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The revolutionary mysticism of William Blake

William Blake Nebuchadnezzer

In the second in our series of articles on art and artists, Kenny McEwan looks at the work of poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827).

Born in London in 1757 William Blake lived through both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, as well as the vicious backlash to these events by the British establishment. A romantic poet, and a deeply spiritual man, he was nevertheless appalled by the conditions of his fellow man. Born into a dissenting family of Nonconformists, a precursor to the Christian socialist tradition, Blake railed against the powers of both Church and Crown.

Blake was apprenticed to a master engraver for seven years before enrolling at the Royal Academy, where he started his lifelong process of painting what he imagined rather than what he saw. When he was 18 an event occurred that was to rock the British State to its core: the American Revolution, which helped to fan the flames of discontent felt by many in Europe. To a dissenter like Blake this was tremendous news. However, even better news, in the form of the French Revolution, was only a decade away. In the meantime he worked as an engraver trying to find commissions were he could.


From an early age William Blake experienced visions or hallucinations, most often involving angels or spirits (he was regularly visited by his dead brother), but sometimes by demons and devils. These visions fired his imagination, enabling him to produce his wonderfully colourful and emotive paintings. By 1788 he had had enough of trying to earn a living from printing and engraving other people's work and embarked on a venture to produce his own works. He invented a new and cheap method of combining words and images on to copper plates to be printed and sold. In 1789, using this technique, he produced his Songs of Innocence. Later he added Songs of Experience and sold them together as one book. In this book can be found one of his abiding philosophies, that of duality and contrast. Its subtitle is "The two Contrary states of the Human Soul". The first part is about the more gentle side of life, particularly children's life; the second, in contrast, takes on a darker tone. For example, one of his most famous poems, Tyger, exploring the dark side of nature, is contrasted with The Lamb, which in itself is a strong Christian image. Another poem London is a savage commentary on the nightmare social conditions that blighted the majority of people living in the most populous city on earth.

Alongside each poem is a hand-coloured engraving that is a work of art in its own right. The book can still be bought today and is worth getting for the poems and the artwork.

Blake's religious beliefs stemmed from a long tradition in Britain of Christian dissenters. This tradition was opposed to established religion, was suspicious of the monarchy and the role it played in religion and had long railed against corruption and abuse of power in the Church and Monarchy. This dissenting tradition reached its zenith during in the English Revolution of the 1640's where the Levellers played a major role in Cromwell's New Model Army, advocating very radical ideas. They also believed that as all men are born equal, that there should be only one social and economic level. Kings and Lords were seen as being in league with the devil as they regarded themselves as being above other men. Unfortunately once in power Cromwell crushed the Levellers. But from this tradition, Christian socialism evolved.

In 1780 Blake joined the people marching through the streets of Soho to sack Newgate prison. He later wore a red bonnet to identify with the French Revolution, describing himself as a 'Liberty Boy'. He also participated in the radical clubs that sprang up in Britain and became acquainted with some of the leading radicals of his day. These including Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, the political philosopher, William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Rights of Women and mother of Mary Shelley. All produced radical material right up to the time when the Pitt government's repression made such material "wicked and seditious writings" and liable to carry a long jail sentence. Blake himself put aside a long poem he was working on called the 'French Revolution', for fear of prosecution under the act.


In 1804, however, he produced his most famous poem, now a popular hymn and anthem of the Women's Institute. In actual fact this 'hymn' is part of the preface to one of Blake's epic poems Milton and is a revolutionary message calling on people to rise up and destroy the industrial hell that was destroying their lives. Jerusalem is indeed a religious poem, but religion pre-Marx was often used to convey radical social ideas. Christ was seen as a radical figure protecting the poor and fighting against oppression. The poem opens by asking if Jesus did indeed walk on England's "green and pleasant land". Blake among others believed that he might have been taken to Britain to escape Herod and that later Joseph of Arimathea returned to Britain with the Holy Grail and set up a church at Glastonbury. He then goes on to proclaim that he will do all in his power to rebuild this state of grace. However, the Jerusalem that Blake wishes to build, replacing the "dark Satanic Mills" is not a physical reconstruction of Jerusalem in Palestine but a metaphorical place where want and misery do not exist, were men and women can live free and happy.

The conversion of this radical poem to a hymn typifies the way in which the establishment reinvents, as harmless dreamers, those that they cannot disregard. Thus this poem becomes an anthem for a conservative body of women, the revolutionary poet Shelley becomes a slobbering romantic and the radical Burns becomes a drunken womaniser. Each becomes emasculated to ensure future generations forget their original message. For if you cannot ignore their genius, you can surely try and obliterate their radicalism.


From about this time on Blake embarked upon his own personal religious philosophy, attempting to explain it in words and painting, intertwined with painting subjects from Shakespeare, Dante and others. Blake's major preoccupation however, is the fight against oppression, whether political, intellectual or religious and the majority of his work reflects this. He also opposed the way in which he saw science overtaking the imagination and replacing it with pure reason. In his I795 painting, Newton, whom he regarded as being the epitome of materialism, is seen sitting on a rock at the bottom of the sea absorbed in measuring out life and its mysteries with dividers. The symbolism here is of Newton trapped and surrounded by the water of materialism, almost part of the lifeless rock that he is sitting on, obsessed and oblivious to the world of God. A companion painting to this is of Nebuchadnezzer, the Babylonian king, driven mad by God for repudiating him, and forced to eat grass like oxen. Both paintings are astonishingly powerful, the figures portraying Michelangelo's influence on Blake, with Nebuchadnezzar looking more beast than human.

Another painting that owes a debt of gratitude to Michelangelo is The Ancient of days. Originally an illustration to his poem Europe, it is now one of his most popular prints. It depicts Urizen (your reason, in Blake's mythology) creating the universe. Like Michelangelo's God giving life to Adam, painted in the Sistine Chapel, the creator (Urizen) is reaching down; beams of light pour forth from his hand in the act of creation. Vivid colours are surrounded by the darkness of the void, with the central figure crouching almost fœtus-like in an egg of energy. Again reason is seen as a negative force in life; the poem Europe, a prophecy (1794) foretells the overthrowing of reason by Orc (Jesus).

In 1800 Blake and his wife moved to Felpham in Sussex to be near to one of his patrons, William Hayley. The three years spent there was the only time he spent outside London in his life. This move, however, nearly ended in disaster, as he became involved in a fight with a soldier who was cutting the grass in his garden. He was charged with assault and sedition, for saying "Damn the King, and damn all his soldiers, they are all his slaves". At this time the Government was clamping down an all dissent, and had gone to war with France. Consequently this could have been very serious for Blake if found guilty, but fortunately there were no witnesses and he was acquitted. This was enough for Blake and he returned to London, his relationship with Hayley having in any case soured.

Blake continued to produce his own personal view of life and religion in his paintings and engraving, occasionally getting a commission to produce some works which kept him in funds. However, he and his wife mostly lived in near poverty. William Blake died in 1827 whilst still working on a project. He was buried, largely forgotten, in a dissenters' burial ground in Bunhill Fields. It was not until nearly thirty years later that he was rediscovered by Rossetti and later proclaimed by the Pre-Raphalite Brotherhood as one of the Ancients. Blake is now regarded as one of Britain's greatest poets and artists.

To find out more about William Blake and to view some of his paintings try:

For a full and comprehensive biography of Blake, Peter Ackroyd's Blake is second to none.

Blake's major works can be found at,
The Tate Gallery, London.
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
The British Museum, London.

Pollok House in Glasgow has Five of Blake's paintings, including one of his masterpieces, Canterbury Pilgrims, 1809.

In the next issue of Frontline we will deal with Wassily Kandinsky, an artist who was one of the pioneers of abstract art, a teacher at the Bauhaus in Germany and invilved in many early Soviet cultural organisations.