Another short essay on one of my favourite poets, much maligned and dismissed as eccentric in his own time, but who proved to be a visionary who would inspire generations. A personal favourite.
William Blake (1757-1827) was a British poet, painter, visionary mystic, and engraver. Misunderstanding shadowed his career as a writer and artist and it was left to later generations to recognize his importance as a poet and artist. He achieved little fame in his own lifetime and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that he became recognised as a poetic genius. Much of his life was spent in rebellion, proclaiming the supremacy of the imagination over the rationalism and materialism of the 18th century, in particular, rejecting the formal restrictions of Augustan poetry, writing in a lyrical visionary style and developing, in the process, an individual view of the world.
Blake's first book of poems, Poetical Sketches, appeared in 1783 when he was just 14, and was followed by Songs of Innocence (1789), and Songs of Experience (1794). In which, the world is seen from a child's point of view, but they also function as parables of adult experience. In these works several poems are written in pairs, contrasting states of human innocence and experience. In them, Blake reveals a profound understanding of psychology and an ability to explore the spiritual side of human existence, both of which are remarkably modern traits. Blake makes extensive use of symbolism in his poetry. Some of the symbols are straightforward: innocence is symbolised by children, flowers, lambs, or particular seasons. Oppression and rationalism are symbolised by urban industrial landscapes, by machines by those in authority (including priests) and by social institutions. The Symbolism in his later works such as the epic Milton is less easy to interpret. Often creating a mythology all of his own. His most famous poem and symbol "The Tyger", was part of his work Songs of Experience. The Tiger has been interpreted differently by successive generations but its basic meaning is the natural and creative energy of human life, an inspiring shape (‘symmetry’) that no one should try to control:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
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?
Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
in the forests of the night,
what immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
There is so much more to this poem, but it perhaps represents, like so much of his poetry the embodiment of his dissatisfaction with society and for his belief in the power of uncorrupted feeling and imagination.
Blake engraved and published most of his major works himself. Famous among his "Prophetic Books" are The Book of Thel (1789) The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, (1790) The Book of Urizen, (1794) America (1793), Milton (1804-8) and Jerusalem, (1804-20). In the "Prophetic Books", Blake expressed his lifelong concern with the struggle of the soul to free its natural energies from reason and organized religion. Among Blake's later artistic works are drawings and engravings for Dante's Divine Comedy and the 21 illustrations to the book of Job, which was completed when he was almost 70 years old.
Blake never shook off his economic poverty, which was in large part due to his inability to compete in the highly competitive field of engraving and his expensive invention that enabled him to design illustrations and print words at the same time. However, independent throughout his life, Blake left no debts at his death on August 12th, 1827. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the public cemetery of Bunhill Fields. Though generally dismissed as an eccentric during his lifetime, posterity rediscovered Blake and today he is highly regarded as one of the most influential poets and artists of the Romantic period.
P. Williams 2000-2005