Van Gogh’s Ear VI: William Blake and the Holy Fool
“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” said Churchill. It’s an Orientalist illusion which says more about Western ignorance than the country itself. And yet the land still mystifies with countless mass-selling historical books being published in recent years on dark near-diabolical characters from Stalin to the Mad Baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg, Ivan the Terrible to Rasputin. Whatever your view on this Fu Manchu-view of history, one sphere of human life has found the most bewildering expression in the country and that is religion. Whether it’s the secretive Khylsty sect who believed that God’s forgiveness was all the more divine when received after sado-masochistic orgies (the bigger the sin, the bigger the forgiveness) or the priest-led Black Hundreds who unleashed hell upon the Jewish population. Then there were the Yurodivy. The Holy Fools. Ascetics belonging to, but also outside, the official Orthodox Church tradition, penniless wretches wired to a different frequency who, much like the wandering Sandhus of India, were treated both with contempt and grudging respect as supposed prophets. Their number included Saint Isidora who wore a dishcloth on her head and died a hermit in the Egyptian desert, Blessed Procopius of Usya who wandered naked and slept in church porches, St. Blessed Mother Xenia of Petersburg who haunted the cemeteries of the city and walked barefoot in the snow. There was the homeless John the Hairy of Rostov, Basil the Blessed who stole from merchants for the Moscow poor, Blessed John who wore an iron hat and pointed out “invisible devils” in the streets, the Greek David the Dendrite who lived up a tree and Simeon the Holy Fool who would drag himself along on his arse and trip people as they passed.
It comes as some surprise to learn that England had its very own Holy Fool. And that his name was William Blake.
We consider the legacy of William Blake at a crucial point. For many many years, his was a neglected reputation that had fallen into disrepair. Gradually through the efforts of historians, writers and artists with commendable foresight (the first of which was notably WB Yeats) and also the simple fact that his work in both poetry and painting is incontrovertibly astounding, he was rehabilitated and the accolades, for what little they’re worth, have generously flowed since. The danger now is that posthumously Blake is made that most contemptible of things; a national institution. He is, friends, being embalmed and elevated by the very establishment that metaphorically defecated from a great height on him and his kind, now that his betters can shill a small fortune from exhibitions and auctions. Once William Blake’s legacy was in danger of perishing through disregard, now it dies on the dissecting table of English Literature courses.
More chilling still is his adoption by the denizens of Middle England due to the wholesale theft of the hymn Jerusalem (adapted from the preface of his poem Milton; “And did those feet in ancient time…”) as a kind of unofficial English National Anthem. No harm in that you might reasonably think, that is until you see the warbling stiffs on Songs of Praise or the butcher’s apron-waving hordes at the Last Night at the Proms belting out his verses through slots in their puckered ruined faces and your stomach starts to churn. It’s the most bitter of ironies. Alas the fine tradition of English libertarianism from Freeborn John onwards has been woefully hijacked by the the shat-minded Right. However, brothers and sisters, when the ghost of William Blake is wheeled out by some kind of jingoist windbag, remember that this was a man who was anti-authority to the marrow of his bones, remember that his soul belonged to the half-demented inner streets of London rather than the chancels of Canterbury or York and that if Jerusalem is an alternative anthem it is one, not for a nation of Thatcherite shopkeepers or the psychotic traitors lodged in the citadel of the Square Mile but rather a mystic Internationale, for the unsilent minority, those bellowing down the centuries for social justice and the freedom to be whatever they choose, the culture-bearers and fuck-ups, not the disgusted of Tunbridge Wells but the disgusting of Soho. In other words, he is yours.
Long is the list of those rebels in life and art who once safely tucked in the soil were absorbed and stolen by the establishment, from the “upstart crow” Shakespeare onwards. Blake is no exception. He may have been canonised as a master craftsmen by our cultural pontiffs but he remains a joyfully-indigestible figure. For one, upon even the most cursory analysis, the man appears to have been mad as a hatter. As a child, he saw the Prophet Ezekiel lazing beneath a tree. He claimed to regularly have conversations with the ghosts of William Wallace and King Edward the 1st. While convalescing in a weather-beaten cottage in Felpham on the Sussex coast, he claimed to have witnessed a tiny fairy funeral in the thicket and was staggered at the sight of thistles which grew old mens’ faces and foretold the doom of his hometown. He was even known to spook his neighbours by sitting naked with his wife in their London garden reciting John Milton‘s Paradise Lost.
Many of Blake’s hallucinations had a spiritual dimension. While standing one night in his doorway, gazing at the stars above his home, he turned to see the horrific figure of the Ghost of a Flea creeping down the stairs towards him, causing him to flee for his life. In the same house, he was visited by no less than the Archangel Gabriel. When Blake questioned the apparition’s identity, the roof peeled away and they rose together into the Sun, gazing out on the Solar System, claiming to see the planets and their satellites revolving with his own eyes. He regularly saw spectral processions of monks in church aisles. Walking through Peckham at the age of ten, he famously stared at “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” Around the same time, he was terrified to see the face of God suddenly introduce itself, momentarily pressed against his window at night. Most movingly, as he sat by his dying teenage brother Robert’s bedside, Blake saw the young man’s spirit leave his body at the point of death and rise towards heaven “clapping his hands with joy.” Walking the streets, talking to himself, freely telling people of his visions in a matter-of-fact manner, Blake soon gained the reputation as a lunatic, a skilled one but a lunatic nonetheless.
These personality traits would be the stuff of gossip were it not for the fact they fuelled and directed the art Blake created. The ancient characters that appeared before him were transplanted into his modern world, his London, and created the most curious clashes and compliments that are at the heart of his finest work. The trials of Prophets, the betrayal of Christ, the Last Judgement and Cain’s murder of Abel were not distant things in the past for him, not dead but happening there and then in the streets around him. His “madness” and his art are thus inseparable. Without the visions, there’d be no visionary. In the words of William Wordsworth, “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.”
It’s the traditional view that it was because of his madness that Blake was shunned from acceptance by his peers and the artistic establishment of his time. To an extent, this is true. He was personally ostracised and his work dismissed. At least one critic, after viewing his works, suggested the purchase of a straitjacket. In the only real exhibition he had (at his brother’s drapery shop on Golden Square, Soho), Blake failed to sell a single painting. Certainly, the chance to join the artistic elect and its profitable system of back-slapping and patronages was never afforded to him. The knowledge that he was effortlessly more talented than any of the esteemed dunces in confederacy against him must have been a form of torture. Cast as a madman, Blake was forced on “a lone course through the darkness” as he called it. And yet their accusations of mental illness were merely the excuse that they needed to exile such a talent. Blake’s real crimes were the facts that he aroused their jealousy through his incomparable talent and that he was a rebel, an outsider who could never be tamed, assimilated or compromised. No shrinking violet, he reacted angrily, chastising his enemies as “knaves, fools and blockheads” and asserting that, of all those living at that moment, he alone was a genius. They were the pronouncements of a madman. It just happened he was right.
It begins, as most things depressingly do in England, with the class system and a man’s station being his supposed worth. Blake was the son of a lowly Soho haberdasher. He was self-taught, free from the corrupting influence of university (Blake was always sceptical of educational institutions where a man would be “flogged into following the style of a fool”) and resolutely outside of its old boy’s network. Instead, Blake remained that most admirable of things; an auto-didact who schooled himself with borrowed prints of Albrecht Dürer and Shakespeare folios. Within the chaotic labyrinth that was inner-city London, he learned to capture the human form by sketching the corpses of hanged criminals (as Da Vinci and Caravaggio had before him) and the bodies of unearthed kings. Outside the city gates, he was free to explore the same hinterlands wandered later by John Clare and now swallowed up by the metropolis. Both took him far away from the court and the ivory towers of academia and conversely his poetry took him far beyond the pale of what a writer was supposed to write, supposed to aspire according to the dictates of the elite. Of particular horror to the intelligentsia of the time, his wife Catherine Boucher was of genuine working-class stock. Blake had personally taught her to read and write and she was an indispensible partner to him in every possible way (without her, Bedlam and obscurity beckoned). Such was his poverty that Blake would paint on discarded metal sheets, on second-hand copper, often endlessly re-using materials, sketchpads and canvases. Given the sorry fact that his artistic popularity lurked somewhere below cholera, he failed to have work commissioned with any consistency and so, despite working prolifically, he lived a life of penury, frequently lapsing into spells of illness by living in damp, ramshackle lodgings.
Then there were his politics. Blake was a radical at a time when to be such a thing was akin to having a death-wish, a republican with unthinkable sympathies towards the emancipation of peasants, slaves and women. One day whilst walking through St Giles in the Fields, he knocked a wife-beater to the ground and soundly thrashed him, proving he was not just an armchair advocate of change. He backed up his fists in print, creating Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which argued heroically for women to be socially and sexually free and for desire to be seen as healthy and natural in a manner shocking for the time (“The virgin / That pines for man shall awaken her womb to enormous joys / In the secret shadows of her chamber”). Here was a man who faced down the rotten core of imperialism before it had even reached its heyday, artistically condemning the barbarities of the Surinam slave trade. At times, Blake skirted close to destruction. He had once been (mistakenly) arrested as suspected French spy on the Medway and had (unmistakenly) participated in the Gordon Riots, being directly present in the mob when Newgate Prison was stormed and burnt to the ground. When the French Revolution erupted across the Channel, Blake made no secret of his fraternal sympathies, risking life and limb to wearing a red beret in an act of solidarity with his revolutionary brothers. He wrote insurrectionist verse, condemning the royalty, landowners and the political ascendancy (going as far as suggesting the King of England was the Anti-Christ) expressly in works such as The French Revolution (“The nerves of five thousand years’ ancestry tremble, shaking the heavens of France”), A Song of Liberty (“Spurning the clouds written with curses, stamps the stony law to dust, loosing the eternal horses from the dens of night, crying Empire is no more! and now the lion and the wolf shall cease”) and America, A Prophecy (“The King of England looking westward trembles at the vision”). By wholeheartedly aligning himself with Paradise Lost (in both verse and painting), he implied that Satan was a hero or at least an anti-hero (“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in heav’n”), a fallen angel who embodied those characteristics which are best in people; rebellion, the questioning spirit, deviance, pride and self-determination against the tyrant within Heaven’s gates.
Blake’s often-quoted hymn to despondency “London” is an indictment of the city he saw around him, it’s citizens being it’s victims (with their “mind-forged manacles” and blackening churches, crying chimney-sweeps and cursing harots). When they finally realised it, Blake prophesised in true Millenarian or proto-Marxist fashion, there would be hell to pay (“and the hapless soldier’s sigh / runs in blood down palace walls”). He railed too against the “dark satanic” steam-powered Albion Flour Mills by Blackfriars Bridge, the first signs of the coming industrial revolution and the mechanised coal-fired misery it would bring. London for Blake was Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho and Jerusalem all in one. But it was his home and a city which had created him. He was a Soho boy, he lived most of his life there and in Lambeth, he drank off The Strand, was mugged at Waterloo, could see the Thames from his window and wrote and painted, if his work can be defined as anything, his own unique transcendental version of London Gothic.
This was a man who could write a treatise entitled “There is No Natural Religion” and sneak a life-affirming, anti-clerical work like “The Garden of Love” into a thousand poetry anthologies like a bomb through customs (“And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds / And binding with briars my joys and desires”). Blake was one of the rare radicals of the day, or today, who saw the New Testament as, rightly we might add, an insurrectonist text, much as the Liberation Theologists of South America would centuries later. On frequent occasion, Blake’s beliefs would came dangerously close (or undoubtedly equivalent) to heresy, questioning the divine right of Kings or giving it with both barrels to his two-headed enemy: “the Beast and the Whore”, the State and the Church. Antagonistic to the point of real danger, he painted works with titles like “Lucifer and the Pope in hell” and lambasted in writing “the cruelties used by kings and priests.” Alongside his reckless urge to put his own neck literally on the chopping block was a remarkable acute awareness of the scheme of things and the mechanics of cause and effect. Politically, Blake pre-empted chaos theory by several hundred years by placing central importance on the ripple effect. In what was a remarkable precursor to the philosophical idea of the Butterfly Effect (the theory that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brasil through a infinitesimal chain of linked events can set off a tornado in Texas), Blake highlighted that the smallest injustice like an earthquake on the ocean floor could cause tsunamis thousands of miles away (“a dog starved at his master’s gate / predicts the ruin of the state”).
It was no trifle to outwardly express such sentiments, indeed men had been hung for less in the not-distant past. Tom Paine, whom Blake had met through mutual friends, had recently been sentenced to death for publishing the socialist tract The Rights of Man and had to flee the country for revolutionary France after receiving a tip-off from Blake that shadowy government agents were tracking him. London, at the time, was a police state before the police had officially been invented. Blake stayed, protected in a sense because of the general dismissal of him as an eccentric headcase, a view that perhaps saved his life twice as the welcoming revolutionaries in his likely port of call France soon began to turn on each other like wolves during Robespierre’s Terror (Paine was only spared the guillotine through blind luck – the angel of death missing a chalk mark on his prison cell door).
It’s crucial to note that whilst this Blake, the one who believed dissent is sacred, has largely been airbrushed out of history, he cannot be easily slotted into any kind of rebel orthodoxy or dogma. Blake was a rebel amongst the rebels. Terry Eagleton has a point when he recently wrote, “The middle-class Anglicans who sing his great hymn Jerusalem are unwittingly celebrating a communist future.” Certainly, the narrow prejudices of Middle-Englanders would have been anathema to the poet. The sticking point is the word “communist.” Blake would have hated the reason-worshippers of the atheist left, all talk of dialectics and materialism as a poisonous reductive way of describing the world. Blake dreamt of a utopia not of rich monetarists feasting vampiric on the poor or the tractor girl on the collective farm in the Potemkin village variety but simply a place where men and women might be free to be as extraordinary as they wished without hindrance, where economic obstacles, the class system, racial and sexual prejudices might not impede people reaching their potential. Primarily a poet of ideas, though his characters were always memorable (the man regularly invented Gods to suit his purpose) and undoubtedly skilled lyrically (it’s said many of his verses had melodies since lost), Blake was much too wayward to coherently arrange his thoughts into dogma. If culture is a battlefield as many assert, Blake lined up against the politically powerful and the artistic elite who “mock Inspiration and vision” to whom he would “return scorn for scorn.” He vouched “to do nothing for profit” and to endlessly strive against his enemies; “pride, vanity and mammon.” But he was a loner, belonging to no ism (not even anarchism). Blake was simply an individual which is a much much rarer thing than we might imagine.
Blake’s fiery beliefs came to an unexpected climax when he came out of his cottage one day to find a soldier Private John Schofield trespassing in his garden. Accounts of what then transpired differ greatly. What is certain is that a heated argument broke out when Blake tried to throw the intruder out by the scruff of the neck. According to the soldier, Blake shouted treasonous phrases calling soldiers slaves and made supportive remarks of the dread enemy the French. Blake’s wife Catherine rushed to her husband’s side and said words to the effect that one day Napoleon would be victorious and the King would burn. A scuffle broke out with the soldier threatening to gouge out Blake’s eyes. Somehow, the poet managed to drag Schofield, kicking and flinging, to the local inn where to his surprise it was Blake who was put under arrest for the crime of high treason. Despite ominous talk that he would hang or be doomed to the probable death that was incarceration at His Majesty’s leisure in one of the hellholes that passed as prisons at the time, Blake had a rare moment of public victory when he was acquitted to rapturous applause from his supporters. Yet the incident would haunt Blake forever, almost breaking his health and confirming his deep-seated paranoia. The trial was evidence that there were dark forces at work. This was no longer the realm of abstract speculation, Blake had come as close as it was possible to actual ruin and only made it out alive due solely to the unreliability of his accusers as witnesses (Schofield was a drunkard who’d previously been demoted for an unrecorded indiscretion). For many years, Blake had struggled to sell his works, whether it was his poetry chapbooks, his engravings or paintings and was, despite his utter self-belief, dismissed as a curious oddball. In the face of such adversity, he had begun to see himself, with a healthy touch of megalomania, as akin to the prophets; Job, for example, who had endured a lifetime of scorn and hardship. Now post-trial, Blake had tangible evidence to back up his persecution complex. He had previously spent his life trying unsuccessfully to be noticed, now that he had, he found himself in mortal danger and had to retreat, his art becoming more radical than ever in the process. As Dante had earlier in his Inferno, Blake would have his revenge by writing his enemies into his works as thinly-veiled villians (Skofield the burning demon for example). Posterity would bring its own retribution; for all that we know, what little we know, about Schofield and his cronies are solely through their encounter with Blake. His tormentors, as with his critics and the successful eminent mediocrities of his age, are nothing to us now but shadows cast from the light of what William Blake accomplished. It’s an afterlife few of them could have envisaged or wanted.
Mark me as mad by all means, Blake seems to have thought, I will take this as far as I can and use it to my advantage. The Holy Fool may have been a deliberate act. A smokescreen. It would protect him enough to say certain unsayable things. They’d shrug him off as crazy, as the court jesters had been, but by then he’d have gotten his message through. At other times, he’d have to actively smuggle his vision in. When straight-forward dissent was punishable by death, criticism would have to take the strangest of shapes. Songs of Innocence has all the deceptive simplicity of a collection of nursery rhymes, until you consider how loaded nursery rhymes are with their secret meanings of executions, plagues, abortion and so on. These verses are both tender and chilling. Take “The Chimney Sweeper” which demonstrates what happens to innocence in a city built in the worship of commerce (“my father sold me while yet my tongue / could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! / so your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.”). With Songs of Experience, arguably his greatest or most coherent poetic work, he pushed further, with the renewed confidence to select his targets more explicitly (“In the morning, glad I see /my foe outstretched beneath the tree”). Both collections have a remarkable quality that seems all his own; a vastness of thought delivered in the leanest of language. It’s easy to skim through them but there’s a whole world in those tiny fragile poems. They too are examples of Blake’s ultimate world-view, that everything that lives is holy, a remarkably simple even trite notion but the consistency and intensity with which Blake believed lifted it to a design for living. Art, not religion, was the sacred calling. To oppose it was blasphemy and a form of life-negation, which to Blake was always the greatest sin. Similarly, the denial of sex as a natural and healthy element of life was life-negation, a ridiculous paradox which Blake confronted with his daring celebratory erotic paintings on the topic of The Four Zoas which included hermaphrodites and giant phalluses. To Blake, the sacred was nearly always profane and the profane sacred. Opposition to him, which was rife (one critic called his work “the ebullitions of a distempered brain” and its creator “an unfortunate lunatic”), only spurred him on and put the fire into his work. Anger was a gift. “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” as he succinctly put it.
Whilst Blake adopted the suit of armour that was the Holy Fool, it’s all too tempting to assume he was no madder than you or I. This is debatable. We don’t know if Blake genuinely did see hallucinations as he claimed (biographers have rarely dared to call him a liar or fantasist). Certainly if it was a lie, he kept it up for a remarkably long time, claiming it on regular occasions from childhood to his death-bed nearly seventy years later. It’s tempting too to speculate what would have happened to him if he had gone to jail or had never met Catherine. The madhouse seems to loom always in the background but he avoided it unlike his remarkable and doomed artistic heirs Richard Dadd and Simeon Solomon. In addition, Blake had watched in horror as the establishment destroyed his friend, the Irish painter James Barry, driving him to an early grave. Knowing that such fates could await him, Blake struck off to create his own artistic world, removed, insulated even, from the artistic traditions of the day, seeing his allies not in his contemporaries but in long-dead masters like Michelangelo and in literary iconoclasts, rebels and deviants such as Dante the eternal exile, Milton the puritan and Chaucer the bawdy satirical court jester, all dissenting voices bearing in mind that dissent is the finest form of both freedom and patriotism.
Blake was also changed personally by the forces he saw lined up (imaginary or otherwise) against him. Though a reputedly a kindly generous man, Blake had always displayed signs of an artistic temperament; once knocking a street urchin who was mocking him, off a scaffold and onto his head. Now he gave full rein to his bullish side. Feeling himself either ignored or ironically patronised by the few patrons he encountered, Blake adopted a brashness and tendency to get his retaliation in first. Whether this was to overcompensate for crippling sensitivity or lack of self-confidence deep down, we shall leave to the psychologists. Provided that he believed in what he was doing with every atom of his being, they could not defeat him. For Blake, it was a method of survival.
It was this fearsome spirit of refusal, the savagery as well as the beauty at work in his poems and paintings that give the lie to those who would frame him as some kind of reclusive mystical proto-hippy. “I will not cease from Mental Fight / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand” he wrote in Milton as motivation and a kind of warning. And a fight it was. “I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” The methods by which the establishment kept artists on its leash would be subverted, his would be an art as untamed and mysterious as The Tyger was to him.
And yet what was gained by this decision to fully embrace his own visions was balanced by what was lost. His work may have turned expansive (inventing his own theologies based on characters such as Thel and Tiriel and writing epics such as Book of Urizen – Bible of Hell) but in a way in doing so it turned inward and much more cryptic and self-indulgent than his accessible early work. Perhaps, had he been more readily accepted (or accepted at all) commercially or critically, his work would have remained more palatable. Simply put, Blake could have been a colossus and his works could have joined the great unread classics of the English canon, the monoliths of books that people should read and thus don’t. Instead, a more interesting fate awaited him, to join the huddled rejected ranks of the cult, the elusive and mysterious outsiders. And within the cult, his work retains the power to bewilder and surprise rather than being drained of all that is good about it in the mainstream. Admittedly, venturing down the path less taken, resulted in some of his more convoluted, esoteric moments and Blake sometimes loses the reader trying to accompany him through labyrinthine visions. But he believed, as the Futurists would much later, that galleries were mausoleums and art instead should be a living thing. And living things are difficult, contradictory, maddening even. But they are alive. And, despite everything, we return to them. All the more because they frustrate us and we cannot fully grasp them. Take the example of “The Tyger”, Blake’s most famous work. Our eyes have grown jaded to it, through no fault of Blake but because it was been bled dry after generations of being analysed in classrooms and autopsied in examinations. And yet, chance upon it accidentally and consider its subject not as something familiar to us from zoos or wildlife documentaries but as Blake would have known it, how otherworldly it would have seemed to him, how dark and mysterious and terrible, this thing from seemingly another planet and yet perfectly embodying both the perfection of creation, the murder of nature and the force and mystery of the creative will and the power of it can still reignite its glowing bones.
Ultimately, mystery is the crucial component in both Blake’s poetry and art. He hated science and mathematics with a passion because he believed they would chase the miracle, the preciousness, out of life. To show the mechanics behind the magic, to reduce people to components, art to formula, life to equations was a sacrilege to Blake. It’s an understandable fear that’s been partially realised (Einstein showed us the dazzling nature of space-time and inadvertently gave us the Atom Bomb in the process) but misses the new wonders science has enable us to see (take Hubble for example). Blake believed that with every scientific discovery something was lost, that in trying to know everything, we risked losing everything. It’s even arguable that Blake foresaw the dictatorial modern age we are mired in, in which the mathematic rational left hemisphere of the brain would be elevated at the expense of the creative right in politics, the workplace and even art itself.
It’s interesting though how close Blake was to the adventurers of the early scientific age. Like they, Blake chose to question everything, especially the long-held supposedly eternal truths of God, King and Class. And more importantly, Blake sought in his own way to see behind things. To see beyond the tangible and the everyday to deeper mysteries whether they be space, time, the afterlife or otherwise. “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern,” Blake famously surmised in arguably his magnum opus The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He no doubt saw this as a prospect of wonder and awe, to gaze upon the face of God, to envisage all that is possible, to see ourselves in the full miracle of life on a rocky spinning through the cosmos, an act which would expand our imaginations and enrich our lives. Did he know the latent terrors of this though? That when you could see everything, when the bounds of the everyday crumbled away, we’d be left not necessarily liberated but bombarded with endless information. The true inheritors of Blake’s promise after all may well be schizophrenics. As anyone who’s experimented with hallucinogenics knows, to fool around with the mechanics of perception is a powerful but profoundly hazardous act. To have a glimpse of the infinite, of the face of God itself may be a sight too terrible to behold, too corrosive to our fragile peace of mind. Better for the doors of perception to, if not locked shut than, be carefully opened by just the tiniest inclination at a time and with a full knowledge of the dangers. Nietzsche warned those seeking happiness to turn back, only those seeking truth should venture forward and risk the journey and yet he is a telling example of what can happen, calling to us as he does from the asylum.
Similarly, Blake’s aphorism, “Excess in life is necessary to life” brings with it problems. The maxim, whilst generally good advice in an age as conservative and mundane as our own, has its limits and Blake provides no qualifier. It’s fuelled great swathes of the finest culture we have (that old Bill Hicks routine springs to mind where he advises anyone anti-drugs to burn their record collections because the musicians who made them were all high; the Beatles being so fucked they let Ringo Starr sing a few tunes) but it’s also left a raft of corpses of our greatest talents in the process. It happened to Wilde, Beardsley and the dandies and it’s been happening to modern musicians, writers and artists ever since. Would they have created works just as powerful without the excess or was it an essential ingredient? Or were we robbed of untold creations that could have been? It’s an endless argument. But then that’s precisely the point; that moderating voice in your head that second guesses taking risks or heading for the extremities, that is not your voice, Blake is saying, that’s one they’ve put into you, for to moderate is to control. Why bother censoring you when they can train you to do it yourself as if by instinct?
What Blake was aiming for was to break out of the prison of the everyday. To escape the mundane in terms of thought and ways of living, from thinking in fearful cliches or subscribing unquestioningly to the deadening zombie life of work-sleep-work-sleep. If there need be work, Blake suggests, then let it be the right work, work that enriches rather than decays the spirit. To see the wonder and possibilities around us would be half the battle. Who knows what we could create with our eyes opened to the world? And who, in seeing everything as infinite, could attempt to hold us back? Seeing everything would result in us seeing through the artificial constructs of Church and State. It was this simple incredible revolution in perception that Blake sought.
It’s tempting to say that Blake was a man ahead of his time but he was his own time. His was a path the modern world never took nor reached, a man of another place altogether. As he would no doubt have admitted, Blake was a link in a chain, poets and prophets like him came before (Thomas Chatterton for example) and others would come after him. The Surrealists and the Beats claimed him as an ancestor. Yeats invented the rumour that his father was an Irishman to adopt him for the Celtic Revival but Blake escapes the embrace of any group, being far too original, individual and diverse to be confined. Blake hated portraiture and landscapes and believed to hell with painting what you see so he could be claimed as the father of Symbolism and even Abstract Art in his desire to transcend the seen. A sense of the sinister, the wild and the intellectual elevates him above the more-mannered Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whose beautiful decorative works and Arthurian pretensions bear his influence as do the dark yet glittering sexually-charged masterpieces of Klimt and the Vienna Secession, the mysterious neo-gothic woodcuts and paintings of the Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke and the rustic politically-informed works of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. None are direct descendants though. Naturally, his status as a kind of free-love-endorsing tripping mystic attracted the interest of the hippies (via the unlikely channel of The Doors of Perception author and enthusiastic LSD proponent Aldous Huxley) but again though Blake was unusual and deviant enough to appeal to them as a distant uncle, he was far too fired up for stoned reveries and flower power, regarding nature as nothing but a realm of devils.
William Blake died at the age of 69. He finally, justly, enjoyed a late renaissance recognised as a genius and mentor by Samuel Palmer and his friends. Slipping into a period of fits and delirum (medical knowledge of the day was so limited no diagnosis or treatment was offered), Blake sketched his wife, told her she had always been an angel and then died singing. He was buried in Bunhill Fields. Fittingly for a man who seemed would never run out of ideas, his influence spread and continues to disseminates down through the ages. He profoundly influenced the Romantics, especially the mercurial Coleridge and explicitly in the modern world, provided the name (and mission) of The Doors, was quoted in song by Tom Waits and made a (kind-of) appearance in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. In hindsight, William Blake belongs to a long chain of idiosyncratic English artists, since him there’s been Robert Wyatt, Syd Barrett, Stevie Smith, Gilbert and George, John Cooper Clarke, Lewis Carroll, Alan Moore, Kate Bush, Billy Childish (all of whom have been cited by the press not as invigorating fascinating individuals but as oddballs, recluses, nutcases). Nothing has been learnt from the folly of Blake’s treatment but his spirit burns on in those who have inherited his spirit, his true heirs who look nothing like him or each other, but who create their own visions within “Albion’s druid rocky shore.”
So where did it come from, the genius of William Blake? He’d have no doubt blamed God, old JC maybe. But he’d have been a liar. Blake knew precisely where his powers and his visions came from, where the creative spirit was located. There’s one scene, one telling event related in Peter Ackroyd’s superlative biography of the poet and artist that clinches it. “Where do your ideas come from?” Blake was once asked and he slowly tapped his head and smiled.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is poetry editor of 3:AM. His latest poetry chapbook (and first of four to see the light of day) Tesla’s Ghost is available now through Blackheath Books.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 10th, 2010.