William Blake: Redux

Image courtesy poetryfoundation.org

Image courtesy poetryfoundation.org

By Christopher Zoukis

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.”

Whether the result of his visions or of his innate personality, Blake despised the moral oppression of the Church and religion, calling such rules “enslavement.”  In Blake’s mind, the gospel of Jesus liberated mankind to joy and creativity.  Jesus did not come to choke mankind with ridiculous moral pronouncements and a system of religious one-up-manship. 

To Blake, life was not simply being alive in a human body.  It was so much more.  Life was the human spirit – the spiritual reality, which lived inside his physical body.  And it was this that Blake injected into his art.  He put it best when he wrote:

“We ever must believe a lie

When we see with, not through, the eye.”

 Blake, then, was eccentric and outlandish, even a little crazy like the Jewish National Prophet Ezekiel, who also had peculiar visions.  Which means he was a true Christian, someone who lived as a stranger in a strange land.  And while here as a stranger, Blake worked as an engraver and an illustrator of books.  Yet his creations were not just pictures to accompany the text of the book.  Rather, they functioned as commentaries, that is, as pictorial annotations which expanded upon the story and imbued it with vitality.

He taught his wife the art of engraving, along with drawing and how to read and write.  For she was illiterate when he married her.  One of his most fantastic illustrations is one entitled The Soul of a Flea.  It depicts the flea as a man-like being, a drooling, depraved predator, which could easily represent the soul of many human beings.  The flea clutches a chalice of blood between its claws.  On the flea’s face there is a spasm of lust, its desire to drink of the blood.  The picture displays the spirit of the flea. 

With an eerie foreknowledge Blake saw, perhaps in one of his visions, the sticky horrors of the coming industrial revolution and its progeny, the technological revolution of the contemporary world.  He saw imagination and creativity bowing down before the goddess of Consumerism, where having more and more material goods is perceived as progress and virtue, as satisfying the human soul.  Blake foresaw a society in which money would become God, and the real God would be cast aside like an old rag.

Blake’s talents, although recognized, went unrewarded because they were too oddball, too original.  People wanted slightly altered recipes, something they felt comfortable with, and such originality was upsetting.  He and Catherine grew poorer and poorer, living in squalor at the end.  But the couple never lacked for friends or admirers.  In the realm of love, they were rich.

After he died, of course, eventually Blake’s madness became a kind of famous sanity, the sanity of true imagination.  For who could read such lines as those that follow, and not believe in Something, not hold their breath?

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.”

Like the Blue Men, there was something different about William Blake.  The Blue Men had tails instead of legs.  William Blake had visions instead of just seeing like everyone else.  Supposedly, the Blue Men were fallen angels.  Blake saw and spoke with angels, who encouraged his artistic endeavors.  The Blue Men enjoyed rhymes.  Blake composed some of the world’s greatest poetry.

And for a fact, the Blue Men were crazy in the sense of being different than humans.  Even though they resembled humans, their ways were not human ways, and their thoughts were not human thoughts.  Blake, too, was viewed as ‘other.’  Most people considered him insane.  Of course these same people merely lived life, while in comparison Blake plundered life with a ‘mad pleasure.’

In the end, William Blake is as much a myth as the Blue Men.  He had glamour when he was alive and more glamour now that he is dead.  There’s something special about him, something that makes me wish I were like him.  That I could be bigger than Life too.