Monday, July 11, 2011

Week II

Last week someone asked if Blake had drawn himself. This is the only thing I've been able to find. It's in his Notebook, now in the British Library.

We have a choice between a simple biography and a more complex one:
and this one:

"The Immortal Man that cannot did,
Thro' evening shades I haste away
to close the labours of my day."
(Gates of Paradise)

Begin with a childhood innocence recapitulating the dawn of the race, the primeval Garden of Paradise. Every loved child has this experience. In Blake's life it was protracted by a strange set of circumstances pointing to a peculiar, almost unique quality of love. We socialize children through the painful laying down of the law, but Blake's parents seem to have reared him with an absolute minimum of fear, a minimum of law, of prohibitions. The young Blake was considerate, aware of the needs of others, but not coerced. We know little about his childhood, but the shape of his mind points compellingly to these circumstances. Throughout his childhood and adolescence his psyche was largely protected from the destructive influences of the world, although he was very much a part of it.

The inevitable fall, when it did occur, proved all the more traumatic. A youth with his head full of heaven came up against the sudden realization that earthly life is directed, ruled, and regulated by those at the other end of the cosmos. The rulers of this world are by and large the most devoted and loyal servants of the God of this World. The young, idealistic, sensitive poet and artist experienced this sinking realization suddenly and acutely. Thereafter the most gruesome visions of fallenness filled the pages of his creations. (The same could be said of Isaiah or Jeremiah.) Taking their cue from Blake's popular 'Songs' the critics have called this stage 'experience', but a more illuminating and descriptive term is 'fallenness'.

The third stage embodies struggle. He who lives in the fallen world without becoming a worldling learns to fight back in some way. He develops defense mechanisms; he learns to preserve his individuality short of martyrdom. To some extent he defies the God of this World, and he pays a price for that defiance. Then they read The Marriage of Heaven and Hell people called Blake a Satanist, but that evaluation reflects a shallow grasp of his true moral stance. With MHH Blake discovered new powers of expression which he used to fight the true satanic kingdom, the fallen order of society that surrounded him (and us!).

For the fortunate few there comes a moment when grace reaches consciousness and glorifies the struggle. It's the moment when Blake realized that truth is on the side of the angels, and he was one of them. He mets a God to whom he could give his allegiance. Once he was on the losing side with his defense mechanisms and his defiance; suddenly he realized that the universe is basically okay, and he was in tune with it. Happy the person who makes that glad discovery. It came to Blake at 43 with a fundamental alteration of consciousness.

As a new man Blake became a prophet. He had always possessed the most intense faith in his Vision; now he gained the ability to make it Good News, at least to himself and to a few devoted artists, themselves relatively unaffected by the downward drag. They caught the gleam in his eye and the lilt in his voice as he sang his songs. What more could a man hope for than a small group, perhaps twelve or so, tuned and attentive to the truth which he embodies with his life? That was the Saviour's lot, too.

O why was I born with a different face?
(from the poem, Mary, in The Pickering Manuscript] Erdman p. 487)

Blake was different from earliest times, and he knew it well. Partly it was innate: his sheer intellectual quotient had to be awesome. The concept of a spiritual quotient (in a child!) is problematic, but in this case it should be looked at. A unique upbringing removed him further from his contemporaries. And finally he inhabited a social environment very different from anything we know today.


How Did He Get That Way

FIRST of all he came into the world with a tremendous endowment; some people are simply born with unusual gifts.

SECOND: Leaving school on the first day his mind was never subjected to the indoctrination most of us got from our teachers. "The primary object of primary education is to socialize the pupil to the conventions of the culture we belong to." That never happened to Blake.

THIRD read! and read! and read! He read the things that had fallen out of the national consciousness-- dominated by an extremely materialistic culture: the Bible, Behmen (Boehme) and hundreds of others, each in his own way representing the Perennial Philosophy. And he saw the Great Painters, not those favored by the Establishment.

FOURTH The population didn't read anything beyond the fourth grade level. When Tom Paine asked Blake if people read him, he replied, "before the people can read it, they have to be able to read" (very much like today!). So there was a chasm between his mind and theirs (and ours).

The aforementioned video shows Tom Paine represented as the soul of rationality and Bill Blake the feeling, and above all the imagination. So Blake's relationships were with God: Meister Eckhart, Mohammed, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Boehme, Jesus, other men who had had similar visions. He honored God with the "severe contentions of friendship & the burning fire of thought." (Jerusalem 91:17; E251)

As a believer Blake came up the hard way: Molech, Elohim, Nobodaddy, Urizen, and finally the Dear Saviour. How many of us good people can say we came to our faith like that? Thank God we have the benefit of Blake's experience.


Blake and his wife, Catherine, had lived in extreme poverty until 1818. A friend named Thomas Butts had kept them alive with modest sums from 1800-20). Then John Linnell, an affluent painter, came to see Blake and was delighted with him. Over the next decade he commissioned Blake to produce works; he gave him 200 lbs or so to make copies of Illustrations to the Book of Job, and for Illustrations To Dante's Inferno. This emphatically alleviated the poverty of the Blake family. "beginning in August 1818 [Linnell] began to pay [Blake] regular sums of money--it was an arrangement that with a few gaps, was to last for the rest of Blake's life (Peter Ackroyd, page 328).

But more important than the money, at least to Blake were the numbers of young painters he brought to Blake's home. They made up the Shoreham Ancients, and they treated Blake like an equal (although he was 35 years older than Linnell). They adopted him into their family. Why? because the values he beclaimed were also theirs.


The ones who love Blake are those of us who share his values. Here's a hurried description of his values:

Blake's Values:
Although Blake's poetry is most often opaque and mystifying, to share the following values gives one a leg up on understanding.

Non material: no, anti materialistic: 'when you die, you die.' Blake would have laughed at that materialistic viewpoint: there are several kinds of death, and life, we die to live ((except a gain of seed fall into the ground (and die as a seed) it yields nothing.))

Anti-clerical: The Established Church in Blake's day was shot through with corruption. To go to the Established Church was to stamp your approval on social preference.
But Blake saw much to disapprove in the Dissenters churches as well. He saw that any church is an institution, with all the flaws of any institution: favoritism, privilege, 'politics', everything but brotherhood.

Anti-war: No peacenik of our generation has anything over Blake. He associated war with the State, the ultimate constriction of human freedom.

Political: a rabid democrat. He gloried in the American Revolution and felt the same toward the French Revolution until the guillotine came to the fore.

The bounding line:
"The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, [P 64] and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling. Great inventors, in all ages, knew this: Protogenes and Apelles, [two ancient Greek painters] knew each other by this line. Rafael and Michael Angelo, and Albert Durer, are known by this and this alone. The want of this determinate and bounding form evidences the want of idea in the artist's mind, and the pretence of the plagiary in all its branches." (Descriptive Catalogue, E 550)"

Sources: Blake was an omnivores
reader: the Bible was his primary source, but he read everything, a great many things that ordinary people were (and are) completely ignorant of. In his day Middle Ages literature was not worth their time (equally true today). In a letter to his friend Flaxman he wrote:

Now my lot in the Heavens is this; Milton lovd me in childhood and shewd me his face
Ezra came with Isaiah the Prophet, but Shakespeare in riper years gave me his hand
Paracelsus & Behmen appeard to me."

To really understand Blake we need to learn his symbols and metaphors: one by one; what he called the minute particulars. He wrote a longuage that few of us have much understanding of, but the challenge and the beauty is to find someone whose values I so much admire.

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