Unknown Masters William Blake: What paintings of visions come
A poet and painter, William Blake is considered to be a man who gave back Britain a sense of identity, at a time when the French and American Revolutions were doing the same in those countries. But above all, Blake was a mystic, a visionary, with at least one foot in the Otherworld – if not more.
by Philip Coppens
William Blake is probably most famous for the opening verse of his “Auguries of Innocence”: “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.” The verse formed one of the centrepieces of the Tombraider movie about Lara Croft at the height of her fame; it was probably an hour even Blake would not have been able to prophesize.
The verse was Blake’s rephrasing of “as above, so below”, expressing Blake’s adherence to the notion of correspondences. He shared with the Hermetics that if one could really see, everything was double, micro- and macro-cosmic. To this, he added, that “without contraries there is no progression”. Ackroyd begins his biography of Blake by stating that “in the visionary imagination of William Blake there is no birth and no death, no beginning and no end, only the perpetual pilgrimage within time towards eternity.”
The future, as the opening verse might suggest, was Blake’s obsession – but so was the past, as the future would restore the glories of the past. Blake not so much romanticised, but “mythicised” the past, especially Celtic-megalithic Britain and the Druids, a past that he had labelled “Albion” and which was largely seen as a Garden of Eden – but British in nature. Blake had not arrived at this framework by reading, even though he was influenced by those who had written about Atlantis; primarily, Blake had experienced. Since childhood, Blake had visions, which, unlike most people, stayed with him throughout life – if not grew in their intensity. He believed that this gift was innate with all, but he had merely retained it beyond childhood.
His first important vision apparently happened when he was eight or ten, around 1766-1768, at Peckham Rye, near Dulwich Hill, and it was a tree filled with angels. When his father tried to thrash William for talking about this, the mother intervened; and it was she rather than the father who whipped him, when he told his parents about an encounter with Ezekiel. Blake is remembered as a poet and painter, but in his time, he was not considered to be an artist. When he became apprenticed in 1772, his master engraver was James Basire, who lived on No. 31 Great Queen Street, opposite the Masonic Grand Lodge. Quite a few of Blake’s friends would enter Freemasonry, though there is no record that Blake ever joined. Blake’s biographer Peter Ackroyd states that Blake never joined any organisation, but according to the lists of grandmasters of the Druid Order, Blake was a grandmaster from 1799 till 1827. Of course, such lists are often grand claims with little substantiation. Still, when he lived at No. 28 Poland Street, between 1785 and 1790, the “The Ancient Order of the Druids” convened merely a few yards down from Blake’s house, in an ale-house apparently established by the Order itself. Too close for comfort?
But perhaps even if Blake wasn’t, he should have been, for he was greatly interested in the Druids and must be seen as one of the great contributors to reintroducing the Celtic-megalithic dimension into British culture. Blake spoke of Albion, England’s great, mythological past, ruled by Druids. To quote Peter Ackroyd: “All his life, Blake was entranced and persuaded by the idea of a deeply spiritual past, and he continually alluded to the possibility of ancient lore and arcane myths that could be employed to reveal previously hidden truths.” Already at that time, the Welsh bards met on Primrose Hill and it was a site for which Blake had great affinity, mentioning it in some of his poems.
Blake had read Stukeley’s Abury on the supposed Druid temples of Avebury and Stonehenge. Blake, together with many like-minded people, would transform the history of Britain and direct it into the Celtic direction, away from its Roman foundations and focus. Blake believed that “The Egyptian Hieroglyphs, the Greek and the Roman Mythology, and the Modern Freemasonry being the last remnants of it. The honourable Emanuel Swedenborg is the wonderful Restorer of this long lost Secret.”
At one point, Blake also created an alchemically-themed tarot deck. When he learned that it was to be used by Varley and Hockley as a “key” for the Diogenes’ occult operations, Blake, realizing that the Diogenes represented the “chartered” forces of the establishment, got Samuel Palmer to disperse the cards. Hence, there may be truth to the statement that Blake never joined any organisation, as perhaps he was a serial non-joiner of organisation, preferring to be an individual. Blake lived at the time of the French and American Revolutions and was a great fan of both; he knew Thomas Paine. Blake wore a red liberty cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in the French revolution. He lived at a time when towns were society was entering the Industrial Age, with factories appearing in the landscape. He felt the landscape became a vision of hell and Mankind the subject of a new form of self-imposed slavery. But above all, he also understand that in these times of change, with Revolutions in America and France, Britain needed to have a new vision of the future and the past, and it is here that Blake’s role in history is perhaps at its most important. Blake was a Londoner and it was London, not some romantic place near a river in the countryside, that was the site of his visions. In his visions, he saw a different London than all those other people that ran through its streets. Blake saw London as a heavenly city; he saw angels, souls, prophets. Hence, to him, London was a “Heavenly London”, a “Jerusalem”, one of his best known poems. In 1916, at the height of the Great War, C. Hubert H. Parry would set it into music, to become known as the hymn “Jerusalem”, a key ingredient in every Last Night of the Proms and to some, almost like a second national anthem, often used as such for sporting occasions. Indeed, upon hearing the orchestral version for the first time, King George V said that he preferred it over the national anthem.
The poem itself was inspired by an apocryphal story that Jesus accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to the English town of Glastonbury. Mixed with legends of Troy, it created a powerful mythology that inspired Britain to see itself as holding a special role in the destiny of the world; as such, he gave a new vision to an old nation. For Blake, England may have been Jerusalem, but, specifically, for Blake, time did not exist and he therefore looked to the distant past and the distant future, to see a London of utter bliss, the “Heavenly Jerusalem” spoken off in the Bible. He seemed to have a particular affinity for the London Stone, London’s foundation stone, where he had quite a few visions of this “Jerusalem”. On Primrose Hill, a site cherished by the early modern Druids, he had a vision of the “Spiritual Sun”, which he compared to the true light, the light of the Imagination.
Blake is therefore frequently seen as a mystic, but this is not totally accurate. He deliberately wrote in the style of the Hebrew prophets and apocalyptic writers and envisioned his works as expressions of prophecy, following in the footsteps of Elijah and Milton. To be absolutely precise, he believed himself to be the living embodiment of the spirit of Milton. Blake’s Jerusalem was written as a preface to Milton. Here, John Milton, returns from heaven and encourages Blake to develop his relationship with dead writers. The poem is apocalyptic in its setting and deals with the union of the dead and the living. It is here that we begin to see the real Blake – or try to find out who the real Blake was. It is known that Blake felt that most of his art – whether poems or paintings – were merely representations of what he saw or knew in that other world. For example, Blake is credited with inventing a specific type of printing, but according to Blake, it was his brother Robert, following his death, who came to Blake in the night and explained to him the method of illuminated printing that he was to make his own. Most of Blake’s paintings (such as “The Ancient of Days”) are actually prints made from copper plates, which he etched in this method. He and his wife coloured these prints with water colours. Thus each print is itself a unique work of art.
As to his poems, some have seen these as automatic writing, dictated by beings from the otherworld, and written down by Blake, the scribe. Biographer Mark Schorer even states that Blake “went as far in the direction of the automatic as it is possible to go and remain poetry”.
The central question, of course, is whether it was real – or imagined… though for Blake the latter was real too. Hence, perhaps we should ask whether it was real or a hallucination, a mental aberration. Some, in his own time, have said that he suffered from hallucinations, others that he was just mad. William Wordsworth wrote: “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” None of the scenes in Blake’s art show landscapes as we know it. All his backgrounds are “eternal”, like darkness, or stars. Blake the painter does not do shepherds in a landscape or baby Jesus. Instead, he tackles subjects such as “the ghost of a flea”, or a portrait of Newton.
“Ghost of a Flea” was the result of his vision of a flea and its statement that human souls sometimes resided in fleas, as a punishment for past lives. One friend was there when Blake had a second vision of the flea, at which point he would sketch him in more detail: “here he is – reach me my things – I shall keep my eye on him. There he comes! His eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hands to hold blood and covered with scaly skin of gold and green.”
Again, for Blake, seeing such ghosts was not at all upsetting; it was but one in a series of supernatural visitors, including, apparently Satan – the true devil – “all else are apocryphal”. Late in life, Crabb Robinson had a conversation with Blake, in which he asked: “You use the same word as Socrates used. What resemblance do you suppose is there between your spirit and the spirit of Socrates?” Blake answered: “The same as between our countenances. I was Socrates… a sort of brother. I must have had conversations with him. So I had with Jesus Christ. I have an obscure recollection of having been with both of them.” Indeed, it was Blake himself who said “I can look at the knot in a piece of wood until it frightens me.” Despite using Christian imagery repeatedly, Blake was a mystical prophet, not a biblical prophet. He saw the Bible as a very long poem. For Blake, a more genuine bible were the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Blake’s friends nevertheless said he did not see himself as his disciple, but more like a fellow visionary.
But Blake had to – and did – use Christian imagery. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is one of his books, a series of texts written in imitation of biblical books of prophecy, but expressing Blake’s own intensely personal Romantic and revolutionary beliefs. The book describes the poet’s visit to Hell, a device adopted by Blake from Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. As several others of his works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell revealed the mysticism of Swedenborg. Newton is probably his most famous painting, in which the physicist is cast in the role of the Great Architect of the Universe – revealing a strong influence of Freemasonry. Foreshadowing Dali, who would claim to be the first painter of the world of quantum physics, Blake seems to have been the first painter of the world of physics. But his mind was definitely quantum physical, if not even more modern. He is centuries ahead of Rupert Sheldrake when Blake writes that “Matter, as wise logicians say, cannot without a form subsist, and form, say I, as well as they, must fail if matter brings no grist.” Did he reject Newton and the scientific approach? In life, Blake did not object to reason, but did not submit to its authority, seeing it merely as the agent of a partial truth. Indeed, speaking on consciousness – which he labelled Imagination – he stated that it was not subject to matter, echoed in one of his other famous sayings “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” So what would death be like for a man who felt death did not exist? At six o’clock in the evening on August 12, 1827, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died. Gilchrist reports that a female lodger in the same house, present at his expiration, said, “I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.” George Richmond gives the following account of Blake’s death in a letter to Samuel Palmer: “He died … in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy.”
After his death, his wife Catherine continued selling his works. In fact, his first book, Poetical Sketches (1783) was the only one published conventionally during his life. She said that her husband would appear daily to her, sit for some hours with her and advice her on how to run the business. It was no different than Blake’s relationship had been with his dead brother, whom, Blake stated, appeared to him often for a period of many years after his death.
Hence, it seems, Blake was true to himself when he stated that “The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself.” Blake considered memory to be an aspect of time, and hence what Christianity labelled the “Fallen World”. For him, “Salvation” were imaginary states, where he could transcend time, to look upon “our ancient days before this Earth appeared in its vegetated mortality to my mortal vegetated Eyes.” Despite having known the leading lights of his time, Blake’s fame would be post-mortem. Still, in life, he had said that “I should be sorry if I had an earthly fame for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art. I want nothing whatever. I am quite happy.”
In life, Blake claimed that Milton had appeared to him several times. Others have stated that he had gone as far as to think that he was a reincarnation of Milton. Either way, his poem Milton is often seen as his achievement of the state of mystical union, his “spiritual glory”, with the remainder of his work, Jerusalem, the illustrations for the Book of Job and Dante, as the retention of it.
But just like Mozart left his Requiem unfinished, so did Blake die before completing his illustrations of Dante’s Inferno – the voyage into death. The commission for Dante’s Inferno came to Blake in 1826, but his death in 1827 meant that only a handful of the watercolours were completed. For Blake, it would not have mattered. He had, it seems, achieved his personal ambition in life and completed his spiritual quest. What had he learned? “These states exist now. Man passes on, but states remain for ever; he passes through them like a traveller who may as well suppose that the places he has passed through exist no more, as a Man may suppose that the states he has passed through exist no more. Everything is eternal.” He added: “This world of imagination is the world of eternity… There exist in that eternal world the permanent realities of everything which we see reflected in this vegetable glass of nature.” Hence, Milton had died, but he still existed; so did Jesus; so did – would – Blake. As above, so below. As before, so after. As in life, so in death. There was only Eternity, in a grain of sand, a knot, or a flower, his paintings, or poems, or in Blake himself.