On First looking into…William Blake


It is difficult to say when I first encountered William Blake. It is difficult to say because I have encountered different aspects of him, or rediscovered him, at various intervals in my life and because, in a sense, I am encountering him all the time. He reads me as I read him; I have been chemically altered by his influence. Blake is not a poet with whom one becomes acquainted in any ultimate sense: the man is finally unknowable. When I think of him I am reminded of Nietszche’s words: “If you gaze for long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” So it is with Blake, yet Blake is both fathomless and fruitful.

I believe that the freest and most original minds are also the most dangerous, chiefly because they challenge received ideas, bequeathed creeds, or any rubric of bestowed directives. There came a time when I wanted the moral precepts of my upbringing to be challenged; I wanted to be made to think again about what I thought I knew for certain, even if it risked my psychology being threatened. In reading poetry or philosophy now, I desire to be altered, and in reading Blake I was, and continue to be, whenever I return to explore him from a fresh or altered point of vantage. For really it is myself I am exploring when I read him.

I am uncertain what age I was when I first experienced him, but I was certainly a child. His deceptively simple style, the strong incantatory rhythms and the burning imagery of the Songs filled me with wonder. Years later, as an adolescent, I rediscovered him through the 60s band The Doors and Huxley’s ‘Doors of Perception’. I must have vocalized an interest in him because for Christmas 1991 my father bought me a book of his selected poems, a book which I still have and am possessed by. A songwriter myself at the time, I would one day come to realize that his gift for writing lyric poetry could match anyone’s, Shakespeare’s included. As a child I had been acquainted with ‘London’, an urban lyric never surpassed since; ‘A Poison Tree’, a psychological parable on the danger of suppressing feelings; ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, a prefatory poem for a prophetic epic, now popularly known as ‘Jerusalem’, the rousing anthem set to music by Parry and sung in the rugby stadiums and Protestant churches. But the incomparable lyric which set fire to my imagination then was ‘The Tyger’, and the effect of declaiming the poem even now is like staring into the hypnotic eyes of that bestial predator.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

“Without contraries there is no progression,” wrote Blake, and within the confines of this lyric the tensions and dichotomies of day and night, good and evil, innocence and experience are resolved. It contains within itself a marriage of heaven and hell. It reveals a dualistic reflection of the universe – a duoverse, one might say, governed by a Manichean principle. Written at the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it consistently retains the imagery of the smithy’s forge as the beast comes to autonomous life like Frankenstein’s monster. The trochaic rhythm is an exact echo of “Twinkle twinkle little star”, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall” and “Double double, toil and trouble” – perfectly catching both the paw-beat of the careering tiger and the thumping pulse of the mesmerized onlooker.

It was this aspect of cosmic symmetries and timeless significances which struck a deep chord in me when I first took LSD as a sixteen-year-old adolescent. Both he and my experiments with hallucinogens confirmed to me what I already suspected to be true – that life experienced soberly and consciously was not necessarily the true or only reality, and that the world was no spiritless wasteland but was far more ancient, sacred, mysterious and meaningful than the modern synthetic societies we have created.

The deeply mysterious poem ‘The Sick Rose’ reverberated with darkly descending layers of meaning the more I read it:

O Rose! Thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This was contemporaneous with the gothic painting ‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli – Blake’s fellow artist and friend – in which a sinister incubus, or ‘mara’, perches voyeuristically on the bed of a deflowered girl. Blake’s poem is, at the most basic level, about the destruction of beauty, but its extended interpretations are almost limitless. As we contemplate the poem – only forty syllables in total – it unfolds into terrible meaning, ‘knowing that within its centre eternity expands’. Is the poem about a rape? What is the invisible worm that flies in the night? Is his love grown distorted by repression? One Blakean proverb reads “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.” Equally pertinent in this context is the shocking statement: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”

The son of a tradesman, he all his life worked as a jobbing engraver, relying on commissions from patrons. A political revolutionary and a Christian dissenter, his visionary world found confirmation through the writings of the earlier mystics, Boehme and Paracelsus. His otherworldliness can be over-emphasized, though, to the point of obscuring other important aspects of the man: he was gifted with profound psychological insight, and he had a deeper sense of social injustice than any of his contemporary poets, whose denouncement of the modern industrial city can be seen as escapist, even though their celebration of nature was in its way a reaction to the dehumanizing mechanisms of industrial commerce.

His own practice, in art and in poetry, was not in vogue at the time. He despised the contemporary marketable trends commissioned of the hirelings and refused to sacrifice his irreducible vision. His pattern of a poet was Milton, and in visual art he abhorred the “blur and blot” of portraiture and landscape-painting in oils, exalting the determinate clarity of outline in Raphael and Michelangelo. “Miss out this line,” he said, “and you miss out life itself.” His aim was to restore the Golden Age through artistic vision, to restore Albion, the ancient sacred landscape of druidic England.

His own method of manual labour (a form of reverse copper engraving which, he said, was vouchsafed to him by the ghost of his dead brother) he defined, of course, in visionary terms; it was a process involving corrosives, a way of ‘melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.’ In practice, it would have been a dirty, time-consuming and frequently frustrating business.

Blake’s defence of spiritual perception is revealing:

The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them, and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answered: ‘I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception, but my senses discovered the infinite in everything; and as I was then persuaded, and remain confirmed, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.’

For Blake, if something appeared to be real, it was. His was a hallucinatory consciousness, and he saw what psychologists now term “eidetic imagery”: profound mental projections, or eidolons, which appear as solid and material as anything ordinary men might perceive. The corporeal, vegetable and decaying world was less substantial, less real to him than a symbolic and therefore permanent reality.

He was interested in the archaic and arcane, and possessed by what he called “spiritual sensation”. His daily communion with the spiritual world and with angels, startling or incredible to many, was nothing extraordinary to him. His first acquaintance with it stems from earliest infancy and in person he always spoke of his visions in a candid and casual way. He was immovable in the face of those who opposed him: “His opinions, who does not see spiritual agency, is not worth any man’s reading; he who rejects a fact because it is improbable, must reject all History.”

The luminous engraved print of his mythical hero Los is a spiritual self-portrait, an emanation of himself: a being radiating with effulgent energy. This is how I see Blake in my mind’s eye, and it would have pleased him that anyone would envisage him thus. He remains more important to me than all other poets, more even than Yeats, Donne and Hopkins; yet to speak of him solely or even primarily as a poet is to simplify him. He merely made use of the art-form. When he burst into song before his death he smiled at his tearful wife, saying of the songs, “They are not mine.” My suspicion is that they were, he having claimed earlier in life that he was no more than the secretary, and that “the authors are in eternity.” He said that there was a moment in every day which Satan could not find, and that, once found, it reverberated through every moment. This moment for me often occurs when, so to speak, I meet his eye. To practise the art of poetry is to be in communion with the ghosts of the past, with the entire corpus of a living tradition. In this sense, William Blake is with me as the angels were with him.

Jim Newcombe, 2006