Monday, 10 March 2014

William Blake as a 'man of ideas'

The Romantic Movement came to prominence towards the end of the 18th Century. The ‘Big Six’ were a group of Romantic poets who wrote in reaction to the Enlightenment ideals of the day, and indeed they challenged the imposition of science upon nature by the likes of Isaac Newton. The Romantics saw themselves as freethinking intellectuals, and William Blake was at the forefront of this movement. Blake was raised in London by his somewhat dissenting family who belonged to the Moravian Church, a Protestant denomination. Not only was he a poet, but he was also a painter and a printmaker. He was known at the time for his particularly idiosyncratic and individual beliefs, and indeed the 19th Century scholar William Rossetti (editor of The Germ literary magazine) described him as a “glorious luminary” and “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”.

Blake, despite his devout commitment to Christianity and his reverence of the Bible, challenged the institutionalisation of the Church. He hated any kind of organised religion. Blake opposed the Church’s doctrine of conformity to social order, and indeed his poem “The Garden of Love” depicts a Chapel with the words “Thou shalt not” above the door. He goes on to write: “And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars, my joys & desires.” He loathed the restrictions of organised religion and conformism. His main qualm was the fact that religion suppressed the natural desires of humanity. In “A Vision of the Last Judgement” Blake writes:  

“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governd their Passions or have No Passions but because they have Cultivated their Understandings. The Treasures of Heaven are not Negations of Passion…”

His anger at the Church for suppressing sexuality and the pursuit of joy features in a vast amount of his poetry. In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” he writes: “Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. / He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.” In “London” he says that “Every blackening church appals.” At the time, his opposition to the Church’s teachings was considered extremely radical and unorthodox.

Not only did Blake resist certain aspects of Church teaching, he even designed his own mythology. In his prophetic books (culminated by his epic “Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion”) he describes characters such as “Urizen” and “Luvah”. Rather than clashing with or contradicting Christianity, he saw these figures as part of the religion. Blake, particularly in his later life, had frequent and often religious apparitions. In a letter to William Hayley, he wrote:

“Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.

He had these visions from a very early age, and indeed he is said, at the age of four, to have seen God, and later on in his life he claimed to have seen “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars”. Whether these visions were simply the product of a lively imagination or not, they had a profound effect on not only his poetry, but also his etching. For instance, one of his images depicts the mythological god “Urizen” praying before the world he has just created. These are not the imaginings of an unquestioning traditionalist; these are the ideas of a freethinking individual.

Blake did not only speak out about religion: he also opposed the Industrial Revolution, which he saw as an invasion of nature and the pastoral, bucolic English countryside. In his poem “And did those feet in ancient time” Blake describes “the dark Satanic Mills” which could represent the industrialisation of England and the invasion of our country’s idyllic scenery. Blake was not the only Romantic to fear nature’s demise due to the development of technology: in his poem “The Tables Turned” Wordsworth writes:

“Let Nature be your Teacher
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.”

Blake also saw nature as a teacher, and he strived to protect it from advances in technology. Moreover, his work was a response to the discoveries of the Enlightenment, particularly the rationalisation of nature by the likes of Newton. In one of his most famous etchings, “Newton”, he shows his opposition to Naturalism by depicting Newton using a compass to write on a scroll that seems to project from his own head. Blake also exhibits this belief in his poem “Jerusalem” in which he writes:

I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.

He did not view nature as scientific in any way, but rather he saw it as an entity that worked both aesthetically and spiritually.

Blake was also a part of what is known as the “free-love” movement, which believed that love and marriage should have all restrictions removed. It supported the removal of limitations on homosexuality, promiscuity, prostitution and adultery. Blake saw the Church’s institution of marriage as a sort of slavery:

“Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust?” (“Visions”)

Blake’s wife, Catherine, was unable to bear children, and this could have motivated his attitude. He even wrote a poem entitled “Why should I be bound to thee, O my lovely Myrtle-tree?” which promoted the beliefs of sexual libertarianism. Again, this was a somewhat avant-garde belief for a Christian in the 19th Century to have. This reiterates the fact that William Blake was much more than a poet, and that he was indeed a “man of ideas”.

Blake’s poetry also depicts the harsh lives of the poor, and many of his poems seem to have an anti-Capitalist stance. For instance, in his poem “London” he describes “each chartered street” and the “marks of woe” upon the faces of the poor and the chimney sweeps. Moreover, a number of his poems speak out about slavery and the repression of certain races. In his poem “The Little Black Boy” Blake explains that both divine love and revelation transcend the limitations of race and ancestry. He writes: “For when our souls [the soul of the black boy and the soul of the white boy] have learn’d the heat to bear / The cloud [of race] will vanish we shall hear his voice.” He did not agree with the belief that certain races were better than others, nor did he believe that the white race was more favoured by God or any other divine power. In his eyes, all were equal, and this shows that he was a freethinking and compassionate individual.

The Romantics, Blake particularly, did not only write about nature or the transience of life; rather they discussed relevant political ideals and beliefs, as well as commenting on the church and many other accepted institutions. Blake’s ideas were very progressive for his time; he was, therefore, a man of ideas who presented his ideas through the medium of verse.

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