Madman or Mystical Genius? - 1

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy www.poetryfoundation

The monument is the color of sand.  At the base of the monument a green stain grows, the trademark of lichen.  Surrounded by a gray cement walkway, the monument stands alone, looking like one half of the twin tablets upon which Moses carried the Ten Commandments. 

It stands in north central London, at the corner of City Road and Bunhill Row, a place once known as Dissenters Burial Ground.  Today it’s called Bunhill Fields.  It’s a cemetery for poor people.  And the man commemorated by the monument lies somewhere nearby, although no one’s exactly sure where, in what is pretentiously called a common grave.  He died dirt poor and his wife couldn’t afford a marker.  She had to borrow the money for the funeral.  Besides, when he died most people thought he was a nut-case, so no one really cared much, except his friends.  Then one-hundred years later things changed quite a bit – the impact of the highly improbable – and everyone thought he was a genius.  Guilt got to them, and so on the one-hundredth anniversary of his death, they erected a monument to him.

Engraved on the monument are these words:  “Nearby lie the remains of the poet painter William Blake, 1757 – 1827, and of his wife Catherine Sophia (Boucher).”

Blake had visions when he was eight years old.  Visions of angels perched in a tree “bespangling every bough like stars.”  Visions of angels walking around fields of hay, along with the working farmers.  Blake spoke of these visions to his parents.  His father’s reaction was to whip Blake for lying and making up stories.  But his mother forbade his father to touch him.

Blake never felt as if he shouldn’t have visions, as if he wasn’t worthy of carrying on conversations with Old Testament saints and prophets.  Which probably explains why he had them – he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to.

Unlike many ecstatics, Blake’s visions continued throughout his lifetime.  Later on, when he was married to Catherine, he saw the effulgent head of God, who was standing outside Blake’s house, looking in at him through the kitchen window.  Blake maintained that archangels spoke to him, encouraging him in his painting and poetry.  Indeed, according to Blake, the archangels not only read his poetry and gazed with wonderment at his illustrations, but also took pleasure from his creations.

When the scientists of his day studied the sun above and declared it to be a great ball of burning gases, Blake scoffed and informed any who would listen that the sun was, rather, an angelic choir singing the trisagion:  ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.”  He could see them and hear them.

And whether it makes sense or not, I, for one, pefer Blake’s account.  When you think about, it’s just as believable as the scientific explanation, and much more glamourous.

William Wordsworth agreed.  He wrote about Blake, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”

Even on his death bed, Blake had visions.  George Richmond, a friend of Blake’s, described Blake’s death in a letter to Samuel Palmer, another friend of Blake’s:  “He died in a most glorious manner.  He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ.  Just before he died His Countenance became fair.  His eyes brighten’d and he burst out Singing of the things He saw in Heaven.”