William Blake sets out his vision of the universe in the volumes known as his prophetic books. Botched creation, cruelty and liberation are the obsessive themes of his cosmogony, focused through filters of sexuality and gender difference. Famously described by Northrop Frye as being “in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry” in English, these books still go largely unread. But they were not really designed to be read according to conventional practice of deriving meaning from lines and blocks of text. Instead, on every page, serpentine lines writhe, coil and contort across fields of spectacular colour to form bodies and letters which combine to remind us that to “illustrate” means to make words lustrous. Much as “watching” falsely imputes careful monitorship to our consumption of television, “reading” hardly seems an adequate name for what goes on when we look at these works. Even though comics and graphic novels have made the pleasure a familiar one, there is still no good word in English for the simultaneous comprehension of words and pictures, which underlines the exceptional originality of what Blake was doing back at the turn of the eighteenth century. Hand-inscribed, chemically etched and mechanically printed, Blake’s visual-verbal poems represent a heroic but thankless effort to divert the historic course of book technology and propel the illuminated manuscript into the age of print. They could in theory have sold by the thousand but the intensity of labour involved in their production, the obtuse incomprehension of contemporaries and the indifference of the public meant that few copies were produced, and fewer bought, in his lifetime.
Even after his acceptance as a major poet (which came as late as the 1950s), reading Blake in anthologies or paperback classics feels wrong because the images are either entirely omitted or confined to a few grainy reproductions, with the unified whole inaccessible until very recently to those lacking privileged access to scholarly archives or expensive facsimile editions. Only with digitisation has technology finally caught up with Blake’s vision, and at www.blakearchive.org you can gorge on pretty much all the books, find the whereabouts of every known copy, and compare different printings held in libraries and museums across the world – all for free. This is what the internet was supposed to have been for. Even though, as Leo Damrosch writes in this excellent overview of Blake’s work, some of the physical copies’ subtlety of colour is lost because “backlit images on a computer monitor glow like stained glass windows”, the complex marriage of electricity, liquid crystals, and light provides a fittingly intense and visionary experience.
Marriage, in the alchemical, biblical and esoteric traditions that Blake drew on, is overburdened with significance. In his poetry it is both an ideal and an abomination: he took the Hebrew name Beulah (“married land”) for a resting place on the way to the paradisial Eternity and made it a “pleasant lovely” place “where no dispute can come”. The poem “London” (from Songs of Experience, 1794), on the other hand, concludes with a resounding curse that “Blasts the newborn infant’s tear /And blights with plague the marriage hearse”. This is a context-specific critique of marriage and prostitution as co-institutionalised in eighteenth century urban centres, where husbands routinely infected their wives and children with syphilis.
As Damrosch notes, however, some critics have argued that the hearse casts a pall over all marriages everywhere, which for Blake represent “a kind of living death”. None of this can have made fun reading for Blake’s long-suffering wife, Catherine. He proposed to her as soon as they met, importuning her pity because he had just been rejected by another. Illiterate, she signed their marriage certificate with an “X”. Blake taught her to read and write and she took a skilled, indispensable, but unacknowledged part in hand-colouring and printing his works. In the four years she survived him after his death Catherine continued to receive visits and advice from Blake. A year into widowhood she is recorded as having said that she would not agree to anything concerning the sale of her husband’s works “until she had had an opportunity of consulting Mr Blake”. In life the couple sometimes bonded over leisure pursuits that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970s BBC sitcom. A visiting friend once came upon them reading Paradise Lost naked in their Lambeth garden and was invited to join them. The story, possibly apocryphal but possibly true, casts the Blakes as the first suburban eccentrics.
While it incorporates several incidents from Blake’s life, Eternity’s Sunrise is not primarily a biographical study. It provides rather a tour, in roughly chronological sequence, of all of Blake’s works ranging from the familiar cadences of Songs of Innocence (1789) to Vala, or The Four Zoas (c 1797-1807) – ten years’ and nine books’ worth of “long resounding strong heroic verse / Marshalld in order for the day of intellectual battle”, which even its author was unable to finish. The incantatory splendour of the more esoteric works can be glimpsed through the protagonist’s consciousness in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944). But for those wishing to navigate his imaginative worlds at first hand, Damrosch provides impressively wide-ranging commentary on Blake’s sources, influences, and working methods, as well as his afterlives in our culture. His steady insistence is that Blake wasn’t just an eccentric but a genius, a visionary who saw actual visions and who was repeatedly debilitated by paranoia and depression. His illness contributed to serious tensions in his personal life and these found their way into his work. Its depiction of fractious relationships intensified as his mythopoeic worlds expanded and London increasingly merged with Babylon. Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) may have been partly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s suggestion to Blake’s friend Henry Fuseli that she form a ménage à trois with him and his wife; in some versions of the story Wollstonecraft is the invitee and the Blakes make up the threesome. Either way, it is telling that Damrosch finds an implicit reworking of Blakean myth in critiques of the nuclear family such as those of RD Laing, the radical psychiatrist of the sixties whose sad decline is preserved in a drunken appearance on The Late Late Show. While it’s intriguing to think how Gay Byrne might have coped in a Meaning of Life one-on-one with Blake, some scenes in his work might fit better with Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle. Sexual jealousy and generational conflict are central to an oeuvre which comes across as an ever-expanding anatomy of family dysfunction. This is political and theological well as personal.
In works that are as often humorous and satirical as portentous, Blake indicts orthodox Christianity’s absurd insistence on a universe thrown together in an off-week by a fitfully attentive patriarch (the “Nobodaddy”, Blake mockingly called him), who so lacked imagination that good old-fashioned family discipline should be its only moral foundation. In confronting such neurotic theodicies his work sometimes seems more concerned with obsessive repetition than closure. Although it is recorded that James Blake chastised his son for seeing angels in the treetops of Peckham Rye, we will never know exactly why Blake was unable to recite the parable of the prodigal son without bursting into tears, or why frightened children and sadistic dads populate his work in such numbers. It is interesting, given his concern with acts of creation and cycles of generation, that he and Catherine remained childless. It was also, as Damrosch drily remarks, probably just as well.
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