Magazine article The World and I

Frozen Fire - the Visionary World of William Blake

Magazine article The World and I

Frozen Fire - the Visionary World of William Blake

Article excerpt

Though derided as a madman in his own time--and even in ours--William Blake developed a singular vision of the world, truth, and eternity that fascinates viewers the world over. Now the most extensive exhibition ever of his work has come to the Metropolitan.

The William Blake exhibition that came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art March 29--the largest ever of this artist's work--may be a curious as well as revealing experience to many who see it. Blake was an artist and poet who, though not generally known in depth, has left his imprint all over the surface of the English-speaking world. The idea of "seeing the world in a grain of sand" comes from his "Auguries of Innocence"; other contributions include "Tyger, tyger burning bright" and the famous hymn "Jerusalem" (not from Blake's poem of that name, but from his epic Milton). Unlike the Bard, however, whose phrases likewise pepper the speech even of those who have not read his works, Blake left a sizable visual legacy, from which a number of images are familiar to many people who know little or nothing of his literary or artistic works.

Blake was an early example of the Romantic-era artist who was unsuccessful, poor, and regarded with indifference by most of his contemporaries, yet was later generally recognized as an eccentric genius. He lived a quiet, almost entirely reclusive life, devoting himself with total dedication to the visual and literary labors that in his time were sniffed at, by all but a few, as little more than symptoms of madness.

He saw things, but they were not the things that his contemporaries saw. As a child he was astonished to discover angels in his garden; as a mature poet he had dinner with the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, chatted with them, and wrote down and published the conversation. Using a system of relief engraving and printing of his own invention--or rather, as he claimed, that he was taught by his deceased brother--he created, illustrated, and published massive epic poems based on a largely self-created mythology. This mythology was a curious alloy of biblical imagery, Greek myths, pseudo-Celtic history, and his own (often frighteningly acute) insights into what he called eternal truth, as in:

"The vision of Christ that thou dost see

Is my vision's greatest Enemy:

Thine has a great hook nose like thine,

Mine has a snub nose like to mine:

Thine is the friend of All Mankind,

Mine speaks in parables to the Blind:

Thine loves the same world that mine hates,

Thy Heaven doors are my Hell Gates."

Those lines are from Blake's "Everlasting Gospel." Although not displayed in this exhibition, its sensibility is echoed many times over in the works that are on show. Blake's absolute faith in his own visions sustained him from his earliest days as a poet and engraver to the very day of his death--when, after singing verses and hymns in a state of ecstasy, as witnesses recounted, he passed away on a Sunday evening "like the sighing of a gentle breeze." He had looked forward to it as simply "removing from one room to another."

Though his extraordinary imagination drew down upon him the stigma of apparent madness, that did not stop his contemporary, the painter Henry Fuseli, from plagiarizing him. Yet even Blake's patron William Hayley regarded his difficult protege with little more than a kind of bemused respect. Certain dunderheads still sneer that Blake was, as the British say, more than a little doolalley. When this extraordinary exhibition of Blake's work opened at London's Tate Gallery last autumn, London's Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszcak wrote that the gallery was wasting its time and resources on a madman. Even a relatively friendly critic like Britain's Brian Sewell spread a faintly condescending opinion of Blake ("He was, perhaps, not in any true sense an artist...") across two pages of the London Evening Standard, deploring [! …

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