“I mean, don’t you think it’s a little bit excessive?”
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. William Blake.”
— BULL DURHAM
“It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant.” – T.S. Eliot on William Blake
William Blake was a poet virtually unknown in his own lifetime. He was also an engraver. He did illustrations for children’s books, religious books, volumes of poetry, and his artwork is now considered priceless.
William Blake was born in 1757 in London, the third of five children. He went to school until he was 14 and then got a job as an apprentice to an engraver, which is how he ended up making his paltry living. He lived in near poverty for his entire life. He married at the age of 25 the illiterate Catherine Boucher. Blake taught her how to read, and they became collaborators in bringing out volumes of his poetry. He did engravings to illustrate his poems. Catherine was the one who bound the books, and got them ready for publication. The entire thing was a joint production. They did all the work themselves.
When Blake was a young boy, he said he looked up into a tree and saw that it was full of winged angels. He spoke about these visions openly and much of his poetry has a phantasmagorical religious transcendence. However, that’s not all there is (and that alone would be enough to put him in the history books). Much of his poetry is also biting social critique, reminiscent of Dickens’ broadsides against enforced poverty, ignorance, cruelty towards children. Blake wrote about the poor, about social conditions, about the overworked children. As T.S. Eliot said of him, “He is very eighteenth century.”
Along these lines, Camille Paglia wrote in Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems:
Romantic writers glorified childhood as a state of innocence. Blake’s ‘The Chimey Sweeper’, written in the same year as the French Revolution, combines the Romantic cult of the child with the new radical politics, whichcan both be traced to social thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is the boy sweep, rather than Blake, who speaks: he acts as the poet’s dramatic persona or mask. There is no anger in his tale. On the contrary, the sweep’s gentle acceptance of his miserable life makes his exploitation seem all the more atrocious. Blake shifts responsibility for protest onto us.
Blake is one of the most quotable of poets. Similar to Shakespeare, his thoughts/images have entered the common lexicon.
Think of a white cloud as being holy, you cannot love it, but think of a holy man within the cloud, love springs up in your thoughts, for to think of holiness distinct from man is impossible to the affections. Thought alone can make monsters, but the affections cannot.
His long poem Marriage of Heaven and Hell is overwhelmingly brilliant. There is poetry here, of course, unforgettable language, but there is also real thought, real philosophy. If you listen to Blake, he shows you a way to live. He says: “Here. Live this deeply, live this thoughtfully.” Not many poets can do that. They try, but they descend into cliche, pablum. Because ultimately they don’t have much to SAY, and their thought process is like everybody else’s thought process. Dime a dozen. Blake is not. He was unique.
Here is “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in its entirety (accompanied by more of Blake’s engravings).
His poetry is the literary version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Van Gogh was not interpreting the sky. Van Gogh was painting what he saw. What may seem symbolic or exaggerated to Blake’s readers, was actually how he experienced being alive. His stuff is radical.
by William Blake
‘Twas on a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two in red and blue and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames waters flow.
O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among:
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.
Allen Ginsberg helped “promote” William Blake again in the mid-20th century. Blake’s star had fallen by that time. People read “Tyger Tyger” in school, and probably the poems about the chimney sweeps, but everything else? Blake as a Towering Figure had been lost. Ginsberg’s mission was to bring Blake back to the forefront of his culture’s consciousness. He himself had had a transforming moment of connection with Blake. (Understatement, see below.) Michael Schmidt writes in Lives of the Poets:
In America in the late 1940s Allen Ginsberg, interested in Supreme Reality, alone and suffering a ‘dark night of the soul sort of,’ his lover Neal Cassady having sloped off, and having himself just masturbated, with a volume of Blake before him – ‘I wasn’t even reading, my eye was idling over the page of “Ah, Sun-flower,” and it suddenly appeared – the poem I’d read a lot of times before.’ He began to understand the poem, and ‘suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it,’ he ‘heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t think twice, was Blake’s voice.’ This ‘apparitional voice’ became his guiding spirit: ‘It was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son.’ On Ginsberg this ‘anciency fathered Howl, though the Blake simulacrum was aided by the hallucinogens popular at the time, the recipe for Part II of the poem including peyote, just as for Kaddish he was assisted by amphetamine injections. ‘The amphetamine gives a peculiar metaphysical tinge to things, also. Space-outs.’ Blake managed his visions without substance abuse. Ginsberg’s appropriation of the poet of innocence and experience did much to promote Blake to the alternative culture of the 1950s and 1960s.
Blake leant himself to that wild time as a kind of Grant Mentor, although he was from another era entirely. It was an indication of how far his work can travel.
Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.
He should know.
The poem I will excerpt today is one of his best-known (and not as dauntingly long as some of his others), and I love it. It is one of the poems he wrote about chimney sweeps (there are more). The poem is an indictment of the society in which he lives, a society that treats its most innocent members with brutality and uncaring indifference. Blake was a visionary poet, yes, but he did not turn his eyes away from earthly matters. Far from it. He saw everything.
There is heartbreak here, too, in the fact that the little overworked/dying child is so young that he can’t even pronounce “sweep” properly yet. It comes out as “weep, weep, weep”, a double-meaning, of course, but every time I read it, I can hear that child’s voice.
The Chimney Sweep
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet; and that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, –
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.
And by came an angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.
Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father, and never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.
Some of William Blake’s extraordinary engravings below:
Christ in the sepulcher guarded by angels – 1805
Whirlwind of Lovers (Illustration to Dante’s Inferno)
The Ancient of Days – 1794
Isaac Newton – 1795