Monday, November 28, 2022

Art Eyewitness Book Review: William Blake vs. the World by John Higgs


   William Blake vs. the World 

By John Higgs

Pegasus Books/$38.95/400 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The title of John Higgs' new book on the poet and artist William Blake is well-chosen: William Blake vs. the World.

After studying Blake's life, it is fairly obvious that the "world" or, rather, the political and cultural establishment of Great Britain, did regard Blake in an unfavorable light. To some, Blake was a threat to society. Others wrote him off as a deranged lunatic who somehow evaded being sent to "Bedlam." 

The details of Blake's many misfortunes are well-known. With considerable difficulty, he faced-down a charge of sedition during the Napoleonic Wars. His career as an artist, after a promising start in print making, was a study in failure.

John Higgs, a talented writer on a wide-range of subjects, recounts the course of William Blake's life with verve and insight. But he does so in the context of a deep reading of religion, psychology, cognitive science and even quantum mechanics. This is an unconventional biography of a man so ahead of his time that we are still following in the footsteps of his quest to understand God, humanity and the cosmos. 

William Blake, Newton, c.1805

Born in 1757, Blake's early years marked the transition from the Enlightenment to the Age of Revolution, from sense to sensibility. By the time he was buried in a pauper's grave in 1827, Blake had witnessed the fall of the Bastille and the rise of "dark Satanic mills." Yet, his mind always reached beyond these contemporary events in the search for life's ultimate meaning. On some level, Blake's restless spirit is active still.  

How can that be? Where and how can an artist and poet who died nearly two centuries ago remain alive? 

Blake still lives in the realm of the imagination. It was a place of transcendent importance to him, as Higgs explains in considerable detail.

The "one central pillar of the Blakean worldview...," Higgs writes,"is the idea that the imagination is divine."

Blake spent a lot of time dwelling in his imagination. Higgs describes his visions of angels as a child. Blake's parents recognized that their son was exhibiting unusual behavior, but did not attempt to restrain him. Blake was not sent to school, receiving basic instruction at home, largely through Bible reading, and then allowed to roam free over the fields and heaths which still were within easy reach of London.

William Blake, Songs of ExperienceFrontispiece,1794-1825 

As a result, Blake's imaginative powers were not dragged down into the constraints of the daily "dawn-to-dusk" rut of doing prescribed tasks by prescribed methods. 

Even when he was apprenticed to a professional engraver, James Basire, Blake was given wide latitude. Basire, noticing his artistic skill and ability to work without supervision, sent Blake to Westminster Abby to sketch the royal monuments for a series of prints. While engaged in this work, Blake developed an acute sense of the myth-history of Britain which he added to his growing awareness of the infinite world.  

By the time he reached adulthood, Blake had attained a very high level of proficiency in drawing and printmaking. This skill-set enabled him to support himself with commercial commissions while launching into creative work of his own. 

William Blake, Songs of lnnocenceFrontispiece, 1789-1825

In the revolutionary year of 1789, Blake published an illustrated volume of  poems, Songs of Innocence, and The Book of Thel, the first offering of his private mythology, which would grow more complex and increasingly difficult to comprehend.

During the next few years, Blake seemed on the brink of success. He made a great technical breakthrough, developing a method of etching which combined words and images on the same printed sheet. These could be hand-tinted or left uncolored, depending on the taste and available funds of the public.

William Blake, Los with the Sun,
 Plate 97 of Jerusalem,1804-1820

This technique, which Blake called relief etching, should have brought a steady stream of publishers knocking on his door. In 1796, such a commission came his way, to illustrate a popular volume of religious poetry, Night Thoughts by Edward Young. Blake pulled out all the stops to insure success but the book was a critical and commercial disaster.

Now began in earnest the long ordeal of "William Blake vs the World." Blake struggled against poverty, critical derision and suspicions of political treason. He was not completely without support. His long-suffering wife, Catherine, stood by him, and a devoted collector, a British civil servant named Thomas Butts, commissioned a series of scenes from the Bible. These pictures have few equals in the religious art of modern times.

William Blake, The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ's Garments,1800

During these dark years, Blake came close to the breaking point. A recently identified self-portrait, dating to 1802, shows Blake with the haunted, wounded eyes of a proverbial "prophet without honor in his own country." 


William Blake, Self-Portrait, c. 1802

The vicious attacks upon him reached a crescendo in 1809 with the review by Robert Hunt of Blake's exhibition - the only one he ever mounted. Hunt dismissed the the display of art as "a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain."

Somehow, Blake struggled on. Conversing "with my friends in Eternity," Blake nurtured his thoughts and reflections into advanced interpretations of the human mind and soul. 

William Blake, Title Page of Jerusalem (Plate 2),1804-1820

Higgs' analysis of this long process is positively brilliant. He handles complex issues in an engaging, understandable manner which non-specialists in Blake studies (like myself) can readily grasp. Higgs writes of Blake:

His myth has all the trappings of gods and apocalypses, but it too is fundamentally about the struggles of a mind... Blake, from this perspective can be seen as a psychologist long before the field was founded. When his characters are understood as separate parts of his psyche, the clashes and dramas that occurs between them can be seen as Blake trying to understand his own mental landscape. When the angels and demons who appear to be without are understood to come from within, all mythical and theological sagas are revealed to be the clashing energies of the mind.

William Blake, 
The Vision of God from Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1825-26

Combining art and poetry, Blake mapped-out and illustrated the emotional terrain he explored. Not until very late in life would he find like-minded souls to join him. Fortunately, in the 1820's, a group of talented young artists, including Samuel Palmer and George Richmond, acknowledged him as a prophet and a sage. For Blake, whose long ordeal certainly informed his late-career Illustrations of the Book of Job, the friendship of these idealistic artists must indeed have seemed like a providential act of God.

Even the British establishment eventually came round. The preface to Milton: a Poem in Two Books was set to music in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry, later with orchestration by Sir Edward Elgar. Today, this hymn, Jerusalem, has become the unofficial anthem of England.

Blake, though he held great hope for the spiritual redemption of the people of England, would not be pleased that his poem should now be embraced for  political reasons - or any other agenda points save leading people to God. 

In some of the most hard-hitting commentary in this outstanding book, Higgs rebukes the repeated misuse of Blake's words and images by the "powers that be."

There is now a long tradition of Blake being celebrated by authorities in ways that were, to those who understand his work, fantastically inappropriate. When the Labour and Conservative parties sing "Jerusalem" at their conferences, they are presumably unfamiliar with the context of those words in the preface to the poem "Milton"... They seem unaware that they are calling for the revolutionary overthrowing of the 'ignorant Hirelings' of 'the Camp, the Court, & the University'.

Higgs focuses on several examples of heedless misappropriation of Blake. We will look at one, involving a particularly famous Blake image, created in 1794. 

William Blake, Urizen or The Ancient of Days,
 Frontispiece to Europe A Prophecy,1794-1821

Blake's The Ancient of Days, recalls Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes.This bearded figure is frequently confused with the image of God the Father.To Blake, he was a more problematical being, capable of both good and evil: Urizen.

Urizen, leaning forward to measure the universe with his geometer's compass, is a symbol of the Age of Reason, which Blake detested. To Blake, Urizen represents aspects of human intellect which, at best, need to be controlled. In other references, Urizen is identified, as the "mistaken demon of heaven" or, quite bluntly,"Satan is Urizen."

Somehow or other, officials in London never got the memo. 

In November 2019, to highlight a very successful exhibition of Blake's art at the Tate Gallery in London, the image of Urizen was projected on to the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. It was an astounding blunder. Higgs writes:

For those familiar with the symbolism of Blake's mythology, it was difficult to believe this was actually happening.

Higgs goes on to question the motives of the officials of St.Paul's in agreeing to project the image of Urizen/Satan on to one of the most sacred churches in the world.

Is it possible they did not understand Blake's mythology... The alternative is that they fully understood the implications of branding a cathedral with Urizen and, in a moment of clarity, agreed that it made sense.

After nearly two centuries of close examination of Blake's writings and art, there is clearly a lot more work to be done. However, mistakes, blunders and bloopers have a way of clearing the air and getting people back to the "drawing board." Perhaps the Urizen-miscue at St. Paul's will have that effect, sparking renewed interest in the prophetic genius of William Blake - and what he really believed.

John Higgs' William Blake vs. the World is a near-perfect book for getting a grasp on Blake's intellectual and artistic achievements. My only caveat - and a relatively minor one - is the disappointing selection of black and white illustrations. They are few in number and rather indifferent in quality.

To remedy that problem, I referred to one of my favorite books, William Blake by Kathleen Raine. Originally published in 1970, this World of Art title from Thames & Hudson has been reissued with an abundance of superb color pictures. It is a great read, too. Raine was a noted Blake scholar, as well as a poet. Her biography of Blake, like Higg's, is full of knowledge and great of heart.

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder, 1799-1806

It is highly enjoyable to match Raine's thoughts and reflections with those of Higgs, provided, of course, that the channels of "divine imagination" are left open for additional insights from "our friend in eternity," Mr. William Blake.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved   

Introductory Image: Cover art of William Blake vs. the World by John Higgs. Courtesy of Pegasus Books.

William Blake, (British,1757–1827) Newton, c.1805. Color print, ink, watercolor: 46 x 60 cm. (18 1/8 x 23 5/8 in.) Tate Gallery.

William Blake (British,1757–1827) Songs of Experience: Frontispiece, created 1794, printed ca. 1825. Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and shell gold: sheet: 6 3/16 x 5 9/16 in. (15.7 x 14.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund,1917.#17.10.28

William Blake (British, 1757–1827)  Songs of Innocence: Frontispiece, 1789, printed ca. 1825. Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and shell gold: sheet: 6 3/16 x 5 9/16 in. (15.7 x 14.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum. Rogers Fund, 1917 # 17.10.2

William Blake (British, 1757-1827) Los with the Sun, Plate 97 of Jerusalem, 1804 to 1820. Relief etching printed in orange with pen and black ink, watercolor, and gold on paper: 13 1/2 x 10 3/8 inches (34.3 x 26.4 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection B1992.8.1(97)

William Blake (British,1757–1827) The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ's Garments,1800. Pen, ink, gray wash, watercolor: 16 5/8 x 12 3/8 in. (42 x 31.4 cm). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

William Blake (British,1757–1827) Self-Portrait, c.1802. Pencil with black, white and gray wash, 243 x 201 mm. Collection of Robert N. Essick. (,_Self_Portrait,_1802,_Monochrome_Wash.jpg)
William Blake (British,1757–1827) Title Page of Jerusalem (Plate 2),1804-1820. Relief etching printed in orange with pen and black ink, watercolor, and gold on paper: 13 1/2 x 10 3/8 inches (34.3 x 26.4 cm) Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection: B1992.8.1(2)

William Blake (British,1757–1827) The Vision of God from Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1825-26. Engraving: plate: 8 9/16 x 6 5/8 in. (21.7 x 16.8 cm)
sheet: 16 3/16 x 10 7/8 in. (41.1 x 27.6 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Edward Bement, 1917. #17.17.1–17

William Blake (British,1757–1827) The Ancient of Days (Urizen). Frontispiece to Europe A Prophecy, 1794-1821. Relief etching, color printing, hand coloring, watercolor, pen and red ink, touched with gold, on paper. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

William Blake (British,1757–1827) Jacobs Ladder, 1799-1806. Water color, pen:39.8 x 30.6 cm (15 3/4 x 12 1/8 in.) British Museum.

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