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William Blake. Prophet

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

How define Blake? Language is a poor thing and the words it offers us have been used on too many people. One is tempted therefore to speak of him in a symbolic fashion and to say that he was a demon, or an angel, or a sort of divinity. It is as if he were a man only by mistake, so little did he resemble the rest of humanity.

Like every true mystic, Blake never let himself be deceived by that part of the world which is appearance. He envisaged every being from two aspects, and he knew that of the two the human aspect was the least important; the important was the eternal, the aspect this being once assumed in the spirit of its Creator. If then he had told us the story, of his life, he would doubtless have begun by telling us who he was, not in the eyes of the worthy Londoners who lived about him, but in the perfect knowledge God has of every creature. And I think he would have given us a portrait of himself naked, with radiant face, his body bathed in a mysterious light. Most likely he would have neglected the biographical futilities ordinarily set down with such care: the date of his birth and the houses he lived in.

But if the tale of his years on earth had to be told, then the spacious, generous manner of the ancient legends would best suit such a subject: once upon a time there was a giant; he had a terrible glance and a voice like thunder, and he was named Blake, William Blake.

He was an imaginative, visionary little boy. In those days the London suburbs were to him the most beautiful work of Creation, for in them he discerned the traces of a profound symbolism; and although later, by a sort of abjuration, he declared that Nature was by origin Satanic, he seems never to have killed in himself that love of grass and flowers which gave us “The Book of Thel” and “Songs of Innocence.”

When he was a child, he saw a tree loaded with angels. Wonders of this sort struck him as normal and he spoke of them simply; commerce with the supernatural world never troubled him, and his relations with invisible beings displayed clear to the end of his life a sort of naive familiarity. Another time he informed his mother that he had seen the prophet Ezekiel sitting in a meadow; which earned him a slap. Finally, one day when he was in his room, he thought he would die of terror: God was leaning in at his window.

He has confided to us that he never read the Bible but what a fallen angel, and a very learned one, came on purpose from Hell to explain the text to him. Dante and Moses kept him company too, without any of them being surprised. Milton took the same liberty, became importunate sometimes and had to be shown out. The conversations between the dead poet and the living one ran to both literature and religion. Milton insisted that Blake correct certain theological errors that had slipped into “Paradise Lost.” Blake was always promising and always putting it off; in the end he announced brusquely that he had other “things to do.” They used to argue a great deal.

“I saw Milton yesterday,” Blake would say. “He told me a certain thing. I tried to show him he was wrong. It couldn’t be done.”

“To whom are you speaking?” asked a friend, in the course of a walk together; for not a soul had passed.

“The Apostle Paul,” said Blake.

“It’s very annoying,” he confided one day. “Edward the First is always interrupting my conversations with Sir William Wallace.” Any number of nameless spirits dictated prophetic rhapsodies to him. Often it was only against his will that he wrote these down. It was in this way that he composed “Jerusalem.” The astonishing thing about him is not so much his choice of friends as the calmness with which he received them. Nothing about him suggested convulsions or table-rapping: he was a jovial fellow, singing his poems anywhere, to improvised tunes. He did have rather a fierce look and he frequently flew into violent rages, but his anger cooled quickly and indeed he was always surprised when anyone held it against him.

So far as we know, he had only one great love, but that lasted all his life. It began in a rather peculiar way. In the course of a walk with the daughter of a gardener, Blake confided to her the sufferings he had had to endure. She listened to him in silence; then, touched by his suffering, she told him that she was sorry he was not happy.

“Really?” said Blake suddenly. “Well, then, I love you.”

The young lady reflected for some moments and at last replied sedately: “I love you too.”

Her name was Catherine Boucher and, unable to sign her marriage contract, she made her mark. It was towards her that Blake turned on his death-bed when he had just completed the unusual drawing in which God is shown measuring the heavens with a compass.

“I have to draw an angel,” he said. “You have been my angel.”

And he drew her.

The question has been foolishly mooted, whether or not he was mad. The English call him “mad Blake,” but some of them, in order to soften the epithet, add that his madness was of a transcendent nature, and if I understand the word well, it is equivalent to a compliment. Others have insisted that there was nothing unusual about it and that it exhibited signs, among other things, of delusions of persecution. Nothing is to be gained from these futile arguments. Madness is an unreasonable and undirected thing, and a very powerful reasonableness dominates Blake’s world, though it is a mystic’s reasonableness which human reason cannot judge by its own measuring-rod.

Blake’s eccentricities are famous. In general, they seem due to his desire to conform closely to the rule of Scripture, above all to the Old Testament. From that to respecting as laws the customs therein recorded is but a step, and a step which it does not take a fool to make. This way of interpreting the Bible earned him the sarcasms of the English, who find it difficult to pardon offenses against decency. An upright man is a “decent” man. If a thing is not decent, it is infamous. Blake had been seen seated on the ground, naked, reading Milton with his obedient wife, also naked.

“Come in,” said he to his horrified visitor. “We are just Adam and Eve.”

It was indecent. They called him “mad, naked Blake.” But had he not on his side the witness of Scripture, the nakedness of the earthly Paradise? Perhaps he believed clothes possessed some maleficent influence.

The scandal assumed serious proportions when Blake announced that he was going to take a second wife, in imitation of Abraham; but Sarah, disguised as Catherine Boucher, protested so loudly that he had to renounce his project. And yet such things existed in the Pentateuch, there was nothing new about them, nothing to surprise anybody. But he gave ground, opinionated as he was, doubtless touched by the tears he had caused.

He was not a large man, and his limbs were slight, but it was not for nothing that he had an Irish father, and he fought with anybody, unaffrighted either by a powerful body or a loud voice. During the years of the French Revolution, he hoisted the liberty cap. A redcoat dragoon entered his garden as if by chance and took him violently to task. This was in 1803 when people were nervous about suspects. But Blake was undaunted. He threw himself on the soldier, grabbed him by the elbows, and propelled him clear out on to the road.

His intolerance knew no bounds. One day when he was working at Westminster, a facetious schoolboy interrupted him. Blake with a blow of his fist knocked him off the scaffold on which they were both standing. After that, Westminster schoolboys were forbidden to wander in the cathedral during the hours when the artists were at work.

Intellectually, he resembled that Biblical character who had neither father, mother, nor family tree. He was alone. At first it pleased him to write in the Elizabethan manner, but he lost his taste for this style and few traces of it remained. From youth he had fed on hermetic literature, and he always had a leaning for the obscure and sibylline. Swedenborg he considered “the most powerful human mind”; but he did not let himself fall under the tyranny of his influence and remained faithful to himself to the end of his life. He followed his own genius absolutely. Never had anyone written like Blake, once he found himself, nor indeed thought like him. Nobody tried to imitate him and he formed no school. Perhaps they feared the ridicule that would have been theirs had they fallen under the ascendancy, of so strange a mind. His rare readers were offended by his literary candors, by his ideas on love and religion, by the perpetual revolt in him against every recognized principle of life. Imagine Jane Austen reading “Proverbs of Hell” or Maria Edgeworth “The Everlasting Gospel.” William Blake’s writings were indecent.

But even had he followed the taste of his age, he would have added little to his fame thereby, for his method of publishing his books was an inauspicious one. He was accustomed to print them himself by a process which he considered superior to any other and which had been revealed to him in a vision by his dead brother. It was slow work.

It was absolutely impossible to print more than a small number of copies and it was practically impossible to make typographical corrections. Add to this that the frontispieces had to be colored by hand. The result was admirable; yet, if we remember that in the case of his most famous book, “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” he succeeded in printing only twenty copies, he would seem to have done better by, applying to some publisher less inspired than he but quicker on the job. Now he did not like publishers and the statement that he offered them manuscripts is inexact. By this haughty whim the world lost numerous manuscripts, which, awaiting a moment when their author might find time to print them, got lost or sometimes torn up. If we are to believe Blake, he wrote twenty tragedies longer than “Macbeth” and five or six epic poems as long as Homer. But all of them were published in eternity and earthly time will never know them. Only five years ago, on December 11th, 1923, Pickering and Chatto acquired a copy of “Milton,” a prophetic poem of Blake’s, printed and engraved by, the author. They paid thirty-four thousand pounds for it. The poet himself would hardly have predicted such a sum. I imagine it is unnecessary to add that he lived and died poor.

Blake’s rough drafts offer a most curious study. Ceaselessly he re-echoed his text. When it was a question of a poem in verses, he would first write a strophe to serve as kernel, and the rest of the poem would be but the development of this initial strophe, around which were grouped the complementary strophes. “The Tiger” from “Songs of Experience” offers a good example of this mode of architecture.

Thanks to this slowness of workmanship and above all of publication, England did not have to blush immediately at Blake’s audacities, for the reason that she did not know them; but the following generations undertook this obligation, and it was not until the time of Swinburne, many years later, that an expiatory altar was raised to the manes, doubtless indifferent, of one of England’s greatest poets.

“Songs of Innocence” appeared, if one may use the word, in 1794. It seems to me that this book should have appealed to children, and that the parents of young readers could have discovered nothing heterodox in these tender poems in which little sheep graze. By compensation “Songs of Experience,” published at the same time, distilled vitriol. In it could be read terrible invectives against the ministers of the Christian religion as well as all sorts of improper things on love.

“The Everlasting Gospel,” that robust and scandalous denial of official religion, was written around 1810. It contained statements that Jesus was not humble, that he was not gentle, that he was not even necessarily chaste. To the author’s eyes nothing in the Gospels justified the conventional Christ preached by a sentimental clergy. Blake had a private conception of Christ which could not fail to bring down on him the whole of orthodox England. He wrote:

The Vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my Vision’s Greatest E-iemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine:
Thine is the friend of All Mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the Blind . . . .

He saw in him a man who had been lacking both in courage and consistency when he allowed himself to be crucified. The task of Christ, according to Blake, was to continue living and preaching God; his acceptance of death an unworthy weakness, a cowardly need to rest before he had accomplished his mission. For the rest, Blake understood perfectly how intolerable these singular ideas would prove to the public of his epoch, and he closed his poem with these two melancholy, lines:

I am sure this Jesus will not do
Either for Englishman or Jew.

But Blake’s true vocation was prophecy. He prophesied at every turn; it was a habit of mind. It is the irony of life that his prophetic work, properly speaking, is his most inaccessible. Certain parts of “Milton” and of “Jerusalem” are impossible to unravel, at least without a long practice in Blake’s philosophy; but since effort is usually disagreeable, the reader’s attention flags, and nobody touches these sacred books. Even the Oxford edition, with its careful and parsimonious selections, offers many difficulties. Here is a passage taken from “Milton.” It is called the Mundane Shell.

The Mundane Shell is a vast Concave Earth, an immense
Harden’d shadow of all things upon our Vegetated Earth,
Enlarg’d into dimension & deform’d into indefinite space,
In Twenty-Seven Heavens and all their Hells, with Chaos
And Ancient Night & Purgatory. It is a cavernous Earth
Of labyrinthine intricacy, twenty-seven-folds of opakeness,
And finishes where the lark mounts. . . .

An admirable conception this, of two worlds, one inside the other, but what are these twenty-seven heavens and these twenty-seven-folds of opaqueness? Why this astronomical jargon? It is certain that these figures have a meaning, for it is unthinkable that Blake should have been foolish enough to imitate profundity with a mysterious rigmarole. This may even be an inspired and dictated text. But I wonder what can be the value of an Eleusinian literature. The answer is, I believe, that the most esoteric book is interesting in so far as it portrays an aspect of ,the human spirit, or if one prefers, the human spirit in its relations with the divine. Do what man can, he cannot cease to be man, and all the mysticism in the world will never change that fact.

But what I should call the little prophet in Blake concerns us far more closely: I mean the prophet who is occupied not with man apart from space and time, but with the daily, banal existence of mankind.

Blake had a ferocious hatred, and this hatred was like Cerberus in that it was triple and that it furiously barked. He hated the “blackening church.” He hated the “man of blood.” He hated the “marriage hearse.” It was this that he christened the “ancient malediction,” the burden of error weighing on human kind.

But he had no use for the religion of nature either, and he loathed Rousseau. Nature seemed to him at least suspect and in any case incapable of helping man achieve salvation. “What have I to do with thee?” he asked of her; and he turned to religion as revealed in the Bible, as revealed above all to William Blake; he liked it with a good dose of theology, but without the machinery of the established cults, without the “priest binding with briars man’s joys and desires,” for he thought it odious that human energy should be shackled and made to follow the artificial and painful path of abstinence. Nobody cherished desire more than Blake. Man’s life is holy, he said; it must increase and expand. And since it is also absolutely inestimable, war cannot but be a nameless sacrilege as well as a monstrous prodigality. “The hapless Soldier’s sigh runs in blood down palace walls,” he wrote in 1794.

Moreover, if life finds its perfect expression in love, love ought to suffer no constraint, nor ever hide itself: “Does the sower “Sow by night, “Or the plowman in darkness plow?”

Such was William Blake’s alarming profession of faith. And yet this man, so extravagant, so extreme in his opinions, this same Blake was sometimes swept by an access of unexpected gentleness. Then, putting a pipe to his lips, he would draw from it simple airs. He had the pastoral temperament of the Parisian sighing for the countryside of Argenteuil. Blake’s artistic work furnishes a powerful commentary on his writings, perhaps the only valid commentary. It is easy to conclude that mystics lack intellectual clarity and that they readily mistake one thing for another. This error undoubtedly derives from the symbolism they employ and falls of itself if one will only, read attentively the writings of saints who treat of visions; for, if they use symbols, it is nevertheless worth noting that once they have transposed the tangible world into a world of symbols, they never mix their images and always keep the proportions they have chosen. Why? Because these images are for them the exact representation of the truth they contemplate. In fact, nobody is more precise than the mystic, and the mystic is never a dreamer.

Blake’s art lends fresh proof to this idea. It is sometimes bad, imitated, hard to understand, but it is never confused, never obscure. A line drawn by Blake can be followed from start to finish without the eye’s hesitating a second. The line proceeds without either weakening or losing itself, with a sort of infallibility.

This clearness of vision is the essential quality of Blake’s drawings. To his eyes each object is separated by a cutting, steely, contour, without a shadow ever softening or modifying the hard line Blake so loved. Shadow, indeed, transforms the appearance of things to the point of altering their elementary aspect, their nakedness. It is incompatible with the mystic’s vision and it is not through chance that the Church likens it to falsehood, since it destroys form in order to remodel anew in an artificial manner. The mystic does not like shadow; he beholds the world in its pure state, stark and naked, under the straight rays of a flaming light.

If the mystic looks at a man, he sees him naked, because clothes are in some sort a lie. In the same way, he penetrates all the temporary feelings that move him and discovers his true moral nature. He hunts, not at all what this man seems to be, what he has been, or what he will be, but what he is always, in eternity. He goes further than the accidental and particular things of the body and soul and discovers the being who does not change, whatever may, be the profound and multiple diversities of appearance beneath which he hides itself, and this being is not a man, but man.

There exists an art which considers the appearance of objects and labors to render them as exactly as possible, but since the duration of these appearances is infinitely restricted, the art that portrays them cannot satisfy the mystic.

But there exists another, all intuition and second sight, which neglects appearances and penetrates clear to the essence of the things it observes. To it the world reveals itself as a collection of beings and objects, changeless under the eternal movement of appearances. The essence of mystic vision is this: nothing changes in the eyes of the Creator, everything changes in the eyes of men, and the mystic sees with the eyes of God.

This word vision is the one which comes inevitably under the pen when there is question of Blake. His drawings make one think of sketches for a “Last Judgment.” Terror, despair, and a furious joy meet there side by side; more rarely, meditation, repose, all the qualities of a tranquil heart. Of all the impressions which they, give, the most powerful is that of relief work: the perspectives leap out from the background of the picture, the characters break loose from it and walk towards you; nothing in the field of design comes nearer hallucination. Add to this the strange choice of subjects: nothing but monsters, horrible old men, naked men and women, hair on end from fright; all this amid clouds traversed with flames, for nothing is calm in Blake, neither man nor nature. His background is perpetual storm.

A great many of Blake’s drawings were intended to illustrate his poems, or some ancient or modern work in which there was question of Death, Heaven, and Hell. Perhaps the most remarkable are those which accompany the “Book of Job.” Never was Blake’s art surer than when he undertook to translate into images all the unquietness and suffering of the old Biblical text. One stands confounded before a drawing that depicts the angels of God singing with joy among the stars or before another which shows us God speaking from the bosom of a whirlwind to a group of men, prostrate with terror, and one is tempted to ask, with Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre”: “Who taught him to draw the wind?”

Finally, Blake has left us a certain number of drawings which we know were done directly from visions. Blake worked at them without haste and without excitement: he could be seen drawing carefully, raising his eyes from time to time towards a point in space where others could distinguish nothing; occasionally he interrupted his work to say: “Ah, he is gone,” and in the most natural fashion he would pass on to something else. A great many of these drawings are terrifying; they have led people to believe that Blake received visits from demons. One of them is too singular for me not to attempt to give some idea of it here. It is called “The Flea’s Ghost.”

In the shadows of a sort of corridor the ghost slips by, enormous, heavily, built. His head is tiny and thrown forward with an air of curiosity. He is sticking out his tongue. His neck is hidden between powerful shoulders, and, like a plait of hair, the vertebrae stand out on the dark leather of his nape and back. A small, cruelly shaped blade glitters between the fingers of his left hand, while the right hand holds a bowl to catch the blood. The feet hold flatly to the soil and give the monster’s walk a suggestion of something irresistible. The whole expresses slyness and force in their most atrocious aspects. It is thus that Blake saw the flea; perhaps it is thus God sees him.

It would, however, be very difficult to say which of Blake’s drawings are due to visions. Perhaps they all are, in differing degrees. He saw and drew Edward the Confessor, and the architect of the Pyramids: nothing prevents our believing that he saw Ariel too, or Joseph of Arimathaea, or even the Angels of Judgment as he has portrayed them for us. At that period Blake’s life took on a strange grandeur. Certain persons have deplored the obscurity in which he lived up to his death. Few people knew him, it is true, and after all how could he have attracted friends in a world more than a century behind him? Nevertheless, poor and little appreciated as he was, can one pity him? One does not pity a man who every day sees angels and genii, who talks to them, whose house is full of all that is loveliest and strongest in earth and heaven. One pities Johnson, planking it through a glacial street for lack of a place to lay his head; one does not pity Blake, whatever misfortunes he may have had to suffer.

“I should be vexed at possessing earthly fame,” he wrote one day, “for all material glory acquired by man diminishes by so much his spiritual glory. I don’t want anything, I am very happy.”

He tells us that he came into the world like a fiend hid in a cloud. Fiend is a terrible Saxon word; it means one who hates, it is the Germanic Feind, it is Blake. He hated, and he loved with fury because he hated deeply. This passion consumed him. We do not know him well, for he seems never to have come out of his cloud, and it is not easy to understand him. We would need to divine him by second sight, as he himself divined secret things—in default of a seraphic revelation.

Death took him while he was singing at the top of his lungs, stopping only to say, to his wife: “My beloved, they are not mine.” It is thus that Heaven filled his room with its presence and cried in his ear the songs which he repeated with his powerful voice.


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