March 21, 2012
William Blake: Subversive and Visionary
Story by Clara Lehman
William Blake was born in London in 1757. He didn’t go to school, but was instead apprenticed to an engraver. Blake was to use the techniques he learnt as a boy throughout the rest of his career. He eventually joined the Royal Academy of Arts in his twenties, and began to mix with radicals who were exploring religious mysticism and political ideas in their work. Blake had grown up with the Bible, but his religious ideas are not easy to encapsulate. He had mystical visions, and was passionate in his religious views, although they were so original that they defy categorization. He believed that man’s imagination itself was ‘the body of God’,or ‘Human existence itself’. Some thought he was mad, and his religious visions the ravings of a lunatic. But this belied the complexity and originality of Blake’s work. He was a voice like no other before and the purity and clarity of his vision is startling even today.
‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’
Blake’s work Songs of Innocence and Experience combines both his religious and radical political ideas. The simple verses in Songs of Innocence were produced in 1789 – the year of the French Revolution. Blake laboriously engraved every poem on an engraving plate and hand colored his designs. He felt the presentation of his poetry was as important as the message they carried. They are extraordinarily beautiful and simple, but the simplicity leads to profound consideration of the ideas expressed. Songs of Experience, published in 1794, provided answers to the questions posed by the first Songs of Innocence, and together Blake intended that they Shewed Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.
In 1789, London was in a state of barely suppressed turmoil, with the French Revolution causing great anxiety amongst the ruling classes, for fear that the insurgency would sweep cross the Channel and take hold in England. Concerns at the time were a million miles away from modern day worries, about mortgage repayments and cycle insurance. There was no notion of consumerism, or material goods for the majority. It was just about survival. The Industrial Revolution was in its infancy, but already conditions were terrible for the working class, who became cogs in the wheels of the factory machines. Radical thinkers embraced the idea that oppressed working people could rise up and change their wretched circumstances. The ruling class hastily imposed new laws banning dissenting voices and meetings, but rumblings of discontent continued unabated and Blake was one such voice. He opposed slavery, the subjugation of women and the use of child labor.
Part of Blake’s fury with of organized religion was his anger at the failure of the church to act on the appalling conditions suffered by children in London at that time. Blake saw children as embodying man’s innocence before ‘experience’, and hence closer to God. Child chimneysweeps’ working conditions at that time were indeed shameful, and they were one group of oppressed workers Blake wrote about furiously and passionately. Children as young as three or four were routinely being sent up chimneys barely nine inches wide, naked so that their bosses would not have to replace their clothing. They would sleep in cellars on the bags of soot they had collected during the day, and rarely washed. The rate of injury to these children was high, with respiratory problem, twisted and broken limbs and death by fire common occurrences. The boys would wander the streets when not working, stealing food. Many regarded them as vermin and not children at all. It was this that enraged Blake, and caused him to challenge both the political and religious systems that allowed it.
Blake’s poem ‘London’ in Songs of Experience was a devastating political and social analysis, condemning the conditions of the industrial revolution, the use of child labor, the appalling plight of young military recruits, and political ‘chartering’ of land. Powerful and angry it encapsulates the turmoil and discontent felt at that time.
London by William Blake
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
Mysterious, unknowable, prophetic, mystical, symbolic… there are not enough adjectives to cover Blake’s work, and it is this rich complexity combined with the simplicity of his work, and beautiful engravings, that draws artists to his work time and time again. A true subversive and religious visionary, Blake has influenced artists, poets and musicians for over a century. His life ended in 1827, and his friend George Richmond describes his passing:
“He died…in a most glorious manner. He said he was going to that Country he had all his life wished to see, and 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’.