The Cultural Significance of William Blake

Art is the expression of human ideas in their purest form. In our society today art takes second stage to more important issues such as politics, religion and science. Art represents beauty and idealistic goals, often swept away by the business related society we have today. But to a man named William Blake, artistic creativity was everything and encompassed all things and meaning. Art was the expression and language of the divine and the path in which one could reach salvation. The poet and artist William Blake is described as a man of genius who devoted his entire life and imagination in order to express his boldly original ideas to the world of the 19th century and beyond. Creation was the purpose of existence, to create the visions of the mind and to make imagination manifest itself throughout the physical world. The life and work of William Blake have profoundly influenced the topics of literature, art, religion and philosophy as well as many other great poets such as Percy Shelly and T.S. Elliot, who picked up his works after his death. Blake did not look to the present for inspiration, but to his own mind as he saw true reality existing in the imagination instead of in the outside world.

His artistic structure of presentation barrowed from the distorted frescos and soaring chapel ceilings as was the style of the Gothic past. Gothic in that the colors and structures created were not based in nature or everyday life but based in the aspirations and ideals of the human mind. Blake’s writing ranged from lyrical (emotional or songlike) to epic poetry (that of a story) and often contained awkward rhyme schemes and meter, as well as those of a popular nature. Blake did not live to see his lasting effects on the artistic and philosophic communities, yet he still remains one of the most read and studied poets of all time. In William Blake’s message of artistic and imaginative spirituality he has created his own cell of originality in the genres of poetry, painting and philosophy.

In order to fully understand William Blake as an artist we must analyze how the environment molded his character. The mid 1700’s and the early 1800’s were a time of great change in Western Europe and England. The force of the Enlightenment had spread its free thinking philosophy and reason throughout the land as the institutions and beliefs of old gave way to new radical philosophies, such as that of that of Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Human abilities, especially the imagination were seen as the means of an endless progression in which man derived his destiny. It is easy to see how a man like William Blake emerged from a time marked by these beliefs. Blake is asking the world to look inside to the fantasies of imagination as a way of understanding life, instead of using the path of dry reason and scientific experimentation. At no time in England previous to the Enlightenment could a man express feelings and beliefs so radical to the norm.

Blake’s beliefs came to clash with the free speaking world from which his privileges stemmed, because with the Enlightenments scientific reasoning which Blake hated so very dearly came free speech and safety from the power of the Church.

Blake’s abilities were obvious as well as promoted during his childhood. With the encouragement and annual supplies from his father Blake was sent to Pars’ drawing school. It was at Pars’ that the young William Blake chose engraving over painting and this was the beginning of his artistic fascination. Blake honed his skills by drawing images of the kings and queens inside Westminster Abbey. In fact Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain still contains six portraits from the monuments of kings and queens which were both drawn and engraved by Blake. His early attempts at poetry were often imitative works written with the vocabulary of Edmond Spenser, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and the Carolines. This can be seen in his first published works “The Poetical Sketches” published 1783.

When speaking of William Blake, scholars and teachers alike often discus his two greatest poetic works, the dual poetry books “The Songs of Innocence” and the “Songs of Experience” published 1789. Most readers argue that these two collections contained the paramount of William Blake’s work, he later equaled but never surpassed due to his later change to a difficult to understand epic poetry style. As the titles suggest, each book compared and contrasted the perspective of life in the imagination and then the real world, happiness to suffering, a child’s mind to an adults, and blissful ignorance to sorrowful truth. Hence the two poems “The Chimney Sweeper”, although they are of the same name, one is found in the “Songs of Innocence” while the other is found in the “Songs of Experience”.

The first describes a boy who is lost inside his own imagination and oblivious to the horrid conditions in which he is forced to work. These are most likely everyday images that Blake would have to see as the second poem describes the harsh realities felt by the child in the world of 18th century England. These works were also seen as an explanation of his philosophic beliefs and mental endeavors. Blake believed that the imagination and the proper use of it was the only thing that led to salvation in this world of experience. “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another mans” As seen in the “Songs of Innocence” Blake almost worships the childlike state in which imagination is free to roam and run wild and not be dulled by the world of the senses. Many credit Blake for creating the English romanticist movement on these ideals, a movement exploring depths of the human mind and following the structure by which the self is to create. In his works Blake asked the questions that were agitating him, relating to his own vision. “How was it that the beauty and delight that he discovered everywhere in the world seemed not to be noticed at all by his fellows?” His ideas on expounding imagination as the supreme divine energy that created the universe led many towards the philosophy of Romanticism which held high the seemingly divine ability to create and to imagine ever new abilities.

Romanticism went on to become one of the most profound original and creative eras (1750’s-Late 1800’s). Man great poets emerged during this Romantic Era such as Samuel Coleridge, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelly and Walt Whitman.

Although Blake had distaste for human abstractions such as religion and the monarchy, he used quite a bit of religious symbolism in his works. The reader must not see this as a hypocritical notion because the religious symbols which Blake used such as “angels” do not stand for their original meanings. Blake had often stated that he did not agree with organized religion because it was an abstraction and the creation of men long ago, thus hindering the common church goer’s development of the imagination. His stance on religion was often expressed in a multitude of his poems. The poem entitled, “The Garden of Love” best describes the restraints that Blake the Church prescribed.
“The Garden of Love”

I went to the Garden of Love.
And saw what I never had seen:
A chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not, writ over the door:
So I turned to the Garden of Love,
That so man sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves
And tomb stones where flowers should be,
And Priests in black gowns, were walking there
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

Instead of using the old and irrelevant religious symbols as they were used most commonly such as the cross and angels , Blake mixed them with a variety of his own visionary symbols to create his own original imaginary world and explanation of all things. This encouraged later writers and artists to create systems of their own and to some what emulate the beliefs of William Blake. Percy Shelly-was gradually developing a philosophy akin to Blake’s. “It is as it were the interpretation of a diviner nature through our ownâÂ?¦it strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”

The philosophical beliefs of Jakob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg were very influential in Blake’s earlier life and their ideas were used in his process to create his own overarching view of “true reality”, which was the world of his imagination. Through Boehme, Blake came to believe that the creation of the material world was an act of mercy, because by its means complete destruction was intercepted and redemption became possible, that union with the eternal can be attained only by annihilation of the selfhood, and that man is himself infinite.

What Blake did as a poet was very unique indeed, to be a proficient artist as well as an accomplished philosophical thinker. He used these two previous philosophies as well as a bit of neo-Platonism and hammered out their “inconsistencies” or content in which he disagreed upon and created his own world.

Blake divides his world up into three levels of imagination. The lowest is that of the isolated individual reflecting on his memories of perception and evolving generalizations and abstract ideas. This world is single, for the distinction of subject and object is lost and we have only a brooding subject left. Blake calls this world “Ulro”, it is his hell and his symbols for it are that of sterility, chiefly rocks and sand. Second is the ordinary world we live in, double world of subject and object, of organism and environment which Blake calls “Generation” The third and highest level is that of the imaginative world.

Philosophers see Blake not as a pre-romanticist but somewhat neo-Platonist in his core beliefs, but he can be credited with putting forth a new philosophy in which the human imagination itself is God. “Man in his creative acts and perceptions are God, and God is Man. God is the eternal Self and the worship of God is self-development.” This means that if the imagination has an infinite set of boundaries and the notion of God is infinite in godlike ability, then by exercising this infinite imaginative ability we are exercising our gift to create and realize that we are God.

In the new era of Enlightenment, free-thinkers spoke out against the church and its long lasting overarching control over society as a whole. In this argument against the theocracy William Blake was not exempt. Blake can be credited with

speaking against the model of the Christian Church and its dogma in a whole new way. Blake may have absorbed some of the revolutionary vigor from his friends and acquaintances at the time which were Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestly and William Godwin which argued against the church through scientific reasoning but it is seen that Blake’s criticisms were shone in a different light. To Blake, religion itself was seen as a creation of mans imagination and therefore an art. Blake saw this art as being utilized by the lower end of the imaginative scale. “False or state religion has thus altered its forms in the course of centuries, not because it is capable in itself of any development, but because it has had to meet the increasing comprehensiveness of the imagination.”

In other words, it was an old manifestation of imagination that had been surpassed by time itself and the gradual self improvement of humanity. Religion was seen by Blake as a lower rung on the ladder of imagination because he saw religion as the greatest evil of abstraction, a system of symbols in which all or most of mankind had been trapped inside. This can be seen as the most detrimental to art and creative energy because one is forced to work inside a pre-made conception or image of the world and with this barrier in the way of the human imagination, one is forced to dispose of his or her own imagination and adopt preconceived notions provided by another man. The religious synthesis, therefore, in trying to fulfill the needs of a group, freezes the symbols both of its theology and ritual into invariable

generalities. William Blake also used his voice and poetic talents to speak out against the Enlightenment or the “Age of Reason” itself. He saw science as just another artistic system of false absolutions taken up by the masses and compared it to organized religion. One of the reasons he so disliked scientific reasoning was because it opposed the self-development of imagination. Blake believed that with science and reasoning one was just studying the world of perception, which he saw as not being as real as the world of imagination. According to Northrup Frye-“Blake is much closer to the inductive scientist than to the “reasoner”, and his unfavorable comments on science always relate to certain metaphysical assumptions underlying the science of his day laid down by Bacon and Locke.”

This meant that Blake while truly believing and devoting his life to the world or system of his imagination also felt that these ideas were not necessarily for others, but others should strive to create their own systems. He also opposed the religious standpoints of most Enlightenment thinkers such as his own friend Thomas Paine. Most free-thinkers of the day were self-described “Deists” such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, which meant that they believed that God existed but did not play a role in everyday life. This belief infuriated Blake because he believed that the human imagination was God itself in that humans could not conceive of any existence beyond their own minds because the mind to Blake was infinite in its abilities. Obviously if God is the human imagination then it is certain that God played a huge role or even the role in everyday life. “The natural man who attempts the state of Beulah or love is in a state of “jealousy.”

The abstract reasoner cannot see a tree without dragging its shadow off to the cave of his own mind.” William Blake is one of the first speakers against the absolutisms of science and the “Age of Reason” which is under so much fire from our society today. Blake often questioned the paths that would be taken by the United States and France after their own respective revolutions. Blake was in sympathy with the reformers in their revolt against priests and kings, against the oppression of the poor, slavery, and the merely legal sanctity of marriage. But the difference was that all these good people were concerned with external liberty only and were seeking to reinforce the tyranny of reason destructive of inner spiritual liberty.

Even though Blake was primarily concerned about the world and how it conflicted with the internal self he still used his art to survive in the physical world. As well as writing his own poetry, Blake also made a career out engraving which bordered most or all his texts. These two artistic genre’s combined are often called illuminated manuscript. Blake left us a body of graphic works with an imaginative and technical range unmatched in the history of printmaking. Blake took quite a bit of inspiration from the gothic style painters such as Michelangelo and Rafael. Blake drew his inspiration and imagery directly from his own imagination, as he did not believe that art was meant to imitate nature. Nature was seen by Blake as having a cruel and flawed aspect to it. Thus his style was that of somewhat unnatural when compared to reality.

“The silliest idea that can enter the artist’s head is that nature has been prefabricated by a fully conscious and intelligent mind and that art should imitate instead of recreating nature.” Blake completed many engravings in his life not only to illustrate his poems and later books but also as requested from many buyers and fellow art connoisseurs. He created the system in which he engraved and printed his works, some say with the help of his brother Robert. These poems were printed in colored letters as the small images and decorations were interwoven throughout the text which was painted by Blake’s own hand. His methods of eating away the plain copper, and leaving his drawn lines of his subjects and his words as stereotype, is in my mind perfectly original. Most or all or his paintings also held the great deep meanings and symbols of his poetry. Blake is accredited to influencing the pre-Raphaelite painters of the 19th century. He believed that the gothic artist of the past were truer artists in their own right for they often painted mythical creatures be them pagan or Christian.

It was Blake’s role as the engraver that played a most complimentary role with his poetic skills. The discipline required from someone who wished to be an engraver was great. Engraving and print making expects a generous amount of strength in both the hands and arms. “Poems such as “London”, “The Tyger,” “The Mental Traveler,” and “Jerusalem” are able to reach such emotional heights and understanding with its readers because they involve these two sides of Blake’s life, his imagination and his up close understanding with the physical realities of labor.

William Blake was also one of the first writers to publish his own work. With the help of some business partners he was able to set up his own shop in order to print and stamp all of his engravings out to be prepared for sale. He created his own prices as well, which were often very reasonable. He is unusual because he is a self made artist. Most artists are discovered and paid commissions, but Blake was almost fully in control of his own destiny un-like many artists who coined the phrase “starving artist.” In a 1793 prospectus to the public it opens with the statement “The labours of the Artist, the Poet, the Musician, have been proverbially attended by poverty and obscurity; this was never the fault of the Public, but was owing to a neglect of means to propagate such works as wholly absorbed the man of genius.” This could be seen as an inspiration to many during his time characterized by difficult unsanitary factory labor, for those who dreamt of better lives were given a means of escape by utilizing their own imaginations. It can also be seen as an inspiration today in the capitalist world of self-marketing.

Many big names in poetry were profoundly influenced by Blake such as W.B. Yeats, Charles Swinburne, Percy Shelly and James Joyce. The writer Swinburne in his “Changes of Aspect” alludes to Blake. “A writer on whom I have lavished what many judges consider an extravagant exuberance of praise has put on record his verdict that a man who never changes his opinion is like standing water-he breeds reptiles of the mind” Since my article appeared I have been able to trace the allusion to Blake’s “The Marriage of Haven and Hell,” says the periodical author Clyde K. Hyder at the University of Kansas. These writers went on to create grand works of their own and it can be said that Blake played some small roll in their success.

The last portion of Blake’s life was marked with failure and a cultural misunderstanding of his works. His later years showed a transition from lyrical poetry to epic poetry. Although Blake felt that this was necessary in order to fully express his new levels of meta-physical understanding, the public did not. Many were pushed away by his complex symbolism and now overly complicated philosophy. The public also shot down his revolutionary idea for “portable frescos” for public display.

A few of Blake’s poems but mainly his epic books have drawn interest among readers as being mystic and prophetic. These titles include the books of Thel, Tiriel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Urizen, Los, Ahanial, and Jerusalem. These books attracted few readers because of their awkward meter and that they were largely spiritual autobiographies demanding the previous knowledge of Blake’s own life. During his life Blake claimed to see his ideas in visions brought to him in the form of apparitions. Scholars have questioned the sanity of Blake, but most scholars see this as another symbol created by his extensive imagination. One can argue that William Blake has an uncanny ability to draw followers after his death all the way up to today. Blake in his own life dismissed these prophetic claims as being not “supernatural” but true reality in that he was realizing the true potential of the human imagination.

“Prophets, in the modern sense of the word, have never existed. Jonah was no prophet in the modern sense, for his prophecy of Nineveh failed. Every honest man is a prophet; he utters his opinion both of private and public matters. Thus: If you go on so, the result is so. He never says, such a thing shall happen.” T.S. Eliot the author of the famed “Wasteland” wrote of William Blake: “Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry”, “His early poems show what the poems of a boy of genius ought to show, immense power of assimilation. The mystery behind Blake and his writings have inspired many discussions and books to be written about his life and his symbolic meanings such as “Fearful Symmetry” and “Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth.”

As it can be seen, William Blake has had a distinctive influence on literature and art, as well as an almost silent influence on philosophy and religion. His unique quotes about philosophy “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another mans”, will forever be remembered. William Blake although not a scientific reasoner, can truly be seen as the embodiment of spiritual and intellectual freedom, a freedom that most humans attempt to seek but never find. Blake was truly a unique artist and thinker worthy of much praise and academic study. He gives inspiration to all future revolutionary thinkers and reminds us of the freedom allowed when we destroy all preconceived notions and let our imaginations take over.

James Hurt and Brian Wilkie, eds., Literature of the Western World (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001).

Mona Wilson, The Life of William Blake (New York: Coopers Square Publishers, Inc., 1969) p.51.
John B. Beer, Romantic Consciousness: Blake to Mary Shelly (Gordonville, Virginia: Palgrave Macmillian, 2001) p.17

Hurt and Wilkie, p.679
5 Wilson, p305
6 Wilson, p47
7Frye Northrop, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Boston, Mass. : Beacon Press, 1947) P.48-49
8 Frye, p.30
9 Frye, p.60
10 Frye, p.28
11Frye, p.28
12 Frye, P.73-74
13 Wilson, p.43
14 Robert W. Essick, William Blake Printmaker (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980) P.255
15 Frye, p.94
16 Wilson, p.24
17John E. Grant, eds, Blake’s Poetry and Designs (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979) p.488
18 Essick, p. 255
19 Wilson,p.70
20. Hyder, “A Swinburne Allusion to Blake”, PMLA LVII, March, 1943(The University of Kansas) p223-224
21 Wilson, p.54
22 Grant, P506

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