Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Blake, William

The Lovers' Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta
between 1824 and 1827
Pen and ink and watercolour
37.4 x 53.0 cm    
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, England

William Blake (1757-1827) was an English painter, poet and printmaker. He was born at 28 Broad Street in Soho, London. He was the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. His father was a hosier. He attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing, leaving at the age of ten, and was otherwise educated at home by his mother. Even though the Blakes were English Dissenters, he was baptised at St James's Church, Piccadilly, London. The Bible was an early and profound influence on him, and remained a source of inspiration throughout his life. He started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that was preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings he found his first exposure to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Maarten van Heemskerck and Albrecht Durer.

Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, his verse and artwork became part of the wider movement of Romanticism in late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century European Culture. His writing combines a variety of styles. He is at once an artist, a lyric poet, a mystic and a visionary, and his work has fascinated, intrigued and sometimes bewildered readers ever since. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced".

For the nineteenth century reader Blake's work posed a single question: was he sane or mad? The poet Wordsworth, for example, commented that there "is no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in his madness which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott" and John Ruskin similarly felt that Blake's work was "diseased and wild", even if his mind was "great and wise". In the Twentieth century, however, following W.B. Yeats's three volume edition of his works, Blake has been recognised as a highly original and important poet, artist and writer, and as a member of an enduring tradition of visionary artists and philosophers, an individualist, a libertarian, and an uncompromising critic of orthodoxy and authoritarianism.

His work can be difficult at times, mainly because the reader is offered Blake's visions in Blake's own terms. He draws on a highly powerful, but essentially personal, mythological system of his own devising, but one that also draws on a variety of mythological, poetic and philosophical sources.
On this, Blake himself remarked that he had to "create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's." In part also, what he seeks to express can only be presented in terms of vague abstractions and allusions, with a cosmic perspective on issues of faith, religion, philosophy and belief, and this must also mean that the reader has to work hard. Yet the effort is worth it. He is a revolutionary and visionary artist and poet, and his work represented a decisively new direction in the course of English Poetry and the Visual Arts.