Symbol and Image in William Blake

By George Wingfield Digby | Go to book overview

III
ON THE UNDERSTANDING OF BLAKE'S ART

'IMAGES OF WONDER'

WITH a work of art, the essential thing is to experience it. To experience is not the same thing as to understand. It is one thing to enter into the imaginative world of one of Blake's pictures, his poems, or his myths and to feel the images with their strange and unaccountable vistas awakening within. But it is quite another thing to give a satisfactory account of this experience in terms of the understanding. There is much that may be experienced in one of the simplest of Blake's ineffable poems, or pictures, that overflows any attempt to interpret it. For there is always something implied in the work of art which is beyond thought; something lit up for a moment by the imagination, which is beyond words. If we allow ourselves to enter fully into the experience of a work of art, letting go our rational understanding for the moment, we can become immediately aware of this ineffable quality with its expanding life. This is what Blake invites us to do: If the Spectator could Enter into these Images in his Imagination . . . or could make a Friend and Companion of one of these Images of wonder . . . then would he arise from his Grave . . . then he would be happy.1

But to experience is not the same thing as to understand. Understanding implies a mental formulation, an interpretation according to conceptual knowledge, and it is just in this that it is important to proceed slowly, and with great reservation. It is all too easy to translate art, which contains the unknown hidden in the incipient hint or implication, into familiar patterns of thoughts, or terms of

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1
Notes on A Vision of the Last Judgment; Keynes edition, vol. iii, pp. 153-4.

-94-

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