The Reading Room
William Blake: Romantic Poet and Enlightenment Man?
In an article published by the British Library, Stephanie Forward, Ph.D., writes: “In England, the Romantic poets were…inspired by a desire for liberty… There was an emphasis on the importance of the individual; a conviction that people should follow ideals rather than imposed conventions and rules. The Romantics renounced the rationalism and order associated with the preceding Enlightenment era, stressing the importance of expressing authentic personal feelings.”
Blake blamed “reason” (in his mythology, “Urizen”) for the restrictions imposed by morality, including the religious hierarchy’s strictures to suppress freedom of thought, behavior, and impulse. That creates a paradox for our understanding of cause and effect in history. The subject is complex, but can be understood, in brief, by considering the European Enlightenment (late 1600s to 1815), which is seen as the ideological underpinning of the Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1840) and the Political Revolution (1765-1789). Both were in full flower during Blake’s lifetime (1757-1827).
But so, too, was the Romantic Revolution (1770-1850). Indeed, Blake is an early, powerful figure in that movement. He and his contemporaries engaged to the fullest with ideas of the Industrial and Political Revolutions—debating their meaning, prospects, and outcomes. And yet, historians typically portray the Romantic Revolution (the term was applied retrospectively in the mid-19th century) as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, as the “counter-Enlightenment.” This interpretation, although admittedly it has application to the German Romantic movement (see especially Isaiah Berlin), may misconceive the impetus driving the British Romantic movement.
Again, the subject is complex, but I believe the Romantic Revolution can be defended as another offspring of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment did not spawn, but continued and advanced, the neo-Classical movement in the arts with its formulaic strictures derived from codification of supposed rules of Greek and Roman art. Across Europe, “academies” sprang up to define and enforce these “eternal” principles of creating art. Works outside these standards were dismissed. For example, periodic academy exhibits endorsed the work and careers of certain artists and were the gateway to cultural acceptance. By 1790, there were 80 such institutions in Europe; many limited their membership to 50 or fewer artists--a certified neo-Classical elite.
But surely an essential theme of the Enlightenment is rejection of dogma. And what of the core Enlightenment principle of individualism? Of course, that principle does not sanction subjectivism, the jettisoning of all objective standards. But are the wellsprings of art the individual’s fundamental response to existence (what Ayn Rand, certainly no advocate of subjectivism, called “sense of life”) or is art the endless systematic production of exemplars of Greek and Roman esthetics?
The Romantics—and the initial impulse came from Blake—asserted the individuality of the artist’s judgment and imagination (Blake would say the “liberty” of the imagination) as the valid wellspring of an artist’s vision and content. The relevant objective esthetic standard in the arts was excellence in employing artistic means for (as Ayn Rand expressed it) “the selective recreation of reality” according to the artist’s fundamental view of the nature reality and human destiny. In other words, reason and logic, though indispensable in our lives, are not the psychological fountainhead of artistic creation—and reason confirms that insight.
“The [Romantic] artists emphasized that the senses and emotions—not simply reason and order—were important means of understanding and experiencing the world. Romanticism celebrated the individual imagination and intuition in the enduring search for individual rights and liberty…” (The Art Story)
Isn’t Romanticism the manifestation in esthetics of the Enlightenment concept of the individual with free will choosing his own deepest, most personal values and expressing the emotions to which they give rise? On this view, we do not evaluate the artist’s vision of the meaning of existence as right or wrong, good or bad. We respond to it—we emotionally affirm it or not—and in evaluating the artist’s esthetic achievement we assess a work by the standard of success in using that art form’s resources to express that vision. By that standard, Blake excelled in both the visual arts and poetry. In doing so, he set the initial standard of accomplishment for a new era in the arts—an emerging Romantic Revolution in the arts that joined the Enlightenment’s other revolutionary offspring.
Blake’s take on the Enlightenment was conflicted. He blamed “reason” and “logic” for neo-Classicism, tracing the views of Reynolds back to John Locke. But the Enlightenment, as we have seen, did not sire neo-Classicism. It continued it through the Enlightenment and into the Romantic era. Blake and later Romantics rebelled not against reason but the rationalistic approach of neo-Classicism, which deduced its esthetics from “first principles.”
Likewise, Blake’s apparent belief in his mystical visions seems to defy reason and logic to embrace the supernatural. The Enlightenment worldview, however, did not imply the necessity of rejecting religion; many ardent Enlightenment thinkers were deists. And it is relevant to note that Blake did not believe in God; the locus of his religious convictions was Jesus—not the “Father.” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
The ideal of the Romanticists, Blake among the first, was the individual mind “at liberty” from tyranny in all forms--judging, choosing, acting and, above all, creating—and that is the beating heart of the Enlightenment. It implies reason, free will, individual rights, and political liberty. Even if not every acolyte of the Enlightenment (including Blake) understands or accepts all those necessary correlates, they exert an enduring influence.