William Blake

An english poet, painter, and printmaker. Born on 28th November 1757 in Soho in London, he had a grounded and happy upbringing. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic era. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language." His visual artistry has led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him "far and away the greets artist Britain has ever produced." Although he lived in London his entire life except for three years spent in Felpham he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God", or "Human existence itself". Although always a well read and intelligent man, Blake left school at the early age of ten to attend the Henry pars Drawing Academy for five years. The artists he admired as a child included Raphael, Michelangelo, Giulio, Romano and Durer. He started writing poetry at the age of twelve and in 1783 his friends paid for his first collection of verses to be printed, which was entitled "Poetical Sketches" and is now seen as a major poetical event of the 18th century. Despite his obvious talents as a poet, his official profession was as an engraver because he could not afford to do a painter's apprenticeship and therefore began his apprenticeship with the engraver James Basire in 1772. After completing his apprenticeship, six years later, he joined the Royal Academy of Art. At this point his art and engraving remained separate, he wrote and drew for the pleasure and simply engraved to earn a living. In 1784 he opened his own shop and in the same year completed "Island in the Moon", which ridiculed his contemporaries of the art and literature social circles he mixed with. 

Blake says proudly and prophetically:
 "This world of Imagination is the world Eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go    after death of the Vegetated body. This World of Imagination is Infinite and Eternal, whereas the world of Generation, or Vegetation, is Finite and Temporal. There Exist in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature. All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, The Humane Imagination."

For Blake the Imagination is nothing less than God as He operates in the human soul. It Follows that any act of creation performed by the imagination is divine and that in the imagination man's spiritual nature is fully and finally realized. Since what mattered to the Romantic poets was an insight into the nature of things, they rejected Locke's limitation of perception of physical objects, because it robbed the mind of its most essential function, which is at the same time to perceive and to create. On this Blake speaks with prophetic scorn:

 "Mental Things are alone Real; what is call'd Corporeal, Nobody Knowsof its Dwelling Place: it is   in Fallacy, and its Existence an Imposture. Where is the Existence Out of Mind or Thought? Where is it but in the Mind of a Fool?

Blake is so stern on the view that art deals with general truths. He has none of Samuel Johnson's respect for the "grandeur of generality," and would disagree violently with him when he says, "nothing can please many and please long, but just representation of general nature." Blake thought quite otherwise:

"To Generalize is to be an idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledges are those Knowledges that idiots possess." 

"What is General Nature? is there Such a Thing? what is General Knowledge? is there such a Thing? Strictly Speaking All Knowledge is Particular."

Blake believed this because he lived in the imagination. He knew that nothing had full significance for him unless it appeared in a particular form. And with this the Romantics in general agreed. Their art aimed at presenting as forcibly as possible the moments of vision which give to even the vastest issues the coherence and simplicity of single events. Even in "Kubla Khan", which keeps so many qualities of the dream in which it was born, there is a highly individual presentation of a remote and mysterious experience, which is in fact the central experience of all creation in its Dionysiac delight and its enraptured ordering of many elements into an entrancing pattern. Coleridge, may not have been fully conscious of what he was doing when he wrote it, but the experience which he portrays is of the creative mood in its purest moments, when boundless possibilities seem to open before it. No wonder he felt that, if he could only realize all the potentialities of such a moment, he would be like one who has supped with the gods:
"And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise."

it was in such experience, remote and strange and beyond the senses, that the Romantics sought for poetry, and they saw that the only way to convey it to others was in particular instances and examples. The invisible powers which sustain the universe work through and in the visible world. Only by what we see and hear and touch can we be brought into relation with them. Every poet has to work with the world of the senses, but for the Romantics it was the instrument which set their visionary powers in action. It affected them at times in such a way that they seemed to be carried beyond it into a transcendental order of things, but this would never have happened if they had not looked on the world around them with attentive and loving eyes. One of the advantages which they gained by their deliverance from abstractions and general truths was a freedom to use their senses and to look on nature without conventional prepossessions. More than this, they were all gifted with a high degree of physical sensibility and sometimes so enthralled by what they saw that it entirely dominated their being. This is obviously true of Wordsworth and of Keats, who brought back to poetry a keenness of eye and of ear which it had hardly known since Shakespeare. But it is no less true of Blake and Coleridge and Shelley. The careful, observing eye which made Blake a cunning craftsman in line and color was at work in his poetry. It is true that he was seldom content with mere description of what he saw, but, when he used description for an ulterior purpose to convey some vast mystery, his words are exact and vivid and make his symbols shine brightly before the eye. Though Coleridge found some of his finest inspiration in dreams and trances, he gave to their details a singular brilliance of outline and character. Though Shelley lived among soaring ideas and impalpable abstractions, he was fully at home in the visible world, if only because it was a mirror of eternity and worthy of attention for that reason. There are perhaps poets who live entirely in dreams and hardly notice the familiar scene,but the Romantics are not of their number. Indeed, their strength comes largely from the way in which they throw a new and magic light on the common face of nature and lure us to look for some explanation for the irresistible attraction which it exerts. In nature all the Romantic poets found their initial inspiration. It was not everything to them, but they would have been nothing without it; for through it they found those exalting moments when they passed from sight to vision and pierced, as they thought, to the secrets of the universe.

Though all the Romantic poets believed in an ulterior reality and based their poetry on it, they found it in different ways and made different uses of it. They varied in the degree of importance which they attached to the visible world and in their interpretation of it.  At one extreme is Blake, who held that the imagination is a divine power and that everything real comes from it. It operates with a given material, which is nature, but Blake believed that a time would come when nature will disappear and the spirit be free to create without it. While it is there, man takes his symbols from it and uses them to interpret the unseen. Blake's true home was in vision, in what he saw when he gave full liberty to his creative imagination and transformed sense-data through it. For him the imagination uncovers the reality masked by visible things. The familiar world gives hints which must be taken and pursued and developed:
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour."

Through visible things Blake reached that transcendent state which he called "eternity" and felt free to create new and living worlds. He was not a mystic striving darkly and laboriously towards God, but a visionary who could say of himself:

"I am in God's presence night and day,
And he never turns his face away."

Of all the Romantics, Blake is the most rigorous in his conception of the imagination. He could confidently say,"One Power alone makes a Poet: Imagination, The Divine Vision," because for him the imagination creates reality, and this reality is the divine activity of the self in its unimpeded energy. His attention is turned toward an ideal, spiritual world, which with all other selves who obey the imagination he helps to build.

Though Blake had a keen eye for the visible world, his special concern was with the invisible. For him every living thing was a symbol of everlasting powers, and it was these which he wished to grasp and to understand. Since he was a painter with a remarkably pictorial habit of mind, he described the invisible in the language of the visible, and no doubt he really saw it with his inner vision. But what he saw was not, so to speak, an alternative to the given world, but a spiritual order to which the language of physical sight can be applied only in metaphor. What concerned him most deeply and drew out his strongest powers was the sense of a spiritual reality at work in all living things. For him even the commonest event might be fraught with lessons and meanings. How much he found can be seen from his "Auguries of Innocence," where in epigrammatic, oracular couplets he displays his sense of the intimate relations which exist in reality and bind the worlds of sight and of spirit in a single whole. His words look simple enough, but every word needs attention, as when he proclaims:
"A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage."

Blake's Robin Redbreast is in itself a spiritual thing, not merely a visible bird, but the powers which such a bird embodies and symbolizes, the free spirit which delights in song and in all that song implies. Such a spirit must not be repressed, and any repression of it is a sin against the divine life of the universe. Blake was a visionary who believed that ordinary things are unsubstantial in themselves and yet rich as symbols of greater realities. He was so at home in the spirit that he was not troubled by the apparent solidity of matter. He saw something else: a world of eternal values and living spirits.