Conor Halion reflects on one of the Romantic period’s foremost artists and addresses the question; does William Blake still matter?
Having attended the William Blake exhibit at Tate Britain earlier this month, I am led to reflect on the legacy of one of the Romantic period’s most controversial and influential artists. While we are all familiar with Blake’s poetry and paintings today, like many artists, he was largely unrecognized during his own time, with many of his contemporaries considering him nothing more than an “unfortunate lunatic.”
Today however, Blake has infiltrated every inch of society, and one can find him referenced in everything from film, such as Red Dragon, to even videogames, with his prophetic books serving as a loose inspiration behind the plot of Devil May Cry 5. But as John Higgs pointed out in his recent book; William Blake Now: Why William Blake Matters More Than Ever, there is so much more to William Blake than pleasant memorable rhymes and gnarly religious imagery. While Blake’s work can be difficult to penetrate, for those willing to apply themselves, it is also a deeply rewarding experience. But let’s rewind for a moment, who was William Blake and why should we care?
William Blake was born in Soho, London, in 1757, the son of a shopkeeper and the third of seven children. Blake’s artistic journey began in the days of his early childhood, when climbing the stairs of the family home in Broad Street, he claimed to see a vision of God through the window. Blake’s family encouraged his artistic calling and in 1779 he enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts. The Royal Academy encouraged its students to imitate the work of the artists of the Renaissance period, such as Donatello and Michelangelo. While Blake could easily recreate the work of the ancient masters, he did not want to simply imitate, but rather sought to express himself in his own terms. Thus began Blake’s great love affair with relief etching, a process by which he painstakingly etched images onto tiny plates of metal and dipped them into acid to create a unique image. What marks engraving out from other art forms is that, due to the varying effects of the acid upon the metal, no two images ever come out the same. Blake saw the spontaneity of the engraving process as God’s way of manifesting itself through his art. It would be easy to assume from this line that Blake was your average run of the mill, God fearing Christian, and indeed, from a surface reading of poems like ‘The Little Chimney Sweeper’ and ‘The Lamb’, it would be easy to make this assumption, however, as with Blake’s entire body of work, there is never a simple answer.
Urizen, a recurring character in Blake’s mythology, with his white hair and flowing beard, is a counterpart to the God of the Old Testament. However, with a golden compass in hand, he measures out the world around him and thus sets limiting chains upon it. This version of God is a figure of cold logic who serves to enslave humanity rather than liberate it. So then are we to take the opinion that Blake was an atheist, and his portrayal of God was an attack upon Christian values? Again, the answer is anything but clear. Urizen’s foil arrives in the form of Los, the eternal artist who stands as a symbol of creativity and rebellion. In the Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake remarked that “all deities reside within the human breast.” Los, an anagram of Sol the Latin word for sun, is the sun generated from within the human soul. The God that Blake saw within his work, the divinity of human imagination made manifest through art.
Blake’s idea of God being the ultimate creation of humanity rather than vice versa, is a remarkably modern one, and later philosophers such as Nietzsche and Camus explored this topic too. The unofficial English national anthem,‘Jerusalem’ is lifted directly from the preface to his book, Milton. However, Blake’s character, Orc, is the living embodiment of anarchy, who’s very existence threatens to topple to Old Regime, and his poem, ‘Visions from the Daughters of Albion’ advocates sexual liberation and freedom. Blake is thus one of the few artists in recorded history to be claimed both as an ally of the establishment and the anti-establishment, perhaps reflective of the contradictory nature of his work. Ultimately, I believe Blake will always remain relevant to society. Like The Tyger, he is someone who you can carry with you all the way from innocence to experience.