by Jude Rawlins

First published in Divine Images: The Words of William Blake, Hampstead House Press 2005

Fuck the Blake scholars. The devil take their passionless, insipid, caged wordy shite. The study of William Blake is no place for “basic” or even “applied” research. It is an investigation into one’s own Blake, the Blake that speaks directly to one’s own soul; a quest for inspiration, salvation and direction. It is a supernatural voyage into the creative psyche, wherein you will mine for the ore of your own ideas. Do not struggle to know William Blake; the man is two centuries dead, so you never will, but through his work discover who you are; find new elements of yourself, and seek to learn the alchemy of self-expression.  

We must start by asserting that Love and Art have at once the same definition, boundaries, and lack thereof; they are that which is more physical than any religion, yet more spiritual than any science. Both are matters of the heart yet which depend upon earthly skills. Both communicate; Art with imagery, Love with deeds. They are cerebral and sensory experiences. They are emotional and intellectual, they are primal and sophisticated. They do not belong imprisoned within the desperate walls of those theories which are all too often nothing more than the institutionalised whims of small frightened men. Love is everything, everything. And art is the language that tells us just this, the only means by which we can ever come close to understanding and explaining the nature of love, love being the only thing that really matters to any of us.  

The attempts by both church and state to institutionalise the work of William Blake have been by turns hilarious and revolting. Most famously, the morphing of the preface to Milton into the hymn “Jerusalem”, regarded by many as the true anthem of England, sung in schools and churches, those very “dark Satanic Mills” of which the lyric speaks; misunderstood and misinterpreted to the point of absurdity. This is the man that dared to write There is No Natural Religion in 1788, the year Byron was born, when the Church in England was still all-powerful. This was a man tried twice for Sedition; whose patriotism was such that he did what any good English patriot will do; tear down the flag and denounce the monarchy. He physically attacked soldiers of the realm and swore to assist Napoleon in the overthrow of royalty, because he understood that true patriotism is against nationalism always, as did Beethoven in Austria. And, like Beethoven, his admiration for Napoleon turned to disgust when Bonaparte declared himself emperor, thus becoming that which he had apparently so despised. And in the very same preface from which the hymn “Jerusalem” was ripped Blake attacks the scholars himself, writing of the “stolen and perverted writings of Homer and Ovid”, and goes on to observe how “Shakespeare and Milton were both curb’d by the general malady and infection by the silly Greek and Latin slaves”.  

Blake was not against education, and although his own life was often a struggle against poverty, he did not view suffering as a necessary validation of one’s artistic aspirations. He admired the apparent dignity with which Milton had borne his troubles, and he embraced the modern issues of self-expression and artistic freedom. All texts on Blake, even the bad ones (of which there are a great many), cite him as a “visionary mystic”. His great calling was as an artist who sought to create work that would liberate the imagination; he attacked academic institutions for what he called “the mind forged manacles” that they invariably imposed upon the minds that they should have been broadening. Do they still? Has this situation changed in the last two hundred years? Perhaps it has, and on this we may hang our hopes, but where the essential material on Blake himself is concerned, we find endless parades of regurgitated academia, the Establishment itself always striving to have the last word on a man for whom the Establishment was entirely an enemy to be fought to the death, to be defeated not just in body, but, more importantly, in mind and spirit.  

Far and away the greatest and most useful contemporary exploration of Blake’s own life and times is that of Peter Ackroyd. The rationale is obvious when one considers Ackroyd’s own work. For he himself is certainly a visionary artist, and one of the great English voices of our time. His identification with Blake is a validation of his own creative self-discovery, a journey borne out by his own work. Ackroyd is no journeyman, but a true storyteller. Likewise, Patti Smith’s interpretation of Blake is a natural step in her own maverick development, as much as it is a natural progression for Blakean ideals after the works of Allen Ginsberg. To Ginsberg we owe much; it was he who rescued Blake for the pagans after the imbecile “poet” William Butler Yeats took it upon himself to annotate and invariably bastardise the power of Blake’s words for his own repulsive and artless aims. 

Indeed Yeats went further; in some insane moment he attempted to rewrite the facts in order to claim Blake for Ireland, owing to Blake’s mother’s line. Yeats’ claim had no basis in fact, but went unchallenged because little was known of Blake’s parentage at the time, aside from the names James and Catherine. But in recent years his parentage has been fully researched, and Yeats’ lie exposed; Blake’s mother, Catherine, hailed from the Nottinghamshire village of Walkeringham. During the Eighteenth Century, Walkeringham was dominated by the sectarian religious group known as the Moravian Brethren. The Moravians were notorious for their voracious sexual appetites; indeed it is highly plausible that the descendants of the movement were among the Nottinghamshire contemporaries of D.H. Lawrence, whose own writings have made him, for all time, the poster boy of sexual liberation. Against Lawrence, Lord Rochester was a featherlite.  

The Moravians’ belief in the female genitalia as “a model of the chapel of God, where husbands must worship daily” would have imbued their offspring, of which we have now established that Blake was one, with an enthusiastic appreciation of sexuality. His later celebration of “happy copulation” is an understandable result of this background. And, like the Moravians, Blake’s belief in the purifying power of human sexuality was strictly limited to wedlock. Sex was important to Blake, but only as an expression of his love for his wife. And so we see that Love, and Art, are the cathedrals of Blake’s genius, worshipped and argued with passionate zeal, because Blake recognised, as the academics do not, that intellectual freedom without passion is an unloaded weapon; without the heart, the head is quite useless.  

Blake valued love above all else. Although he never had any children, his marriage to Catherine Sofia Boucher brought him a lifetime of happiness. Catherine was nothing so trite as a mere muse; hers was the single most important influence of his life. Yes, she inspired him completely, but moreover they were a team. They shared the good times and the bad with grace and humour, in a partnership of devotion and equality that lasted for forty five years until Blake’s death at the age of sixty nine. Catherine died soon after, and was buried, like her husband, in the Dissenters’ cemetery of Bunhill Fields[1]. His greatest poems were, in many ways, meditations on this love. But Blake was not a writer of love poems. He was no Shelley. He cared nothing for tepid interpretations of love clichés. Blake, like all great artists, was not a scholar, to him institutionalised learning was, by definition, incapable of “Poetic Genius”, and, like all great artists, he needed only to learn the rudimentary skills required to say that which he was burning to say. The art was always inside him.  

He wrote fierce lines against the work of Rubens, and defended Raphael to the hilt. The Metaphysical Poets of the Seventeenth Century, and John Milton in particular, were his principle influences; and yet we detect virtually nothing of them in Blake stylistically. Instead we find their aspirations within his words, the spiritual, the longing, the absolute belief in love and the only “magical” institution, namely marriage. We also find the politics of the Republicans, an amalgamation of the social and sexual ideologies of John Donne and Andrew Marvell, but interpreted with the demonic flair of Paradise Lost and, to some lesser extent, the works of Alexander Pope. But, more than this, we see that Blake was truly an original of the species. He is not, as it is often claimed, a Romantic. He is more. Much more. There is something which you will not find in any text book on Blake. Academics steer well clear of the mystic. To them Blake is a poet, and a painter; to some degree a philosopher, but nowhere do they dare to refer to him as a prophet or a shaman. But to those who discover Blake not for any intellectual purpose, but through their own emotional and creative processes, Blake, more than any other writer in the English language, including Shakespeare and Chaucer, can take on mythic proportions. His writing is so explosive, and his paintings so visionary, that to call them “supernatural” no longer seems melodramatic. These works are more profound and powerful, more realised and more directed than any simple artistic exercise. Blake is passionate but not egotistical, his statements are ferocious but still humane; you can believe, easily, that William Blake would have ripped the throat out of the likes of Adolf Hitler in a second. He suffers no barbarism or injustice. He rises above the material at every turn, seeking delight only in the expression of human emotion. His brush strokes are broad, yet his ideas intimate. To Blake, any form of inequality is a disgrace, and is not to be tolerated. He stands for the people by soaring over the heads of their oppressors. To this day, he has followers, something else which the text books don’t care to examine. But the cult of William Blake exists; he is a religious figure to those who have no religion other than their own.  

When visiting Bunhill Fields, one will often notice pennies placed upon Blake’s gravestone. The pennies are left there by the followers of William Blake; they are a gratuity for the man who lived and died penniless, yet whose words continue to enrich the very fabric of our culture. A penny, because it is the smallest denomination of currency in England. He didn’t do it for the money, but he deserves something for his remarkable accomplishments. There are those for whom Blake’s words are an altar, others for whom the man himself is the patron saint of English artists, a deity of the English Creative Tradition. I invoke England, because Blake’s Englishness is of fundamental importance here. He was a Londoner through and through. The physical world beyond the city held little interest for him. Only once did he ever leave it. He spent a short time in Sussex, living at Felpham; it was here that he wrote Milton, and here that he was tried for Sedition. He initiated a creative bond between London and Sussex that has become central to the Tradition; a path that was later walked by Bloomsbury, its influence traceable through the “stream of consciousness” writing of Virginia Woolf in particular. The link between Blake and Woolf is far more than geography and words. Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in London in 1836, nine years after Blake’s death. He was born in Grosvenor Place, just a short distance from Blake's former home in South Molton Street, but in stark contrast to Blake, he was of privileged stock. A child prodigy, he was sponsored by Wordsworth and educated at Eton, where he wrote his first published work, The Unhappy Revenge, at the age of twelve. At fifteen he won the coveted Prince Consort Prize for Modern Languages. He continued his education at Oxford, where he met the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti had come into the possession of several unpublished notebooks belonging to Blake (later published as The Rossetti Manuscript), and idolised Blake the painter/poet. Swinburne subsequently fell under Blake’s spell. In Blake’s poems he found the passion that was lacking in his own academic pursuits, and the creative energy lacking in the works of the major contemporary poets like Wordsworth, Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In agreeing with Blake’s observations (especially on those “dark Satanic Mills”), he began to view the privileges of social class and academic institutions as the cause of this stagnation, and quickly lost interest in his previously promising academic career. He supported himself writing reviews for The Spectator, wherein he also began to publish his poems and essays. At 31 he published William Blake: A Critical Essay, a seminal appreciation of Blake which would become a touchstone work for the generation of writers and artists that followed, from Oscar Wilde and T.S. Eliot, to D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, which is where we came in. Three years later Swinburne published what would prove to be his best volume of poetry; Songs Before Sunrise was again clearly influenced by Blake's work, notably Songs of Innocence and Experience and Jerusalem. Swinburne died in 1909, just three years before the publication of Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out, and six years after Wilde's death in exile in Paris. It is Swinburne who bridges the gap between Blake and Bloomsbury; it was he who largely brought Blake out of the shadows and elevated him to iconic status.  

One wonders if, without the intervention of such artists as Swinburne and Rossetti, and Parry’s use of Blake’s words in what is now surely the world’s most famous hymn, Blake would have been forgotten as easily as his contemporaries, such as John Flaxman. Flaxman was a pivotal character in Blake’s life, and an artist of some note himself at the time. It was Flaxman who encouraged Blake to take the Hampstead air, which, being at the time somewhat cleaner than that of Blake’s Soho, Blake hated, always complaining that it’s purity made him dizzy and gave him headaches. Pretty much all that remains of Flaxman’s legacy today is a less than significant street in Soho which bears his name. But it is impossible to believe that Blake would have suffered a similar fate. He has become one of the most famous men in history, and it is not Swinburne’s words that we recall, but his own. Could one find the Emerald City without the Yellow Brick Road? Most probably, eventually.  

Blake was far more than a mere contemporary of Flaxman, even then. He was less revered than he is today, but he was certainly feared. It is also worthy of note that Blake invented the concept of the multimedia artform. His illustrated poems were truly groundbreaking. Had he lived in the Twentieth Century one can easily imagine him being a filmmaker; if he lived today he would be installed behind his DV camera and his computer, he’d have the coolest website, he’d have loved the punk ethic. We can say this with quite a degree of certainty. I would go further, perhaps even expecting him to be a fan of John Lydon and Morrissey. Another reason why the Blake academics, none of whom seem to have the slightest appreciation of the punk ethic, are largely talking fluff.  

Indeed there is much fluff talked, far and wide, about William Blake. One does not have to search far for an example of the most appallingly inaccurate information. Adrian Gilbert’s book The New Jerusalem is a case in point. Gilbert tells the story of Christopher Wren’s grand designs for the rebuilding of London that followed the Great Fire of 1656. He talks of how Wren envisaged London as the “New Jerusalem”, but goes on to claim that this was the inspiration for Blake’s “hymn”. And it is this particular misinterpretation that so often dogs and infuriates both the Blake scholars and followers alike. Blake never wrote a hymn called “Jerusalem”, or indeed any hymn. He did write a poem called Jerusalem, but this isn’t it. The poem in question was, as I mentioned earlier, the preface to his Milton, and only became co-opted into a hymn when set to music by Parry some eighty years after Blake's death, “Jerusalem” being the name Parry gave to the tune. Secondly, as I have also stated, Blake wrote the poem at Felpham, not London, although the geography is unimportant, as it is absolutely clear to anyone who has ever read the paragraph that immediately precedes the poem in its original context that Blake is making no reference to a physical place whatsoever; Jerusalem is symbolism, he is talking of the need for a great Artistic Utopia, and he declares this unequivocally:  

Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court, and the University who would, if they could, forever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war… Painters! On you I call. Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works. They are a class of men whose whole delight is in destroying... if we are but just and true to our own Imaginations we shall live forever in Worlds of Eternity...  

Gilbert also misquotes the poem, referring to the line “And shall we build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”. The correct wording is as follows:  

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.  

In context, again, the symbolism is pretty evident. Blake was, at that time, rebelling against the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg, and allying himself, to some degree, with the writings of Boheme. Also, Blake was writing a century after Wren and Hawksmoor, and knew little of Wren's grand designs for London that followed the Great Fire. His only connection to Wren was that he was baptised at St. James' Piccadilly, and attended the church when growing up in what is now Broadwick Street in Soho. The Blake Cenotaph in Saint Paul's Cathedral came many years after his death, and is irrelevant. In addition to this, Blake was fiercely opposed to much of the reconstructed London; he was a republican, and a dissenter; he hated the way the city revered the Royal Family, he participated in the storming of Newgate (remember that he lived before the Victorian sanitation programme; his London was one of poverty and Imperialism), and during his time at Felpham in Sussex - when the poem in question was composed - he was tried for Sedition after attacking the King's soldiers in the street and declaring his support for Napoleon. Blake, the author of There is no Natural Religion, was no hymn maker; indeed he was feared and reviled by both church and state. Many believe that Parry's exercise was one of consciously trying to sanitise Blake, a task which he undertook at the request of the Church of England. In a nutshell, Blake's poem owes infinitely more to his own internal creative dialogue than it does to any grand plan of Christopher Wren, of which it is unlikely he was even aware. Any reference to “New Jerusalem”, if they have a Blakean context, are almost certainly references to Swedenborg, whose writings, although briefly of great interest to Blake, Blake quickly came to view as somewhat crude compared to his own artistic and spiritual path. Writes Blake again:  

In Great Eternity, every particular Form gives forth or Emanates its own peculiar Light, & the Form is the Divine Vision, and the Light is his Garment. This is Jerusalem in every Man.  

Adrian Gilbert, as we can clearly see, is talking out of his arse. Luckily for him, Blake is not the centre of his subject. But when the man himself is under the spotlight, we encounter an altogether different problem. In modern publications, it is, for some completely in explicable reason, the done thing to give over several pages of introduction to the academics – regardless of the subject. Could there be a more preposterous way for publishers to approach the words of William Blake? They approach Blake as theologians approach scripture, endlessly assuming the responsibility for the “correct interpretation”, when in fact such one dimensional thinking automatically propels them in the opposite direction to this particular artist. Blake biographers, scholars, and other “experts” laughably claim to know him. Dr. Bruce Woodcock of the University of Hull writes, in his introduction to the otherwise excellent Wordsworth Editions’ Selected Poems of William Blake, that “Blake’s art seeks to renew, radicalise and release human potential, energy and imagination from the limits of laws, inequalities and the ‘single vision’ of the rational mind”. Whilst this observation is accurate, it is, in fact, also painfully obvious. There is nothing to be learned from such observations, their only use is as tag-lines, commercials for the writings of Blake. Put them on the dust jacket, not in the book. We may learn much from the chronology of Blake’s life, from the history of Georgian London, from the written impressions of those closer in time, such as Swinburne and Gilchrist, and most of all from the emotional responses Blake elicits in ourselves. Dr. Woodcock would be better to tell us of his own Blake; what he writes is no more than we learn immediately upon reading Blake’s line “I will not cease from Mental Fight”. One feels that Woodcock falls head over heels into the trap that Blake had set for him. In the last paragraph, the eminent professor quotes the very line of Blake’s that trashes everything which Woodcock himself has attempted to say in the preceding twelve pages: 

I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s;
I will not Reason or Compare: my business is to Create.  

What Woodcock writes is not wrong. It just isn’t particularly important. Professor Peter Butter, formerly of the University of Glasgow, writing in his preface to the Everyman edition, has the good sense to at least vindicate his equally invalid musings, writing that, to many, Blake is more than a great poet, and attempting to avoid the pitfall: “I trust the reader will enjoy them, and not worry if she/he does not fully understand: the learned commentators don’t either”. Alas, this is a terrible own goal (as well as being grammatically appalling); the “learned commentators” don’t understand? Why not? Blake is complex, certainly, but when one feels one understands Blake then one probably does understand Blake, at least well enough to have satisfied Blake himself. It would seem as if the academic tradition behaves rather like morphine. But we have the capacity to feel, and therefore we have the ability to understand Blake, what’s more to understand him on an emotional and spiritual level, which is everything he intended. Meanwhile, the academics continue to put the head before the heart, therefore missing just about everything that actually counts. Arts academics, far and wide, are guilty of the most vulgar and heinous crime that one can perpetrate against Art, namely elitism. And, by extension, Love. Theirs are the “mind forged manacles” against which Blake warns us, never more prevalent than when they attempt to debate Blake himself. As Blake puts it in The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, even at their very best, such thinkers merely hold a candle in the sunshine. One would require PhDs in pain, love, and every human condition before one could call oneself truly qualified to theorise about Art. So, we are not formally qualified. Well, who cares? Not William Blake.  

In his biography Blake, Peter Ackroyd steers impressively clear of the traps which Blake evidently set for the academics. Ackroyd’s perception of Blake is more personal, more reflective. He attempts to search out Blake by discovering the whos and the wheres, as much as the hows and the whys. He looks closely at the personalities involved, acknowledging Swedenborg and Boheme, but relegating them to their proper place as the mere “outside” influences. John Flaxman, Joseph Johnson, Thomas Paine, James Basire, James Parker, and, of course, Blake’s beloved wife Catherine Sofia, are the central characters. Ackroyd makes the occasional leap of faith too, something which the academics would never dare, and in doing so successfully brings together many of the threads of Blake’s life. Perhaps not with complete accuracy, but, for the first time, in a useful and practical context. Thanks to Ackroyd, it has become possible to tell a story of William Blake, rather than just to bluster wildly about his literary genius.  

William Blake was born at 28 Broad Street, Soho, London, on 28th November 1757, and died at Fountain Court, Charing Cross, London, on 12th August 1827. Broad Street, now Broadwick Street, leads just off Carnaby Street, and Fountain Court is adjacent to The Strand. There is maybe a mile between them. From his window in Broad Street he could just see Kew to the west. At the age of four he began to see his “visions”; God at the window, angels in the trees, and it was while looking out at Kew that he had what he later described as his “Visions of the Daughters of Albion”. Tragically, Westminster Council saw fit to demolish the house in the 1960s, replacing it with a concrete tower block that they idiotically named William Blake House. Gone, then, is the most important physical site in the history of English Literature, for not even Shakespeare’s purported home in Stratford-on-Avon could claim to have been such an influence on the artist’s work. Apart from his house in South Molton Street (just off Oxford Street), all of Blake’s various London homes are now gone, his only other surviving residence being the cottage at Felpham. Blake’s legacy has been vandalised; by the church, by the state, by Westminster Council, by the academic institutions which he so mistrusted, by William Butler Yeats, by Adrian Gilbert, etc. etc. Yet no other artist in English history retains as much cerebral power, not even Shakespeare. And with every year that passes, Blake’s influence becomes more and more detectable in the creative tapestry. Through William Blake we can find ourselves; his poems are our agnostic scriptures, like the Gods of old his words are sometimes gentle and sometimes violent. When we submerse ourselves in Blake’s imagery we emerge closer to something within ourselves, and it doesn’t really matter how or why. His words are alchemy and his imagery divine. His art helps us to comprehend love on every single human and spiritual level. What else matters, if not love?  

[1] Bunhill Fields is located in City Road, London, opposite the John Wesley Methodist Chapel, just south of Old Street tube station. The exact location of Blake’s grave within the cemetery was unknown until very recently, when the documentation of his burial was cross-referenced with a newly discovered plan of the cemetery dating from the time. I was fortunate enough to be present when this information was passed to a meeting of the Blake Society in August 2004 by an official of Bunhill Fields. Continue past the existing gravestone, and take the path immediately to your left. On the lawn to your right you will see the first of several trees that line the path. Blake is buried in a plot which is approximately eight feet before the tree, and eight feet onto the lawn. The original stones marking this part of the cemetery were destroyed during an air raid in World War Two, and subsequently removed. But at that time the exact location of Blake’s grave was already lost information. There are now plans to place a marker on the spot on the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth in 2007. Alas, Catherine is buried elsewhere, in a locked part of the cemetery, in an unmarked grave near the south wall. Thomas Hardy, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe are amongst the other luminaries buried in Bunhill Fields.