William Blake, the Romantic Revolution, and Liberty
The Romantic poets, long in English poetry’s pantheon, present a paradox. As a movement, they are defined by their emotional power, preoccupation with nature, fascination with the mythic, and their search for the ideal in earlier eras such as the age of chivalry. And yet, on closer examination, we learn that they were ardent, engaged, and usually “radical” intellectuals and political revolutionaries. Among them, William Blake, born in 1757, was a progenitor of the era. He is a rare individual who attained the highest level of achievement in both the visual arts and poetry. In both fields, his reputation has grown to this day, when critical opinion deems him among the greatest British artists (and influential in America) as well as in the first rank of poets.
Blake had negligible formal education apart from art; he was home-schooled and briefly attended what we would call elementary school. At age 10, he declared he would be an artist and at 13 his parents sent him to a series of schools and to apprentice to an engraver. While an apprentice, his master sent him to sketch in Westminster Abbey and in various Gothic cathedrals, where he absorbed religion along with experience in sketching.
In the Abbey, Blake experienced powerful visions (hallucinations) of saints and archangels. He saw Christ with his apostles and a procession of monks and saints, all chanting. This was not a new experience for Blake: “When he was four years old…Blake had a vision of ‘the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty!’ Later, expressed in his poetry and visual art, his prophetic visions and belief in the ‘real and eternal world’ of the imagination resulted in the unknown artist being acknowledged as the ‘father of Romanticism.’" (The Art Story)
Blake’s next stop was the Royal Academy of Arts, whose founder and president was the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Here, Blake became a conscious rebel. Reynolds and the Academy embodied the standards of neo-Classicism, which viewed as the fixed, eternal standards for all arts those norms they derived from the arts of Classical Greece and Rome. The standards were viewed as applying to all arts, without exception, and the academies existed to enforce the standard.
Blake loathed Reynolds’s attitude, especially his insistence upon “general truth” and “general beauty”—supposedly application to the arts of Enlightenment standards of reason and even scientific objectivity. Reynolds wrote that the “disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind.” And the arts. In the margins of his copy of Reynolds’s Discourses, Blake wrote furiously: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is Alone the Distinction of Merit.” Here in a nutshell is the debate over how Enlightenment principles apply to the arts.
Also at the Academy, Blake got his first exposure to radical views in philosophy and politics as a friend of John Flaxman, Thomas Stothard, and George Cumberland. With them he joined the Society for Constitutional Information, formed to build public support for liberal reform.
It cannot be true, of course, that Blake’s first book of poetry came out of nowhere, but Poetical Sketches (printed about 1783, exact date unknown), appeared after years of Blake’s submersion in education and experience in the visual arts. After this publication, Blake and a fellow apprentice opened a print shop and began working with the radical publisher, Joseph Johnson. At Johnson’s home, Blake participated in regular meetings of English intellectual dissidents: Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, John Henry, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Godwin. With them, he became wedded to the fondest aspirations for the American and French Revolutions. The American Revolution had begun almost a decade earlier; the French Revolution was to begin in 1789.
Blake gave himself wholeheartedly to the French Revolution, even wearing a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the revolutionaries. It engaged his poetic talents, too, but you will search through many lines of Blake’s poetry without finding any explicit articulation of “ideas”—an ideology, theory, or principles. Most probably, this began with his earlier rebellion against the “abstractions,” “generalizations,” and “classifications” that Reynold’s exalted in the arts. This rebellion had become a commitment to “particularize” in the arts. It was a commitment Blake maintained with ferocious consistency.
Blake had planned his poem “The French Revolution” as seven “books” and promised in introducing Book I that the other six were written and ready to go. Only book 1, however, seems to have been published (at least, that is all we have today). The series may have been aborted because Blake’s radical publisher, Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), spent six months in prison convicted of “seditious libel” for his publications.
Book 1 runs to hundreds of lines. It is an anapestic iambic septenary verse, the only one Blake ever publish in that meter. Again, you will search in vain for a statement you can categorize as “philosophical”—an “idea. “Particularize” Blake had cried!
“In the tower nam’d Darkness was a man
Pinion’d down to the stone floor, his strong bones scarce cover’d with sinews; the iron rings
Were forg’d smaller as the flesh decay’d: a mask of iron on his face hid the lineaments
Of ancient Kings, and the frown of the eternal lion was hid from the oppressèd earth.
In the tower namèd Bloody, a skeleton yellow remainèd in its chains on its couch
Of stone, once a man who refus’d to sign papers of abhorrence; the eternal worm
Crept in the skeleton. In the den nam’d Religion, a loathsome sick woman bound down
To a bed of straw; the seven diseases of earth, like birds of prey, stood on the couch
And fed on the body: she refus’d to be whore to the Minister, and with a knife smote him…”
On the oppression of the French people:
"Hear, O Heavens of France, the voice of the people, arising from valley and hill,
O'erclouded with power. Hear the voice of vallies, the voice of meek cities,
Mourning oppressed on village and field, till the village and field is a waste.
For the husbandman weeps at blights of the fife, and blasting of trumpets consume
The souls of mild France; the pale mother nourishes her child to the deadly slaughter.
When the heavens were seal'd with a stone, and the terrible sun clos'd in an orb, and the moon
Rent from the nations, and each star appointed for watchers of night,
The millions of spirits immortal were bound in the ruins of sulphur heaven
To wander inslav'd; black, deprest in dark ignorance, kept in awe with the whip,
To worship terrors…”
With the rise of Robespierre and the Terror, Blake, like Englishmen even of the most radical persuasion, recoiled from the Revolution, appalled and disillusioned. (This was not true of the reaction by the radicals to the American Revolution.)
Blake wrote a great quantity of poetry (only 139 poems were published), just as he created a prolific outpouring of painting, drawings, etchings, and engravings. Most poems are not viewed as “political”—although critics argue that political implications tend to be missed (consider Blake's use of Satan as a heroic rebel in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell A Song of Liberty”).
What Blake valorized was “liberty”—although only occasionally using the word itself in a poem. The “liberty” he upholds in verse is freedom from restraints of religion, sexual freedom including the freedom of women to enjoy sex, freedom from the confines he views as imposed by reason and even science, and freedom from oppression especially of children forced to work (among the most famous such poems is “The Chimney Sweep”). He abhorred slavery. In his poem, “America: A Prophecy,” he writes:
“Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field:
Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
And let his wife and children return from the opressor's scourge.”
Romantics were preoccupied with what Wordsworth called “genuine freedom.” They had been certain that the French Revolution would usher in a paradise—not the Napoleonic Empire. And yet, they lived in an age of revolution so that the social process in France was not new to them. Liberty had yielded to tyranny and libertarians become oligarchs in the English Revolution as Oliver Cromwell no sooner executed the king than he turned to establishing his dictatorship. And Wordsworth observed that Presbyterians went from being martyrs-to-conscience to “Oppressors in their turn.” The reaction of many British radicals, among them some Romantic poets, was to go from radical defense of individual liberty to begrudging support of the established church and state repression as the only bulwark of genuine individualism against the monster of the democratic mob. Wordsworth and Coleridge retreated into the Lake District, and “liberty” came to mean solitude.
William Blake, although like them appalled by the Terror and disillusioned by the rise of Napoleon, never swerved toward retreat or reaction, toward embracing Britain’s most conservative institutions for preserving order. He expressed characteristic optimism in The Four Zoas, a series begun in 1795 (but never competed) that prophesied more radical revolution that would reconcile “Luvah” and “Urizen” (his mythic names for order and reason).
And so, Blake pushed ahead as many faltered. The world paid scant attention to his work for a generation after his death in 1827 at age 69; gradually, he was almost forgotten until publication in 1862 in London of a first biography by Alexander Gilchrist transformed his reputation. He was taken up in the later 19th century by the poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne. In the 20th century, his reputation and influence took off in both literary and artistic circles and has never looked back.
Now, his impact is seen in poets from William Butler Yeats to the Beats of the 1950s and counterculture icons (Bob Dylan) of the next decade. He has inspired novelists, songwriters, and concert-music composers. His art even influenced the graphic novel. Summing up, Edward Larrissy writes in Blake and Modern Literature: “Blake is the Romantic writer who has exerted the most powerful influence on the twentieth century.”