wikipedia entry, a documentary, or a biography–no matter how enthusiastic. Yet, this is how we learn and teach: hurriedly, in little pills, and trusting that one day students will have more time to take pleasure in names like Blake rather than just take credits for a course.
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