A Mystery and Genius, Blake is a Conundrum

Of certain artists it may truly be said that they remain,

both in their life and their work, a considerable conundrum long after they

have been elevated to the status of a classic. The English poet and painter

William Blake (1757-1827), whose work is currently the subject of a remarkable

exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has often been perceived to be an

artist of this sort. Devoting his multiple talents to a profoundly personal

universe of discourse, in which all distinction between history and myth,

between earthly life and divine providence, is suspended in favor of visionary

archetypes and apocalyptic prophesy, Blake may indeed strike us as defying easy

comprehension once we attempt to move beyond the most accessible of his lyric

poems and pictorial images.

At least part of the difficulty in coming to terms with

Blake is a tendency to place his work in the wrong company. As a poet, he

stands at a considerable distance from his contemporaries among the English

Romantics. A familiarity with Keats, Shelley

and Byron, all of whom he outlived, doesn’t take us very far in penetrating the

mysteries of Blake’s prophetic books. A knowledge of the Bible, however, is

indispensable, and so is a close acquaintance with the poetry of John Milton,

especially Paradise Lost , and with

the poetry and prose of the Elizabethans.

As a painter, engraver

and illustrator, Blake is equally distant from the major English visual artists

of his time, whatever his tangential relation may have been to such minor

figures as Henry Fuseli and John Flaxman. With the greatest English painters of

his day-John Constable and J.M.W. Turner-he had nothing whatever in common. In

his pictorial art, Blake occupied a private planet of his own.

He was a radical and a

mystic in his every interest and endeavor-in his politics and his theology as

well as in his poetry and painting-and he was radically original, too, in the

principal ambition of his life, which was to combine the resources of poetry,

painting and printing in a single medium, the illustrated printed book, which

would address the mind as a spiritual revelation.

This was indeed a very

large ambition, and so was Blake’s attempt to model the mythic protagonists of

his pictorial narratives on the heroic draftsmanship of Michelangelo. The

inevitable reduction of that heroic mode of draftsmanship to the scale of the

printed page was clearly not a problem for Blake, but it sometimes is for the

viewer of his pictorial illustrations, especially in the smallest sheets that

require a magnifying glass to be comfortably studied. (At the Met, some

magnifying glasses have been thoughtfully provided, but you might want to bring

your own if you want to read Blake’s combination of words and images and not

merely look at them.)

That Blake’s pictorial

gifts were on a far smaller scale than Michelangelo’s hardly needs saying. But

it does pose certain problems for the viewer of Blake’s art in a public

exhibition. Even in the tiniest of his printed sheets, there is a concentration

of graphic detail that requires a comparable degree of concentration from the

viewer. And in the larger painted and printed works, there is a similar

accretion of detail and drama that at times seems almost to overflow the

boundaries of the work itself. It’s as if the artist was determined to contain

an entire cosmology in the smallest possible space, and the miracle-not the

only one in Blake’s art-is that these teeming pictorial images tend to expand

in scale in our own visual memory of them. When we revisit such images, it is

sometimes a shock to see how much smaller they are than our visual memory of

them has led us to expect.

As for the meaning of

Blake’s art, that too is not without its problems for the contemporary reader

and viewer. As a poet-and it was, after all, as an illustrator of his own

poetry that Blake produced the bulk of his pictorial art-he looked upon the

modern world as “fallen” in the Christian sense of that term, though he was

anything but an orthodox Christian in his religious beliefs. The materialism of

the modern world was anathema to him, and thus in urgent spiritual need of

redemption. Hence his affinity for symbols of redemption, which at various

stages of his development he found in his own imaginative interpretation of

Jerusalem, America and the French Revolution. In his politics and his religious

views as well as in his poetry, he was an allegorist of good and evil, and some

of the figures he was most concerned to revile-Sir Isaac Newton, for example-do

not seem to most of us to have been the agents of the devil that Blake believed

them to be.

But for the objectivity

of science or the human benefits to be derived from commerce and industry,

Blake had no patience at all. They did not comport with what T.S. Eliot once

described as Blake’s “gift of hallucinated vision.” Or, as Blake himself once

wrote: “I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.” And create

he did, one of the strangest and most perplexing literary and pictorial oeuvres that we know.

The William Blake exhibition, which was organized by Tate Britain in

London, remains on view at the Met through June 24. Visitors to the exhibition

would do well, I think, to acquaint themselves with Blake’s poetry before

seeing this show, for without some knowledge of the poetry much of the exhibition

is likely to remain a mystery. Even then, however, they should not expect for

all the mystery of William Blake to be perfectly understood.