Thursday 7 December 2017

William Blake - A Slight Reassessment

William Blake is often taken as a kind of godfather of the Albion idea as it manifests itself in modern times, and his work is certainly very inspiring in that regard. When I was a teenager I used to go to the Tate Gallery in London (as it was, Tate Britain now) to look at his pictures that were on display there, since my school was not far away. I was also given a book of his poems for Christmas one year and read many of these enthusiastically, even if uncomprehendingly in the case of some of the longer, more obscure ones which were frankly over my head at the time, and which I gave up on.

I loved Blake but something in me always held back from complete admiration. I really liked his pictures for their imaginative vision, bold colour, vigour and originality but at the same time I found them a bit crude and the human figures almost ugly. Despite the spiritual subject matter there was always something too earthy about the paintings for me to give them my unreserved appreciation. His shorter poems, the Songs of Innocence and Experience for example, were full of charm, insight and beauty but the longer ones were too dense even if some lines and passages were inspiring. But as works of art they didn't really move me. I felt that Blake was a visionary artist but not a particularly great craftsman and that sometimes his reach exceeded his grasp. Many people obviously don't feel that but it was my impression, and it reduced my capacity to appreciate his work as much as perhaps I should have done.

Looking back, I think what I found missing in Blake was a sense of the essentially spiritual nature of the spiritual.  Let me explain what I mean by that. Both in his art and his poetry he seems to perceive the higher worlds too much in terms of this one. It's as though visions are raining down on him but are being interpreted in quite an earthbound way.  I believe this is because, despite his extraordinary imagination and probable clairvoyance, he was still in many ways a product of 18th century materialism and the world of English nonconformist Christianity.  That's not his fault but if we compare his spiritual outlook with that of a saint or devotional mystic of the Catholic church (disclaimer - I'm not a Catholic myself) there is something quite materialistic about him. He received a vision but, like anyone, he interpreted this within the limitations of his own personality and that of the times in which he lived. I think his reception of the vision was partially deficient and that is why his work can be misinterpreted as political as discussed in Bruce Charlton's recent post here -

It might be said that  Blake cannot be blamed if his work is taken to be something other than it really was but I would say that the deficiency of his receptivity is at least partly responsible. Maybe a purer soul would not have left himself open to such misunderstanding but then God uses the vehicles that are available and none are perfect. By any criteria William Blake accomplished a mighty work, and I write this post not to criticise him in any way but simply to point out that he was not perfect and his vision had its faults, most notably in that it tends to materialize spirituality. At least in my opinion it does. My two colleagues on this blog may completely disagree with me.

Perhaps if we regard Blake as a prophet but not a saint, we will have a clearer idea of him. I see him being welcomed into heaven and congratulated on his magnificent achievements, all the greater because of the time in which he worked, but then being sent off for a little purgatorial purification. May we all be so fortunate!


Bruce Charlton said...

@William, very interesting and fair evaluation. I too have many reservations about Blake - but interestingly they are not always the same as yours - and my evaluation of his virtues and strengths differ as well!

In sum, I personally regard Blake as a great spiritual figure: yes, a prophet, and one of our greatest; but also a great man in terms of his love and courage, his dogged independence and determination. His life is an example to me.

His early poetry (short lyrics) and aphorisms I regard as among the greatest in our language - and like you I do not find the later prophetic poems to be enjoyable or successful overall - also I find them almost incomprehensible for great stretches.

As an artist, I find his ideas more convincing than the execution - I don't regard him as excellent at drawing (indeed, I think this is an objective fact that can be judged by anyone who has a feel for drawing) - yet his work depends almost wholly on drawing.

So, I find Blake to be an interesting and sometimes enjoyable artist - but certainly not one of the greats; not in the same class as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Millais to mention a few of the best English ones; nor even as good as fine but lesser figures such as Ramsay, Romney, Holman Hunt, Waterhouse, Stanley Spencer... (and far, far below the very first class such as Rembrandt! - of whom Albion has produced none).

In sum an original and worthwhile artist, but minor - mainly due to lack of painterly and drawing skills. Whereas as a poet, although naive - Blake's simple lyrics match even those of Shakespeare.

(Great simple lyrics always border on bathos - and all great lyricists will sometimes cross that line: but the closer they come to bathos without crossing - the greater they are.)

(Although Shakespeare had a vastly greater *range* across which he was unsurpassed, and a linguistic 'skill' which goes far beyoind skill, far beyond *anyone*! leaving Chaucer, Milton and Wordsworth in the dust!)

But when it comes to his prophetic status in the 'modern' (post-medieval) era Blake is unsurpassed in Britain; and in terms of expressing core truth perhaps he was our most important modern prophet in terms of accessibility.

(eg. Coleridge, Barfield, Arkle - among my favourites - are pretty unreadable for most people. Even Wildblood's lucid prose is a tougher proposition than Blake's constellation of luminous, pregnant aphorisms, phrases and comments!)

William Wildblood said...

I would agree with everything you say there, Bruce. Blake's shorter poems are exquisite and as a man who ploughed his own furrow, he is wholly admirable and someone to emulate as far as possible.

It's interesting you say that Albion has never produced a painter on the level of Rembrandt et al. Perfectly true. The artistic genius of Albion seems to express itself above all on the level of poetry though I would say that there was a period in the 16th and 17th centuries when it did in music as well.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I find your criticism cogent but do not follow to the conclusions about his spiritual qualities. I would instead say that the extent of his mental and artistic talents were unequal to his vision, not making thereby any specific claims about his vision, which I cannot personally attest.

Then again, I do not observe any distinction between a saint and a prophet sufficient to say that a person could be one rather than the other. To my mind, it is easier to discern the qualities which mark a prophet by consideration of the publishable works, seen at a remove in time and space. Whilst one must meet a saint in person to really feel the power of sanctity in their life and personal associations. So it may be a simple matter of differing definitions. I accept the reports of saints in times past, but it is only the prophets that I can verify by their record.

William Wildblood said...

I would say a prophet has a message from God or the spiritual world and has to have the personality to transmit that publicly while a saint has more personal sanctity and actual love of God. Perhaps one focuses on truth and the other on love though there are no hard and fast lines of demarcation since each must include elements of the other.