Prophet, social-revolutionary, spiritualist, eccentric. These are a few of the characterisations that peers and historians have imbued on William Blake, the Romantic poet, painter, draughtsman, and printmaker. But what of the man? Blake was a creative spirit; a believer that nature was the strongest and not man. An individual whose aesthetic was deeply felt in his poetry. The themes infused throughout his work reflect his concern with the human condition, which were informed by his deeply held beliefs. Under-appreciated in his own time, Blake was a visionary, and once said “I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create”. Posthumously, he has influenced modern graphic novelists, musicians, filmmakers and freethinkers alike.
In this post, scholar Susanne Sklar shares a highly visceral account of her journey with Blake, her ideas about his relevancy today, and her fears for the future of this leading light of English poetry.
I’m semi-retired from traditional academia, happily teaching Blake and many great books to students at Oxford, in London, and in the USA where I was an assistant professor. I lead seminars and retreats, write articles, create interactive poetry readings, and have done projects for public radio in America.
What drew you to the world of William Blake, to begin with?
Recovering from a broken heart when I was 21, I fled to Florida, carrying a small volume of Blake with me. In a tiny aqua blue motel room I read Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” and felt as if I’d been hit with a truck of light. I knew the truth of life was in that poem, and was blessed to study Blake’s poetry and painting with a fine scholar, Prof. Jean Hagstrum, at Northwestern University. His generosity and wisdom changed my life.
What’s the biggest misconception about Blake?
Colleagues, students, and a few Blake scholars wonder whether Blake was mentally ill; some think he may have taken drugs. William Blake, like Ezekiel, John on Patmos, Julian of Norwich, and Dante, was a visionary. (Visionary experience is still honoured among Native American people.) William Blake had a happy marriage, lifelong friends, paid his bills, and was extraordinarily productive. His paintings outnumber his poems, and he had to do a great deal of commercial work in order to live. He was ahead of his time; it’s easier to understand him now.
What is the most challenging part of understanding his work?
Blake created his own mythic system – which he melds with British and Biblical history. Engaging with his prophetic works is like grappling with a multifaceted crossword puzzle. He asks us to give voice to his words and to enter into his images, as a believer does when contemplating an icon. If you follow Blake’s operating instructions, new ways of seeing and thinking become possible. His wisdom is needed now – more than ever.
If someone is thinking of becoming more familiar with Blake, how would one go about that?
Blake’s earliest poems are deceptively simple, and delightful. Start with Songs of Innocence and of Experience. His key concepts, about nature and culture, the human and the divine, erotic spirituality, and dynamic contraries, are all there. Then enter into his more visionary worlds: The Book of Thel, Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion. The complex mythic system infusing his masterpiece Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, begins to take form in The Book of Urizen.
What does the future of Blake, as a subject of scholarly interest, look like?
The humanities are being eradicated. Blake scholars are becoming an endangered species – though we continue to write, to teach, and reach outside academia where Blake’s vision is warmly welcomed. He’s inspired Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Gregory Bateson (the cybernetics pioneer), R.Crumb, Philip Pullman, and environmental activists (among others). Scholarship, of course, is necessary, for entering into Blake’s greatest works requires the kind of rigorous critical and imaginative thinking an archaeologist must have when uncovering hidden cities. William Blake cannot be compartmentalised. His vision goes beyond political correctness; he’s uninterested in subverting dominant paradigms. Where there is no hierarchy subversion isn’t necessary. His work can change the way we think about the deep structures of relationship and reality.
I’m presently finishing a user-friendly guide to Blake’s masterpiece, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, finished two hundred years ago in 1821. I’d like to find a digital wizard to help put Blake’s epic and the commentary online. If there is anyone that is interested, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.