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The greatness of William Blake


For the December issue of the New York Review of Books, Richard Holmes writes about Leo Damrosch’s new biography on William Blake, Eternity’s Sunrise, which takes a new look at the idiosyncratic poet and printmaker’s relationship to sex and women. An excerpt below, full version via NYRB.

There are many William Blakes, but mine arrived with the tigers in the 1960s. The first line I ever read by Blake was not in a book, but laid out in thick white paint (or should I say illuminated) along a brick wall in Silver Street, Cambridge, England, in 1968. It was not poetry, but prose: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” It sent a strange shiver down my spine, as it did for thousands of other university students in England and America that year.

It turns out that, according to The New York Times of December 28, 1968, exactly the same line from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” appeared on big posters at the conference of the Modern Language Association in New York. According to the Times it signified that “Radical Agitation Among Scholars Grows,” and it led to several arrests.

This of course was the time of radical disturbances on university campuses across Europe, as well as Vietnam War and civil rights protests in America. Very quickly we all seemed to be reading Blake’s preface to Milton. This contains the great radical hymn, now known as “Jerusalem,” with which we identified; although in England, paradoxically, it was also sung at the patriotic last night of the London Proms concert amid much flag-waving, and still is:

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

But we also found at the start of the preface a thrilling exhortation that seemed to speak to us with extraordinary force and immediacy:

Rouze 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, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war.

Later this passage was used to set the theme and temper of Theodore Roszac’s influential book The Making of a Counter-Culture (1969). Penguin produced a popular anthology inspired by Blake: Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (1969). Allen Ginsberg began hypnotically chanting Blake at huge public readings, sometimes accompanied by what appeared to me (at the London Festival Hall, at any rate) to be a small, droning, portable harmonium.

In those days we didn’t tackle Milton itself, which seemed a strange production, one of the so-called Prophetic Books, very long and labyrinthine, and apparently requiring beforehand a total immersion in Fearful Symmetry (1947), Northrop Frye’s equally labyrinthine study of Blake’s symbolism. But we did find and celebrate Blake’s two great explosive revolutionary chants from the Songs of Experience (1794), “The Tyger” and “London.” The first seemed an invocation of pure energy (with unsettling hints of the atom bomb):

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

The second seemed like a piece of furious, contemporary street protest. The following year I found myself discussing it with two young GIs, as we stood together on the top platform of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They were on European leave, but expecting to fly back to Vietnam. We had a brief and totally unexpected meeting of minds—and hearts—that I have never forgotten. Looking down at the ornate Pisan Baptistery, we quoted Blake to one another:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appals;
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

All this seems a long time ago. The poem “London” is now carved for tourists into the pavement on the south side of Westminster Bridge. One can walk into the British Library in London, under the great bronze statue of Eduardo Paolozzi’s version of Blake’s “Newton” (1995), and find Blake’s “Rossetti Notebook” on display under the quiet lamps, and read a digital projection of the original version of “The Tyger,” with its many haunting manuscript variations:

In the well of sanguine woe
In what clay & in what mould
Were thy eyes of fury rolld…

My Blake, the radical visionary poet of the 1960s, seems almost old-fashioned now. I realize how many other Blakes there have been, both before and since. They include the bardic mystic popularized by the poets Algernon Charles Swinburne (1868) and W.B. Yeats (1893); the Marxist protester championed by the scientist Jacob Bronowski (1944); the inspired London dreamer summoned up by the biographers Mona Wilson (1927) and especially Peter Ackroyd (1995); the great psychological mythmaker analyzed by the critics Northrop Frye (1947) and Harold Bloom (1963); the agitator and revolutionary of the political historians E.P. Thompson (Witness Against the Beast, 1995) and David Erdman (Blake: Prophet Against Empire, 1974); and the man of “minute particulars” slowly and meticulously assembled by the inexhaustible scholar-researcher G.E. Bentley Jr., the author of two editions of Blake Records (1969, 1988) and A Stranger from Paradise (2001), a monumental compilation- biography, aimed to subdue “the factual Laocoön” of the life.

Add to these Blake as the protagonist of innumerable Freudian, Swedenborgian, Neoplatonist, Zen Buddhist, and, more recently, excellent feminist studies (Women Reading William Blake, 2007, including essays by Germaine Greer, Tracy Chevalier, and Helen Bruder). Nor can we overlook Marsha Keith Schuchard, the author of Why Mrs. Blake Cried (2006), with her detailed explorations (and illustrations) of Blake’s supposed excursions into ecstatic tantric sex.